Power To the People Right On


New at Reason: Jacob Sullum looks for the conservatism President Bush says he's hiding somewhere in his compassion.


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  1. Agreed, it is ridiculous to talk about “…the conservative principles of fiscal restraint, free trade, and federalism.” Those are libertarian principals, and haven’t been part of the conservative platform since Goldwarter got stiff-armed. For the past three decades conservatism has stood for; more military spending and activism (aka adventurism), more police powers and greater federal powers (Jacob mentioned PB abortion, I’ll mention medical marijuana), more people incarcerated, low taxes but unlimited deficit spending, and the incremental establishment of Fundamental Christianity as the state religion. Conservatives sometimes spew rhetoric about “big government” or “fiscal responsibility” but they are lying, as can be verified by examining their voting records.

  2. All true. W is no Conservative (fiscally speaking anyway) and the GOP congress has no spine. But what to do about it? Are the Dems a better alternative to W’s Big Government. Perhaps promoting gridlock by electing Dean and keeping a GOP congress? A cynical idea. How about getting more libertarians into the GOP?

  3. The Dean approach sounds plausible.

    Since the White House is the control centre for the DOJ and DOD, it might help ratchet back the War on Terrorism.

    However, a Dem in the White House might be just what it takes to get congressional conservatives to start acting like conservatives instead of lapdogs.

  4. joe: Maybe it is the Bizarro World of “1984”? Labels don’t mean even the opposite of what they did a few years back.

    Joe M: Nice summary of how current labels relate to libertarian ideals.

    My own (cynical) view is that labels get the simpletons’ money and votes. Watching what the preacher does is more important than what the preachers says, when he’s spending your money and forcing his way into your personal choices.

    I haven’t looked into his record, but after listening to Zell Miller on tv a couple of times, he’s called a Democrat but has plenty of views that seems palatable to my libertarian heart.

  5. My brother tried to insult me by calling me a heartless liberal once. Boy did that piss me off. Especially because he was sort of right at the time.

    Sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is to let people fuck up once in a while and leave ’em alone. The thing is, most people figure that out at some point in their lives, generally by the time of parenthood. The people that don’t are the ones who want to work for the government.

  6. Mark, it’s not just Miller, but many “blue dogs” share some sentiments with libertarians moreso than many Northeastern Republicans.

    It’s not really about parties anyway. It’s the ideas that count.

    W.’s “conservatism” is a mixture of economic liberalism(tax cuts for marginal rates, free trade agreements, ect.), a southern social populism(abortion limitations, marriage between man-woman, wishy-washy on affirmative action), and an projectionist foreign policy.

  7. You want divided government? Give the Dems both houses and the Presidency. There would still be gridlock. Remember 1993?

  8. Its a small point, but I have to disagree that the willingness to deploy the military is a trait that distinguishes the “conservative” politician. Check the record of the last “liberal” president, and his partners in congress. They seemed to be more than willing to send the soldiers to foriegn lands.

  9. The last liberal president? Come on, I don’t think trying to rescue the embassy staff in Iran counts as an interventionist foreign policy.

  10. He means Clinton, not Carter.

    Was Clinton really a leftist liberal? I think he was alot like Dubya as far as actual policy.

  11. Furthermore Carter was pretty “conservative” too. “Born-again” christian and what was with that airline deregulation.

    A lot of these words have become meaningless.

  12. To muddle things more, the Senate airline dereg bill was sponsored by Ted Kennedy.

  13. Jacob has hit the nail on the head. Bush is no conservative, and does not deserve the support of conservatives.

  14. Amen. I have been increasingly confounded by the description of Bush as “conservative,” and even more so by the notion that his administration is “the most right-wing since” whatever.

    Bush is no conservative.

  15. You seem to be unaware that there is a cultural element to conservatism. Or a military/foreign affairs one.

    Curtailing abortion rights as evidence of being un-conservative? Military spending and forward deployment as evidence of one’s liberalism? Is this bizarro world?

  16. George Bush is socially conservative and fiscally insane. The Congressional Republicans who refuse to challenge his fiscal policies are loathsome partisan hypocrites.

  17. I’m with joe on this one. I guess, many moons ago, conservatism meant something different, but during my lifetime whenever I hear the term conservative it is usually meant in the social sense. When I tell people about ideas that are expressed in, say, The Libertarian Manifesto, the response is usually that those ideas are radical, not conservative. I think to call libertarians conservatives can be very confusing to some people, particularly anyone not familiar with classical liberalism.

