Clowns to the Left of Me (The Conscience of a Conservative, Part One)

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Note: I broke this out into a couple of parts because I didn’t want to overwhelm you all in one sitting, but I am publishing the posts together if you just can’t bare the suspense of waiting for the other parts).

The developments on the other side of the Potomac from me tonight have only helped to dampen what was already something of a political depression. Though I am one of the most ardent defenders of the Union cause and believe that neoconfederate revisionism about the causes of the Civil War and the supposed centralizing desires of Abraham Lincoln are a lot of hooey, it’s hard not to at least sympathize with would-be secessionist as it appears yet another state is about to be engulfed in a sea of blue thanks to happy carpetbaggers that have infested the state like a virus – carpetbaggers who have arrived because the central government grows larger by the nanosecond.

This depression only deepens upon reflection that there seems to be no way to halt this momentum. Despite the occasional fleeting political victories by Team R, the reality is that for a constitutional conservative, there really is no light at the end of the tunnel.

The recent government shutdown and its aftermath crystallized the problem. All the talk about the “Establishment” wing of the Republican party, for whatever merit it did have, meant that the larger point was being missed. The establishment versus non-establishment narrative downplayed the very real ideological rift between different camps within the GOP, and made the battle seem to be little more than a disagreement about tactics.

During the previous administration, one term was used, overused, and plain ole misused. The term neoconservative, or neocon, become the fancy way to basically describe anyone who supported the Iraq War. Pat Buchanan and the American Conservative came down with a weird form of Tourette’s in which they just couldn’t seem to help themselves from muttering the word every few seconds.

Despite this overuse, the term is a legitimate descriptor of a certain strain of right-wing thought. There really isn’t a single definition of what it means to be a neoconservative. If anything, Bush’s foreign policy was less of a reflection of neoconservative thinking than his domestic policy. You see the original neocons were former leftists who rejected socialism and embraced capitalism. Though they may have rejected absolute statism, they were generally more receptive to the welfare state than traditional conservatives. This is also true of the second and third generation of neocons.

Though neocons may have abandoned full-throttled leftism, they still have a statist mindset. It would not be a stretch to say that what separates neoconservatives from leftists is merely the degree to which they seek to use the machinery of the state to foster change.

Andrew McCarthy, in a brilliant piece, gets to the heart of this divide without ever mentioning the word neocon. But I believe he is making the same basic point. Discussing Charles Krauthammer’s political philosophy, McCarthy writes:

This week, Dr. Krauthammer, Washington’s most influential expositor of mainstream GOP thought, obligingly spared me the need to prove my point. He gave as clear an account of the modern Republican conception of “conservatism” as you will find. Fittingly, he did it on the program of progressive commentator and comedian Jon Stewart. Today’s smartest Republicans, self-aware enough to know their core views deviate significantly from those of conservatives in the tradition of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan, are more likely to say what they think to Jon Stewart. His audience is apt to be receptive, maybe even won over, by a mature progressivism portrayed as what conservatives really think. It is not likely to go over as well with, say, readers of National Review.

Stewart claimed that conservatives are anti-government. Initially, Krauthammer appeared to reject this caricature, replying, “The conservative idea is not that government has no role.” But, alas, when he got around to what the proper role of government is, Krauthammer sounded more like Stewart than Buckley.

To begin with, he largely buys the caricature. It would have been credible, he told Stewart, to have argued that conservatives were anti-government “in the Thirties, when conservatives opposed the New Deal.”

That’s just wrong. Conservatives who opposed the New Deal were not anti-government. They believed, as they believe today, in constitutionally defined, limited government. And “limited” does not mean “small” — where the Constitution assigns the central government an authority, such as national security, it must be as big and strong as necessary to execute that authority.

Having accepted Stewart’s central premise — namely, that what Stewart called the “responsibility of governance” embraces the massive, centralized welfare state — Krauthammer pronounced that today’s conservatives unquestionably accepted

the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. The idea that you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution is a consensual idea [accepted by] conservatives, at least the mainstream of conservatives.

