Conservatives Say and Do the Darndest Things

One of the joys of going to school at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s was seeing and meeting many of the different flavors and denomination of communists, socialists, and other various leftists. It was an aesthetic joy akin to a trip to a petting zoo on a sunny afternoon — the critters were friendly, soft to the touch and relatively tame. Feeding them was fun and provoking them was easy.

Only they didn’t get along so well with each other. They could agree on the evil of American imperialism, opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, and “support” for the various “revolutions” of Central America.

Past that, arguments over what exactly revolution was, how and when it could be brought about and who counted as a “worker” or a “boss” for purposes of re-education/internment/extermination once the revolution was over could get pretty bitter. If you imagine socialists as one big happy family, or maybe one big well-run, clever hive of worker bees ready to do the queen bee’s bidding, I’d scrap that notion altogether. A group of real-live, Marx-imbibing socialists can barely run a meeting, much less conspire to rule the world.

The majority were the third-world leftists inspired by the liberation of peasants across the planet. But they could not really agree on their inspiration either. Cuba? Nicaragua? Burkina Faso? (Burkina Faso?!?!) There were few Mao supporters and even fewer who thought the Soviet Union was swell (the nicest thing I ever heard most say about the once-upon-a-USSR was “state capitalist,” and some even eagerly called the Russians “traitors!” for withdrawing from Afghanistan). There were young socialists, revolutionary socialists, Trotskyites, Spartacist Youth, a few unloved (and somewhat feared) members of the Community Party (USA) and a very tiny number of unrepentant Stalinists no one listened to.

Off campus, you’d find publications sympathetic to Peru’s Sendero Luminoso with articles authored by the likes of “Brother 28X" or some such. Because “The Man” was on to them, and they needed to protect themselves. Oh, and there was the Middle East bookstore with its moldering, unread collection of Lenin in Arabic.

(There were, so far as I know, no North Korea or Albania partisans at SF State at the time. At least none I met…)

I loved the newspapers, and would try to scan one whenever I could. However, most wannabe revolutionaries were skinflints and usually demanded payment — 50 cents, $1 or $2 even, whatever the cover price was — for whatever paper they were handing out. The irony of that bit of commerce has never been lost on me. Anyway, one day I was sifting through a copy of, I think, The Revolutionary Worker (“Supporting the socialism of Lenin, Luxembourg and Leibknecht,” or something like that) and came across this in a letters section (not an exact quote):

Q: Why are you so hard on Democrats? After all, they do have the interests of working people and people of color in mind sometimes and can do things to advance the cause.

A: We focus on Democrats because we know that Republicans are the enemy of working people. They know it too. There is no argument and no illusion about that. Democrats, on the other hand, often pretend to be the friends of working people as they advance the same causes that the Republicans do. We fight that illusion because it is important for revolutionary people to understand that Democrats have never been their friends and never will be.

I wish I could remember more. The paper’s language was more colorful than that, of that I’m sure.

That’s how I feel about Republicans, "conservative" or otherwise. And it’s why I’m far more critical of them than I am of Democrats right now. Because they pretend to be the friends of liberty when they are not, never have been and never will be. Some of you may have fond memories of a GOP that at one time was indeed vocal and honest in supporting liberty. I do not. I came of age in the 1980s, in Ronald Reagan’s America, when the "liberty" of the Reagan-Thatcher Axis of Evil gave us a hectoring, moralistic school-marm state, more law enforcement, more government contracts for corporations to build things — armaments, mostly — no one wanted to or could ever afford to buy, and more lobbying for more appropriations as those corporations milked the state for all it was worth. It meant more, not less, government regulation, more intrusiveness, more centralization and more war.

And more, more, more, more state power.

