Nobody knows if Kid Rock (a.k.a. Robert James Ritchie) is serious about challenging Senator Debbie Stabenow’s reelection in Michigan next year. But this interesting little item from the site promoting his proto-candidacy would suggest a populist message that might find traction in a country in the midst of an insanely complex health-care fight and on the brink of an insanely complex tax-policy fight:
The demand for radical simplicity in government is a very old idea; as the Conservative Review’s Chris Pandolfo points out, it goes back at least to Alexander Hamilton. Nor is it inherently left or right; for every tea party activist insisting that proposed legislation be so short that it can easily be read in its entirety by every legislator, there’s a democratic socialist touting Medicare for All as infinitely easier to understand than Obamacare.
But there’s the rub: Complexity in government programs is often the product of compromise between the simple, internally consistent prescriptions of left and right. This is most obvious with Obamacare itself, designed to utilize private insurance companies (where possible, at least) to achieve the progressive end of universal (or more nearly universal) health coverage. This approach was necessary to nail down the requisite number of moderate-to-conservative Democratic senators, and was intended to attract some Republicans as well (to no avail). But the durability of Obamacare even as the Republicans who entirely control the federal government try to get rid of it shows that even fiendishly complex programs can be popular.
The complexity of the tax code, partially a product of the power of lobbyists representing special interests, is also in part a tribute to compromise, insofar as Republicans will sometimes accept a social policy initiative they would otherwise reject if it were advanced through a Democratic-sponsored government spending program. Indeed, one way to look at many of those complex “loopholes” in the tax code is that they reduce the complexity of government itself. So one of Kid Rock’s boogeymen is actually a response to the other.
More obviously, some laws, tax provisions, or government programs are complicated because, well, life is complicated. Do we want laws guiding investments in advanced scientific research that “every taxpayer who works his butt off,” etc., can fully understand at a glance? How about laws governing global finance? Again, we have the option of prohibiting complex things from existing, or letting them develop as they will without laws, taxes, or government involvement at all. Either approach will rule out many other options that might be more satisfying to more people, and won’t necessarily make life easier. A full panoply of unregulated market choices for health care, for example, would be insanely confusing to people without sophisticated knowledge of insurance and medicine.
So the more you think it through, Kid Rock’s demand is, like most demagoguery, seductive but grossly misleading. Laws, taxes, and government programs could well be less complex and more understandable than they are today. But the idea that they should be as instantly comprehensible as a 30-second campaign ad is simple-minded.