David Brooks is splendid today and his column—in which he “introduces” two friends, Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume—is germane in the extreme to the health care debate. Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume could not be less alike:
Mr. Bentham knows everything. He went to Stanford, then to the Kennedy school before getting a business degree. He’s got multivariate regressions coming out of his ears, and he sprinkles C.B.O. reports on his corn flakes for added fiber.
Mr. Hume is very smart, too, but he doesn’t seem to make much use of his intelligence. He worked on Wall Street for a little while, but he never could accurately predict how the market was going to move tomorrow or the day after that.
Mr. Bentham is a great lunch partner. If you ask him to recommend a bottle of wine, he’ll reel off the six best vintages on the wine list, in ranked preference. Mr. Hume can’t even tell you which entree to order because he doesn’t know what you like.
If you put Mr. Bentham in charge of the government, he’d proceed with confidence….
Mr. Bentham would solve our health care problems with confidence. Mr. Hume would not:
He’d spend a few days reading reports. Then one day you’d find him in the fetal position, weeping. He’d confess that he doesn’t know enough to reorganize a fifth of the economy. He can’t figure out which health care delivery system is the most efficient. “Why don’t we just set up insurance exchanges with, say, 12 different competing policies? We’ll let everybody choose a policy, and we’ll let people keep any money they save. That way they can set off a decentralized cascade of reform, instead of putting all the responsibility on us here.” And then Mr. Hume would beg you to leave him alone.
Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume represent two approaches as we have one of the most important discussions in our nation’s history. Brooks:
This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.
The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)
The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.
So let’s have the debate. But before we do, let’s understand that Mr. Bentham is going to win. The lobbyists love Bentham’s intricacies and his stacks of spending proposals, which they need in order to advance their agendas. If you want to pass anything through Congress, Bentham’s your man.
Let’s hope that modest Mr. Hume still has a chance, though, in immodest Washington, I fear Brooks is right about the outcome.