The Old Verities, Ever New

The National Debt Clock in Manhattan, November 30, 2017. (Two years later, the figure is $3 trillion more.) (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Kevin’s post below has stimulated some thoughts in me, and so have his other recent writings on economics and government. I know I am not alone in this. I’d like to jot some things down, for your consideration.

• In 2000, Governor George W. Bush, running for president, called for “compassionate conservatism.” This was effective, rhetorically. But it got the goat of some of us conservatives. There was an implied insult. So, conservatism until now has not been compassionate, huh?

In 1988, the governor’s father, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in New Orleans, had called for “a kinder, gentler America.” Sitting in the Superdome, the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, turned to Maureen Reagan and said, “Kinder and gentler than who?”

(This is one version of the story, and there are others.)

Anyway, this modification of “conservatism” — “compassionate conservatism” — stuck in the craws of many on the right. Senator Phil Gramm said, memorably, “Freedom is compassionate.”

Similarly, “common-good capitalism” gets some of our goats. There is not much in the world that has done more for the common good than the free market. Just plain “capitalism” — if that’s your term of choice (it’s not mine) — will do, thank you.

• Has anything that has been so beneficent — that has done so much for so many (whether they know it or not) — ever had fewer friends and defenders than the free market?

• “National” is another way that people modify “conservatism”: “national conservatism.” (Once upon a time, there was — gulp — national socialism.)

• Carly Fiorina knocked my socks off when she ran for president in 2016. In her standard speech, when she got to the portion on health care, she said, “The one thing we haven’t tried is the free market.” She recommended it. Even in those days — before Donald Trump was nominated and elected — it was kind of shocking to hear “free market” in public, from a politician’s mouth. Exciting, too.

Of course, Carly got about three votes.

• Last week, I had a talk with Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and the current president of Purdue University. (Articles and podcast to come.) Daniels is one of the last of the Reaganites. He ought to be under glass. Leaving his office, I thought, “If he ran for president, he’d get about three votes: from Mona Charen, me, and some guy who mismarked his ballot.”

(I am exaggerating. In fact, he might have greater appeal than any of us would guess.)

• Back to health care for a moment. In the 2016 primaries, Ted Cruz proposed a reform — a conservative reform. Trump said that Cruz had “no heart” and would let people “die in the streets.”

That’s the way the Left used to talk about us. Now we talk about us that way.

• In those GOP primaries, there were 17 candidates. Fifteen of them said that entitlements were a big, looming problem, crying out for reform. The other two candidates were Trump and Mike Huckabee. Trump said that reform was unnecessary — that we could simply ferret out “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the federal government.

Dukakis and other Democrats used to talk this way. We conservatives laughed at them.

• Writing in the Washington Post a few months ago, Mitch Daniels said,

There is no need to restate all the ruin that unpayable debt does to nations that indulge in it. Debt such as what we are now piling up will end badly. With entitlements and interest payments devouring available funds, the result will be some combination of economic catastrophe, the collapse of basic services or a disastrous weakening of national defense. For anyone still in denial, the Flat Earth Society is accepting applications.

Speaking of the Flat Earth Society, Kevin has a piece in our current issue on just that. He attended the Flat Earth International Convention (as a reporter, I should say, not a believer).

• Running for president in 2012, Mitt Romney said it was “immoral” — downright immoral — to pass on crushing debt to future generations. Most conservatives nodded in agreement at that, I think. These days, I hear Romney scorned for “moral preening” and “virtue signaling.”

Well, if he’s signaling, it’s not working.

• He warned against going “the way of Greece” — toward economic and societal collapse. He further said that collapse was cruel, very cruel: especially to the poor and needy.

• The Tea Party was a stunning, heartening response to the Obama administration’s overspending and general aggrandizement of the federal government. I haven’t heard much from the Tea Party in recent years. Is it still a going concern? The issues are very much live.

• Do you remember how we screamed about the auto bailout? Well, the current agricultural bailout is now well over twice that amount. If we don’t scream, maybe we could at least peep . . .

• The national debt is now more than $23 trillion (while the federal budget deficit is more than $1 trillion). At the 2012 Republican convention — the one that nominated Romney and Paul Ryan — there was a debt clock, ticking away. (The debt was then at about $16 trillion.) It seems so quaint now — and a long time ago.

Do you think there will be a debt clock at the Republican convention next year?

