Bush’s Legacy: Conservative Failure (2)

On Tuesday I wrote in the first part of this series on George Bush’s conservative failure legacy that it all follows from a single utterance, from Ronald Reagan upon his inauguration on January 20, 1981; “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.”

Easy to see how the fallacy plays itself out the issues I reviewed earlier this week: rotting infrastructure and E. coli conservatism. It goes, however, much deeper than that: to issues of the soul. That’s what I’ve been writing about here most of all these past twenty months.

Disdain for government, first off, kills liberty. I wrote about that back on Independence Day, 2007, reviewing Daniel Brook’s important book The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.” I noted what Barry Goldwater said in his famous 1964 nomination acceptance speeches, one of the ür-texts of modern conservatism: “The tide has been running against freedom…. In our vision of a good and decent future, free and peaceful, there must be room for the liberation of the energy and talent of the individual… Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our own time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.” And argued, with Brook, that if you’re really worried about a society of conformism and the stifling of creative differences, adopt Goldwaterite conservatism as your ideology:

Take the destruction of affordable public college education – a development for which Ronald Reagan was in the forefront, as the first governor of California to impose a tuition for students at state universities. WWTJD – What Would Thomas Jefferson Do? He expressly established the University of Virginia as a haven for bright students “Whose parents are too poor to given them further education,” who Jefferson proposed could be “carried at public expense through the colleges and university.” Now, at the University of Virginia, only 8 percent of the students come from the bottom half of Virginia families, and only 8 percent of the 2005 budget came from taxpayer funds. They should take down the statue of Jefferson. It’s not his university any more.

And, too, the progressive income tax:

Jefferson argued that too much economic inequality violated “natural right,” and proposed “to exempt from all taxation [property] below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” You and I know that as a progressive income tax, but Barry Goldwater, who claimed to revere Jefferson, must have missed that part of his oeuvre. In Conscience of a Conservative, he put it in italics: government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man’s wealth, and no more.

Brooks shows conservatives drag the classical thinkers they claim to revere through the mud as well. I love Brook’s find that the first society with a progressive income tax was ancient Athens – “In its earlier tyrannical period, the Athenians had lived under an imposed flat tax” – and I love the way he uses it to demonstrate how an economically just society is for that reason the only truly free one: “Consequently, democratic Athens became the world’s first society to fully unleash its most talented citizens. Among the free male population at least, Athenians were free to pursue their talents, writing plays and philosophical texts, not merely making money, the great preoccupation of both underdeveloped societies and dramatically unequal societies like our own.” And he notes that “one of Athens’ greatest unleashed talents, the philosopher Aristotle, discerned a connection between a society dominated by the middle class and political stability and justice. The rich and poor…were prone to criminality…while the middle class obeyed the laws. He concluded that a just and well-run state must be controlled by a middle-class majority.”

Were conservatives better multiculturalists, they might be interested to learn that Confucius agreed. But they don’t even listen to their own conservative forebears – for instance, Andrew Mellon, who said “the fairness of taxing more lightly incomes from wages [than] from investments is beyond question.” It really is transcendent moral wisdom, echoing across the ages.

Instead, because investments are taxed so lightly, America has for all practical purposes adopted what only tyrannies had before – a flat tax: “Americans making $50,000 to $75,000 pay the same percentage of their incomes in taxes as the four hundred highest-income families in the country.”

It hasn’t given us Athens. It’s given us a world that better resembles Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature: “No Arts; no Letters,” as Brook quotes him – or more broadly, no chance for us to flourish to the best of our abilities.

And that’s a failure of conservatism. Not the sum of George W. Bush’s petty failures as chief executive these last eight years—a failure of conservatism at its essence, in its original ideological conception.

Here’s another way conservatism has helped rot our national soul: the fear. All that fear. They feed on fear, as I amplified in one of my most widely read posts—on how Americans greeted the visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the U.S. in 1959 compared to how we greeted Ahmedinejad in 2008. And as I amplified in another of my most widely read entries, about how FOX News made my grandma afraid to leave her house in the last years of her life. As Greg Anrig wrote the other day, the government-weakening policies that conservatives impose actually make people’s lives worse, so they rely on increasingly threadbare lies about how they can make people’s lives better. When they don’t make people’s lives better, a direct consequence is a corrosion of faith in our collective ability to make the world a better place.

A direct consequence of Reagan’s injunction: “Government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Fear’s consequences radiate outward: it creates communities of fear, communities of panicked gullability. One of my unsung but all time favorite series here has been an indictment of what kind of citizens conservatism turns conservatives into, and the contempt it enforces in the rulers of those they rule. I’ve called it “Conservatives Treat their Constituents Like Suckers”. They habitually dissolve of the boundary between the pecuniary and the political, so that ideological activism merely becomes a business; and the simple fact that the population of people who respond to conservative political appeals are easy marks for any sort of snake-oil sort of con. Their disrespect for citizens implicates their disrespect for science, not to mention social science, let alone the historical record


Add it all together, and you get, this one, my all-time favorite.

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