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‘Libertarian Populism’ Is a Stepchild of McCainism

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain waged a quixotic war on earmarks. For years before that, he was associated with campaign finance reforms that eventually became law under President Bush. Few outside of Washington cared about such process-oriented issues.

The logic [1] behind “libertarian populism” does not neatly fall into the same category as McCain’s hobbyhorses, but its impetus is largely the same. Libertarian populism is not primarily about reducing the size of government (though its policy preferences may overlap with that goal); it is about making government “cleaner” and more transparent. It is about making the “system” seem less “rigged.” It’s about treating powerful moneyed interests no better, or at least no differently, than the “little guy.”

In theory, there’s no reason Democrats couldn’t advance their own version of a high wall of separation between government and private business. As an alternative to coopting the private insurance industry [2], a practical reality that chief #LibPop booster Tim Carney liked to expose as Obamacare developed on Capitol Hill, Democrats could have fought harder for a single-payer system. If by some long shot they had succeeded, the result may not have been a more libertarian healthcare market—but by Carney’s reckoning, it would have been a “cleaner” welfare state. The wall of separation would stand in a different place, but it would be higher than it is under Obamacare.

The libertarian populist mindset is a useful corrective, but it leaves much to be desired as the basis for a governing agenda. To stick with the insurance industry example for a moment: did Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal that the public generally favors)? Or consider the case Carney cites in the video above (from an AEI panel about collusion between big business and government): that of an aluminum manufacturer (Alcoa) lobbying for and subsequently benefiting from [3] new environmental regulations on fuel efficiency.

Critics of such self-dealing may be right on the merits. But there is still the matter of the public good being pursued: is it, too, worthy on the merits? And if so, is it not inevitable that some private actors will prosper, and others will not?

After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).

Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.

It’s only natural for those who cover politics in Washington to overdramatize the gory details of legislative sausage-making. Elections, however, rarely turn on process. And so, despite how much I may cheer each and every one of Tim Carney’s money-in-politics exposés, I can’t quite convince myself that Republicans are going to have any more luck at this than Democrats had against Halliburton.

Follow @scottgalupo [4]

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#1 Comment By Labropotes On July 29, 2013 @ 9:25 am

Is it right to say that Libertarian Populism is just about asking “who, whom?” Or is it about addressing actual social problems like the growth of the financial industry in the USA from 3% to 8.5% of GNP in 50 years? Is it about addressing the use of vital institutions to salvage the fortunes of, say, Goldman Sachs, instead salvaging the capital allocation function of the markets and the wealth of private Americans? What political difference couldn’t be reduced to “who, whom?”

This article seems to be about choosing red over black, and to be detached from any consideration of morality or justice, which makes it typical nowadays. I’m glad the author still enjoys the idea of fair play even if he doesn’t think it has a future motivating voters. I’m sure with this attitude he will keep fighting the good fight, just as soon as he can figure out what it is.

#2 Comment By Ken T On July 29, 2013 @ 9:45 am

“In theory, there’s no reason Democrats couldn’t advance their own version of a high wall of separation between government and private business.”

In practice, there is a significant slice of the Democratic Party that tries to do just that. See, for example, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Alan Grayson, etc. In other words, all those Democrats the libertarians regularly denounce as socialists, communists, or worse.

“Democrats could have fought harder for a single-payer system. If by some long shot they had succeeded, the result may not have been a more libertarian healthcare market—but by Carney’s reckoning, it would have been a “cleaner” welfare state. The wall of separation would stand in a different place, but it would be higher than it is under Obamacare.”

Let’s see, now, who was it who were the principal opponents of single-payer? Oh, yeah, I remember — it was the libertarian right.

As I said previously in a comment on another thread – Libertarians are the foot soldiers of corporatism.

#3 Comment By Ray S. On July 29, 2013 @ 9:57 am

The difference is that “mcCainism” was truly about small things. McCain/Feingold should have never been signed,and should have been overturned. I will always see McCain’s move as more about trying to clean up his Keating 5 past than anything else. As for earmarks,certainly it got overboard,but in the end it’s small potatoes. The real fight is on things like entitlements,defense,and welfare spending. Their is really nothing wrong with earmarks,as long as they are transparent and targeted.

#4 Comment By Jeff R. On July 29, 2013 @ 10:06 am

Libertarian populism is not primarily about reducing the size of government (though its policy preferences may overlap with that goal); it is about making government “cleaner” and more transparent.

Hmm…not sure I’d agree with that. I would say that at best, libertarian populists would like to shrink the size of government, but recognize the difficulties of this and settle on “cleaner” government as a more immediate, achievable objective. But the long run goal remains lopping some heads off the Washington hydra.

