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Thin Gruel for “Social” Republicans

By: Carl Graham

Bozeman: Barry Goldwater, in a line that may have cost him the presidency, famously quipped that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. Turns out he might have been on to something there, and Montana’s latest legislative session is a great example.

Goldwater’s quote came in 1964 when Republicans were in a fissile state just hot enough to self-immolate but not hot enough to start a real fire. The “establishment” wing of the Party was mostly comfortable with a growing government and felt that if they didn’t rock the boat they’d have a seat at the table and get their slice of the pie even if it consigned them to being forever small fish in a big pond.

This governance-by-metaphor confused amity with effectiveness, as well as the electorate, and resulted in a two party, one philosophy system that left a large chunk of American conservatives without a political home until the Reagan revolution scooped them up nearly twenty years later.

Into this vacuum stepped two disparate groups: a new dissident small government movement and a loud anti-communist faction that allowed themselves to painted as nuttier than an Angus bull pen. Goldwater’s quote appealed to the former group but scared enough people into thinking he was a part of the latter one to at least partially account for his losing to an incumbent with few tangible accomplishments under his belt. President Johnson was easily able to win by defining Goldwater as an extremist rather than running on his own merits. Sound familiar?

So what’s all that got to do with Montana’s legislative session? In 1964 the candidate who represented smaller government, fiscal responsibility and libertarian principles was thwarted by a combination of status quo Republicans and Democrats who successfully labeled him as a nut. In 2013 the smaller government, pro-liberty agenda of a GOP majority in both legislative chambers was successfully undermined by the combination of a lockstep Democratic caucus and a handful of – let’s use their term – “Responsible Republicans” intent upon growing state government and presenting a harmonious front. So how’d that work out?

First of all, I don’t blame the Democrats for growing government any more than the turtle blames the snake for biting him halfway across of the river. It’s what they do, and the economic or philosophical merits of that approach are arguments for another day. I even, however grudgingly, respect the consistency and clarity of their approach. But they could not have succeeded in the minority without the handful of “Responsible Republicans” who crossed the aisle on some key bills. So let’s see how the guiding principles of amity and moderation turned out for those folks.

If increasing the state’s budget by 14% when most Montanans are seeing their paychecks stagnate at best is responsible then they’re right on track. If delivering an unbalanced budget to the governor is responsible then they’ve got a lock on what’s good for Montana, if not a handle on what’s required by Montana’s Constitution. If, after inheriting a huge surplus, it’s responsible to have spending increases outpace tax relief by a factor of ten, then those “Responsible Republicans” have their fingers on the conservative pulse. If tying school funding to volatile commodity prices is responsible, then our kids won’t be able to wait until they’re eighteen to vote these guys back in office, if they can read the ballot.

In truth, none of those things are considered responsible in the conservative districts that put most these Republicans in office. To be fair a couple of them are in moderate to liberal districts that fall under the Buckley Rule of electing the most conservative person possible. But most of them advanced an agenda that is anathema to the fiscally conservative, ruggedly individualistic beliefs held by most of the people who sent them to Helena. They either misrepresented themselves to their electorate or they are so devoid of core principles that they covet power for power’s sake and will do whatever it takes to not be called names.

They are Social Republicans, not to be confused with social conservatives who actually stand for something. The “social” in Social Republicans means they want to be seen as socially acceptable by all. They want to get invited to the “right” parties, fawned over in coffee shops, and above all not have any uncomfortable moments with people who disagree with them or be made fun of in the papers. They, like the establishment Republicans of Goldwater’s time, confuse amity with effectiveness and power with principle. And what did they get for it?

The governor slaughtered their sacred cows with the same zeal he took to the priorities of those upstart conservative Republicans who booted them out of leadership positions. They lost the respect of their opponents and the trust of their peers. And for what? To be liked? To not be called names by people who still want to beat them? To get along rather than fight for the values of the very people they were elected to represent?

No, in the end it seems the Responsible Republicans got their cake and ate it too, except that the governor got to eat it first. Bon Appetit.

This commentary appeared on Montana Public Radio : 5/9/2013

Montana Public Radio Commentary: Philosophies on Philosophies

Philosophies on Philosophies

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

With stimulus packages apparently designed to just stimulate government growth, “Quantitative Easing” that’s only inflating the next bubble, and institutionalized denigration of those holding differing opinions passing for political discourse, maybe it’s time to say a few words about central planning.

