As a political species, we seem to be having trouble with these modifiers. Either that or some people—maybe all people—are, for rhetorical purposes, willfully misunderstanding their use.
At a recent social event, I heard someone describe himself as a “social liberal and fiscal conservative.” That’s a position I pretty much occupy myself: I really don’t care what configuration of consenting adult(s) you have sex with or what brand of god you worship, but I like to see some controls on how the economy is regulated and taxed and how those revenues are spent. But someone else at the party, a self-proclaimed socialist—or in this context probably a “social democrat”—replied: “So you don’t mind people being equal, you just don’t want to pay for it.”
To quote from one of my favorite heroines, Ellen Ripley, who survived 57 years in the deep freeze at the start of the movie Aliens, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?”
Fiscal conservatives are not saying we don’t want to pay for any social services or to provide any opportunities for improvement. We conservatives recognize the need for society to take care of its members—for we are a rich nation—and provide basic education and supplemental health care for all children. We already pay heavy taxes to support these mandates. But we also realize that no society will ever eliminate their relatively poor people1 or make the social and economic situation of all its members—regardless of personal talent, training, experience, motivation, and effort—even approximately equal. We have no problem with providing a safety net, but we prefer it to be tight and relatively springy, to catch people who are down on their luck or have made bad decisions and then bounce them back onto their feet. We resist the idea that the net should be a soft, comfortable social hammock, in which some people can lie about at the expense of others. And we refuse to ask society’s productive members to write a blank check or a blanket IOU to the bureaucracy in Washington, DC, to provide any of this.
In this sense, the social-democrat interlocutor at the party is confusing the fiscal conservative’s desire to pay “less” or only “some” with a demand for paying “none.” And conversely, the conservatives—myself included—usually hear the socialist who is asking for “more” as demanding that we pay “all.”
The same confusion generally applies to issues concerning market transactions and government financial and industrial regulation.
The conservative understands that a completely laissez-faire approach, with no government intervention or regulation, just doesn’t work. When the marketplace has no laws regarding fair practices, safety measures, or prudent actions, the average human tends toward operating aggressively, recklessly, or blindly. A corporate entity operating in a sphere without laws will drive for its own advantage and attempt to destroy all competitors, and the resulting monopoly ends any chance of society reaping the economic benefits of competition in terms of price, product offering, and innovation. No one—not even the most de rigueur conservative capitalist—wants a return to the “robber baron” days of the late 19th century. We recognize and appreciate the refinements of economic competition that early 20th century progressives and union bargaining have won.2
But, as the prospectus says, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” Just because progressive forces in the past may have won us workplace safety rules, financial oversight, and the forty-hour work week, it does not stand to reason that progressives are always right, that their prescriptions should always be followed, or that their proposals will always be successful.
The progressives of the early 21st century are now openly dismissive of capitalism as a productive system and deny any distributive power to choice and competition in the marketplace. Maybe they always felt that way but just hid it better. They speak as if socialism—that is, government ownership and control of the means of production and distribution—is the ultimate goal of those early reforms and the logical outcome of government intervention in the marketplace. They might allow for some corporations to exist and operate, but they want them under tight government control and beholden to government’s authority and mandates. They want the government to decide which organizations will prosper and which will disappear—a form of “crony capitalism” that would have been familiar to National Socialists in the Germany of the 1930s.3
The modern progressive is most angered by the people who have been most successful under the current system of regulated capitalism: those who run the biggest corporations, especially those entrepreneurs who founded the business and own large blocks of its stock. This is surprising, because in a market driven by government mandates and responding to government regulations, only the largest corporations can field the extra management and legal personnel required to comply with intensive regulation. So the natural course is for smaller firms to either aggregate or disappear, and for larger firms to approach monopoly status.