And while I agree that the Tim Carney’s of the world probably won’t swing any elections with their reporting, they may, again in the long run, force liberals to at least confront the results of their ill-chosen policies. I don’t expect Ezra Klein to ever write a “Why I am no longer a brain dead liberal” essay like David Mamet, but at the very least someone like him might temper their enthusiasm for whatever the next Democratic-led takeover of some industry is…mortgage lending or whatever it happens to be.

#5 Comment By Frank Stain On July 29, 2013 @ 11:32 am

Ken T. makes a very good point, and I suspect that health care is one of the public policy areas that really shows the true extent of the intellectual vacuity of libertarian populism.

Scott Galupo contextualizes the debate helpfully: ‘Critics of such self-dealing may be right on the merits. But there is still the matter of the public good being pursued: is it, too, worthy on the merits? And if so, is it not inevitable that some private actors will prosper, and others will not?’
On health care, it’s clear what the public good is, and it’s also clear how the single payer provides a ‘clean’ solution. The Left wanted a single payer system precisely to eliminate the stranglehold of corporate interests over health policy. Due to total opposition from the Right, and also from Dems bought out by big pharma like Joe Lieberman, this failed. And the ACA institutionalized the symbiosis of corporate and government power.

But what, exactly, is the libertarian solution to the problem of vastly over-expensive health care?
Libertarianism does not actually have a solution because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.* From the fact that corporate power is often exercised through the state, libertarianism wrongly concludes that the state is the original locus of government power. This accounts for its wrong assumption that if you eliminate state power, you also eliminate the problem of corporate power.
But of course, that isn’t true. The original locus of corporate power is control over the means of production, and the attendant wealth and power that derives from that possession. The massive disparities in power that follow from extreme concentrations of wealth and resources do not disappear simply because you remove one possible avenue of their exercise. You cannot create a level playing field by sprinkling magic freedom dust.

There is a very good reason the corporate class has worked so hard to capture the state. It is because the state remains the only genuine countervailing power. If you can convince the people that their constitutionally granted tools of democratic self-empowerment are actually useless and don’t work for their benefit, they will happily go along with the ruse.

*[There is not one single, successful example of a national health care system organized on libertarian principles. There are a lot of them run on the single payer model.]

#6 Comment By balconesfault On July 29, 2013 @ 11:52 am

After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries.

Please – to be clear, there was a bipartisan agreement that Bush would have the authority to make a determination that the invasion of Iraq was necessary. There was no clear bipartisan agreement that the invasion was in fact in our national interest – Congress never had the chance to vote on that.

But more to the point – I agree with the concept of a “governing agenda”, where people elect a government to in part advance policies which are viewed as beneficial to the American people over the long haul. And a result of such a governing agenda, in absence of complete socialism, is that businesses and individuals will often profit as a result of those policies, be it because they were ideally positioned to provide goods or services the policies created demand for, or because they were subsequently created or restructured to provide those goods or services.

Unfortunately, given the sums of money involved, businesses will also lobby government to either create policies which will advantage their businesses, or even to forestall such policies in order to maintain competitive advantage.

My take on the “libertarian populism” mindset is that it concludes government can never completely eliminate the unfortunate market perversions that result from lobbying, and as a remedy would simply minimize government’s ability to pursue a governing agenda which might be perverted to profit private entities at public expense with little or no real return on investment in advancing that agenda. Of course, there’s also the second concern that the agenda might be absolutely wrongheaded in the first place.

Those of us who favor a more activist government, willing to and capable of taking on some intractable problems that the free market just isn’t going to address, just look for light as a disinfectant (or as Ray says above, There is really nothing wrong with earmarks,as long as they are transparent and targeted.). Admittedly, light is not always the most effective disinfectant – but it does have its advantages over bleach.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 29, 2013 @ 11:56 am

I’m not sure there is enough of a cogent ideology in McCain’s proposals to name an ideology or movement after him–and to the extent there is, it’s nothing sufficiently unique to him that he ought to get such credit. Good-government initiatives (sunshine laws, campaign finance reform, procedural reform including restrictions on earmarking) have long been with us, and have likewise long been (ab)used by those seeking populist appeal.

At any rate, I’d much rather stay out of Iran and have to suffer the occasional Bridge to Nowhere, then have cleaner domestic appropriations but be bombing Tehran.

#8 Comment By WorkingClass On July 29, 2013 @ 11:58 am

From the wiki:

Populism is a political doctrine where one sides with “the people” against “the elites”.

This rules out Democrats and Republicans.

Conservatives, Liberals, Libertarians and Socialists however, can all be populists although they have differing ideas about what it means to side with the people.

