George McGovern: Libertarian ?

George McGovern, who made an ill-fated run for President in 1972, has a very interesting Op-Ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal:

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.

In the piece, McGovern talks about everything from payday lending:

Anguished at the fact that payday lending isn’t perfect, some people would outlaw the service entirely, or cap fees at such low levels that no lender will provide the service. Anyone who’s familiar with the law of unintended consequences should be able to guess what happens next.

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York went one step further and laid the data out: Payday lending bans simply push low-income borrowers into less pleasant options, including increased rates of bankruptcy. Net result: After a lending ban, the consumer has the same amount of debt but fewer ways to manage it.

To health care:

Health-care paternalism creates another problem that’s rarely mentioned: Many people can’t afford the gold-plated health plans that are the only options available in their states.

Buying health insurance on the Internet and across state lines, where less expensive plans may be available, is prohibited by many state insurance commissions. Despite being able to buy car or home insurance with a mouse click, some state governments require their approved plans for purchase or none at all. It’s as if states dictated that you had to buy a Mercedes or no car at all.

In other words, competition works.

I’ll honestly admit that I never thought I’d see the day when George McGovern, who ran a very left-wing statist campaign in 1972 (although big issue in the race was the Vietnam War) would be more of an economic conservative than the current sitting Republican President, the Republican nominee for President, and many high-ranking Congressional Republicans.

James Joyner suggests that it’s not just the fact that McGovern has changed, but that the goalposts of American politics have been moved and I think he’s pretty much right in that regard.

First of all, it’s important to remember that for as left-wing as McGovern may have been back in the day, he wasn’t all that different on economic issues from the guy he was running against:

As President, Nixon imposed wage and price controls, indexed Social Security for inflation, and created Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The number of pages added to the Federal Register each year doubled under Nixon. He eradicated the last remnants of the gold standard, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), promoted the Legacy of parks program and implemented the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal affirmative action program,

And Republicans today are more like Richard Nixon when it comes to domestic policy than they are to either Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. Yes, George McGovern has changed, but he’s not the only one.

  • UCrawford

    Ah, George…I’ll always remember him fondly for being a central focus of Hunter S. Thompson’s finest piece of political writing :)