Ted Kennedy and the Death (Hopefully) of an Era

The controversial senator belonged to a different age, one ill-suited to today's increasingly decentralized world


With the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), two points immediately come to mind.

First is the endless, generally uncritical encomia that journalists and other public commenters immediately generate whenever any major figure, especially a controversial one, dies. Here's a writer for what was effectively Kennedy's hometown paper, The Boston Globe:

"I think they're gonna say he is one of the greatest legislators, or most effective legislators—if not the most effective legislator—the Senate has ever seen," Boston Globe reporter and author Susan Milligan said. "And I don't think you could find a sitting senator right now, Democrat or Republican, who would disagree with that assessment."

Milligan's assessment may well be on-target: When you consider major legislation that Kennedy helped to hustle across the finish line, such as No Child Left Behind and the Americans with Disabilities Act, he was indeed an incredibly effective legislator, typically reaching far beyond the partisan rhetoric for which he was famous to work with hard-core Republicans. Kennedy was, in the turgid term regularly applied to him, the "liberal lion" of the Senate, a principled and unyielding advocate for bigger government, higher taxes, more business regulation, you name it. Yet many of his signature accomplishments—No Child Left Behind and the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance—were not pushed through along partisan lines. In each instance, he worked with the respective President Bush and a slew of Republicans at the time to ensure passage.

Which brings me to the second point: The legislation for which he will be remembered is precisely the sort of top-down, centralized legislation that needs to be jettisoned in the 21st century. Like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and the recently deposed Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Kennedy was in fact a man out of time, a bridge back to the past rather than a guide to the future. His mind-set was very much of a piece with a best-and-the-brightest, centralized mentality that has never served America well over the long haul.

Bigger was better, and government at every level but especially at the highest level, had to lead the way. In an increasingly flat, dispersed, networked world in which power, information, knowledge, purchasing power, and more was rapidly decentralizing, Kennedy was all for sitting at the top of a pyramid and directing activity. In this way, he was of his time and place, a post-war America that figured that all the kinks of everyday life had been mastered by a few experts in government, business, and culture. All you needed to do was have the right guys twirling the dials up and down. As thoughtful observers of all political stripes have noted, this sort of thinking was at best delusional, at worst destructive. And it was always massively expensive.

Consider No Child Left Behind. In the guise of giving students and parents the ability to opt out of objectively failing schools, it instead ramped up federal education spending (by more than 40 percent) to unprecedented levels; additionally, it has imposed significant costs on state and local budgets. More than that, it has mired public education in even more bureaucratic rigaramole. At the same time, it has accomplished nothing toward its stated goal of "closing the achievement gap" between lower-income minorities and white students. Something similar holds for the Americans with Disabilities Act, whose passage created vast new legal and governmental procedures that have impacted virtually every aspect of American life, all without actually increasing the income or workforce participation rates of the disabled. The Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, another law in which Kennedy played a major role, is the very definition of an explosively expensive government boondoggle that shuffled tax dollars from the relatively young and poor to the relatively old and wealthy.

There's a certain irony that Ted Kennedy has died just as President Barack Obama, who seems to very much grok the senator's mind-set, is pushing health care reform, the issue Kennedy called "the cause of my life." Virtually all Americans understand that if any sort of legislation actually gets passed, it will make their lives slightly more hellish when it comes to cost, bureaucracy, and quality of care.

Indeed, upwards of 70 percent of Americans fear that a compulsory national system will diminish the quality of their care, and 77 percent expect costs to rise. Americans are not being ideological on the issue. They are simply being realistic. Back in the '60s, when Kennedy was a young senator with presidential ambitions, large majorities of Americans wanted the government to get more involved in education, health care, and other aspects of day-to-day life. We fear it now because government did in fact become more involved in every aspect of our lives, both public and intimate. We know from bitter experience that, whatever its intentions, the government (especially the federal government) is not particularly good at delivering the sort of individualized, ultra-responsive customer service that the private sector is itself only recently figuring out.

In signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act a few months back, President Obama talked up Ted Kennedy's vision of a Depression-era corps of "paid volunteeers" who would fan out into every corner of America and declare, without irony, some version of "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Those days are over, beaten out of our system by experience with a federal government that Ted Kennedy (along with countless enablers on both sides of the aisle) helped to grow in ways that were impossible to predict.

There is, buried deep within Kennedy's legislative legacy, a different set of policies worth exhuming and examining, precisely because they were truly a break with the normal way of doing business in Washington. During the 1970s, Kennedy was instrumental in deregulating the interstate trucking industry and airline ticket prices, two innovations that have vastly improved the quality of life in America even as—or more precisely, because—they pushed power out of D.C. and into the pocketbooks of everyday Americans. We are incalculably richer and better off because something like actual prices replaced regulatory fiat in trucking and flying. Because they do not fit the Ted Kennedy narrative preferred by his admirers and detractors alike, these accomplishments rarely get mentioned in stories about the late senator. But they are exactly the sort of legislation that we should be celebrating in his honor, and using as a model in today's debates about health care, education, and virtually every aspect of government action.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com.