Dubya and Conservatism

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The presidential election of 2000, at least where this classical liberal is concerned, was a choice between the lesser of two evils. The winner, George W. Bush, was the lesser of two evils.

(As an aside, notice that Al Gore’s celebrated beard makes him look much more like his ideological role model, V.I. Lenin. Compare the photo of Gore below at left with the photo of Lenin below at right).

(Picture Lenin with some hair on top of his head, or picture Gore with a little Lenin-style cap, and the resemblance is quite strong, da?).

Some Americans, happy not to be under the ecologically-sensitive jackboots of Lenin, er, Al Gore and his environmentalist minions, are giving President Bush a free pass where the growth of federal power is concerned.

In an effort to keep Bush’s polling numbers high (and, of course, to prepare for the Congressional elections), the Republican party has been attempting to cast President Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan — if not of Thomas Jefferson. As Howard Fineman writes in comparing Bush to LBJ (another Texan who swelled federal power),

The pictures, so far, have been picture-perfect: George W. Bush in jeans and boots, smiling beneath the Big Sky of Texas; in outdoor gear, clearing brush in the Colorado mountains; in shirt and tie at the Rockies game; in a suit in Albuquerque, N.M., reading to second-graders.

There’s only one thing wrong with these pictures and this message: It has little to do with the way in which the Bush Administration is behaving. In fact, this ostentatiously anti-Washington presidency may see the most far-reaching expansion of federal power since the heyday of the last Texan who loved his ranch: Lyndon B. Johnson.

As always, the Devil is in the details. Photo ops and sound bites are not supported by reality. As Fineman continues,

Consider: Bush’s energy plan calls for giving the feds new eminent domain powers, so power companies can string new lines over the objections of local and state governments. The “patients bill of rights” Bush now supports creates a federal tort claim that would supercede state common law — a novel and unprecedented idea. His “faith-based” social-welfare initiative would funnel billions into the charity programs of religious entities — and where federal bucks go, federal rules inevitably follow. Bush’s education plan, of course, is the biggest potential federal power grab of all: it would essentially federalize the supervision of testing in every public school nationwide.

Although Fineman is correct — remember, folks, you heard it here first (see “Oh Shrubbery, My Shrubbery“).

Aside from the points Fineman raises about Bush, his article is worth considering for two other points he makes, namely, his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson and American conservatism. First, Fineman argues that

Bush is hardly the first president to talk local and act national. He follows a tradition as old as the Republic, or at least the first Jefferson Administration. The Sage of Monticello was the original anti-Federalist, localist foe of the autocratic John Adams. But Jefferson didn’t hesitate (and didn’t care about bureaucratic niceties) when he doubled the country’s size in the Lousiana Purchase. Sending Lewis & Clark into the West was an act of aggrandizement, literally. In all, Jefferson was as aggressive as Adams, maybe more, in using federal power to knit the nation together.

As a matter of sheer nit-picking, Jefferson was of course not the first “anti-Federalist,” if that term is taken to describe those “democratic republicans” who strove to preserve the English traditions of the rule of law and limited government in the American colonies.

Jefferson, however, is perhaps the most prominent classical liberal in American political history. And yet, as when considering other presidents (such as Lincoln), one must be careful not to idealize Jefferson. Fineman is right to observe that even the great Jefferson had his faults, most notably with respect to geographic expansionism and his treatment of the American Indians. Citizenship is not hero worship. (In that regard, the new volume published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Reassessing the Presidency, goes a long way towards removing the rose-colored lenses through which Americans are accustomed to viewing the inhabitants of the Executive Mansion, better known as the White House).

Second, Fineman contends that President Bush

reflects the age-old American ambivalence toward federal power. We prefer barn raisings (and barn burnings) to decision-making in a distant capital. Yet we accept sensible roles for the feds, from highway-building to money-printing to Social Security to Medicare. And in rare circumstances — in times of war or depression — we glory in our commonality, if not, quite, in the idea of government.

This point gets to the heart of the dispute between classical liberals (libertarians) on the one hand, and conservatives on the other hand. Despite the fact that both classical liberals and conservatives are concerned with individual liberty and the preservation of free institutions, their concerns have a different emphasis.

As Friedrich Hayek points out in the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, tellingly entitled “Why I am Not a Conservative,” classical liberals have a principled attachment to individual liberty and free institutions. Classical liberals believe in the rational superiority of liberty and its institutions because they believe that liberty is necessary to the flourishing of human existence. Liberty is not chosen merely because it is expedient, useful, or the status quo.

On the other hand, Hayek notes that conservatism is only as good as what it conserves. Where the rules of just conduct (i.e., the law) and their attendant institutions are animated by a concern for individual liberty, conservatism will be a good thing. Where the law and social institutions are hostile to liberty, however, conservatism stands athwart liberty yelling stop.

Thus, when Fineman opines that Americans “accept sensible roles for the feds,” such as “highway-building to money-printing to Social Security to Medicare,” he points directly to the fault line between classical liberals and conservatives.

There is no “need” for government fiat money, backed by nothing but the promise of taxation, in contrast to privately provided real money (gold). There is no “need” for compulsory Ponzi schemes such as Social Security, which taxes young workers to pay old retirees, with no guarantee that the young will ever have their money returned to them. There is similarly no “need” for government to “fix” the provision of medical services in America. Most of the problems (if not all) with American health care can be traced directly to government economic interventions in the first place. And yet many conservatives — for example, Jonah Goldberg of National Review — positively ridicule the very idea that economic goods such as transportation (in particular, roads) could ever be better-provided by a private marketplace than by the compulsory state.

Worse, Fineman adds that “in rare circumstances — in times of war or depression — we glory in our commonality, if not, quite, in the idea of government.”

It is one thing to share fellow-feeling and sympathy with suffering neighbors in times of economic gloom, and to rally to the defense of home and family when attacked. Too many conservatives, however, do not go beyond the notion of rallying to the flag to examine the underlying reasons for the “rare circumstances” of war and depression.

When was the last time a foreign nation attempted to invade the United States? When was the last time American men went to die in a war? Notice the great disconnect between the two events. Conservatives — especially of the neo-conservative, Bill Kristol and Jonah Goldberg variety — no longer seem so concerned that war be restricted to self-defense on a national scale, hence Kristol’s enthusiasm for American military intervention in China.

Where economic contractions are concerned, how many Bush voters understand the economic reasons for such contractions, as advanced, for example, in Friedrich Hayek’s theory of the business cycle?

The government to which conservatives run for bailouts has been historically responsible not only for causing economic downturns, but for making them worse.

The paradoxical reign of George Bush, then, is paradoxical precisely because his supporters have not resolved certain paradoxes in their minds. American voters may know that they are not Communists, and they may fear the machinations of the Democrats sufficiently to continue electing Republicans. America will not be significantly better-off, however, until more American voters choose their politicians based upon a principled adherence to a coherent and workable view of society, namely, classical liberalism.

If Americans wish to have more freedom over their lives, and less government regulation, they must give up the idea that their own pet causes merit government interference. They must also approach with a critical mind the sound bites and glossy photographs with which politicians seek to cloak the expansion of the government.

As the situation stands today, George Bush, like his predecessors in office, has expanded the powers of the federal government. The reason for this is simple. Individual freedom is inherently at odds with government regulation. Not enough American voters understand this fact.

Those who voted for George Bush because he was not Al Gore got what they bargained for. Those who voted for George Bush because they thought he would reduce the size of the federal government should take a closer look.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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