Populists of every ideology will have to unite if they would remove the Fascist Democrats and Republicans. Having restored the rule of law they can then settle their difference through honest elections.

#9 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 29, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

Libertarianism is the idea that, if a football match is being impaired by corrupt or biased referees, that we can solve the problem by sacking all the referees.

🙂

One other issue: Much of modern libertarianism is based on the desire to smash and reduce the welfare state–specifically, to end the forced transfer of wealth from rich to poor; and HCR (of any sort) is opposed on those grounds, no matter how it’s organized. To many on the right, it doesn’t matter if insurance companies have a hand in things (Obamacare, Hillarycare) or are cut out of the loop completely (single payer or full-on socialized medicine)–the objection is they don’t want their tax dollars paying for someone else’s healthcare, particularly if they perceive that someone else to be irresponsible in some fashion. I think the GOP primaries summed up the right-wing attitude succinctly: let ’em die.

#10 Comment By Clint On July 29, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

Rand Paul,
“I think sometimes Republicans want to blame it all on the welfare queens, when the corporate CEO queen is getting quite a bit of this, also”

#11 Comment By reflectionephemeral On July 29, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

But what, exactly, is the libertarian solution to the problem of vastly over-expensive health care?
Libertarianism does not actually have a solution because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.* … *[There is not one single, successful example of a national health care system organized on libertarian principles. There are a lot of them run on the single payer model.]

Frank Stain has the essential point here. The experience of the rest of the planet indicates that our problem with health care costs (we spend 2.5 times the OECD average, for none-better results, without managing to insure everyone) is insufficient government involvement. Ditto with our financialization & decreased social mobility, as other comments in this thread have pointed out.

Libertarian populism can produce some positive effects, in highlighting genuinely corrupt entanglements of money and the state. But, while I’m under the impression that libertarian populism was a reasonable response to conditions in the UK in 1977, it cannot produce a positive agenda that responds to the world as it is today.

Also, Scott Galupo should improve Twitter, by returning to it.

#12 Comment By Flavius On July 29, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

McCainism? What is this? To give a name to Republican vices that dare not speak their names. Well, you put it out there. What it means is to keep yourself politically viable by whatever it takes when you are a Washington hack politician. I guess if you look around long enough for band wagons in the train of a guy who has spent a political lifetime jumping on bandwagons, you will find one to comport with whatever you want it to comport with.
John McCain is no libertarian and he is no populist. He is a self seeking dim bulb who will be remembered as an unregenerate warmonger and who came within a couple of points of inflicting on the country a Vice President dimmer and more dangerous than himself, no mean accomplishment.
Isn’t past time that decent people stop talking about this loser?

#13 Comment By Clint On July 29, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

Ronald Reagan,
” If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are traveling the same path.”

#14 Comment By Matt T On July 29, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

Engineer Scotty Wrote:

“To many on the right, it doesn’t matter if insurance companies have a hand in things (Obamacare, Hillarycare) or are cut out of the loop completely (single payer or full-on socialized medicine)–the objection is they don’t want their tax dollars paying for someone else’s healthcare, particularly if they perceive that someone else to be irresponsible in some fashion”

Too many folks who oppose Obamacare, etc might have those objections and you can debate the merits/lack of those merits objections, but there are others like me who oppose Obamacare and government run health insurance because we don’t want to see old Folks euthanized the way they are in the United Kingdom due to resource constraint (if you don’t believe it, google the Liverpool Care path) or to see services prioritized for the best tax payers like has been recently suggested in Sweden (yup healthcare is broken there too)

Its also worth pointing out that the problem in healthcare in the US is that it hasn’t been run like a free market since at least the late sixties. When the principle of the end customer pays and then gets reinbursed went out the window, the middleman (the hospitals) stopped caring about costs and let the providers of health services charge whatever they wanted. Health suppliers were only to happy to feather their pockets because the free market system of supply and demand and price wasn’t there to constrain their greed (which is exactly what happens in a real market based society). It was first hamstrung and effectively eliminated. That gave governments, insurance corporations, and other health care companies free reign to abuse power.
No real free market = no constraint on the abuse of power by any government or non government entity or aggressor.

I don’t know if the libertarian ism that folks are debating on here has any solutions to a problem like healthcare, but then then the libertarianism in this article and in this thread seems to be defined in terms of a number of ill defined “strawman arguments” and misconceptions about what it is. A real market based libertarian can provide better (but not perfect) solutions.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 29, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

“Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.”

“Who, whom” as Muggeridge had it, was the two-word condensed version of all of human history – who got to dominate whom.

