Confessions of an Ex-Conservative

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Confession: I used to be a rock-ribbed conservative, or at least I thought I was. The scales slowly began to fall from my eyes after almost accidentally stumbling upon the works of Mises, Rothbard, Nock and a host of other genuine champions of human liberty. I'm beginning to realize that I was really much more libertarian than conservative all along. Not necessarily a Libertarian, but libertarian.

While I find the notion of private police services and courts intriguing, for example, I genuflect to what I consider reality in recognizing that the elimination of all government functions is at present hopelessly quixotic, and I believe it's best that one picks one's battles wisely. For now, I'd settle for the far more modest goal of the complete dismantling of the welfare and regulatory state, thank you.

The main reason why I've abandoned the Republican Party is its growing embrace of the State and its unforgivable expansion of government spending. It's been said in the past that the Democrats will take this country over the cliff going seventy while the Republicans will take us over the cliff going fifty-five (or something like that). It's now becoming abundantly clear that the Republicans will also plunge us to our collective demise going seventy — or perhaps sixty-five; or maybe even eighty. When we're in freefall it won't matter how long it took us to get there.

At least partly responsible for this development is the ignoble and oxymoronic doctrine of "compassionate conservatism," a bastard child that should have been strangled in its crib long ago. Like a virulent strain of bacteria it persists, however, and one of its adherents recently wrote an article condemning the benighted among us who still cling wistfully to the quaint concept of limited government. Of course he simultaneously exalted the virtues of activist, muscular government.

One Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. He is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a compassionate conservative. His association with George Bush is not surprising since the latter is the most compassionate president in American history, if compassion can be measured by the amount of our money a president spends. In a recent Newsweek column, Gerson took traditional conservatives to the woodshed for failing to lavish sufficient spending on New Orleans, ground zero for compassionate conservatism and various species of collectivism, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What was instead required, according to Gerson, was, "an active response from government to encourage economic empowerment and social mobility." Uh-huh. So what we need most is more of the same government action that created much of the social rot in New Orleans in the first place. Isn't that always the solution, though?

Especially despicable in Gerson's opinion were those conservatives who wanted to cut government spending in other areas to offset some of the behemoth costs of the relief, such as AIDS spending for Africa. Pure villainy. Could we slash one dollar from the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors? Perish the thought. That wouldn't be, well, compassionate. And compassion should be the business of government. It doesn't matter that compassion is a trait of individuals, not governments. The only genuinely distinguishing trait of governments is force. Please take a moment to absorb the full implications of that last sentence. What Gerson and other collectivists of various stripes really demand is compassion (from us) enforced at the point of a gun, which, dare I say, is hardly compassionate by any reasonable definition of the word. But I digress.

Gerson goes on to dismiss libertarianism, with its "disdain for government, reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice". Oh, the horror of it all! Who could possibly believe in such heretical concepts? He cites Russell Kirk's description of libertarianism as "an ideology of universal selfishness," a characterization with which I would have to assume he agrees. I guess socialism is therefore an ideology of universal selflessness, and therefore superior.

Gerson has apparently never seriously considered the possibility that government is actually the enemy of civil society, that it actually undermines the very social institutions of family and church that he so claims to cherish. To the contrary, he claims that, "government can act to strengthen them". Sounds a lot like Great Society liberalism to me. In reality, however, it is almost axiomatic that civil society recedes as government gains. I would gently refer Mr. Gerson to the city of New Orleans as an example of the havoc that the welfare state can visit upon a community. It probably wouldn't do much good, however, for obvious reasons.

Gerson goes on to warn his fellow Republicans about campaigning against big government during the next election cycle. Query: Would anyone with even the most rudimentary cognitive skills take them seriously if they did? While Democrats campaign on health care, poverty and education, Gerson warns that such rhetoric would "be procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired". Indeed. Confiscating less of your money for the grandiose plans of politicians is small-minded. Even worse, it's… uninspired.

In other words, to get elected, Republicans must promise as many or more goodies to the masses as the Democrats. H.L. Mencken astutely referred to elections as advance auctions for the sale of stolen goods. They are at that. Of course, most Republicans' conduct in office has never come close to matching their limited government rhetoric. Ron Paul and a few others are laudable exceptions. Now Republicans should drop the pretense altogether and simply attempt to beat the Democrats by showing that they have bigger hearts. We'd have thinner wallets but hey, politics is politics.

According to Gerson, the answer lies with GOP state governors like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. I'm sure he'd include Ahnold out in California and even mayors like Mike Bloomberg and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Do any of these men believe in a limited role for government? To ask the question is to basically answer it. Gerson actually thinks otherwise. Particularly disturbing is Gerson's endorsement of Romney, actually celebrating the fact that he "mandated basic health insurance while giving subsidies to low-income people" (emphasis added).

So it's praiseworthy — and conservative — when the government forces you, ultimately at gunpoint remember, to buy health insurance, whether you want it or not. It will actually be illegal NOT to own health insurance, if you can afford it. And the government will determine whether you can afford it or not. If you can't, no need to worry. Your fellow citizens will kindly pick up the tab on your behalf, being as generous as they are. This isn't the place for an economic analysis but suffice it to say that government intervention in the health care field is largely responsible for its spiraling costs in the first place.

The demand for socialized medicine is the logical outcome of the fact that government intervention in the marketplace produces cascading economic distortions, which are used at each stage to justify further and further government intervention, a self-perpetuating cycle that ultimately establishes complete government control of an industry. Speaking of health care, Ahnold just proposed a similar program to Romney's in California. Is this the future of conservatism, in the land of the free?

Yet this is precisely what Gerson and his merry band of "compassionate conservatives" want to foist upon the entire nation. I expect that from the Left, but this influential portion of the "Right" has been seduced by the siren song of big government, and has become a willing accomplice in the forward march of state power. Needless to say, government has strayed far beyond its traditional negative role of defending person and property. Where is a lover of liberty to turn when faced with such grim choices?

In fairness to Gerson, he's just looking out for his Party and its electoral success. In some respects, he's right. To many of us Americans, talk of freedom and limited government sounds nice and all, but it doesn't really grab us. It doesn't fire our imaginations. It isn't sexy. Promises of universal health care, saving the environment, curing sickness, rebuilding New Orleans and ending poverty are. What right-minded person can be against these things? And let's face it, we don't really want to know the details. They might burst our bubble.

Quite frankly, it is difficult to imagine a full-throated libertarian platform finding any sort of traction with the American people at this point in time. We're too conditioned to believe in the virtue of benevolent government; too fearful of bogeymen in our age of terrorism; too addicted to the promise of government succor; too intoxicated by the seductive lure of the FED's easy money. We won't surrender these things easily. We get what we deserve, ultimately. Gerson and his fellow compassionate conservatives are merely a reflection of the times in which we live. Nothing more, nothing less.

Brian Maher [send him mail] is a freelance writer living just outside of New York City.

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