Monday, 9 October 2006

CONSERVATISM: A NEW OBITUARY, Part 6 - The consequences of conservatism

On Friday we looked at neoconservativism in practice. Today we see just how dire the consequences of conservative practices have been for liberty and small government, and why bigger government is an inevitable consequence of conservative dominance.

Given that everything about today's conservatives screams "big government," it's little wonder that bigger and bigger government has been the result of years of conservative dominance of the American political machinery. Government under Republican domination has exploded. "Since it took control of both the White House and Capitol Hill," summarises Thompson, "the Republican Party has presided over the biggest explosion in federal spending and the greatest extension of the welfare state since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s."

So much for the Republican Revolution. So much for conservative restraint. That sort of explosion does not happen unintentionally, but perhaps even worse than the explosion of spending is the sort of drains down which the flood money is being sluiced.
  • "Take for example the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which Ted Kennedy virtually wrote for President Bush and which represents the greatest expansion of the federal government in education since the creation of the Department of Education in 1979. As a result of this one Act, federal education spending has grown by 100 percent since Bush took office. This is all the more remarkable given that just several years earlier the Gingrich “revolutionaries” of 1994 promised to abolish the Department of Education."
  • "Under George Bush and the Republicans, the welfare state that Bill Clinton began to dismantle has been given a second life. The Bush administration and their Republican allies in Congress have, for instance, offered a tax “refund” to 6.5 million low-income people who do not pay taxes, passed a $180 billion farm subsidy bill (welfare for farmers), supported tariffs on steel imports (welfare for the American steel industry), and extended the American welfare state to Africa by offering the people of that continent $15 billion in AIDS relief."
  • "Then, of course, there’s President Bush’s signature welfare program administered by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives..."
  • "Even more ominous, the Bush administration enthusiastically signed into law a multi-billion dollar prescription drug bill, which represents the largest expansion of the federal government in over thirty years."
The faith-based initiative and the enormous expansion of the prescription drug programme are quintessential modern conservatism.
Like the faith-based initiative, the GOP prescription drug plan uses ostensibly “private” middlemen (i.e., semi-private insurance companies) to administer a brand new welfare program. Republicans defended this new program as an example of how “private ownership,” “choice,” and “competition” can reform the social insurance programs of the Left. The Republican position was captured by Newt Gingrich in a story in The New York Times: “‘Choice creates competition, and competition drives down price,’ Mr. Gingrich said, in a pithy statement of the philosophy that inspires most of the Republican proposals.”59 Only a Republican could view the expansion of a government program as a free-market reform.
Watch now, warns Thompson, "as the tentacles of government regulators quietly and slowly strangle the private health-care and insurance industries, and as the “privatized” system begins to collapse (as it surely will), liberals will blame the system’s failure on the “free-market” reforms and then demand ever-greater command and controls over the health-care system."

And there in a nutshell is the conservative strategy in microcosm. Ten years ago Republicans violently (and properly) opposed the Bill & Hilary Clinton health-care plans as "socialising American health-care." "Ten years later, Republicans launched a variation on Clinton’s plan by partially socializing drug benefits for seniors. This is a classic model of the Republican approach to welfare." And its inevitable failure will result in calls for more, much more of the same!
The Republican position on government spending comes down to this: We can spend the government’s money more prudently than Democrats. Whereas the liberal welfare state created a culture of dependence, perpetual poverty, and various forms of deviant social behavior, our welfare state will foster virtue and the public good.
The point on which they agree is on the existence of the welfare state itself, and the size of government needed to administer it. Little wonder that libertarians find no hope in either conservatives or from liberals.

Even conservatives who do oppose such an expansion are morally disarmed when they come to argue against it, since their most fundamental moral premises are all in favour of it. Little wonder that liberals win every substantive debate on the expansion of the welfare state.

Every time Democrats and liberals launch a moral counterattack against the “mean-spiritedness” of even the most modest conservative reforms, Republicans cower, turn, then flee and surrender the moral high ground. When faced with the charge repeated time and again that they represent big business, the rich, and the “greedy”—and that their “cold-hearted” policies hurt poor women, children, and the elderly—Republican resolve collapses.

The process typically works like this. Day one: Republicans denounce, with nervous indignation, the growth of welfare and regulations. Day two: They concede that people in need have a right to government assistance. Day three: They propose to save particular welfare programs through pragmatic reform. Day four: They shake hands with their Democratic partners and declare that a new era of bipartisanship and consensus has finally arrived.

What the mandarins of the conservative establishment do not and cannot understand, given their philosophy, is that conservatives—to the extent that they ever had any interest in defending individual rights and limited government—lost the fight because they never engaged the enemy with the only kind of weapon that could win: a moral argument against the claim that those in “need” have a moral claim on one’s life, liberty, and property. More importantly, mainstream conservatives have never made a philosophic argument for individual rights, limited government, and capitalism on explicitly moral grounds. Ultimately, they are embarrassed by, and have always worked very hard to hide, the fact that capitalism can only be justified if each and every man has a moral right to live and work for his own sake and not as a sacrificial beast of burden to the “needs” of society.

