George McGovern: From Liberal Reformer to Reformed Liberal
George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee who lost handily to Richard Nixon, passed away this morning at the age of 90. The media is celebrating him as a universally respected and genuinely nice politician, as well as a liberal icon. These things are true, but tell only part of the story. McGovern was also the rare politician capable of rethinking his positions as he acquired new information and experiences (not to be confused with the many more politicians who change positions out of convenience).
Was he a liberal? Undoubtedly. But he also came, once out of office, to respect the importance of economic freedom and the practical costs and burdens placed on business by the same liberal policies he supported while in office.
McGovern is well known for his opposition to Vietnam and idealist push for a vast collection of liberal policies. With his passing today, the media is quick to celebrate his devotion to liberalism, and he should be celebrated in so far as he fought vigorously for what he truly believed, but less likely to be mentioned in the media coverage is the degree to which he came to challenge liberal orthodoxy, specifically its brand of economic paternalism.
He was particularly influenced by the difficulty he encountered after leaving office in attempting to run an inn, which he outlined in 1992 in the Wall Street Journal:
In 1988, I invested most of the earnings from this lecture circuit acquiring the leasehold on Connecticut’s Stratford Inn. Hotels, inns and restaurants have always held a special fascination for me. The Stratford Inn promised the realization of a longtime dream to own a combination hotel, restaurant and public conference facility–complete with an experienced manager and staff.
In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business, especially during a recession of the kind that hit New England just as I was acquiring the inn’s 43-year leasehold. I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.
…My own business perspective has been limited to that small hotel and restaurant in Stratford, Conn., with an especially difficult lease and a severe recession. But my business associates and I also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: `Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.’ It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators.
For example, the papers today are filled with stories about businesses dropping health coverage for employees. We provided a substantial package for our staff at the Stratford Inn. However, were we operating today, those costs would exceed $150,000 a year for health care on top of salaries and other benefits. There would have been no reasonably way for us to absorb or pass on these costs.
Some of the escalation in the cost of health care is attributed to patients suing doctors. While one cannot assess the merit of all these claims, I’ve also witnessed firsthand the explosion in blame-shifting and scapegoating for every negative experience in life.
Today, despite bankruptcy, we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant. Despite these injuries, not every misstep is the fault of someone else. Not every such incident should be viewed as a lawsuit instead of an unfortunate accident. And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.
…In short, `one-size-fits-all’ rules for business ignore the reality of the market place. And setting thresholds for regulatory guidelines at artificial levels–e.g., 50 employees or more, $500,000 in sales–takes no account of other realities, such as profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses, and local market economics.
The problem we face as legislators is: Where do we set the bar so that it is not too high to clear? I don’t have the answer. I do know that we need to start raising these questions more often.
His policy advice is important, and I would urge liberals to take it to heart. But I found particularly interesting the hints at a greater need for personal responsibility – a realization that sometimes bad things happen and that there are not always other people to blame or who need to be made to pay for your misfortune or poor choices.
He expanded on this theme in a 1997 New York Times op-ed defending freedom of choice, and again in 2008, where he wrote in the Wall Street Journal to warn against economic paternalism and to defend a number of practices – such as payday lending – that are frequently targeted by today’s liberals:
Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior. Much paternalist scrutiny has recently centered on personal economics…
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.
A conservative or Republican making this exact statement today would be condemned by modern liberals as a heartless extremist and free market zealot, but McGovern was none of those things. He was simply willing to observe how liberal policies worked in practice, and in some cases this caused him to rethink his policies. He didn’t stop being a liberal or abandon his principles, he just continued to learn throughout his life. His is an example that the rest of us could learn from.