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Tipping Point

TRB from Washington

Say what you will about George W. Bush, he has never been one to underestimate the malleability of human behavior. He touted the transformative power of faith as a candidate in 2001. In 2004, he promised that the mere act of owning stock or a home would imbue citizens with virtues like hard work and self-reliance. And, anticipating this week's Iraqi elections, he stressed the "transformational power of liberty." 

The media has generally treated this as evidence of Bush's unique strain of compassionate, "Wilsonian" conservatism-- a major departure from mainstream Republicanism. But, in truth, Republicans have been peddling various "transformative powers" for over 25 years. They do it whenever they need to conceal the fact that they're limiting government.

In the late '70s, when the balance of power within the GOP began shifting from moderate Northeasterners toward Sunbelt conservatives, Republicans faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the party was committing itself to smaller government. On the other, post-New Deal era voters expected government to address their problems. Republicans knew they still needed to do things. They just didn't want them to cost much--or require any sacrifice to speak of. The solution? Instead of having government tackle problems like poverty (pretty costly), Republicans would reprogram people to do it themselves (relatively cheap). The reprogramming would consist of one-off transformative events, such as buying a house or finding God. 

The first bona fide experiment in transformative-power Republicanism came in the early '80s, when the GOP wanted to cut taxes. Realizing they would encounter resistance from Democrats and deficit hawks, supply-siders in and around the Reagan administration devised an ingenious rationale: Americans, they argued, would respond to lower tax rates by working longer and harder. So much harder, in fact, that slashing taxes would actually raise more revenue than before. "People change their behavior when their marginal incentives change," explained supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. The resulting 1981 tax cut helped triple the deficit by 1983.

Except for a few speeches by Jack Kemp (dismissed even by Republicans as the ravings of a lunatic supply-sider), transformative-power Republicanism didn't really reemerge until 1994. At that point, Newt Gingrich argued that forcing people to pay for health care out of personal "health savings accounts" would transform them into cost-conscious consumers, creating savings so large that Congress could slash Medicare. He also suggested that making schools compete for students (via vouchers) would improve performance so much that it would reduce the need for education spending. Gingrich even proposed giving poor people tax breaks to buy computers, the mere purchase of which would supposedly help lift them out of poverty. 

But it was Bush who elevated transformative-power Republicanism to party doctrine. As a candidate in 2000, Bush claimed that exposing troubled teens to the power of faith could transform them into model citizens; Republicans exulted that it would help reduce social spending. Republicans swooned again when Bush unveiled his "ownership society" last year. Stock ownership, they argued, would transform people into expert retirement planners who would no longer need generous Social Security benefits. Bush was well-positioned to argue the power of transformation: Faith had transformed him from a problem drinker into the president.

To be fair, some Republicans genuinely believed their own rhetoric. And Republican faith in things like church attendance or ownership isn't entirely misplaced. All of these activities are correlated with virtuous behavior. What's far less clear is that they cause virtuous behavior. A study by Ohio State University economist Donald Haurin concluded that, once you control for self-selection--the fact that more responsible people tend to buy homes--much of home ownership's alleged benefits evaporate. The same problem renders faith-based initiatives suspect. Cutting income-tax rates does marginally affect people's decisions to work, and competition does marginally improve school quality. But it turns out that building a virtuous and prosperous society is a lot more difficult than engineering a single, transformative event.

That hasn't stopped the Bush administration from taking transformative-power Republicanism global. Case in point: when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said rebuilding Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, Paul Wolfowitz called his estimates "way off the mark." The Bushies argued that the transformational power of liberty--the mere experience of having Saddam Hussein overthrown--would stimulate Iraqis to rebuild the country themselves. "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators," Wolfowitz explained, "and that will help us to keep [troop] requirements down." 

One could interpret this as idealism. A more cynical reading is that Republicans were squaring the same circle they have been squaring since the '70s: Because there's no constituency for nation-building in the GOP, the White House had to sell the Iraq war as having a much lower price tag than it actually required.

It wasn't easy to tell which scenario was right until Iraq descended into chaos. The administration could have responded with more troops.Instead, it began pointing to this week's elections as the transformative event that would bring democracy, as when White House spokesman Scott McClellan claimed that "free elections" would mean a "free Iraq." Certainly this is how Republicans interpreted the result. "[The elections] mark a historic transformation in Iraqi society," wrote American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin in The Wall Street Journal.

I hope they're right. But, as my colleague Lawrence F. Kaplan reported last week ("The Last Casualty," February 7), there's a very real chance the administration's failure to do the hard work of nation-building put liberal democracy out of reach long before election day. The slates that likely won Sunday's election range from moderate theocrats to secular strongmen. Worse, the election sets up a perilous catch-22: Most Shia went to the polls to end the occupation. But the only way Iraqis will see a second election is if the United States remains in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Then again, if elections don't bring freedom to Iraq, we can always try tax-subsidized computers.


Because of an editing error, "Tipping Point" by Noam Scheiber (February 14) misstated the year of George W. Bush's first candidacy for president: It was in 2000, not 2001.

We regret the error.

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.