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Brooks's Not-So-New Idea

October 5, 2004

"Socialism has stopped its march." Or so declares David Brooks in his Sunday Times article. In reading that, I wondered what Mises, were he alive today, would say about the matter. When I read on further in Mr. Brooks's article, I realized that, like our friend the Alien, it has never really died, but has simply taken up disguised residence within the breast and mind of its unwelcoming new hosts, the Republican Party. Yes, even though they thought they were immune and have professed to hunt the beast for years, they seem to be blind to the fact that they have caught the villainous parasite themselves.

We will certainly agree with Mr. Brooks that the Republican Party's every effort to reduce government since they took over Congress in 1995 has failed, and miserably so—a serious charge, but unfortunately a valid one, the evidence is clear. Their frenzy to flush out the enemy was met with such public outcry that they hastily beat a retreat. There seems to be no denying that.

But Brooks goes further, declaring that conservatives are fighting a dead enemy. He draws the conclusion that not only have they not been successful with their misguided efforts to streamline government, but that they would do well to stop any further useless attempts, so as to take advantage of the power presently amassed to do some good, for a change.

In defense of this "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy, he makes several assertions about past politicians' successful efforts to intervene in the marketplace, even going as far back as Alexander Hamilton, who if I understand correctly is one of those responsible for making this federation as unwieldy as it is. These assertions are essential to his argument, but I have my doubts about this interpretation of history, for even with 20/20 hindsight, it is difficult to infer the causality he cites.

He has revived old inflationist myths with his claim that Hamilton's nationalizing of the Revolutionary War debt was the cause of the subsequent shift away from landowner power toward commercial trading. Natural market evolution was the actual reason. Neither did the creation of the Bank of the United States really foster a more equitable competition and enhanced market dynamism. We can only wince in reading that Roosevelt rejected socialism, because it is Roosevelt himself who started both of the nation's major political parties on the path to adopting every single one of the 1920's socialist platform, as they have now done.

Brooks uses the phrase "progressive conservative" to describe his new 2004 Republican, a net improvement, apparently, on Bush's "compassionate conservative," although I'm not sure why, because both encompass the exact same means of achieving social objectives as the Democrats. For example, he praises government attempts to alter American culture, encourages the goal of equalization of financial status through corporate subsidies such as the Earned Income Credit, and proposes hand-outs which he thinks will encourage family unity.

All of these elements could just as easily be found in the Democratic platform, indeed are among those planks found in every socialist-leaning government in Europe today. To give one example of the backfiring of well-intended federal giving in France today, child allowances exist to encourage families to have more children, but unfortunately the result is that women have begun to avoid marriage so as to be able to declare lower household income and qualify for a more privileged sum. If the father is not actually absent, they simply declare his residence elsewhere.

Brooks claims that "most Republicans have embraced a significant federal role in education" in order to "smash the education monopolies." First of all, common sense would dictate that this is a non sequitur, because the federal and state education collusion is a monopoly itself. Furthermore, I would like to take a poll, because I see that many conservatives seem to deplore the ineffectiveness of those same federal efforts.

One has only to observe the size and success of the home schooling movement today, many of whom are conservative, to see that the opposite may be true. Typically incongruously, Mr. Brooks endorses vouchers while at the same time calling for a federal "Homestead Act for charter [school]s" to provide start-up capital. Apparently it's better to give than receive, especially when you can give with one hand and take back with the other.

Another non sequitur: he states that technology is the sphere where "limited but energetic government" can stimulate innovation without succumbing to the "lure of industrial policy making." The idea of government stimulating the private sector in the place of the marketplace is just plain ridiculous, and, to my mind, "government" and "policy-maker" have become synonymous, making it difficult if not impossible for that leopard to change its spots.

Mr. Brooks also believes that the government is actually capable of forging a person's character. What is the tool he chooses? "National service," or in other words the draft—another old term dressed up in new clothes. I have to admit, the way he puts it I could almost be convinced, especially when he enlists the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr. to support his argument, willingly or not. He sees his revived draft as a "rite of passage for young Americans," who should be proud to "go through a boot camp experience, taking them out of the rhythms of their lives, forcing them to endure a fiber-testing ordeal along with people unlike themselves." If it didn't sound so much like something right out of the Little Red Book, I might even join up myself. Heaven knows I could use such an uplifting experience.

At least his article is not all pessimism. His does manage to express condemnation of corporate subsidies (except the Earned Income Credit, apparently) and his obvious hatred for the current tax code is laudable, although his methodology for "cleaning out the encrustations" therein is only nebulously described. I can't see how this cleansing will be any more successful in the future than it has been under the present Republican-dominated House. Perhaps he feels that the increased wealth from tax reform will negate the need for corporate and interest-group rent-seeking, which I suppose is plausible; but it would not be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

He chooses to characterize Bush's platform, in spite of its inattention to the burgeoning debt, as new "tactics," a purposeful choice not to attack government directly but rather to ambush it from the flank by taking away the incentives for it. My first reaction was one of mindless hope, the kind one gets when one fears all is lost. I fantasized that perhaps this is indeed a new outlook, a new approach with potential, as though Bush's proposed reforms of taxes, social security and health care are the key to allowing big government to take care of itself. But I descended from my dream with a sickening thump, realizing that if history is any judge, there is very little chance this will happen without a ruckus outside their walls.

Whether or not Bush's "strategy" turns out to be effective, Brooks's Republicans seem to have thrown up their hands and joined right along with the Democrats, albeit from the other side. Perhaps they reason that we may never actually be able to extricate this centralist Alien from inside us, and that we seem to be surviving in spite of it, so who cares? I wonder what they will call their new political party. History offers some interesting suggestions.

Brooks tells us that socialism is no longer a danger. And there's no such thing as poison, he might have added, so drink up.


Katy Harwood Delay, a columnist specializing in the fields of economics and government, lives in Los Angeles. lavande@comcast.net. Comment on the blog.

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