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What is a Conservative?


The race for the Republican presidential nomination reflected the extent to which conservatives have abandoned their own principles. The two leading Republican contenders, George W. Bush and John McCain, waged a fierce fight over who is the true conservative and the real government reformer.

But what does conservatism have to do with reform of government programs? Conservatives were once guided by the moral principles undergirding economic liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government. If a government program violated those principles, conservatives would ardently oppose it.

No longer. Now the quest is not to abolish anything – not even the once-favorite whipping boy, the National Endowment for the Arts – but rather to reform and improve government departments, agencies, and programs.

Consider the crown jewel of the socialistic welfare state – Social Security. Here’s a government program that is the absolute embodiment of the socialist dictum “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” By now, everyone should know that there is no Social Security fund and that there never has been one. Social Security is a straight transfer program. The IRS collects taxes from the young and productive, and the Social Security Administration administers the welfare to the elderly. The system is based on taking what belongs to one person and giving it to someone to whom it does not belong.

Let’s not forget the roots of Social Security. It did not originate with Madison, Washington, or Jefferson. In fact, our American ancestors would have nothing to do with such a program. That’s why Americans lived without Social Security from 1787 to 1935. Social Security originated with German socialists during the regime of Otto von Bismarck, the “iron chancellor” of Germany during the late 19th century. That’s where President Roosevelt got the idea.

When Roosevelt proposed Social Security as part of his New Deal for America, conservatives ardently opposed the program. They emphasized that it was morally wrong for a person to take what didn’t belong to him, even when it was being accomplished through the collective action of the state; that Social Security would constitute an assault on family values; and that government had no business taking care of people.

Alas, no longer! Today, conservatives are totally committed to conserving the socialism of Social Security. Mention repeal of Social Security, and conservatives have as big a fit as the most ardent leftist. The conservative buzzword of today is “reform,” as if a morally and economically bankrupt socialist program should even be reformed.

Conservatives and public schooling

It’s the same with public schooling. Bush has made education a central theme of his presidential campaign, as if he were indeed running for national superintendent of schools. He’s got a federal reform plan that will finally fix public schools all across America, after 100 years of admitted failure. What Bush and so many other conservatives don’t want to recognize is that public schooling has failed not for lack of the right reform but simply because it is inherently defective.

It is impossible to find a better example of socialistic central planning than public schooling. A central board of elected or appointed commissars, whether at a national, state, or local level, plans, in a top-down fashion, the educational decisions of thousands or hundreds of thousands of children. Attendance is coerced. People are forced to fund the system through taxation. Students are required to listen to state-approved doctrine from state-approved schoolteachers using state-approved textbooks.

If central planning has failed all over the world in the production of goods and services, why should we expect it to succeed in the area of education? On the other hand, everyone knows that the free market produces the best of everything – food, clothing, automobiles, and churches. Why wouldn’t it produce similar results in the educational arena?

Yet, do we hear conservatives, the great advocates of free enterprise, advocating a free market in education by ending all state involvement in education? On the contrary! They don’t even openly call for the abolition of the Department of Education anymore. They’re now simply calling for “reform,” as if educational socialism, even at a state or local level, could finally be made to succeed, after 100 years of failure.

Conservative support of income taxation

Consider another example of conservative abandonment of conservative principles: the matter of the so-called surplus. Conservatives once believed that what a person earned belonged to him by right. Property, conservatives would remind us, is a fundamental, God-given right with which no government can legitimately interfere. Thus, when the 16th Amendment was proposed, after approximately 125 years of life without a national income tax, conservatives ardently opposed it.

Today, the conservative spectacle with respect to income taxation is a disgrace to the princi-ples of liberty, private property, and limited government which conservatives once stood for and fought for. Bush proposes an income-tax reduction, which is just another way to try to buy votes from people during election time. Worse, however, is his implicit acknowledgement that every-one’s income is owned by the government, which has the power to adjust the percentage so that people can be offered a bigger allowance at election time.

Even the self-proclaimed dean of conservatives among the Republican presidential candidates, Steve Forbes, could never bring himself to drive a stake through the heart of the national income tax. Instead, he called for the so-called flat tax, which, of course, implicitly acknowledges that people’s income belongs to the government.

In other words, (with a few exceptions, like Alan Keyes) conservative Republicans today honestly believe that the state owns (and should own) everyone’s income and have the power to decide how much each person shall be permitted to keep.

Each election period, Republicans are notorious for holding the income-tax power over our heads by offering us, in return for votes, the opportunity (after the election) to keep a little more of our hard-earned money, and to be grateful to our Republican masters for being so nice to us.

Platitudes and buts

And what’s pathetic about all of this is that conservatives continue to mouth the principles for which their forebears stood. “We favor free enterprise, private property, and limited government,” they often remind us. Yet, when you ask a conservative, “Does this mean that you favor abolishing public schooling and having a totally free market in education?” he answers, “Oh, I believe in free enterprise, but education is just too important to be left to the free market.”

Or if you ask conservatives, “Does this mean you favor repealing Medicare and Medicaid and occupational licensure so that there will be a totally free market in health care?” they answer, “Oh, we believe in free enterprise, but health care is just too important to be left to the free market.”

Or: “Does this mean you favor abolishing Social Security and leaving retirement and the honoring of mother and father totally to the free market?” Their answer: “Oh, we believe in free enterprise, but that would cost us votes.”

The sad truth is that there is no difference in principle between a leftist (or a “liberal,” in the corrupted sense of the word) and a conservative. And both sides know it. The “liberals” will always have the upper hand on the conservatives, because as soon as conservatives start preaching such mantras as “We favor free enterprise and small government,” all that “liberals” have to do is bring up Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public schooling. They know that conservatives will hightail it for cover, proclaiming for all the world to hear how they will fight to support these socialistic programs along with the taxation needed to fund them.

Principle or power

Thus, today, the fight is not over principles but rather over who will triumph in the quest to wield the power to control people’s lives and fortunes. As Republicans are now constantly reminding us, they thirst to recapture the White House not for the achievement of any principles of freedom, but simply to deny Al Gore the power over people’s lives and fortunes. Some cause!

The inherent conflict within the conservative movement is its dual devotion to freedom and conserving. When people live in a free society, conservatives are likely to fight hard to conserve their freedom. The problem arises when people live under the yoke of such socialist programs as Social Security, national health care, state schooling, and income taxation. When that happens, conservatives unfortunately subordinate their dedication to freedom and free markets to conserving the tyranny under which they suffer.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.