For nearly two years I have been engaged in a crusade to inform any who would listen that the Reagan administration is in no sense committed to individual liberty, even, as was so widely supposed, in the area of the free-market economy. Lately I have been pushing on an open door, since the anti-free-market nature of the administration has now become clear to everyone. The sticking point for many was, of course, the Reagan $100-billion tax increase, the greatest tax increase in American history, which the Great Communicator fought for with the same moral fervor he had unleashed in his battle for a sham tax cut only the year before (a tax cut in itself a tax increase, since it was more than offset by inflationary bracket creep and by Social Security tax hikes).
The departure of principled free-market people from the administration—Martin Anderson, Paul Craig Roberts, Steve Hanke, Doug Bandow—still leaves the problem: How could Reagan do it? How could he turn against every aspect of his own program and his campaign pledges and still not see that there is anything amiss in his flip-flop?
The most interesting explanation has come from the shrewd Rep. Barber Conable (R–N.Y.), who prides himself on being a "pragmatist" eager to rise above conservative or free-market principle. In the course of a typical defense of pragmatism and an assault on inconvenient ideologues, Conable pointed out that many disillusioned conservatives simply do not understand the mind of Ronald Reagan and in their confusion have turned against the president. As Conable pointed out: "Ronald Reagan has always had a capacity to live his life in segments, the rhetorical segment and the real world. I find that some [conservative] groups are trapped by Ronald Reagan's rhetoric, and don't follow his actions."
Bearing in mind that Conable's statement is a defense of Reagan, it is breathtaking in its audacity as well as a fascinating revelation of the political mind at work. It is all too true, of course: Ronnie's ability to live his life in "segments" has always been remarkable, even for a politician. As governor of California he was able to double taxes and the budget and still maintain an image of a heroic foe of Big Government, a feat he is trying to replicate as president. Right now, he has the gall to urge a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution while at the same time presiding over the biggest deficit in American history.
But what Conable is justifying and identifying as politics per se is nothing less than lying to the public on a massive and systematic scale—lying about his principles, about his goals; and doing it to try to suck conservatives and free-market people into supporting him in the presidency. The curious thing is that Conable is saying, in some bewilderment: How come all these savvy conservatives took the Reagan rhetoric seriously? Or, to put it another way, why were they so naive as to think that rhetoric and reality were in any way connected in the mind of Ronald Reagan or his administration?
Conable fails, however, to consider a more important question that cuts to the heart of the political system: If indeed it has no connection to reality, then why do Reagan and other politicians feel called upon to use any rhetoric at all? Why don't they just go about their business of pushing us around and stealing us blind without using any rhetoric whatsoever? Why doesn't the "rhetoric segment" just drop out altogether?
The answer, of course, is that rhetoric is needed to do a vast con job on the American public and, in the case of Reagan, to induce his conservative constituency to vote for him and to support his campaigns. The deluded conservatives, both among the activists and the voting public, have to be kept in line with rhetoric that matches their intensely held principles. This misguided support then gives the "pragmatists" their chance to sell out to special interests, bureaucrats, export firms, banks, or whatever. In that way are political coalitions forged: the special interests get their boodle, and the conservatives get their rhetoric.
Ironically, Representative Conable's frank and exasperated sentiment is in danger of letting the cat out of the bag and turning conservatives and free-market people off the administration forever. For in his own way and from a diametrically opposite perspective, Conable is saying exactly what libertarians have long been saying: "Hey people, the Emperor has no clothes. All his rhetoric is just that, hokum designed to keep people happy and not designed to be put into action." In short, if Ronnie or any other politician wants to "live his life in segments," let him do so on his own time and not at the expense of the taxpayer.
Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Any Way You Slice It".