I’m not sure what bothers the progressives most about these marketplace winners: the fact that they have more money than anyone else, or the fact that they have more decision-making power over the products and services available to society. If it’s only a matter of money, then the issue is one of envy. “If I can’t afford a private jet and a hundred-foot yacht,” they project from the mind of the average person, “then I don’t see why anyone else should be allowed to have one.” If the objection is market power, then the issue is one of ultimate control. It bothers Democrats and other progressives that someone who wasn’t elected and over whom “the people”—that is, the aggregate will of the average citizen—have no control is able to decide what the rest of us will wear, drive, eat, and access as news and entertainment in the coming weeks, months, and years. They would much prefer that an elected official, responsible to the people, made these decisions.
Of course, most of the day-to-day decisions in drafting the details of government mandates and choices in enforcing government regulations do not fall to elected officials, either members of Congress or the President. Instead, that power—the actual conception, interpretation, and action—is left to the congressional staffers who draft the legislation and the Cabinet officials and their Civil Service bureaucrats who execute it. Think of the power that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency has—or has recently claimed—in terms of approving or killing development projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, supporting new energy technologies like solar and wind over coal and nuclear power, and defining appropriate uses for land and water resources.
The difference between this kind of power and that of a corporate chief executive is that the chief administrator of the EPA serves at the pleasure of the President and is accountable only to the person in that office. Regardless of results or economic effects, the EPA administrator has job security so long as she does what the President wants and so long as the President has the nation’s political favor; so her job is secure for at least the next four years. The corporate executive, on the other hand, serves at the pleasure of a board of directors, who are responsible to a widely distributed group of shareholders. If the corporation falters or fails to earn a profit, the stock drops, the shareholders vote their proxies, and the chief executive can be dismissed at the end of the fiscal year, if not long before.
The question of scope is important here, too. If a corporate chief executive makes a bad decision or enforces bad policy, the most damage he or she can do is to the company’s fortunes and those of its employees and shareholders. The executive may disappoint customers, too, but in a relatively free market economy they can make other and better choices. But if the EPA administrator makes bad decisions or enforces bad policy, the damage can affect wide swaths of the environment, entire sectors of the economy, and the nation as a whole.
Either way, someone gets to make the decisions, issue the orders, and oversee their enforcement. To my mind, the power of economic results is a stronger, swifter, and surer control of an individual’s actions than the power of political favor. People in politics who have bad ideas and support bad policies can still promise eventual success, call in past debts and favors, and retain their power after a debacle. A chief executive who tried to trade favors to cover failing financial performance would get short shrift.
Of course, if you don’t like the idea that anyone gets to make these decisions—either in government or in business—then you don’t understand the structure of human societies, economics, or politics. The power to call the shots will always exist for the taking and will be exercised by someone who knows how to play the game, either economically or politically. This will remain the case at least until human nature changes so that we are all either angels or robots.
If conservatives really wanted “no government,” as the progressives often claim, that would be anarchy. And I’m fairly sure this is not what conservatism is about. If progressives wanted “all-powerful government”—that is, for government to be the dominant or only force in society, deciding all economic, social, and political issues—that would be either National Socialism or Soviet-style Communism, where the only allowed political party is also central to the government’s operation and attempts to define and control every aspect of the lives of its citizens. And I’m not entirely sure that everyone who votes on the left side of the aisle actually wants that.
For people who talk all the time about having a “nuanced” view of the political and economic situation, this confusion of some or more, or some or less, with all or none is pretty un-nuanced, simplistic, willful, and obtuse. But that’s rhetoric, isn’t it?
1. “Poor” is always a relative term. In America, the poor people usually own or rent their homes, drive cars, watch television, and are often fat. In India, they sleep on the sidewalk and scrabble over husks. One is rich or poor only by comparison with one’s neighbors, and that comparison more often arouses envy than contentment.
2. I tend to see the conservative/progressive split as a seesaw. The conservative looks around and looks back, sees the good things that have been achieved, and is slow to adopt new and radical ideas about how to reorder or transform politics, economics, and society as a whole. The progressive looks around and looks ahead, sees only the failures and the shortcomings of what exists, and wants to forge ahead with every new idea that will move society, its economics, and its politics toward a promised future. Of course, what that chosen future should be is the point of their debate, the fulcrum of the seesaw.
3. See Why Own When You Can Rent? from October 13, 2013.