With due respect to Charles, no, the New Deal and the centralized welfare state that is its progeny is accepted by the mainstream of Republicans. What Charles describes, moreover, is as fanciful a portrayal of what the New Deal did as it is of what conservatives believe.

McCarthy continues, noting that conservatives do not actually hate the poor nor do we seek to see them wither on the vine.

But there’s a more important point that McCarthy raises. It’s one thing for a state or group of states to embrace big government. But when the federal government exceeds its authority, then it impacts all states. There is less of a point of moving between states since the federal government is equally impactful on all of them. As McCarthy puts it:

 If welfare policy is made at the state level, there are important disciplines in the equation that can prevent the programs from bankrupting the state and unduly punishing productivity. Economic conditions vary widely in a nation of our size, so welfare programs are best designed and run at the local level, by elected officials directly accountable to the people who live with the consequences — officials who can easily alter the programs if conditions change. States know they are in competition with each other, and if wealth redistribution is too onerous in one state, people and businesses can move to others. States and localities also may not print money, and they have incentives (and often constitutional requirements) to balance their budgets that do not exist at the federal level. At the state level, there can be a sensible balancing of “internal order, improvement, and prosperity.”

This is not so at the federal level, as the last 80 years have affirmed. Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are not, as Krauthammer contends, “great achievements of liberalism.” They are prosperity killers — and inevitably so. In part, this is because they have little if anything to do with what Krauthammer describes as the “consensual idea” that “you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution.” If that were the idea that we all agreed on — and assuming for argument’s sake that we similarly agreed that destitution was a concern of the central government — we would establish a transparent welfare program. That is, we would define what “destitute” is and enact a tax commensurate with what was necessary to provide reasonable relief — structured in a manner that gave people incentives to avoid or escape destitution.

McCarthy continues.

 There is, furthermore, an equally destructive corollary. Once one accepts the premise of federal control over these matters of social welfare, there is no principled case against federal control over any matters of social welfare. Every aspect of life becomes potentially subject to central-government regulation. And so it has, through a metastasizing federal code and bureaucracy that regulates everything from cradles to graves.

In the Framers’ construct, the states would experiment and compete, developing best practices — or at least practices that best suited the conditions and sensibilities of the local communities. By contrast, there is no disciplining or escaping Leviathan. And if, as is inevitable, federal officials expand their outlandish schemes and promise favored constituencies more than they can deliver, they just borrow or print ever more money: Government borrows from its tapped-out self, monetizing its debts, degrading our currency to reward sloth and punish thrift even as it steals from future generations.

What Dr. Krauthammer calls “the great achievements of liberalism” have undermined the Burkean intergenerational trust at the core of conservatism. As I argued a couple of years ago, in jousting with Pete Wehner, another very smart, mainstream Republican who seeks to redefine conservatism to accommodate the modern welfare state, conservatives revere an enriching cultural inheritance that binds generations past, present, and future. It obliges us to honor our traditions and our Constitution, preserve liberty, live within our means, and enhance the prosperity of those who come after us. The welfare state is a betrayal of our constitutional traditions: It is redistributionist gluttony run amok, impoverishing future generations to satisfy our insatiable contemporaries.

Ultimately neoconservatives like big government. They just like it a little less big than lefists.

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20 Comments

  1. Despite this overuse, the term is a legitimate descriptor of a certain strain of right-wing thought. There really isn’t a single definition of what it means to be a neoconservative. If anything, Bush’s foreign policy was less of a reflection of neoconservative thinking than his domestic policy. You see the original neocons were former leftists who rejected socialism and embraced capitalism. Though they may have rejected absolute statism, they were generally more receptive to the welfare state than traditional conservatives. This is also true of the second and third generation of neocons.

    I think the “American Greatness” conservatism offered up by The Weeky Standard’s Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, and The New York Times’s David Brooks is a more accurate discriptor of what you describe here.

    What they think is Great about America is America’s government.

  2. “I think the “American Greatness” conservatism offered up by The Weeky Standard’s Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, and The New York Times’s David Brooks is a more accurate discriptor of what you describe here.”

    You know what Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, and David Brooks all have in common?