  18. Well, then, twistedmerkin, that’s even more of an argument against such declarations as “the Bush administration is the most conservative since…”

    Because if the meaning of the word has changed, as you say, then what is actually being compared?

  19. I’m much more comfortable being called a liberal than a conservative. I think the first thing most people think of when they hear those terms are the social policies/beliefs then the economic ones in a distant second. A lot of people say conservative but mean “religious right” instead of small government, low taxes.

  20. True Madog, although I’ve been accused of being a heartless conservative because of my economic views. The problem is that people that are labeled conservatives in this country don’t actually want to go as far as libertarians to limit government spending, and people labeled liberals want to go a little too far on certain social issues, such as identity politics and special rules for certain groups.

  21. lol. That’s pretty much it.

  22. Didn’t Carter start the dereg of S&Ls too? And he did cut taxes(although not as much as Reagan).

    He was a deregulation and tax-cutting maniac! :p

  23. Good point joe, but wasn’t he helped by some ass-grabbin’ senator from OR.

    And then, of course, Reagan only accelerated the natural gas dereg that Jimmy had already started.

    Of course, the last Liberal Democrap president we had was LBJ, but the last Liberal President (til now*) was Nixon.

    *Why doesn’t Joe Lieberman have a chance to become President? Because the Republicans already have a Connecticut Liberal in the White House.

  24. Shane

    In case you’re interested it came from here.


    LBJ was responsible for one of the biggest tax cuts ever when he finally pushed thru JFK’s income tax rate cuts. I think rates were cut 50% across the board. Barry Goldwater opposed it.

  25. There seems to be a lot of talk about the words “conservative” and “liberal” as personal labels. But the words are anchored to our political parties, and the common use of the words reflect that.

    I’ve got a little theory: politicians choose a party based on which he/she can best hobnob in order to gather power. As far as politicians go, then, the parties represent political personalities, and politicians choose the one whose members they are more comfortable hanging out with. The conservative/liberal distinction is therefore a fuzzy social structure, one that’s impossible to fully plumb. It’s more akin to a massive, constantly shifting social labyrinth with rewards for those who can navigate it successfully.

    The theory has some flaws, though. I have no fucking clue why any non-politician would identify with one or the other political party label – since, functionally, they exist as power tools for politicians, sucking away power from non-politician party members. (And, carrying out the metaphor, what type of person do you have to be to trade in your humanity for the life of a minitaur?)

  26. Ronald Reagan said, in a interview with “Reason” in the July 1975 issue:
    “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism”

    Bush is more of a liberal than a conservative and we should push the GOP congress toward serving our
    republic well by saying “No” to Bush’s liberal, big spending agenda as they did with Clinton’s.

    Joe wrote:
    “Military spending and forward deployment as evidence of one’s liberalism? Is this bizarro world?”

    “forward deployment” and an interventionist foreign policy in general is certainly more liberal then it is conservative. The only way to justify a “conservative” pedigree is to attach the prefix “neo”. And, of course the neos aren’t. This opposition to foreign entanglements and the idea that troops should stay at home unless responding to an actual threat goes back to the founders. (see:”James Madison and the future of limited government” Ed. John Samples) This idea carried through Taft and the old right. In a debate with Gore in 2000, Bush repeated this standard conservative position when he advocated a “more modest foreign policy” and accurately described the IMF as a “bail out for bankers” Gore would have none of it, and as it turned out nether would Bush, as this was yet another area where Bush’s conservatism was just, all talk.

    Joe wrote:
    “To muddle things more, the Senate airline dereg bill was sponsored by Ted Kennedy.”

    I think Kennedy was ONE of the sponsors but the impetus for it, and for deregulation in general came mostly from the libertarian/conservative side of the spectrum. To their credit, some liberals have some times have understood the benefits for consumers.

    Also, note that the total number of Fed. regs. actually shrank under Reagan. No such luck under Bush. Not even close.

    Joe wrote:
    “You want divided government? Give the Dems both houses and the Presidency. There would still be gridlock. Remember 1993?”

    Nice try Joe. Actually, part of Clinton’s big government agenda was passed by the 103rd congress, with the prospect of much more in the offing. It was the reaction to this which led the voters to give the GOP control of congress in the 94′ elections.

  27. joe wrote:
    “Curtailing abortion rights as evidence of being un-conservative?”

