I recently defended myself against allegations that I am a socialist. Some readers e-mailed me, telling me that the statist conservatives who accused me of socialist leanings were socialists themselves. Indeed, many of today’s conservatives, drawing more from the New Right than the Old Right, do seem to advocate socialism, when you get down to it.
In many ways, the modern Republican Party practices socialism of the worst type that can be found in America. I won’t say the GOP’s agenda is nearly as bad as the National Socialism of Hitler or the International Socialism of Communist tyrants throughout history. But it’s mainly a difference of degree, not of kind.
"Republican" is not always synonymous with "conservative." But as Murray Rothbard has pointed out, the very concept of "conservatism" is problematic. Conservatives were historically the ones who supported the power elite, war, and the status quo — and many of them do so today.
Though many good conservatives lean towards libertarianism, someone who calls himself "conservative" is not necessarily a defender of the free market or liberty.
Conservative Economic Socialism
Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism has proven a miserable mixture of leftist and corporatist socialism. His gargantuan expansion of Medicare is an example of the worst of both worlds.
In the name of "the people" and "helping the elderly," Medicare robs from the youth, the poor and middle class, and everyone else, gives a tiny sum to the elderly, and benefits whatever big pharmaceutical corporations manage to survive after the FDA has obliterated free enterprise in medicine. Having driven up healthcare costs, the government has certainly hurt the elderly more than it helps them.
In the name of "the freedom to farm," Republicans have distributed agricultural pork by the billions, at times making Democrats look fiscally responsible in contrast. Most of this money ends up in the hands of rich corporate farmers. Poor farmers barely get any of it, though they pay the taxes that allow the system to persist.
Giving government money to corporations may not sound "socialist" to a leftist, but it is one variant. When socialism is implemented, of course those with political influence — usually the wealthy — get the most loot. Welfare payments to the poor are definitely also a problem, but it is the bureaucrats who most benefit from even the most egalitarian-sounding welfare programs.
Republicans are willing to cave in to Democrats in expanding the state to "help the poor," and often attempt to outdo their partisan opponents in their generosity with other people’s money. The GOP is always willing to distort the market to help rich cronies or buy votes.
Not all rich people benefit from this socialism. Anyone who makes enormous wealth in the honest marketplace deserves every cent he earns, including the money he loses in taxes. But many of the rich do acquire their loot from the state, and these folks are always pushing for more government to protect them from honest competition.
Other horrendous examples of economic socialism coming from Republicans include Nixon’s wage and price controls and creation of the EPA, Bush I’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the enormity known as No Child Left Behind. Even relatively decent conservatives often support protectionism and other "reasonable restrictions" on the free market to "protect American workers."
Conservative Moral Socialism
All the troubles with central planning, bureaucracy, and socialism apply just as much to government programs to foster virtue as they do to state welfare programs.
Many, if not most, conservatives have long been addicted to the Drug War. Now I fully understand that the freedom to do drugs is not the only or ultimate measure of liberty in society, and that some libertarians seem overly obsessed with the issue, but the Drug War is undeniably a humanitarian disaster and a wholesale attack on the Bill of Rights, which has, predictably, failed to achieve anything good.
Hundreds of thousands of young Americans are locked up in cages because they made the mistake of believing they owned their own bodies or had a right to engage in the capitalistic, consensual act of trading money for politically incorrect drugs. You might think of them as morally weak individuals, but that doesn’t make it any less inhumane to imprison them for their own victimless choices.
Violent crime rates have gone up, drug prices have gone down. Drug abuse has gone up, respect for the rule of law has gone down. Police have become more officious and US foreign policy in Latin America has become more belligerent. These are the primary "successes" of the terrible War on Drugs.
And yet some conservatives believe it must continue, all to "send a message" that drugs are bad. Well, I think we should send a message to Americans that literacy, physical fitness, and compassion for those in need are good traits for humans to have. Spending tens of billions of tax dollars a year, putting hundreds of thousands of harmless people in prison (oftentimes for longer sentences than rapists), and throwing away our civil liberties are hardly good ways to send any message worth sending. It’s fine to believe that the Drug War is not the major issue in America, or that the right to do drugs is not supremely important. But it has always been predictable that the Drug War would be a costly quagmire.
"First they came for the druggies, and I didn’t care because I wasn’t a druggie. Next they came for the insider traders, and I didn’t care because I didn’t even understand what insider trading was. Then they came for the gun owners, then the chess players, then the tobacco smokers, then the home-schoolers, then the big businessmen, then the small businessmen, and I wondered: where did the government get the right to jail and harass people who never hurt anyone?"
That so many conservatives still want the state to enforce moral standards shows a weakness in their thinking about government power and a lack of appreciation for the misery caused by such enforcement. It was only a matter of time before the precedents set in the Drug War would be extended. And someone who has a blind spot regarding laws against drugs, prostitution, or pornography can probably be expected to excuse other evil and foolish state policies.
Conservative War Socialism
The worst exception many conservatives make to their declared aversion to government power involves war. When the government taxes its subjects for billions of dollars to "feed the poor," conservatives usually understand that it is not true compassion, nor can it work. And yet when the government spends billions, collected in the same coercive manner through taxes, all of a sudden — so think the conservative socialists — bombing cities and occupying foreign lands will effectively lead to genuine "compassion" or "freedom" or "peace."
Again, I understand that many self-proclaimed conservatives are on the right side of the fence most the time, and some are genuinely libertarian. I don’t want to argue at this moment about what it means to be a "conservative," but the ambiguity of the label is clear. I stopped calling myself a Right-winger and "conservative" about seven years ago because I didn’t want to have to clarify what I meant all the time.
Conservatives who make excuses for Republican attacks on the free market, who outright defend corporate welfare but have no sympathy for the innocent Martha Stewarts of the world, who are addicted to government power in the name of fighting drug abuse, who defend the biggest spending administration in decades, who think huge deficits are fine if caused by the GOP, who believe accused "terrorists" don’t deserve due process, who consider it proper to have police on every street corner and snipers on every rooftop in the nation’s capital, who have a romantic obsession with war and the mass murder it entails — do they really think what they believe isn’t a brand of socialism?
Whether or not they are true conservatives is an endless debate, relying on which definition of "conservatism" is authentic. But I will say that socialists who rise to power always expand the role of the state, centrally plan the economy, empower the police beyond reason, and regard individual men, women and children as expendable pawns for their version of the Greater Good. In all of these ways they share much in common with today’s Republicans, and those "conservatives" who stand by this collectivist program come off at least a tad hypocritical in accusing others of socialism.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.