The Trouble With Conservatives

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The trouble with conservatives is that they fail to live the principles of freedom that they expound. The problem, however, is not simply that conservatives set high standards and then fail to meet them after striving to do so. The problem is that conservatives expound standards that they knowingly and deliberately violate.

Consider, for example, the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation, arguably the premier conservative think tank in America:

To formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

These words, or some variation of them, are embraced not only by the Heritage Foundation but also by every other conservative think tank and conservative educational foundation. Indeed, principles such as “individual freedom, responsibility, free markets, and limited government” have long been the mantra of American conservatives.

Yet a close examination of what conservatives believe should be the role of government in American life, reveals that the governmental policies they favor are inconsistent with — indeed, contradictory to — the principles of freedom, free enterprise, and limited government they expound.

Consider, for example, laws that criminalize the possession, use, and distribution of certain drugs. Conservatives have long endorsed such laws, enthusiastically. Just do a search of Heritage’s website — or that of any other conservative organization — and you will easily find any number of articles supporting the decades-long war on drugs. In fact, one of the nation’s most famous conservatives, William Bennett, even served as the federal government’s “drug czar,” proudly enforcing drug prohibition.

Yet how can drug laws be reconciled with “free enterprise, limited government, and individual freedom,” the principles that the Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations expound?

Answer: They cannot be. Drug laws constitute a perfect violation of the principles of freedom and free markets.

Freedom entails the right of people to do whatever they want with their lives, so long as they don’t inflict violence on other people. Or as conservatives often say, freedom entails the right to live your life any way you want so long as you don’t infringe on the right of others to do the same.

Therefore, a truly free person has the moral right to ingest any substance whatsoever, no matter how dangerous or harmful. It might not be the healthy thing to do. But freedom entails the right of each person to make that choice, healthy or not healthy.

Most people would argue that smoking cigarettes is not a healthy thing to do. Yet very few people, including conservatives, advocate criminalizing the possession, use, or distribution of tobacco. Paraphrasing Voltaire, the freedom advocate would say, “I don’t agree with your decision to smoke cigarettes but I will defend to the death your right to do so.”

But when it comes to such illicit drugs as heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, conservatives knowingly abandon the principles of freedom that they expound. Their position is that the state should wield the necessary power to jail and fine any person who possesses, uses, or distributes such drugs, even if he is doing so in the privacy of his own home.

How can laws against drug distribution be reconciled with conservatives’ declared devotion to free enterprise? Answer: They can’t be. Free enterprise, as every conservative knows, requires that a private enterprise be free of government control or regulation. A system in which criminal laws punish the distribution of certain drugs is about as far from free enterprise as one can get. A truly free market in drugs is one in which the government not only doesn’t punish people for possessing, using, or distributing drugs, but actually protects their right to do so.

Public schooling

Consider another example of conservatives’ intentional violation of the principles they expound: public schooling. It would be difficult to find a better example of socialistic central planning — that is, anti-free-market activity — than public schooling. After all, when we use that term — “public” — we’re referring not to the “general public” but instead to the government. Public schooling is a government operation. Even worse, it’s a quasi-monopoly, a type of institution that economists have long recognized is anti-free enterprise.

Under public schooling, the government, either at the national, state, or local level, plans in a top-down, command-and-control manner, the educational decisions of multitudes of students. Attendance is mandatory, with criminal contempt charges hanging over the heads of recalcitrant parents. Students are taught government-approved doctrines by government-approved schoolteachers using government-approved textbooks following a government-approved curriculum.

I repeat: It would be difficult to find a better example of a violation of the freedom principles set forth in the mission statement of the Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations: “free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values.”

Again, “free enterprise” means an enterprise free of government involvement. In education, it would mean removing government involvement entirely from education — separating school and state the way our ancestors separated church and state. A free enterprise in education would mean that consumers — families — would decide which educational tools to purchase for their children, and it would mean that entrepreneurs and businesses would supply consumer needs. That’s what free enterprise is all about, as conservatives well know.

With public schooling, not only is government actively involved in education, it’s actually running the show! But while conservatives sometimes recognize this — as well as the predictably disastrous results of this government operation — the best they can do is call for some variation of government control, such as school vouchers. And this despite the fact that vouchers themselves constitute a severe violation of the principles of “free enterprise, individual freedom, and traditional American values.”

After all, what are vouchers except another form of government welfare, something that conservatives claim to stand against? How many times have we heard conservatives rail against the food-stamp mother in the grocery-store line? Yet vouchers are no different. They are a form of government welfare provided to people to help them educate their children. Like all government welfare projects, they rely on the power of the state to forcibly take money from Peter, who may not even have children, to give the money to Paul, an action that conservatives rail against when it comes to food stamps.

How can the forcible taking of one person’s money in order to give it to another person be reconciled with moral values, which are another important tenet in the principles that conservatives expound? Answer: It can’t be. The immorality of an action (e.g., the forcible taking of one person’s money and giving it to another person) is not converted into a moral action simply because government officials, rather than private individuals, are engaged in it.

Moreover, under the First Amendment, the state is prohibited from forcibly indoctrinating people’s children with religious principles. Yet many people, including conservatives, consider religious principles to be an important part of a person’s education, not simply on Sunday but instead naturally interweaved with the subjects he is studying in school.

The ideal way to resolve this problem is simply to end government involvement in education, which would free families to determine the best education for their children. If a family wished their children to be inculcated with religious values as part of their everyday education, they could do so. Those who wished otherwise could choose a different type of education.