That will take you pretty far in understanding Washington rules.

#16 Comment By Frank Stain On July 29, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

Matt T,

1) I certainly don’t want to see old folks euthanized either, but I also think it makes much more sense to discuss health care systems on the basis of published metrics and outcomes rather than media sensationalism. I think we are well past the point, in the United States, of wanting a super efficient health care system. I just want a system that does about as well as Germany, Canada, UK, etc., but does not cost twice as much. Is that really too much to ask? Single payer will take us to ‘average’ on cost and outcomes, and will take away the competitive disadvantage from paying at least twice as much of our income on health care as everyone else.

2) You said: ‘No real free market = no constraint on the abuse of power by any government or non government entity or aggressor.’
But this is a conceptual confusion. To use Engineer Scotty’s analogy, just because the game is rigged, it doesn’t follow that you create a fair game by eliminating the referee. What you are calling the ‘real free market’ is not equivalent to ‘what-we-have-now-minus-government’. That is a dangerous fantasy. Yes, the game is rigged. But do you really suppose that the (vastly) stronger party is suddenly going to start playing fair if you eliminate the referee?
The only ‘real free markets’ that have ever existed have been forced to serve broader public purposes by frameworks of law and regulations. You can’t have a free market without those things, any more than you can play football without a referee.

#17 Comment By Matt T On July 29, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

Frank wrote:

“The massive disparities in power that follow from extreme concentrations of wealth and resources do not disappear simply because you remove one possible avenue of their exercise. You cannot create a level playing field by sprinkling magic freedom dust”.

True you have to remove all avenues of their exercise. I don t disagree with that. The problem is that any proposed remedy of breaking up concentrations of power through any kind of application of force (such as state intervention) are worse than the ill, as the powerful folks in corporations can just buy off and bribe the government agents and twist the laws so they can be used to their advantage and against their competitors. (Madison eloquently talks deals with this in Federalist no 10 in his discussion of faction.)

The only possible remedy is the insistence that no entity state or corporate, however powerful can use aggression to violate the rights of another. The only setting where this can start to happen in in a situation where liberty and markets exist and can begin to break up patterns of injustice. No it isn’t magic dust and won’t create perfection (and any one who tells you so is naively utopian) but the best of an imperfect world.

#18 Comment By JB On July 29, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

Ray S. is right: earmarks are an inconsequential percentage of the federal budget.

Politicians who make a lot of noise about reforming or prohibiting earmarks are often trying to distract us taxpayers from the far more vast sums spent on unconstitutional and/or counterproductive fed gov “efforts” other than earmarks. I’m referring to things that shouldn’t be done at all — such as the “drug war”, non-defensive/non-retaliatory foreign wars, corporate welfare, etc. — and things that should be done, if at all, only by State or local governments, such as the “safety net” provided by Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies, home-heating subsidies, etc.

Reducing annual Medicaid or Medicare or military spending by ONE percent would save more than the abolition of all earmarks.

I don’t see McCain or many other elected officials from either old party (Democrats and Republicans) making any real effort to cut even that one percent from any of those categories — not “increase spending more slowly than we wanted” or “increase spending more slowly than population growth” or “increase spending more slowly than we did last year”, but an actual nominal decrease in the number of dollars spent.

That’s one of the many reasons I voted Libertaran Gary Johnson for President in 2012 and will probably do so again in 2016.

#19 Comment By JB On July 29, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

WorkingClass: as is often the case, I appreciated your comment.

People of all ideological or philosophical persuasions must stop voting for those two old, sick, corrupt, dishonest parties. Conservatives and libertarians, vote for the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party or whoever, just not the Republicans. Progressives or socialists or modern “liberals,” vote for the Green Party, not the Democrats.

This is not to say that people elected as Greens, Libertarians, etc., will not succumb to corruption as time goes by. But it is clear that the leaders and donors who control the Dems and Republicans should never be trusted again. Those parties should cease to exist, and anybody associated with them at a high level should never be entrusted with political power again.

#20 Comment By Ed On July 29, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

“Libertarian populism” is a phrase that’s still up for grabs. What it means will depend on who wants it most.
It makes me think of the tea party and ballot initiatives down through the years, which managed to be both “libertarian” and “populist.”

If “libertarian populism” is now going to include a revolt against bigness and crony capitalism, it may owe more to Bush or Huckabee (as the next generation “compassionate conservatism”) than to McCain. Or maybe the debt is even to Clinton or Obama or general Republican exhaustion.

The next time Republicans call for tax cuts, there may be more sensitivity about the “tax cuts for the rich” if only because Republicans may have to win Democrat votes to put their measures through. Ditto for anything concerning Wall Street (assuming Democrats really are more hostile to Wall Street).

