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Robert Bennett: Moving beyond political ideology

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In a presidential campaign in years gone by, a third party candidate justified his getting into the race by saying, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties." Some say the same thing today.

On the right, tea party voices claim that President Bush was seduced by the same "big government" mind-set that infects everyone in Washington, that the difference between him and Obama — and between other elected Republicans and Democrats as well — is just one of degree. Remove them all. On the left, Occupy Wall Street voices claim that everyone who holds any kind of power, economic or political, is automatically corrupt. "Occupy" them all.

However, there really is difference between the two parties — and it matters. Democrats are the party of government. Republicans are the party of free markets.

Democrats say yes, economic growth created by entrepreneurial activity is admirable, but it couldn't have been achieved without government. The roads over which products are shipped, the schools in which employees are educated, the police protection by which the company premises are guarded — all these and more come from government. Therefore, everybody, not just shareholders, should benefit from a business's success. Their bottom line? "Businesses and rich people should pay more taxes."

Republicans say that governments do not create wealth; they consume it, or in the case of programs like Social Security and Medicare, transfer it from one set of constituents to another. Yes, a sound governmental structure is essential to the process of wealth creation, so taxes must be paid to support that structure, but our government has now become too overbearing, intrudes too deeply in the marketplace, driving risk takers out with burdensome regulations and tax rates, that it hurts everyone, including the poor. Their bottom line? "Don't kill the golden goose."

Who's right? Both have claims on history.

When there is too little government, necessary services go unprovided, mobs rule and people flee, as the Mormons were forced to do from Missouri in the 1830s. When there is too much government, incentives are dulled, opportunities are stifled and people chose to flee, as businesses are doing from California now. America's best years have been those in which productive individual initiative and sound governmental policies existed side by side.

So, if the Democrats are sometimes right and government can provide solutions, and the Republicans are sometimes right and government can get in the way of solutions, how should we proceed?

By casting a wider net in our examination of our challenges. Bill Gates was recently quoted as saying that "the big thing that's missing [in our politics] is … technocratic understanding of the facts and where things are working and where they're not working."

That means we are prejudging how to solve a problem before we have enough understanding with respect to what it is. That should stop. As a Republican, I am confident enough in the productive power of free markets overall that I am not afraid to consider the possibility that a government solution might work in a particular case. Refusal to review any options other than your own is not a sign of the strength of your conviction, it's an indication of fear that your position cannot stand up to scrutiny. The sooner both parties learn this truth, the better.

Our politics has become an exercise where candidates seek to secure support in their respective parties by being "ideologically pure" in their approach to all challenges. We should start to look at our challenges in a more practical way, and let the ideological chips fall where they may.

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