Hey, look — I’m basically a pretty conservative guy. I don’t like terrorists. I do like shooting guns, when I get the opportunity, and I would like to see a balanced budget and I basically want to be left alone and to leave others alone. Also, thinking about gay sex makes me sort of uncomfortable.
So when you factor in my maleness and my whiteness and my general level of economic frustration, I ought to be pretty much square in the middle of the Republican demographic. I ought to be, at the very least, a kind of sensible P.J. O’Rourke/David Brooks/George Will-style Republican. And yet somehow everything about the post-Gingrich Republican Party strikes me as ridiculous, clownish, disastrously unproductive, and harmful to our country.
Our two electoral parties don’t nearly do justice to the breadth and subtlety of political thought in our country, but they do offer, roughly, two competing stories about the world. In one story, life is a zero-sum game in which paying taxes merely impoverishes you without giving you anything in return, those who fail in the Holy Practice of Business should be punished by “the market,” and any form of collective action inevitably leads to collectivism. In the universe of this story, each of us must spend his every waking moment vigilant — vigilant! — against creeping socialism, terrorists, Mexicans and gay sex. But mostly creeping socialism.
This is where the rubber hits the road, because it’s the creeping socialism argument that screws everybody equally. When we remain Eternally Vigilant against socialism, we declare that we must all hang separately lest we all hang together; that only the cowardly and the weak would act other than in their own self-interest and only the depraved and the avaricious would countenance any modest sacrifice for the public good; that a sliver of safety for all must come at the cost of Forsteresque privation for one; that any admission of the role of chance and misfortune in human affairs necessarily degrades the roles of morality and individual effort; and that all suffering comes on two accounts — the providential hand of God, and the foolish attempts of government to thwart that hand.
In short, Republican ideology appeals to the part of us that is risk-averse. It appeals to the part of us that is small and afraid and wants to hoard everything and most of all wants to feel that there is some measure of control in the world. Republican conservatism offers a fiction that if you do the right things and don’t take chances and keep your head down, you will prosper. The corollary of that proposition, of course, is that in the natural order of things, you’re only poor, sick, or miserable because you deserve to be.
I think that’s why conservatism is often wrapped up in sexual anxiety — sex has the power to make us feel ashamed and uncertain and is that peculiar field in which we’re unusually subject to post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: I had gay sex, so my mom died. And so whenever Americans forget to be afraid of economic failure, conservative rally-horns shrill about lesbian marriage and wanton abortion-seekers, because if you’re subject to shame in one arena you get used to being shamed out of better things in all arenas.
Now, the other story, the one told by Democrats, is far from perfect, and the tellers themselves are by and large useless. (Was there ever a more whey-faced, weak-kneed, wooden, uninspiring cartel to hold power in a great empire? Scott Brown is only the latest in a series of Republican mental vacancies to win on personality and the ability to say something, anything, in a simple sentence.) But the basic story is just this: life is unpredictable, so let’s look out for each other.
That’s it. That’s the whole difference, basically. Republican conservatives want to mitigate risk by circling the wagons and holding onto everything they’ve got for dear life and hoping that rain will fall only on the unjust. Democratic liberals, on the other hand, want to mitigate risk by sharing it. Are you afraid of falling ill, or being poor in your old age, or being unable to give your child a decent education? Liberals — or hell, let’s call them what they are, which is a very milquetoast form of socialist — liberals say, “Hmmm. Let’s see if we can create an orderly way of helping one another avoid those pitfalls.” Republican conservatives, on the other hand, offer you this advice: “Don’t trip.”
And that’s a perfectly legitimate approach to American life, I suppose; I’ve painted this in moralistic terms, but humaneness isn’t a condition of citizenship, and selfish, fearful, risk-averse bullies get up and salute the flag every morning just like the rest of us.
But economically, does the “every man for himself” philosophy make sense for America? Ayn Rand, patroness to a century’s worth of adolescent blowhards, lionized publishers and businessmen and… um… architects… and other hardy invidualists, without ever quite considering that a modest welfare state actually makes entrepreneurship more attractive. And by welfare state here, I don’t mean bread lines and five year plans for steel and badly made cars. I mean, you know, “We won’t let you die on the sidewalk.” And the simple truth is that a man who’s less afraid of dying like a bum on a ventilation grate is more willing to take the economic risks that starting a business, or even leaving your job for a better job, can entail.
I offer myself as a simple example. Because I’m in the Army Reserve, I have very cheap and nearly bulletproof health insurance. (It’s also subsidized by the taxpayer, so it’s, say, 60% socialist.) It’s portable and not at all dependent on my full-time employer. This offers me quite a bit of latitude. Chances are pretty good I’ll end up in some sort of government job, but it’s by no means certain. I could, if I wanted to, start a business (Elana and I often talk about our future web-consulting service, yourwebsitesucks.com.) Or — more likely thanks to that other great socialist victory, the G.I. Bill — I could go back to school and become a lawyer or an agronomist or finally study Arabic at an advanced level. I could develop skills that not only make me a better commodity on the job market but actually add to the total pool of intellectual capital our society has to draw on.
I can take any or all of these paths and ultimately contribute in my small way to the growth of our economy, rather than hunkering down into a dead-end job as an assistant manager at the Taco Bell, because I have cheap, portable health insurance provided by the government. I am a better asset to our great capitalist experiment because of a carefully targeted bit of socialism.
Republicans — at least the vocal ones — want to create an environment in which failure is brutally punished and no one ever takes risks because there’s no safety net. That’s great for large, oligopolistic corporations, who would like laborers to be cowed and willing to take half a loaf because they’re afraid of getting nothing at all, but I don’t think it’s good for innovation or entrepreneurship. If we create a society in which the cost for trying something new and untested is bankruptcy and ruin, what message are we sending to those whose as yet unexpressed genius ought to carry us into the future? How will we foster either labor or capital that can react quickly to changes in the global marketplace, if change is associated with risk and risk is associated with personal doom? Pure-market capitalists love to talk about the motivation that the reward of profit provides, but a hypothetical carrot will hardly overmatch the everpresent threat of a very real stick.
Constructing more and safer paths to success does not impoverish the roadbuilders, nor does it benefit only those who take those roads. Easy access to education and flexible and secure health care and pensions enable those with ability and drive to react to changes in the economic environment, to increase the overall number of business experiments from which we draw our few runaway successes, and therefore to ultimately build wealth for the whole society.
And that is why I am an economic conservative who is in favor of socialism.