#21 Comment By Marc On July 30, 2013 @ 9:46 am

Frank Stain,

It is possible for a free market to exist without government. Although government can play a minor and useful role in ensuring that there is a peaceful and orderly society, it is possible that most of government’s “protective” services and courts could be provided by private entities. This may not be the best analogy but it is possible to play sports without an official referee. For decades I have played pickup basketball where all of the participants referee each other. Rarely are there disputes and whenever disputes do arise they are easily settled. Similarly, markets do have the capability to self regulate. Of course, there would be a need for courts or arbitration to settle disputes.

#22 Comment By REMant On July 30, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

Two words to describe McCain: Barry Goldwater. The term libertarian populism seems equally oxymoronic. You could point as well to Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson, who did more to increase govt than to reduce it. Corruption always thrives between freedom and subjection, in the area euphemistically called liberty.

#23 Comment By Patrick D On July 30, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

“Libertarianism is the idea that, if a football match is being impaired by corrupt or biased referees, that we can solve the problem by sacking all the referees.”

And if every football match ends in more impoverished, beat-up players, richer owners, and more referees with broader, more discretionary power… regardless of who “wins”… you may want to reconsider how you view the game.

🙂

#24 Comment By Ken T On July 30, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

“Of course, there would be a need for courts or arbitration to settle disputes.”

I hate to tell you this, Marc, but that is called “government”.

Sure, pickup basketball games work fine. That’s because they’re all for fun and no one has anything important riding on the outcome. Make the game results the determining factor in someone’s ability to eat, or own a house, and see how quickly that breaks down. The higher the stakes, the greater the need for a third party (government) to enforce the rules and settle disputes.

#25 Comment By TomB On July 30, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

As opposed to seeing this “libertarian populism” coming from McCain I think it’s stronger relative is the Gingrich-era “Contract With America.”

Was a good idea, which of course Newt couldn’t help hurting with his ego.

#26 Comment By JB On August 1, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

Reflectionephemeral: our results sure as Hell ARE better, albeit at too high a cost, in many respects that are measurable.

Personal experience also confirms this. My ex is a Canadian citizen and I lived with her in Richmond, next to Vancouver. When we needed a particular type of ultrasound following a tragic loss(miscarriage), I believe it was called nuchal ultrasound, we were told that the soonest it could be scheduled was three months. They explained that they had only that one single machine of that type for the ENTIRE PROVINCE. That’s millions of people who have to wait months AND travel in some cases many hours and hundreds of miles (well, km 😉 AND suffer uncertainty, fear, and in some cases pain while they wait for the right diagnostic equipment or the right procedure to become available in their “glorious” and “compassionate” single-payer system.

You can point out glaring flaws in our healthcare system, and we could probably come up with some common solutions or at least measures to ameliorate cost without sacrificing much in the way of service and compassion.

But saying that single-payer is a great system is simply ignorant and contradicts real-life experience of those of us who have lived in Canada and experienced serious medical issues while there. To be colloquial, their system sucks, too, and much worse if you need certain tests and procedures. They keep costs down by rationing, even more brutally than medical insurance companies here.

And by the way, paying higher taxes for single-payer healthcare means it is, by definition, not “free.”

Finally, are you under the impression that there is no extra charge for medical services in Canada beyond taxes? That would be completely inaccurate. My ex earned a solidly middle-class income (about $65,000 and $75,000 during that period) yet she was forced to pay a quarterly surcharge for healthcare in addition to the standard income taxes.

Another anecdote from personal experience. Our family friends’ Tim lived in the UK and became a citizen. He experienced a potentially fatal liver condition while there and was refused treatment under their single-payer system and would have likely DIED if he had not flown home to the US and paid for treatment here. He and his parents paid a LOT to providers here, but he is alive and well, which he wouldn’t be in merry old England.

Being justifiably dissatisfied with our healthcare system doesn’t give you license to make conclusory assertions that are inconsistent with the real world.

Nor does EngineerScotty’s dissatisfaction with our healthcare system justify him childishly insulting “right-wing” people by saying that they want to”let ’em die.” It’s just wrong and unhelpful to slur the character and heart of those who merely come to a different conclusion on an issue. You don’t know me and my family, so shove your insult where your head apparently is. We have observed that in the real world, heavily socialized medicine “lets ’em die” and “lets ’em suffer” more than our screwed-up but somewhat less socialized system.

Also check out survival rates for various cancers and other maladies. Some of ours are worse than more-socialized modern countries, while many of ours are better.

“A man with experience is not at the mercy of a man with an opinion.”