• Here is a headline from December 2018: “Trump is reportedly not worried about a massive US debt crisis as he’ll be out of office by then.” (Article here.)

• Here is a nugget from a report in July 2019: “Trump recently told West Wing aides that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him no politician had ever lost office for spending more money.”

McConnell is a canny old bird, for sure.

• My critics on the Trump right often tell me, “You had your day!” or “Your day is over!” I always think, “I had a day? When? Why didn’t anyone tell me, so I could have enjoyed it?” I’m always hearing that we were long governed by small-government, free-market principles, which did great harm to our people.

Really? First of all, America is a great and prosperous place, to which people from all over the world want to come. They are not stupid. Second, government has grown ever bigger, ever more expensive, ever more intrusive. People talk about “unfettered capitalism” and how we at last need to fetter it. Jonah Goldberg wrote a splendid, debunking column about this several days ago — here.

• In 2000, when George W. Bush was running on “compassionate conservatism,” people who style themselves “true conservatives” painted him as a squish, with a weakness for big government. Now they paint him as a dog-eat-dog libertarian, willing to let Grandma starve in the snow, as she sucks down her last opioid. The guy can’t win.

• Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and others have big, big plans for us. How big? Well, the Urban Institute has done some work on this. The institute is the offspring of LBJ, founded in Great Society days. Nevertheless, the institute is realistic when it comes to costs.

It costed out “Medicare for All” and its cousins. The results are not pretty. In fact, they are flooring. To read a news summary, go here.

(Mitch Daniels pointed out this study to me. He once headed a think tank himself, the Hudson Institute.)

• Twenty years ago, I was talking with a judge in West Virginia — a veteran liberal Democrat. When he was young, he worked with Sargent Shriver in the War on Poverty. A noble undertaking. I asked him — earnestly, without any snark — “Did it do any good?” “No,” he said, sadly and quietly.

An honest man.

• Before asking government to do more — even more, I want to say — we should ask, “How is it doing with its current tasks? Well enough to take on more?” This is a point that Daniels frequently makes, with eloquence and thoroughness.

That which government does, it should do well. Taxpayers should be getting their money’s worth. By that measure — how’s it going? Should the government, say, assume responsibility for health care?

• Many of my friends on the right are newly enthusiastic about government interventions in the economy and in life at large. I think they will find, however, that the old verities are true — about central planning, the free market, and all the rest of it. That’s the annoying thing about the old verities: They’re true.

• One of my favorite moments in politics occurred during the (aforementioned) 2012 presidential campaign. During the GOP primaries that year, I think. Mitt Romney — as well as other contenders, perhaps — was asked something like this: “In what three sectors of the economy do you expect the most growth as a result of your policies?” Romney answered something like this: “I have no idea. I’m not picking winners and losers. That’s for free men and women, working in a free society, to determine.”

That, to me, was fundamentally conservative — at least in American terms. But, as my Trumpite critics tell me, “the definition of ‘conservative’ has changed!” Don’t I know it, baby.

• We are always having to reinvent the wheel. Or to rediscover the wheel for ourselves. In every generation, people want to be central planners — no matter the results of the past. Some of these people are simply power-hungry and vainglorious, sure. But some of them are pure of heart. They just want to make things better. They may even say, “This time, it’ll be different! Because we are the ones doing the planning, and we will do it better than anyone ever did.”

They, too, come a cropper — and human experience is confirmed (annoyingly).

• When someone says, “I have a plan for that” — beware.

• WFB would sometimes cite a fun saying: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” But standing there, rather than doing something, can be boring. It can also seem callous. Laissez faire often goes against our moral instincts. If you’re a member of the political class, you’re itching to fix things. Also, you want to be consequential. It’s only natural. You want to make a difference (big phrase when I was growing up).

Great. But first do no harm. The ability to engineer outcomes is vastly overrated.

• A lot of people are planning bright futures for us. Socialists, nationalists, populists, post-liberals, integralists, and all the rest of them. I beseech them, with those Hippocratic words: First and above all, do no harm.

• Many years ago, WFB was tangling with The New Republic, and made a play off its name: “But who will look after the old republic?”

• My words here — these jottings — have been very, very simple. 101. Elementary. I think of a bestseller from the mid-’80s: All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Sometimes these kindergarten lessons bear revisiting. And I thank KDW, and others as well, for the stimulation.

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