Unfortunately, however, conservatives cannot bring themselves to call for a separation of school and state. Resigning themselves to state control over education, they instead devote their efforts to coming up with schemes on “how to teach religion in public schools,” which is the title of an article by Krista Kafer, educational policy analyst at Heritage, or they spend their time promoting school-voucher plans, which are really nothing more than educational welfare schemes.

What conservatives all too often fail to recognize is that religious instruction in public (i.e., state) schools can in no way be called “voluntary.” Even attendance in public schools cannot be considered “voluntary,” given the state’s compulsory-attendance laws. Students are there because they have to be there. They’re there because of state compulsion. Equally important, their teachers are government employees.

How can forcing children to attend state institutions to learn religious principles from government personnel be reconciled with “traditional American values,” which the Heritage Foundation and other conservatives claim to support? Indeed, how can educational vouchers be reconciled with such values? Answer: They can’t be.

The welfare state

It’s not simply in the area of drug laws and education that conservatives support governmental regulation and welfare. Long ago conservatives threw their support behind virtually the entire gamut of social-welfare programs that came into existence after the Franklin Roosevelt socioeconomic revolution.

Consider Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, core elements of the welfare state. A genuine free market in retirement and health care would entail everyone’s keeping his own money and deciding for himself how to use it — saving, investing, spending, donating, et cetera.

Yet the best that conservative think tanks and foundations can do is advocate some type of reform plan, such as “Social Security IRAs” or “Medical IRAs,” which are sold to their supporters and the public as “free-enterprise” approaches to the health-care crisis.

In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of conservative organizations is their common use of the word “reform.” The Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations are notorious for calling for “reform” of social-welfare programs rather than their elimination, which of course then provides the opportunity for more “studies” and “analyses” to be made of the reforms, which then inevitably produce calls for more reforms.

So the question arises: Why do conservative organizations maintain mission statements that are contradictory to the actual government policies they support? Wouldn’t it be more honest, for example, if the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks and organizations changed their mission statements to something like the following: “To conserve and reform the socialistic welfare state using the principles of efficient government regulation and welfare.” Wouldn’t those words more accurately describe what Heritage and other conservative organizations actually stand for?

Foreign policy

Domestic policy is not the only troubling area for conservatives. Foreign policy provides an equally good example of where conservative policies don’t match the principles that conservatives expound.

Consider, for example, the phrase “strong national defense” used by many conservatives. What they mean by that is not a military sized to defend the United States from a foreign invasion, which today is virtually a nonexistent possibility. What they mean instead is the maintenance of a foreign overseas military empire, in which U.S. troops are stationed all over the world to maintain international “order.”

Moreover, as we have learned since 9/11, conservatives support the president’s wielding omnipotent power in foreign affairs — that is, power unconstrained by law — to do whatever he deems is necessary to win the “war on the terrorism.” Such power includes kidnapping, assassination, bombing, torture, “rendition,” spying on citizens, and not brooking federal-court interference with the treatment of prisoners, including American prisoners.

That’s “limited government”?

Consider the omnipotent power that the president now wields to send the entire nation into war against countries that have never attacked the United States, even if it entails killing tens of thousands of innocent people in the process. The president no longer feels any need to first secure a congressional declaration of war, as the Constitution requires. He now wields the omnipotent power to wage wars of aggression, wars that were punished as a war crime by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.

That’s “national defense”?

Wouldn’t it be more honest if conservative organizations changed their mission statements with respect to foreign policy to read something like this: “To formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of empire and wars of aggression”? After all, that’s effectively what the noted conservative Max Boot has now done. Unlike other conservatives, Boot no longer operates under the false pretense that America is a limited-government republic. He now openly (and truthfully) declares that America is an empire and that the world should simply get used to it.

Personal responsibility

Another problem with conservatives, however, is that they hardly ever accept individual responsibility for the consequences of the public policies they advocate, even though they often preach the importance of “individual responsibility” as part of the principles they expound. Like liberals, they wish to be judged by their good intentions, not by the actual results of their policies.

Have you ever heard conservatives declare, “We are sorry for all the bad things we have wrought with our drug war, including gang wars, convenience-store murders, muggings, robberies, and governmental corruption”? Have you ever heard them declare, “We are sorry about all the young people whose minds have been damaged and whose lives have been distorted by our system of coerced state schooling”? Have you ever heard conservatives declare, “We are sorry for all the terrorism — and the assaults on civil liberties that such terrorism has produced — that has resulted from our pro-empire, pro-war foreign policy”? Indeed, given the growing debacle in Iraq, conservatives are becoming increasingly reluctant to remind people of their ardent support of U.S. government actions to oust Saddam Hussein from power, including the sanctions on Iraq, which became a prime motivation for the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001, and President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Federal spending

Moreover, when one adds up all the costs of all the programs, both domestic and foreign, that conservatives support, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, subsidies, foreign aid, the drug war, the “war on terrorism,” and the war on Iraq, it’s not difficult to see why federal spending is now totally out of control, which every conservative knows in his heart constitutes a grave threat to the financial and monetary well-being of the American people. Nevertheless, while conservatives continue to rail against “big government” and “big spending,” they simply ignore that it is the sum total of the public policies they are supporting, both foreign and domestic, that is producing the “big government” and “big spending” that they’re railing against.

Is there a way out of the many crises that face our nation? Yes, but the way out lies not simply in preaching the principles of freedom but also in consistently applying them. It is only through a consistent application of moral principles in public policy that individual liberty, free markets, and a constitutional republic will be restored to our land, along with the peace, prosperity, and harmony that would come in their wake.

July 6, 2006

Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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