Democrats? Liberals? Leftists? Incompetent, incapable, irrelevant, impotent. Even during the Clinton regime. They proved their pointlessness in generous portions during the last election, and will prove it again in the next election. And probably the election after that, too. Democrats have had not a set of original ideas since Lyndon Johnson and Sargent Shriver decided to make government-subsidized "self-realization" the goal of the Great Society. (Clinton’s stealing of much of the GOP agenda does not count as "original.") And maybe identity politics and victimization in the 1970s and 1980s. All of those were really stupid ideas, too, that have been grafted in one form or another tightly onto George W. Bush’s Republican Party.

It doesn’t matter right now that liberals and Leftists aren’t real friends of liberty. They have no power and will likely not have any for some time to come.

To be fair to the Republican Party, it has really only consistently believed in one thing since its founding in the mid-1850s — the state exists to ensure the profitability of well-connected, large businesses, usually through generous contracts to provide the government with "good and services" or through direct subsidies. (The American System.) Sure, Democrats believe in those things, too — generous contracts for friends, loved ones, and campaign contributors have always been a part of Democratic Party politics in any age.

But, to my memory, only one party has run on the stated belief that it is wrong for people to depend on government handouts and that government spends too much money. And that would be the GOP. Democrats have always been fairly proud of their support for subsidies, big budgets and deficits. The GOP’s circle of opposition to big government was usually squared because 1) the goods under discussion were armaments, and in Bill Buckley’s National-Socialist GOP, "defense" spending didn’t count as welfare for corporations or government spending for the purposes of demonizing government -or- 2) something strategic, like oil or some sort of defense-related material was involved, and thus the market couldn’t be allowed to operate when security was at stake -or- 3) the GOP was doing the spending and that made it good and proper.

So it’s fun to pick apart a few current examples of the idiocy and foolishness of conservative Republicans, their statist outlook and love of subsidies, to remind us who they really are — not friends of liberty by any stretch of the imagination.

Congress has been debating an energy bill since the middle of 2001. The latest version was discovered to contain an interesting little provision about oil and gas drilling leases awarded by the Interior Department in the 1970s and 1980s (mostly offshore California) where drilling was subsequently blocked by either legislation or court action. Some of the companies currently holding the leases have been "negotiating" with the federal government to receive some compensation for not being able to drill.

And so Utah Republican Congresscrittur Chris Canon has included a measure deep in the House version of the energy bill that would, on the face of it, force the government to buy the leases back.

Fair enough. An oil and gas company that bought a drilling lease off Santa Barbara or Ventura from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s in the hopes of developing a field found itself shaking an empty box when Congress banned new drilling offshore California in 1984. Any original lease-buyer still holding the right to explore for oil and gas ought to be able to get whatever fees they paid back. Or write them off on their taxes.

But it’s more complicated than that. The measure requires the government to reimburse oil companies for any exploration and development costs they may have incurred — including environmental impact and archaeological studies. And to confuse matters even more, a number of the leases are held by small companies — many probably formed solely to buy the leases and hold them until the government coughs up cash — that are simply in no position to develop onshore or offshore oil and gas properties.

I’m all for letting someone out of a contract with the fee they paid (and any lost business costs, which I do not believe applies to oil companies in this instance) when it becomes impossible to honor the terms of that contract, but no more. There are no guarantees that when you drill anywhere you’re going to get anything. In this case, lost exploration and development costs are analogous to dry hole costs, and the tax code is the place to handle that problem. And that’s one possible alternative to a provision that could cost taxpayers — money taken from you and me at gunpoint — hundreds of million of dollars.

And in many instances, the original lease holders bailed years ago, preferring some cash in hand and selling out for cents on the dollar. Some of the firms currently holding many of the leases exist solely for the day when Congress cuts checks to lease holders for the original amount. I’m all for land speculating, and speculation in general, but I have a problem when that speculation comes at the expense — again — of taxpayers.

