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Sunday, February 17, 2019

When Parallel Lines Merge in Politics

One of the axioms of Euclidean geometry is that parallel lines never meet. In politics, however, they do.

Over the past half century, the left and the right in American politics have drifted closer and closer to one another. It will only take three key bills to pass Congress, and the parallel lines of conservatism and liberalism will finally merge.

The reason for this is not that the left has moved closer to the right. It is the exact opposite. For half a century, the Republican party has channeled conservative political power in toward the middle - and as the middle has moved to the left, so has the Republican party.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the desire of the GOP to follow in Democrat footsteps and continue to expand our Scandinavian-style welfare state. We are only three major entitlement programs from completing it: paid family leave, universal child care and single-payer health care. Once those programs are in place, America will be completely transformed into an egalitarian welfare state.

The paid-leave part is already well under way. President Trump endorsed the idea in his 2017 budget. In his latest State of the Union speech, he repeated his commitment in a reach-out to the Democrats in Congress. Republicans on Capitol Hill have also warmed up to it, with commitments from Senator Rubio and conservative groups like the Independent Women's Forum. Other Republicans, such as Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Joni Ernst of Iowa, have come onboard with the idea.

Once paid family leave is passed, Congress will move forward to the next item on the welfare-state completion agenda. When all the items on that checklist have been taken care of based on bipartisan agreement, the actual ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats will have been reduced to the difference between those two merged lines.

This ideological consensus represents an existential threat to the United States of America. It advances a socio-economic structure - the Scandinavian, egalitarian welfare state - the economic consequences of which are serious and, as Europe has demonstrated, largely irrevocable. The European economy has suffered dramatically under the burden of the welfare state: in the past ten years, the euro zone has averaged less than 0.7 percent real growth per year.

During the same period of time, the U.S. economy has exceeded 1.5 percent, pointing to a distinct difference that it might be worth preserving. However, with less and less space between the two main lines in politics, our nation is increasingly at risk of European-style economic stagnation - and, as a result, a major fiscal crisis.

Not only does this ideological merger usher in a new era of welfare-state stagnation, but it also solidifies a dangerous intellectual resistance to alternative thought. When Republican and Democrat political agendas merge, that merger creates - even promulgates - a consensus around a new idea of the relationship between the individual and the state. This relationship carries with it an intellectual arrogance that shields our political leadership from alternative thought.

In doing so, it locks Republican and Democrat leaders into a bubble where the state is superior to the individual, and any solution to any major problem in society requires state intervention.

That includes solving - and preventing - a fiscal crisis.

This merged line of thought that ranks the state as superior to the individual, is alien to the American founding. Since its independence, the United States has stood on a bedrock of libertarian thought:

--the individual is superior to the state, and
--the state is confined to a limited set of functions, concentrated around the protection and perpetuation of individual liberty.

That bedrock is being removed before our very eyes: the welfare state flips the relationship between the individual and the state, assigning to government the cardinal role of economic redistribution. It is the duty of the state to rearrange the economic outcomes of a free economy; so long as differences exist between individual citizens in terms of income and wealth, the state's duty remains in place.

As government expands in its pursuit of economic equality, its incursions into private life expand as well. To remain in this pursuit, the state must constantly expand its powers; reciprocally, it must restrict and enumerate individual freedom.

The state becomes superior to the individual.

There is nothing surprising in this gradual progress of government powers. The architects of the egalitarian welfare state, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and his wife, sociologist Alva Myrdal, repeatedly stated that the individual - not just his liberty but his education and his workforce participation - had to be confined to the functions that government assigned to him.

America has copied the socio-economic architecture of the Swedish welfare state. Thanks to the work of Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives, the American right has come to accept that architecture. Therefore, the Republican party has de facto become America's second social-democratic party.

It is enormously important to understand the tie back to Irving Kristol, David Brooks, Norm Podhoretz and other neoconservatives, including Kristol's son Bill over at the defunct Weekly Standard, and political-science professor Patrick Deneen at the University of Notre Dame. The one thing they all have in common is that they accept, even endorse the egalitarian welfare state. To the extent that they even discuss it, they express a belief that they know how to run it better than the left does.