Stripped bare of "the folksy rhetoric, the hollow bromides, and the patriotic slogans, the conservative position comes down to this: The free-enterprise system is good because it “works” better than any other system, because it produces more wealth that can be subsequently “shared” with the less fortunate." In other words capitalism shackled is, at best, what you can hope for from conservatives. Capitalism with the reins of production controlled by politicians, redistributed by

Not even Goldwater conservatives can offer an alternative to the welfare state, because they too accept its moral premises. Why? Why do all conservatives accept the moral premises of the liberals? The answer, in a word, is religion.

The crucial moral problem here is that capitalism is the only political system that recognises man's right not to sacrifice for others, but to exist for his own sake. The crucial political problem is that neither liberals nor conservatives recognise this right, the morality of altruism which they share is opposed: human beings in their view are simply duty-laden beasts of burden, and the monstrous and teetering edifice of the welfare state they have between them built up is the supreme political expression of that view. Your life and the products of it are not your own, says altruism, and on that both liberals and conservatives agree.
Liberalism invokes the altruism of Marx; conservatism invokes the altruism of Jesus; and both camps are indebted to Rousseau for his emphasis on compassion. With respect to individual rights, there is and can be no fundamental difference between a secular-liberal welfare state and a religious-conservative welfare state. It matters not one whit to me whether my earned wealth is forcibly redistributed by a Hillary Clinton or a George Bush government; either way, my money is seized. The political subjugation of the individual in the name of the morality of sacrifice is the essence of both.
Both compassionate conservatives and neoconservatives have seized with both hands liberalism's two basic principles, atruism and pragmatism, and made themselves indistinguishable from the redistributionist left. Whatever noises are made in opposition by conservatives, when in power the result of conservative rule has always the promotion of redistributionist policies, and the expansion of the powers and size of the state.

As we have seen, the policies of compassionate conservatives and neoconservatives merge to promote a shared common end: the violation of individual rights for the sake of “general welfare” and for the “needs” of the “less fortunate.” Not only have conservatives and Republicans abandoned any semblance of a principled moral opposition to the welfare state, they now fully embrace it morally and politically.

Thus there is no meaningful difference between the Christian sentimentalism of the New Right and the moral relativism of the New Left. They both treat emotions and feelings as their means of knowing what is true and good—and what they “know” to be true and good is that self-sacrifice is moral and self-interest is immoral. Thus there is no meaningful difference between the aims of today’s conservatives and those of today’s liberals. They share the same moral premises and political ends; they differ only marginally in the means they choose to achieve their shared goal: the welfare state.

The ultimate meaning of big-government conservatism was captured recently in the Christian Science Monitor, by Patrick Chisholm, who reported that the compassionate- and neo-conservative policies of the Bush administration have served to advance the long-term ideological and political agenda of the redistributionist Left. Chisholm writes:

Certain trends have been favoring the left for the past several decades. In the early 1960s, transfer payments (entitlements and welfare) constituted less than a third of the federal government’s budget. Now they constitute almost 60 percent of the budget, or about $1.4 trillion per year. Measured according to this, the US government’s main function now is redistribution: taking money from one segment of the population and giving it to another segment. In a few decades, transfer payments are expected to make up more than 75 percent of federal government spending.65

The redistributionist state that began with the New Deal, and that was radicalized by the Great Society, has now been saved, reborn, and advanced by the Conservative Revolution.

Conservatives and conservative parties bear the greatest guilt for dragging all the semi-free countries down the road to statism, and have done more even than the liberals and the socialists to take it there. If you had trouble understanding that apparent paradox, you now have it explained. "Conservatives may posture as supporters of individual rights, limited government, and capitalism; but, in reality, they are morally opposed to these values, and their history is one of actively betraying them."

If individual rights, limited government, and capitalism are to be saved, it is clear enough that conservatives and their bankrupt moral code are not about to do it. What is needed, says Thompson, is a new moral code. "This means that proponents of these principles must find a philosophic alternative to the conservatives’ stale bromides and folksy speeches. It is not enough to defend limited government on the grounds that it works in practice; one must also defend it on the more fundamental grounds that it is moral in theory." Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this series, to see on what such a moral defence must be based.

'CONSERVATISM: A NEW OBITUARY,' THE SERIES SO FAR: LINKS: The Objective Standard, a journal of culture and politics.
Cue Card Libertarianism: Altruism - Not PC
Cartoons by Cox and Forkum

RELATED: Politics-US, Politics, Objectivism, History-Modern, History-Twentieth Century

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