Huh? What the heck does central planning have to do with any of that stuff?

Well, it’s a good representation of those differing opinions that many of us have. It exemplifies the difference in philosophy between those who think government is the only thing we all belong to, and those of us who think government actually is the only thing that belongs to all of us.

Let’s face it.  Some people want to be planned for.  They like having membership in a club that can make the tough calls, do the intellectual heavy lifting, and take the heat for our collective misdeeds.  They’re willing to give up some latitude in their lives to not have to make those hard decisions, or maybe they think there are enough others out there who are incapable of making good decisions that somebody should help narrow their options.  And of course there’s no shortage of people who think they have all the answers and gee wouldn’t we all be better off if they could just impose their ideas on the rest of us in the form of central planning. It’d be so much more efficient and, even if a few eggs get broken it’ll still be a better omelet.

But history is littered with failed attempts by states (or more accurately elites) to centrally plan all or significant portions of economies.  From the French Revolution to socialism to communism, to even Plato’s philosopher king, elites have tried to tie all the pieces of society together in a way that provided for everyone by dictating the types and amounts of things (materials, ideas, labor, etc.) to keep the machine running.  All failed spectacularly.  Well, Plato’s wasn’t really tried but come on; can you really see your old philosophy professor with the pony tail and bong blisters in charge?

These attempts were all cloaked in good intentions but failed out of a combination of hubris and indifference: someone assumed they could know the unknowable about what people wanted and needed, and what it would take to provide all of those things in the right quantities and at the right places and times.  And because enough people didn’t demand the right to make their own decisions the ruling elites were able to use powerful and centralized governments to impose their “solutions.”

Let’s see: bank lending requirements, pay caps, government-run healthcare, mass subsidies, auto bailouts…the list is growing of things that someone somewhere thinks they know more about than millions of free people making free decisions about how best to allocate their resources to pursue their own happiness. As more and more decisions and resources are centralized in Washington, the gap between haves and have-nots is being replaced by a growing gulf between those who get to make decisions about we’ll live our lives, and those of us who have live with those decisions.

And that is why, I think, we’re seeing denigration passing for opinion and demonization passing for discourse. The stakes have never been higher, and there are two broad camps out there with fundamentally different visions of what this country should look like– both with strong historical philosophical roots and legitimacy. But both can’t be right, at least not at one time in one place.

I’m getting quite tired, for example, of hearing that those on the Left are stupid, uninformed, or evil.  Some certainly are some or all of those things, as are some on the Right. But just like ignorance, racism and extremism don’t define the vast majority of those on the Right; stupidity and malevolence don’t define the activating forces behind those on the Left.

Ignoring the vast malleable center for the moment – which we generally do anyway except at election time – most people fall into one of two camps, both of which have long philosophical pedigrees and solid ideological underpinnings.

Folks like me who believe that freedom and happiness flow from natural rights and having choices in our lives too often fall into the trap of casually dismissing as useful idiots or miscreants those who believe that rights are granted by governments which are in turn best led by intellectual elites attuned to the needs of the times.

It’s not necessarily gullible or malevolent to believe that some set of experts are better at adapting to the times than individuals and so they should be in charge for the betterment of us all.  It sounds nuttier than a Planters Peanut factory to me, but it’s not an illegitimate view and it should be argued against, not belittled.

Likewise, many on the Left generally dismisses the new grassroots conservative movement as not worthy of their derision and so fall back on manufactured stereotypes of racists and bumpkins to explain any popularity and successes these groups attain.

What many on the Left don’t understand is that there are sound ideological and philosophical underpinnings to conservative values as well. Founding principles and religious values are legitimate in the mainstream, and so the people who hold them must be tarred with illegitimate caricatures of bigotry or ignorance to marginalize them. That is, or should be, insulting to honest people on both sides of the argument.

The thing is, if we don’t understand our opponents’ philosophies and what goes into their assumptions how can we tailor our arguments to oppose them and expose their fallacies?  And if we take the intellectually lazy position of ascribing ill intent or ignorance rather than understanding their arguments then we miss an enormous opportunity to debate issues on the strengths of our own arguments.  We’re seeing too much of that now, where informed and interested people are calling each other playground names instead of trying to persuade each other and educate those around them.

We would do our political system a favor, and maybe we could get back to watching boring beer commercials for a while if we spent a little more time listening and a little less time calling each other names.

–end–