Because the leaseholders aren’t merely sitting, talking and waiting. I’m certain they’ve been busy lobbying Congress for payment, and on terms favorable to them, too, using the political system to extract rents. This isn’t real speculation, which demands some kind of risk, because there’s no risk involved in this process. (Well, okay, there is the risk that Congress won’t be as generous with the United States Treasury as maybe the leaseholders would like.) When the seller (or the buyer, for that matter, as Republicans constantly remind us when the talk turns to Medicare and prescription drugs) can use the political process to dictate contract terms, that’s not a free market. It’s not even close. And you would think a good conservative Republican would know that.

Instead, a good conservative Republican is proposing the measure.

But we understand the muddy thinking that passes for "conservative thought" these days. Anything to support the Party, the Leader, its causes, and its dearest supporters. Little different than the various breeds of commies and socialists that once wandered the free range of San Francisco State University, only a whole lot better disciplined and handling a great deal more money. (I say once, because I understand higher fees may have chased many of them away.)

It’s hard to find muddier thinking from Republicans than when it comes to support for George W. Bush’s Social Security proposal. In last Friday’s Los Angeles Times, David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor and senior fellow in Jewish thought at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, whined his way through a defense of vouchers, "personal accounts" and photo ID requirements for voting by claiming that "Democrats habitually treat Americans like children."

It’s a nice claim, one with a great deal of truth to it. But attached to that claim is the unstated counter-claim that somehow Republicans treat Americans like responsible adults. And we all know they don’t.

Gelernter writes:

How could anyone be opposed in principle to private investment accounts within Social Security? I could understand Democrats arguing that “private accounts are a wonderful idea but the country can’t afford the transition costs right now.” But mostly I hear Democrats saying they’re a lousy idea, and that President Bush wants to wreck Social Security — because, after all, he wants to let you keep a great big whopping 4% of your payroll taxes in a private account instead of handing over every cent to the government. How on Earth could anyone be opposed in principle to letting taxpayers manage a minuscule fraction of their own money (their own money, dammit!) if they want to? Because private accounts violate the Infantile American Principle, so dear to Democratic hearts. Little kids should turn over their cash to the Big Smart Government for safekeeping.

What do you say to such nonsense? Maybe someone could have written this with a straight face in 1982, but it takes a person clearly incapable of honest thought to write this today.

Most importantly, as I understand the Bush proposal for “personal accounts,” I get the option of either sending money into the current system OR I get to divert a portion of my normal withholding into “a conservative mix of bond and stock funds that would have the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return than anything the current system could provide,” according to the White House web site. It appears I don’t have a third choice — not contributing at all.

I can see a whole lot of conservatives need a serious refresher on exactly what private property is. It is my money if I can do with it what I please — spend it, save it, set it on fire, bury it in a deep hole in the ground. If I never see it, and it goes someplace I didn’t voluntarily direct it to (voluntary meaning: I had the choice not to contribute), then it is not my own money, dammit! The Bush proposal is little more than the current Social Security system wrapped with bunting in the Goldman Sachs (or whoever’s) corporate colors (and guaranteeing a nice profit for the manager too, probably, in keeping with that ancient GOP tradition). It will be my account in name only — it will be collected and managed either by government managers or by managers selected and paid for by the government. I won’t be the effective shareholder, the United States government will be the shareholder. And the only difference between Bush’s "conservative" option — Treasury bills — is that the debt currently backing up Social Security cannot be traded on a secondary market, whereas those "conservative" T-bills can. Woo hoo! More guaranteed income for bond traders!

Others have talked about the mess the economy will likely become when the US government effectively becomes the largest holder of publicly traded stocks (this is already beginning to happen as the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation looks set to inherit majority stakes in a couple of major US airlines as part of pension bail-out agreements). Or the fact that the Social Security program needs to be ended now, and not simply "fixed.” So I will only add this: the government as the country’s largest shareholder, that sounds a lot like … France.

Finally, the Bush proposal also sounds an awful lot like a trust fund. You know, the kind parents set up for children who cannot take care of themselves?

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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