    They’re all neoconservatives. I think Paul hits the nail exactly on the head.

  3. I think Paul hit the nail on the head too. I just think “‘American Greatness’ conservatism” is a more apt descriptor.

  4. There’s nothiing “great”, “American” or “conservative” about supporting the welfare state or any other extra-Constitutional intrusion by Leviathan. McCarthy’s piece hits the nail squarely on the head and clear through the rotted lumber.

  5. I wish we couldn’t print money to finance federal government spending. We are choking on our own affluence. Printed affluence. Where is the morality in printing money to feed the poor?

    I agree that the individual states are a better place to originate welfare programs. Let the blue state model compete with the red state model.

  6. Advocate McCarthy went so far as to refer to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”, which is characteristic of someone who does not know what a Ponzi scheme is (to be fair, Richard Epstein has used the term, but I think for rhetorical effect). It is no such thing. It is merely an income transfer program which requires some adjustments to take account of secular improvements in life expectancy, most particularly life expectancy among the old. If McCarthy would like Republican politicians to engage in a crusade against old age benefits, keep in mind that among the historical figures they would be running afoul would be the candidate discussed by this lady in this television commercial:

    http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1964

    (Just click on the 5th icon in the Republican lineup, which has a photograph of Margaret Chase Smith).

    Andrew McCarthy presupposes that common provision of medical and long-term care and income transfers to the elderly are terribly crippling to the economy. Question, what is the precise injury to economic dynamism of income transfers and collective consumption that we have now? Does McCarthy know that metric? To what extent is it a function of the marginal tax rates necessary to finance such programs and not from inefficiencies derived from misallocation of resources? (Social Security, SSI, Medicare, and Medicaid for nursing homes could be financed by a 15% flat levy on discoverable personal income).

    His complaint about central government financing of such expenditures would be non sequitur absent our very particular political geography nor does it concern itself with differentiating between programs in ascertaining whether or not they are more suitable for centralized financing or distributed financing. Policy dilemmas which might arise from the contours provincial government takes in this country are also unaddressed.

  7. Centralized large federal government is mandated by Article I Sections 8 and 10 of the US Constitution, including welfare. If you want subsidiarity, you need to work on a Constitutional Amendment that will allow states to print money, defend themselves against economic and military attacks from non-residents, and enact protectionist tariffs. Since these things are not allowed, we can’t have localized welfare.

  8. Centralized large federal government is mandated by Article I Sections 8 and 10 of the US Constitution, including welfare.

    Nothing of the kind is true. You need to stop repeating it. It is sheer crank falsehood.

  9. Art, does Article I Section 10 allow the states to print money, defend their homes from invasion, and use tariffs to block out-of-state oligarchies from forming?

    If it does, then I am wrong. If it does not, then the Constitution has broken the free market enough that the federal government becomes responsible for the general welfare of the citizens; for the simple reason that protection of the general welfare of the residents of the states is forbidden to the states, except when funded by the Federal Government and paid for with Federal Currency.

    Government and markets do not scale well. As soon as they become big enough to become anonymous, the individual loses all control over his own life.

  10. It is one informed by the general duty of a government to replace what liberty it takes for the common good. I’m sure if you’ve never read Rerum Novarum or Populam Progresso, you’d be unfamiliar with the concept of solidarity and subsidiarity in balance.

    Basically what I’m saying is because subsidiarity is illegal, solidarity has become the government’s problem, and they’re particularly inept to handle the responsibility. Governments don’t scale any better than markets do.

  11. The problem goes a heck of a lot deeper than income taxes. The real problem is a continent spanning government to begin with.

  12. Or in other words, Art Deco, I’m not limited to the brainwashing and propaganda you had in school about the Constitution? But I had all that same propaganda. The difference is I was smart enough to see through it, and compare it to the ideal that is Catholic Monarchism.

  13. Indeed Ted, none of us could ever hope to have the depth of constitutional knowledge that you possess. Your wisdom is so overwhelming, that I really think you would be best served chatting with Jesse Ventura, Alex Jones, and the rest of the enlightened elite of our country.

Comments are closed.