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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

200-Proof



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As regular readers know, Tim Lee writes my favorite blog and I feel fortunate to have crossed swords with him over the DREAM Act. Because Tim and I share many of the same basic values and gut instincts, this debate has highlighted one of few areas of disagreement, including this one:

If you want fewer abortions you focus on “partial birth” abortions. If you want legal pot, you start with medical marijuana. If you want universal vouchers, you start by focusing on vouchers for kids in failing schools. If you want to end the estate tax, you focus on the relatively small minority of families who are forced to sell off their business to pay the tax man. This kind of half-measure is not only much easier to enact, but it also tends to move public opinion to be more favorable to the 200 proof version. In an ideal world, voters would be perfectly rational and omniscient and we wouldn’t have to play these kinds of games. But they’re not, so we do.

I take a different approach. On many of these issues, I think that there can be a durable settlement in the “in-between” space, which is why I care about whether the “in-between” space is sustainable. This is why I opposed Proposition 19 in California. I favor the decriminalization of virtually all narcotics, and I believe that people should be allow to grow and use their own cannabis, though I oppose full commercial legalization. Many saw Prop 19 as an entering wedge. I saw it as a public policy disaster waiting to happen. 

On the estate tax, I think the case against is straightforward: it leads to tax evasion and avoidance efforts that are wasteful enough to incline me to support other ways of raising revenue. But I’m wary of using the kind of arguments Tim has in mind about family farms, etc., as I consider them disingenuous and counterproductive. The estate tax is either bad because it damages our overall economic prospects or it’s not. 

And on school choice, I tend to think the whole conversation has been problematic. By not emphasizing the potential benefits of educational savings accounts and other measures that broaden the school choice conversation beyond inner-city schoolchildren, we’ve perversely managed to convince middle-class suburban parents that choice is a social justice measure that cuts against the self-interest of, well, middle-class suburban parents, as well as public school teachers and other politically appealing constituencies. This has been, in my view, a serious strategic error that appeals to the moral vanity of choice advocates like myself without actually winning the political, or indeed the substantive, debate. 

Moreover, I think the “in-between space” in education is not sustainable. I doubt that the freedom to choose between one school and another will drive the significant improvements in educational outcomes we need. Rick Hess has convinced me that to create functioning markets we need to allow for more specialization and more transparency across the board. Among other things, we need to facilitate the emergence of specialized providers of instructional services, teacher recruitment, and much else by opening up closed systems.

All of this is to say that I think reformers need to find different ways of talking about many of these issues, in part to build broader coalitions. Demonizing teachers unions is fun for those of us who see them as profoundly odious, as I often do, but creating a framework in which effective teachers can choose to take on more students in exchange for more compensation creates a different dynamic. In a similar vein, acknowledging the legitimacy of the belief that unauthorized immigration should be taken seriously and thinking seriously about what the minimum demands of humanitarianism really demand might lead us to a different, more constructive political conversation. That’s my best guess, anyway.   



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