TCS Daily

Walden Puddle's Candidate

By Arnold Kling - July 8, 2003 12:00 AM

"I believe decentralization is THE theme for our times. It's what the Net and the Web were about in the first place. It's what Cluetrain was about. It's what the successes of Net-roots movements like MeetUp, MoveOn,, AOTC, Warblogging, Peaceblogging and the Howard Dean campaign are all about."
- Doc Searls

The Howard Dean campaign has an official weblog. And there may be decentralized methods at work in mobilizing funds and voters for him. However, I judge the theme of a campaign not by the color of its technology but by the content of its economic platform. And one thing that Howard Dean's platform certainly is not about is decentralization.

Walden Puddle's Candidate

Doc Searls represents what I call the Walden Puddle contingent on the Internet. Walden Puddle, for those of you who are not of the hippie generation, was the name that Doonesbury gave to a commune back in the early days of that comic strip. The Walden Puddle contingent has given Dean quite a lift in the early stages of the 2004 Presidential race.

Every time I encounter people from Walden Puddle, I find their views baffling. On the one hand, they look at the decentralized, autonomy-preserving, effervescent Internet and say, "It's beautiful. Government should keep its hands off. The people who think that the Internet needs regulation just don't get it."

On the other hand, the Walden Puddle contingent will look at the decentralized, autonomy-preserving, effervescent capitalist system and say, "It's evil. Government has to rein it in. The people who believe that markets are working just don't get it."

I differ from Walden Puddle in that I believe that both the Internet and markets are beautiful. Both are characterized by spontaneous order and emergence, meaning that they develop and improve without a central controller. (I should say that I owe the poet Frederick Turner credit for suggesting, during a dinner conversation, that emergence and spontaneous order evoke a sensation of aesthetic beauty.)

Walden Puddle loves Howard Dean. And I would love to agree with Walden Puddle, because I share their enthusiasm for the Internet and for insurgents. But then I took a look at his web site.

Health Care

Howard Dean's number one issue is Universal Health Care. One paragraph that struck me was this:
"First, and most important, in order to extend health coverage to every uninsured child and young adult up to age 25, we'll redefine and expand two essential federal and state programs -- Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Right now, they only offer coverage to children from lower-income families. Under my plan, we cover all kids and young adults up to age 25 -- middle income as well as lower income."

If you read the paragraph carefully, you realize that the problem Dean is solving is not one of poor people lacking access to health insurance. Rather, the problem is one of middle-class people not choosing to obtain health insurance. Under a decentralized system, people have made choices about how they want to spend their income, and Howard Dean wants to override those choices.

Moreover, even if you believe that it is wrong for families to choose not to have health insurance, the most sensible paternalistic approach is to make health insurance mandatory. Doing so would force some middle-class families to pay for health insurance that they otherwise would choose not to obtain. Instead, Dean is proposing is that someone else pay for the health insurance that middle-class families otherwise would choose not to obtain.

Consider two families living under identical middle-class circumstances. One family chooses to spend its discretionary income on cable television, a brand new SUV, and extravagant birthday parties. The other family chooses to do without cable, drive a used car, and have modest birthday parties, so that it can spend its discretionary income on health insurance. Howard Dean would tax the second family to pay for health insurance for the first family.

Fiscal Policy

For fiscal policy, decentralization would mean reducing the role of the Federal Government. It would mean giving more responsibility and discretion to state and local governments. It would mean leaving more decisions to individuals, which means lower Federal spending and taxes.

I fear that we will find that Dean has something else in mind. For now, he has nothing in mind. His site just says, Check back soon for an update.


On education, Dean's web site says,
"If we are serious about improving American education, however, we must not forget that the single most important factor in how a child learns has less to do with the quality of the building, the computers or even the teachers. The most important predictor is the attitude in that child's home toward education. We must involve parents again; we must insist that they participate in their children's education; and we must make schools and school boards responsive to parents. But we must under no circumstances abandon the public schools, as the Bush Administration seems bent on doing."

Although Dean is saying that the solution in education is parental involvement, he says that "under no circumstances" would he abandon a statist approach and empower parents with vouchers. In one paragraph, he manages to both pay lip service to decentralization and to slam the door in its face.

Battle of the Oxymorons?

I believe that decentralization really is the theme of our times. So far, I have been disappointed with "compassionate conservative," which seems to translate into the oxymoron of "big-government tax-cutter." But Walden Puddle and its favorite presidential candidate are not on the right track, either. Decentralized paternalism is an even more frightening oxymoron.

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