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The Calamity of Bush's Conservatism

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 03, 2008 by

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[This speech was delivered at the Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 2, 2008. You can watch Lew deliver this speech on YouTube: part 1; part 2.]

Sometimes people say that Americans are cynical about politics. Looking at the way the Bush administration has used and abused its power for the last eight years, is it really surprising? You would have to be sedated not to be cynical.

It should be clear why the Ron Paul movement took the country by storm. It represents something different, something hopeful. Some commentators talk about how the Paulians have a dark view of American society. Actually, the opposite is true. That people worked so hard to save this country from the regular politicians speaks very highly of their outlook.

On the other hand, it is true that Paulians don't have a high regard for existing political structures.

Consider Bush. He has not only broken election promises and trampled on American liberties, he hasn't done a single decent thing for this country. And what he has done contradicts all of the values he said he would uphold both times he tricked people into voting for him.

I wish I could report that this wasn't his intention. And yet even from his first day in office, he spoke to aides about his priority of going to war on Iraq — a country hardly mentioned during his first presidential campaign.

Here's another example.

Just after Bush took office, David Frum, then a White House speechwriter, was part of a policy meeting with the new president. They were discussing the energy policy of the new administration. Recall that in those days, gasoline cost less than a dollar a gallon. Frum had the idea that it would be a political victory to drive down the price. He suggested the Bush use the phrase "cheap energy" to describe his goal.

Frum writes in his memoirs about what happened next. Bush "gave me a sharp, squinting look, as if he were trying to decide whether I was the very stupidest person he had heard from all day." He might have added that profits in the oil business — which is the business that this government cares most about — were growing thinner.

Cheap energy, he answered, was how we got into this mess.

What mess? Bush explained to Frum that regular Americans were buying too many SUVs and using too much gasoline and not paying enough for it. His answer was not to make energy cheaper but to make it more expensive.

Congratulations, Mr. President. Your wars, your regulations, your disruption of the international economy, and your failure to open up the industry to anyone other than your friends has resulted in quadrupling the price of gasoline!

Of course, Bush's success comes at our expense. All of his successes have come at our expense. In fact, that last sentence might as well be the theme of his entire presidency.

Of course, he didn't campaign on the promise of making our lives more miserable. Let's take a look back and see what his slogans were.

Do you remember the phrase "compassionate conservatism"?

He said in an early speech that the phrase came from his insight that broken lives can only be rebuilt by another caring, concerned human being. From this he developed what he called a "bold new approach." He would use government to care for us and to love us and to fix our broken lives. He alone would do this as head of state.

Few knew at the time that this simple phrase, "compassionate conservatism," masked a dangerous, Messianic ambition. Some wires had gotten crossed in his brain. He began to see himself as God's instrument on earth.

Here is another phrase from early in his presidency. Bush was going to create an "ownership society." Some commentators were stupid enough to believe that this meant that he would privatize things and give back control to the people.

To those who bought this line, I have only this to say: You Got Owned.

"There comes a time in the life of every believer in freedom when he must declare, without any hesitation, to have no attachment to the idea of conservatism."

Remember the phrase, "humble foreign policy"? Coming from Bush, that sounds about as ridiculous as the phrase "peaceful war," except that he seems to believe in that too.

His delirium is like an infection. It spreads. After all, Bush supporters are the people who continue, even to this day, to talk about their amazing tactical successes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another former Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson, in his new book, calls Iraq a "swift and humane success."

If such claims do not qualify as Orwellian, I don't know what the word means.

Many people say that the Bush administration has departed from conservative principles. There was a time when I might have said that, if by "conservatism" we mean the constitutionalism of Robert Taft and Ron Paul.

But consider that Ron is the only Republican in the whole Congress or anywhere inside the Beltway to stand up to Bush's attempt to create a totalitarian state. Only he has consistently opposed Bush's wars, regulations, spying, and shredding of the Constitution. He alone warned against Bush's monetary policies, his trade policies, his diplomatic misadventures, and his crazed, megalomaniacal arrogance.

You might say that many have opposed this administration privately. You might say the same thing about the Stalin, Hitler, and Mao administrations. Those who could speak out against the wickedness, and did not do so, are morally culpable.

What does this tell us? It tells us that conservatism as we once knew it is hopelessly corrupted. Conservatism has come to be identified with endless war, government expansion, violations of every human right and liberty. You can detect it at cocktail parties, where self-identified conservatives sneer at the very idea of liberty.

Clearly, in the age of Bush, conservatism now constitutes as great or even greater a threat to American liberty than the Left and left-liberalism. It is long past time for every right-thinking American to reject the term conservative as a self-description.

I for one no longer believe that Bush has betrayed conservatives. In fact, he has fulfilled conservatism, by completing the redefinition of the term that began many decades ago with Bill Buckley and National Review. Think of it realistically. What does conservatism today stand for? It stands for war. It stands for power. It stands for spying, jailing without trial, torture, counterfeiting without limit, and lying from morning to night.

There comes a time in the life of every believer in freedom when he must declare, without any hesitation, to have no attachment to the idea of conservatism.

After immigrating to the United States, Ludwig von Mises was aghast to find himself described as a conservative. He denounced that term in 1956. F.A. Hayek in 1960 announced very clearly that he was not a conservative. Murray Rothbard wrote thousands of words of protest against the term. Frank Chodorov went further. He said that anyone who called him a conservative would get a punch in the nose.

Now, the leaders of the Republican Party are telling us that the only real alternative to the socialism of the Democrats is the fascism of the Republicans. They don't call it that, of course, but that's the traditional name for the combination of nationalism, militarism, and right-wing collectivism. They have a heritage, and it dates from the interwar period, when certain European politicians took power amidst economic crisis. Having their confreres in power in our time represents the gravest danger facing our country.

Yet Ron Paul has been campaigning for liberty and against this danger since he first read Hayek and Mises in medical school, since he first encountered an immoral war's severed limbs and crippled souls as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, since he first decided, on August 15, 1971, to dedicate his life as a public intellectual and a public official to free markets and sound money, against Nixonian economic controls and the unlimited money creation that has brought us even more booms and busts, and led us to the current crisis.

Indeed, since Ron Paul says he was born a libertarian, we can say he has been fighting for freedom his entire life.

To do all this, Ron Paul had to buck Republican conservatism. Look at the peerless, shining example he has set. And look what he has done, look at this historic event, and dream of what he will do in the future.

To those who have lingering attachments to conservatism, I will close with the words that Murray Rothbard had for the Young Americans for Freedom, spoken in 1960:

Why don't you get out … breathe the clean air of freedom, and then take your stand, proudly and squarely, not with the despotism of the power elite and the government of the United States, but with the rising movement in opposition to that government? Then you will be libertarians indeed, in act as well as in theory. What hangover, what remnant of devotion to the monster State, is holding you back? Come join us, come realize that to break once and for all with statism is to break once and for all with the Right-wing. We stand ready to welcome you.

Today, Ron Paul stands ready to welcome you. Like the many thousands at this historic event, we say to all who yearn to breathe free: Join us! Join Ron Paul!