Opinion

These days, traditional labels mean little

If there was ever a time when Kitsap County enjoyed the benefit of political parties that were organized around discernible political and economic philosophies, it appears that we have moved beyond that point.

There undoubtedly are many people who would welcome the end of partisan politics, but there are drawbacks to the absence of predictable behavior by purportedly partisan candidates who succeed in being elected to public office.

Take, for example, the current debate about changing laws related to compensating victims of medical malpractice.

You might expect a “conservative” to insist that a jury determine the extent to which victims of negligent medical treatment should be compensated for their injuries.

The jury of one’s peers that decides such issues has long been a principal part of our legal system, and conservatives supposedly don’t take changes to foundational principles lightly.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise most people to learn that a “liberal” wants to impose the equivalent of price controls on the jury’s discretion.

Substituting the judgment of lawmakers and bureaucrats for the right of individual citizens to decide issues affecting their lives and liberty is not an unusual position for what we call a liberal to take.

Yet, 26th District Reps. Patricia Lantz and Lois McMahan appear to be acting in direct conflict with the ideological labels ordinarily associated with their partisan affiliations.

At her “town hall” meeting on Feb. 21, McMahan made it clear that she favors, among other things, a limit on the amount juries may award to compensate medical malpractice victims for what is usually called “pain and suffering.”

Jury awards can sometimes be so high as to be obviously unreasonable, so a process for reviewing individual awards in the appellate court system is a necessity.

Blind and unyielding faith in the outcome of a jury trial isn’t a necessary part of preserving the jury as a principal arbiter of disputes.

Attempting to determine through the appellate courts whether a particular jury award should be reduced or set aside is far different from what McMahan favors.

She supports placing a limit expressed in dollars on that part of every jury award which is meant to compensate the plaintiff for pain and suffering.

If such a cap on jury awards were made a part of state law, the longstanding reliance on a jury of one’s peers to decide a particular case would be significantly diminished.

The rights of individual victims of medical malpractice would be sacrificed for the purported benefit of society in general — an outcome normally associated with the collectivist political and economic philosophies of the “left.”

Ironically, Lantz’s guest opinion published in the Independent on March 10 presented an argument against such a cap on jury awards that was “liberal” only in the sense that what was long ago called “liberal” is now called “conservative.”

Her insistence that an arbitrary limit on jury awards would deny justice to individuals harmed by medical malpractice is a classical liberal argument for the supremacy of individual rights.

She is rarely on the “right” regarding any issue, but she is correct on this one.

Neither Lantz nor McMahan is a maverick on the issue of tort reform. Their positions are generally the same as those of their respective political parties.

Our two Republican county commissioners, Jan Angel and Patty Lent, provided another example when they adopted a resolution on March 8 that rations economic development rights based on criteria which include a requirement for the creation of “family-wage jobs.”

Classical-liberal political and economic philosophies, now usually espoused by “conservatives,” favor the competitive market as the mechanism for determining wages, not government fiat.

Yet, those two commissioners, who might be thought of as conservatives, approved the “liberal” concept of government intervention — not to preserve or maintain a competitive market for labor, but to require some undefined level of compensation in return for exercising individual property rights.

One might at least expect a conservative to retain legislative authority where our laws place it, namely at the county commissioners’ level. But, they left it to the bureaucracy to determine just what a “family wage” is.

As a matter of principle and practice, restricting economic development reduces the level of compensation needed to hire and retain employees by reducing the alternatives available to people who are not satisfied by the wages offered by one or another potential employer.

It does no one any good to tell a potential employer that the anticipated wages for jobs resulting from a proposed development aren’t thought to be sufficiently high to allow that development to proceed.

The opposite of the professed intent occurs: fewer jobs and lower wages.

Government’s role in economic development should be to foster a competitive market, but restricting development results in a market in which too few workers have any alternative to the low wages offered for currently available jobs.

If the Republican party and the people who campaign for office under its aegis were truly “conservative,” it doesn’t seem likely that such contradictions between their professed philosophies and their actions would often occur once those people attained public office.

It seems we cannot rely on party labels or even our cherished “liberal” and “conservative” labels to predict the political behavior of those who are elected to office.

Will Rogers once joked that he belonged to no organized political party, since he was a Democrat. Had he been born 70 years later, the punch line might not have been so funny.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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