When the Democratic Party moves too far left for George McGovern, you know they’re in trouble. The former Senator and presidential aspirant writes about the dangers of economic paternalism in a free society, specifically about the impulse among both Democrats and Republicans to protect adults from the consequences of their own free choices. Expect a lot less choice in the future, McGovern warns, if the nanny-state succeeds:
Since leaving office I’ve written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I’ve come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.
Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don’t take away cars because we don’t like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don’t operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.
The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.
This presents a couple of interesting themes. First, I find it fascinating that McGovern has transformed himself from a statist to a free-enterpriser simply because he left office. That isn’t a coincidence, and it explains why politicians tend to “grow in office” towards state-based solutions. After McGovern had to stop justifying his existence as a legislator, he discovered that legislators don’t need to intervene in the markets anywhere near as much as he presumed while in office.
Of course, the main thrust of his argument — that government regulation unnecessarily burdens choice — is a recurring theme for conservatives. McGovern, in fact, dares to go where Republicans apparently don’t, which is to question the entire notion of a massive bailout for people who got themselves stuck in bad loans, and the lenders that love them. He notes, properly, that no one forced people into these badly-structured loans, and certainly no one forced the lenders to offer them. It’s called taking risks, and that means sometimes those risks fail. If we regulate industries like lending and credit to such an extent that no risk exists, then neither will any reward — and the markets will disappear.
Will anyone listen to McGovern, now that he has come to his senses on economics and free markets? Doubtful. After all, the audience to which this essay is directed still suffer from the same disability McGovern had before his epiphany — they’re all legislators. They still believe in the paternalism he has now wisely rejected.