    From the Sullum piece:
    “it’s disheartening to see a self-proclaimed constitutionalist abandon federalism whenever it conflicts with his personal impulses.
    The most recent example is the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President Bush proudly signed earlier this month. Whatever you think of the procedure banned by the law or of abortion generally, it’s laughable to assert that the Interstate Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to legislate in this area. Yet that is the official justification for the law..”

  28. Heinz wrote:
    “How about getting more libertarians into the GOP?”

    Russ wrote:
    “However, a Dem in the White House might be just what it takes to get- congressional conservatives to start acting like conservatives instead of lapdogs.”

    Both of these ends are certainly desirable. A challenge to Bush from a principled Republican in the GOP primaries would embolden the GOP congress and the pro liberty movement. Won’t some Republican step up and confront “President Moderate Liberal”?

  29. Warren wrote:
    “Conservatives sometimes spew rhetoric about “big government” or “fiscal responsibility” but they are lying, as can be verified by examining their voting records.”

    To the contrary! Check out NTU.org. For instance, the most frugal 25 or 30 members of the house are all conservative Republicans. Same for the top 10 in the senate. Also, check out the huge difference between the two party’s members in aggregate.

  30. I’m not saying that the conservative Republicans in congress are as libertarian as
    as “(L)ibertarians” or even (l)ibertarians. (with the marvelous exception of Rep.Ron Paul! And, maybe a few others) I’m just saying that they are way more libertarian then the Dems. Again; check out NTU.org

  31. Rick-

    In a very real sense, taxes are less important than spending. Tax cuts are nice, but with deficit spending they don’t actually save you much money. Here’s why:

    Suppose that the politicians hand me a very large bill (i.e. my “share” of the bloated budget). They give me two choices: I can either pay the whole thing now (i.e. no tax cut, but a balanced budget) or I can pay some now and the rest later with interest (i.e. tax cut and deficit spending covered by borrowing).

    (For convenience I’m going to assume all discussion is in “real terms”, i.e. adjusted for inflation.)

    If they defer my payment for the future, I will actually wind up in worse shape unless I take my tax cut and put it to some use that yields at least as much interest as a treasury bond (i.e. the interest on the deficit). I could go to a banker and do a normal investment (e.g. stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.). I could sink the money into a business, or income property, or education that will improve my salary. But even then I have to pay taxes on the interest I earn, the rents I collect, or the extra money I take home on pay day thanks to my new advanced degree.

    Anyway, if I do that then I’m fine, I’m benefiting from the tax cut despite deficit spending. But if I say “Hey, I’m going to simply enjoy the money they didn’t take from me” and I spend it on a vacation, I’m actually in worse shape than if I had just paid it all at once (i.e. no tax cut) because of the interest payments.

    Some will say “It’s your own fault for not investing your tax cut wisely.” But the point is that it’s my money, I should be able to enjoy it, I shouldn’t have to devote extra energy to making my money grow faster than the debts that the politicians accumulate. Their bad spending habits impose a burden on me: Either spend effort on wisely investing the tax cut so the interest payments don’t affect me, or else bite the bullet in the future.

    So a big budget really gives me 3 choices:

    1) Pay it all now (no tax cut)
    2) Pay some now, and invest my tax cut so the interest payments on the deficit aren’t a problem
    3) Forgo the effort needed to beat those interest payments, and just bite the bullet in the future.

    Some will say “Well, what if you don’t have to make interest payments in the future because they cut spending and run up budget surpluses? Aren’t you better off for the tax cut then?” Not really. We’re just discussing the burden imposed by this year’s budget. Next year they’ll still have to tax me, at the very least they’ll have to tax me to pay off the interest on the debt. They’ll also have to tax me to pay for whatever new expenditures they come up with.

    So, in a very real economic sense, tax cuts without spending cuts still impose a burden on us. Spending cuts are the only meaningful way to reduce the burden government imposes on people.

    Finally, somebody will probably say “But tax cuts spur economic growth.” Tax cuts spur economic growth when people invest their tax cuts (either in financial instruments like stock, or in opening their own business). But if the interest on the debt exceeds the rate of return on people’s investments then that growth is eaten away by the debt. The point is that the interest on the debt eats away at the benefits yielded by the tax cuts. There could still be a net benefit if economic growth is large enough, but the net benefit will be smaller than it could be without the debt.

    So, it all comes down to spending cuts. Deficit spending accompanied by tax cuts simply postpones the burden, it doesn’t alleviate it.