Their endorsement of the welfare state - which we will explore in detail on this blog in the coming weeks - explains why we have a phenomenon that Cato Institute Senior Fellow Michael Tanner once dubbed "Leviathan on the Right". In his book with that title, Tanner traces the big-government roots of the Republican party all the way back to the 1950s and William F Buckley’s work to make conservatism “respectable”.

Tanner also notes that there are few groups of intellectuals who "have had as much influence over the shape of contemporary conservatism as the neoconservatives" (Tanner 2007, p. 24). Furthermore, he explains, this group
achieved positions of influence both inside and outside the Bush [Jr] administration and the Republican Party generally. In these roles they have been a driving force behind big-government conservatism.
Tanner also points to how neoconservatives - primarily Irving Kristol - were heavily influenced by socialist thinkers and socialist thought. As they gradually migrated from the Democrat party and became Republicans, many leading neoconservatives were appointed to various positions in the Reagan administration (Tanner, p. 31). After a hiatus from power during the Clinton presidency, the neoconservatives again got their hands on the executive branch under President Bush Jr.

And so, government spending increased. The federal budget expanded by 6.2 percent per year in Bush's first term and six percent flat in his second. It is worth noting that non-defense spending actually outpaced defense spending, despite the massive growth in the Pentagon budget after the 9/11 attacks.

It is not difficult to understand this, given a quote that has been attributed to Kristol (Tanner, p. 33):
Neoconservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of the welfare state, but is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state. In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual's affairs.
In other words, socialism with a humane facade.

It is worth noting that the Republican acceptance of the welfare state did not emerge suddenly with the election of George W Bush. It began already under Reagan, who grew federal spending twice as fast as Clinton did: 6.4 percent per year compared to 3.2 percent. Because of its slow but relentless proliferation in the Republican party, it comes as no surprise that the neoconservative philosophy of the big state has, as C Bradley Thompson puts it, emerged as the most “respectable” conservative brand (Thompson 2010).

The merger of the parallel lines of Republican and Democrat political agendas has not posed an existential threat to the United States until now. Before the Obama administration and its major expansion of government in our health care system, we still had some padding in our economy. We could, so to speak, absorb another expansion of the welfare state.

Now, that padding is gone. Government finances, both federal, state and local, are stretched to the brink by welfare-state driven entitlement spending. Two thirds of the federal budget goes toward economic redistribution in one form or another; more than half of state and local government spending serves the same purpose.

The combination of big, redistributive government spending, a highly progressive income tax system that punishes success, and high sales and property taxes on the middle class, has placed a heavy burden on our economy. With costly regulations added on top, it is no wonder that our economy is having major difficulties sustaining 3+ percent GDP growth.

As a result of weak growth, middle-class earnings barely keep up with inflation. Tax revenue, while soaring from time to time, have become increasingly volatile - and are notoriously inadequate in funding government. With a national debt exceeding GDP, and with trillion-dollar deficits in the immediate future, our federal government has reached the point where even a normal recession can escalate to a fiscal disaster.

With Republicans parked solidly in the neoconservative mindset, they are intellectually entirely unprepared to deal with a fiscal crisis. It does not exist in the mindset of someone whose ideological conviction says that the welfare state is what our nation needs. Even worse: when that ideological conviction includes the arrogance of a neoconservative, who says that he knows better than the left how to run the welfare state, the preparedness for a fiscal meltdown is almost nil.

The merger of the Republican and Democrat lines in our politics allows this close-minded arrogance to engulf Congress. It is practically a guarantee that if the next economic recession is anything like the last one, America will founder. We will experience the Swedish welfare-state crisis from the 1990s (explained in chapter 2 in my book Industrial Poverty), then the Greek crisis of the past ten years (see my two-part white paper at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity) and eventually the Venezuelan collapse.

Tanner, M. Leviathan on the Right. Washington, D.C.: Cato, 2007.
Thompson, C.B. Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea. Boulder: Paradigm, 2010.

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