Sebelius backs away from false dichotomies; a response on the issues raised

Victor Joecks

A little back story here. On Sunday, Steve Sebelius wrote a column claiming that some conservative legislators didn’t “want schoolchildren to enjoy a good breakfast.”

On Monday, I wrote a blog pointing out how Sebelius’ piece was full of false dichotomies. Sebelius’ Wednesday column responded to my blog by backing away from the false dichotomies he used before, but claiming that conservative lawmakers put their “philosophy” “above the needs of real people suffering in real life.”

I just submitted the following to the Review-Journal as a letter-to-the-editor response. It’s a bit long, so we’ll see if they run it.

In the meantime, here it is. I’d enjoy reading your thoughts, on the issues it raises, in the comments.


In his recent column (“Don’t put philosophy ahead of people,” Nov. 9, 2011), Steve Sebelius backs away from claims in his previous piece (“Defending liberty?” Nov. 6, 2011) that conservative legislators “don’t care if schoolchildren go hungry,” this time granting that “Nobody is happy about kids going hungry or workers dying in industrial accidents.”

Having abandoned his textbook false dichotomy – either you agree with liberal policies or you must not care if “parents labor in unsafe workplaces” – he nonetheless misses the mark in his more recent piece.

Part of Sebelius’ beef is with lawmakers who voted against AB 137 and AB 254 during the last legislative session. He argues, in his more recent column, that even if these conservatives would prefer that children not go hungry, the “conservative philosophy” that drove those legislators to vote as they did will have the effect of hurting “real people suffering in real life.” But that isn’t the case.

AB 137 would have required every school district in the state to increase enrollment in the school breakfast program by 10 percent per year – until “the school district achieves 100-percent participation in the school breakfast program.”

Leaving aside the fiscal folly of subsidizing meals for students whose parents are millionaires, this isn’t about breakfast at all – it’s about control, and the question of who should raise and feed your children. Sebelius and other liberals think the government should. Conservatives and the vast majority of parents think parents should.

It is precisely because parents love their children so much that most prefer that they – not Carson City bureaucrats – determine what their child eats.

AB 254 wasn’t any better. It would have given government bureaucrats the ability to fine employers if “any employee has access to a hazard.” The ambiguity of this phrase would have let bureaucrats fine employers for almost anything.

Imagine a construction worker working with a nail gun. Properly used, a nail gun is an important tool. Improperly used, it can be deadly. Is access to a nail gun a finable offense? The law would have left that up to a bureaucrat.

Sebelius thinks government bureaucrats should have this practically unlimited ability to fine because of the tragic deaths of construction workers on the Strip.

Except, as reported by the Las Vegas Sun, the problem wasn’t that OSHA was powerless to fine construction companies or didn’t know about the unsafe working conditions. The problem was that “investigators found serious safety violations in the cases, but the agency often did not follow up with aggressive enforcement. Instead, after meeting privately with contractors, the agency withdrew or reduced fines.”

So Sebelius’ argument for giving government more power rests on the fact that, a few years ago, a bureaucracy failed to properly use the power it already had.

That, in a nutshell, is the case for liberalism. Government misused its power, so we must give it more power – and if you don’t agree with that, you’re starving children and endangering workers.

The “abstract vision” that Sebelius mocks, and that conservatives and libertarians fight to maintain, is freedom. It is the commitment of believers in freedom that stops government from fully controlling families and businesses.

And I’ll take that philosophy – and its practical implications for people – every time.

Victor Joecks

The writer is the communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.