Ted Kennedy... the deregulator?

The icon of big government liberalism also knew when to unfetter the market. If only the GOP was equally flexible

Published September 2, 2009 5:52PM (EDT)

Ted Kennedy may be remembered by history for improving the social welfare of millions of Americans through legislation like the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the State Children's Health Care Insurance Program, Head Start and Title IX.

But at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Open Market blog, Kennedy is being honored by John Berlau as a deregulator. (Italics mine)

But for a brief, shining moment, in the mid to late 1970s, Kennedy viewed smaller government as the most compassionate answer in one area of economic life: transportation. Kennedy was the prime mover in Congress behind the airline and trucking deregulation bills that were signed by President Jimmy Carter. He saw the impact of regulation in these industries as protecting entrenched companies from competition, and decided that the liberal, compassionate thing to do was to deregulate to give consumers lower prices and more choices.

This is true. Kennedy was a major force behind deregulating the airline and trucking industries. As Berlau notes, without his efforts, it is possible that U.S. travelers today wouldn't enjoy the low, low fares of Southwest Airlines, which posted its own eulogy last week.

We also owe the Senator a great thank you for his early and staunch support of airline deregulation, which allowed Southwest Airlines to carry our low fares beyond the borders of Texas.

In fact, his name was attached to the Airline Reform Act of 1977 (Cannon-Kennedy-Pearson Air Transportation Reform Act), which when passed, became the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. In his opening statement for the 1977 hearings by the Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senator wrote: "Regulators all too often encourage or approve unreasonably high prices, inadequate service, and anticompetitive behavior. The cost of this regulation is always passed on to the consumer. And that cost is astronomical."

In the course of his post, Berlau detours to attack a government role in expanding healthcare coverage, observes that "smaller government is almost always better government," and finishes with a plea:

In tribute to Senator Kennedy, Open Market urges all legislators to look at his accomplishments in airline and trucking deregulation, and be Kennedy-esque in applying his insights on these issues to the economy at large.

So how about that "one shining moment" when Kennedy pushed deregulation? The implication, of course, is that the rest of his career, when Kennedy championed big government's efforts to directly improve the lives of Americans, falls under a dark and forbidding cloud, or is at least a contradiction in terms. But isn't another framing possible? In the case of the trucking and airline industries, Kennedy recognized a situation where deregulation made sense. But he did not subscribe to an ideology that holds that the unregulated market always knows best. He knew that smaller government doesn't mean that our air is automatically clean or that a disabled person can find a wheelchair ramp. Kennedy was able to make distinctions, to pick and choose moments in which it was appropriate to use government to directly affect the livelihoods of disadvantaged Americans and when it was appropriate to reduce the role of government in particular markets.

When you listen to Republican politicians pontificate today, the vast majority appear incapable of making any such distinctions. Instead, they seem to be reading from a list of CEI talking points, operating from the premise that government action is always bad, that the market is always right. Recent history informs us that this is arrant nonsense, but that hasn't changed their rhetoric one whit. John Berlau wants us to honor Kennedy's deregulatory impulses and all become more avid deregulators. But the country might be better off if the GOP, the party that, for better or worse, is most associated with deregulatory ideology, learned to recognize that reality is complex -- sometimes you need the government to act, and sometimes you don't.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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