  32. thoreau,
    I can’t respond to your argument in much detail now as I want to crash soon. However, just in case what prompted it were my repeated NTU.org citations, I should point out that the NTU awards good ratings to congress people primarily on the basis of how little spending they vote for.

    The question you raise of spending cuts vs tax cuts strikes me as both very interesting and important to liberty. Tax cuts do reduce the burden of the state in the near term but if they make the burden greater then it would have been in the future, because of the interest payment dynamics you describe, they might, depending on how much greater be argued to make the state more damaging to people. Another argument against deficits is that if they are monetized the resulting inflation dilutes peoples income and this of course is also a tax. Also, this pushes folks into higher tax brackets! A number of years ago congress passed “indexing” (a conservative project) to adjust for and stop this “bracket creep”. Is it still in effect?

    Now, at least some tax cuts have been empirically shown to “pay for themselves”, ie the capital gains tax cut, and they must surely be a good deal for tax payers as long as the government doesn’t use the extra revenue to initiate new spending.

    You wrote:
    “Well, what if you don’t have to make interest payments in the future… because they cut spending and run up budget surpluses? Aren’t you better off for the tax cut then?” Not really.”

    I’m pretty sure you take the no tax cut argument way too far here. Why let the government keep the peoples money when there is no interest to pay. That is imposing a cost of the state on people for no reason at all. Also, if the government retains the excess money, you can be pretty sure they will find a reason to keep it in next years budget, ensuring it will NEVER find it’s way back to its rightful owners.

    Please ignore the first sentence of this post. 🙂

  33. Rick sez,

    “forward deployment” and an interventionist foreign policy in general is certainly more liberal then it is conservative. The only way to justify a “conservative” pedigree is to attach the prefix “neo”.

    Please don’t write the Cold War out of the history books. Conservatives have been the primary cheerleaders for a large overseas deployment, intervention in other countries’ civil wars, and “friend of my friend” strategery for the past thirty years.

  34. Joe,
    The interventionism of the cold war, both good and bad, was also shared by liberal administrations as well, ie Johnson, Nixon and Carter. By “liberal”,I mean adminisrations that sought and achieved a larger role for government in domestic concerns.

  35. thoreau,
    From NTU.org:
    In general, a higher score is better because it means a member of Congress voted to spend less money.

    I agree that government spending is where the burden comes from when it is paid for by taxation and cutting spending in this case is paramount. I also think that tax cuts(probably rate cuts) can help relieve the burden, even in a deficit situation and even counting the burden in the long run IF; the cuts generate enough extra revenue to “pay for themselves” and government then uses this revenue pay for existing spending, including debt retirement and NOT to expand spending.

  36. Rick-

    OK, I didn’t realize that NTU ratings are based on spending as well as taxes.

    Also, I’m not arguing against tax cuts, I’m arguing that tax cuts aren’t the real point, because the burden comes from the spending that must at some point be paid for, possibly with interest. What you say about tax cuts that “pay for themselves” means that some tax cuts encourage investment that yields a higher rate of return than government debt, or at least the taxes on those returns cancel out the debt. So I won’t argue against those tax cuts. My main point is just that the burden of government spending comes from spending, not from the tax structure, because at some point that spending will have to be paid for, be it today or in the future. There’s no escaping the tab.

    As for when I said:

    “Well, what if you don’t have to make interest payments in the future… because they cut spending and run up budget surpluses? Aren’t you better off for the tax cut then?” Not really.”

    I phrased it pretty poorly. When you look at this year’s spending, it imposes a certain burden. No two ways about it. The burden can be paid right now, or paid in the future with interest. Either way it imposes a burden.

    Now, perhaps in the future spending will be cut. In that case there will be fewer burdens in the future, so we could keep the same level of taxation and pay off today’s burdens (with interest) plus the lighter burdens of the future. And that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that government imposed a burden today, borrowed money to cover it, and then will charge you in the future plus interest. No matter how you slice it, a tax cut without a spending cut only works to your advantage if you invest the tax cut to earn a return that exceeds the interest on the debt (plus whatever taxes you have to pay on your profits).

    Also, everything I said about tax cuts not being so great without spending cuts would not apply if we also had spending cuts. Spending is where the burden comes from, and at some point you’ll have to be taxed to pay for it. Future spending cuts simply mean you won’t be taxed for future burdens, it doesn’t mean that today’s burden was somehow lightened.

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