By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Writer and political commentator George Will told a University of Mississippi audience Tuesday that the political divide in America reduces to a tension between liberty and equality.
“The stakes are high; we’re arguing about really fundamental things: What is the real competence and proper scope of government?” said Will, an ABC commentator, author of 13 books and the most widely syndicated newspaper columnist in the nation.
Will, a noted conservative thinker, was the featured speaker and guest for Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College’s Spring Convocation.
“Today, liberals stress equality – not just of opportunity but of outcome,” he said. “Conservatives today stress freedom over equality.”
He noted that such prominent liberals as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Vice President Joe Biden have claimed that government institutes all the positive change in the nation. Will countered with the transformative examples of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, John Deere’s steel plow and Ray Kroc’s hamburger chain.
“We’re arguing about fundamental things. What happens when the government thinks it knows everything – when it’s smarter than markets?” he said. He noted that during the Depression, a tailor was arrested for advertising a 35-cent price on suit pressing, which violated the New Deal’s regulated price of 40 cents.
Will, joking that “I fake my optimism,” said that 49 percent of Americans receive some sort of transfer payment from government, and 35 percent receive means-tested payments intended for those in economic plight.
“We are facing the most astonishing tipping point a democracy can face – the point at which a majority of people become either government employees or dependents of the government,” he said.
Despite student loans and other programs for the young, Will said, “Any welfare state exists primarily to transfer wealth from young and middle-aged working people to elderly people in the form of pensions and health care.”
Dependency, he added, also worsens a host of social ills by encouraging fatherless families.
While Will said the purpose of his talk was not prescriptive, he did offer at least a few mitigations for the nation’s economic woes. He suggested making Medicare a means-tested program, and urged individual involvement in paying for health care.
“For all the trillions we talk about, the real problem is 12 cents,” Will said, explaining that individuals directly pay only 12 cents of every dollar of health care costs, even though high-deductible policies foster lower spending with no reduction in quality of outcome.
Even the national debt, he said, reflects the question of government vs. individual responsibility.
“We’re giving the American people $10 worth of government and charging taxpayers only $6.50,” Will said. “If the name Ponzi springs to mind, you’re on the right track.”
“The wrong government policies can, over time, wear away, as water wears a stone, the confidence in the competencies of the American people,” he said.