There Is No 'Party of Ideas'

Anyone looking for fresh public-policy approaches from Democrats, Republicans, or reform conservatives is bound to be disappointed.

Jan-Erik Finnberg/Flickr

The last week or so has seen an efflorescence of assertions, on both the left and right, that Democrats are idea-less while the Republican Party is a font of policy innovation. All of this raises the question of what counts as an “idea”—or “new.” But more than anything, the debate makes plain that the problem in our politics today, at both ends of the spectrum, is not so much a lack of new ideas on public policy but the lack of new ideas on what “public policy” is.

Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik noted in Politico that although liberals believe they’re ascendant, Americans on the whole are turning against government, meaning that “Democratic activists will need to reconcile the public’s desire for smaller government with their own progressive impulses.” That requires new policies. But, in The New Republic, Danny Vinik contended that “Democrats are short on far-reaching, fresh ideas” while Republicans “have actively been taking on these matters.” Michael Gerson in The Washington Post was happy to agree, praising the GOP as “the party of reform” while dismissing the Democrats as “complacent, culturally polarizing and bereft of policy innovation.” Ouch.

In fact, however, none of the new ideas Vinik and Gerson cite are new. Means-testing? That was the subject of my master’s thesis—in 1983. I was inspired in part by James Fallows, who in an Atlantic piece the year before had urged liberals to take the subject seriously. Prison reform? Another old warhorse that liberals have been pursuing for about the same amount of time. Several foundations have funded state efforts on the subject in more recent years. By four years ago, interest in such proposals had increased among conservatives concerned with containing public spending. Is an idea new if it’s a liberal idea being proposed by a conservative? (In fairness, the biggest new idea of the Obama administration—health-insurance exchanges, the centerpiece of Obamacare—was a conservative idea, but neither the Heritage Foundation nor Mitt Romney wants credit for it.)

But that raises a more fundamental point: Both Vinik and Gerson cite Republican proposals to combine federal welfare spending into a single stream, give it to states to spend as they see fit, and claim that the resulting improvement justifies spending cuts. Once upon a time, this was Richard Nixon’s big new idea; block-granting everything to the states was also a centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s domestic agenda. So, forget “new.” What constitutes an “idea”—is it a zippy new name (Senator Marco Rubio’s “Flex Fund”)? Is it the specific policy prescription, like block-granting? Or is it the underlying policy—in this case, finding clever ways to squeeze money out of programs for poorer Americans without overtly saying so, which has been Republican policy for 50 years?

The level of abstraction at which you define the meaning of “idea” determines whether anything is new under the sun. If you want to be specific enough, dressing up old ideas in new names or adding small new twists—most of what passes for policy these days, especially in campaigns—then everything is a “new idea.” From a broad perspective, however, nothing is: Virtually all proposals today are simply part of both parties’ long-running attempts to bring to fruition the agendas each has been pursuing, largely unaltered, for the last 80 years.

Both parties, like the two-dimensional characters of Flatland, are locked into a frame of reference—the 20th century welfare state—that is increasingly irrelevant. Scholar Phillip Bobbitt has argued, for instance, that “whereas the nation state justified itself as an instrument to serve the welfare of the people (the nation), the market state exists to maximize the opportunities [of its citizens],” largely through its ability to leverage capital for its people’s purposes. It’s worth noting that this vision of the “market state” doesn’t necessarily mean a replacement of government with markets or public purposes with private—but it does mean a change in the nature and purpose of government.

Current-day conservatives like to ignore that, even in an individualistic society, collective means of action are necessary. But liberals hate to admit that such collective means do not necessarily require a governmental—i.e., universal, monopolistic, and coercive—mechanism, and that is increasingly true with today’s technological developments. This more fluid world of changing roles also means, however, that there are roles governments themselves can—and arguably should—play beyond what has been conceived hitherto.

My favorite example of this has always been the post office. Twenty years ago, the U.S. Postal Service discovered it could make some extra money by offering services like copy machines and fancy wrapping paper to customers who were already there to mail papers and other items. Nowadays, the suggestions include selling coffee, Internet browsing, and even USPS clothing to patrons. Of course, various private companies offer similar services, so they got Congress to prohibit government competition. The ironies here are endless: A government entity could actually out-compete the private sector—not because of unfair cross-subsidization of prices, but because public goods supplied by government generally constitute a natural monopoly, and once a monopoly “backbone” is in place, it makes eminent sense to offer all sorts of “apps” from it. (Just ask Facebook.) This concept has been taken much further in other countries, where the post office provides all sorts of ancillary services—most notably in Japan, whose postal service not-illogically operates one of the world’s largest banks. In this country, however, Congress essentially prohibits USPS from competing like a business. Unsurprisingly, USPS is an unprofitable mess.

Market-oriented policies in pursuit of liberal goals are not entirely new: Transferable development rights and cap-and-trade are two examples. But governments can transfer a lot more regulatory trappings to market competition by not just establishing tradable rights but also setting themselves up as commercial alternatives that consumers can choose if they prefer: Creating a new (and needed) market for long-term-care insurance is one example. The defeated public option in health care is another example. So would be partial privatization of Social Security (as conservatives advocate)—if the federal government could then compete to retain the investments (which would be the best option for most Americans). I challenged students at the University of Chicago last fall to come up with similar “business opportunities” for government. The most creative was Since the NSA knows more about you than even you do, let it figure out who you ought to date. That’s a horribly funny (or funnily horrible) idea, but it makes the point: In the (increasingly rare) instances where a natural monopoly—and thus usually both a public good and power relationship—exists, this universal backbone provides competitive opportunities for further apps.

Governments also offer a valuable source of trustworthy information, such as providing unbiased consumer rankings (e.g., Nursing Home Compare) or creating a market-empowerment alternative to direct regulation. Obamacare’s exchanges are another example.

But the latter function is increasingly being usurped by private peer-to-peer technologies. While sharing apps like UberX and Airbnb are undermining government regulatory capabilities (as well as incumbent economic actors) in many ways, they also create new collective mechanisms for public goods like dissemination of information and a form of public regulatory oversight through widely and easily available consumer ratings. Crowdsourcing now allows the widespread funding of public goods and other good causes—which doesn’t eliminate the free-rider problems that usually justify compulsory, governmental solutions, but it does seem to render most people unconcerned with them. This may simply be part of a broader social and economic evolution in which an increasingly networked world gives rise to the greater “efficacy and centrality of [both] individual and collective social action,” in the words of network theorist Yochai Benkler.

Mandatory, centralized, and standardized government programs need not be the alpha and omega of collective social action or progressive public policy, then. In fact, they had better not be, or progressivism is unlikely to survive the 21st century. But while conservatives are focusing on ways to “streamline” government-created ladders out of poverty, they might want to start with streamlining government-created barriers: Perhaps the major cause of poverty today is government-imposed restrictions on where people can live, like zoning. Conservatives could lead the charge for less government there. Ultimately, then, we need political leaders at both ends of the spectrum to get out of the two-dimensional binary of more or fewer government programs.

In The Atlantic last year, I laid out a “business plan” for making government what it ought to be in the 21st century. As with any business plan, we need to start with the bottom line, and that means that government, like many industries, needs to be resized to current realities. That’s why I spent much of 2013 discussing the needless spending in every aspect of large public enterprises. But there’s more to rethinking government than simply rejiggering the old taxing and spending levels. It’s also essential to rethink what government does, how it does that, and even what it is. Right now, despite the hype, neither party is really giving that a shot.