In the Arena

The Other Red Meat

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While the eyes of the world have been on Egypt the past few days–congratulations to the heroes of Tahrir Square!–my eyes have been fixed on the parade of Republican presidential hopefuls selling their wares at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Their speeches have ranged from the substantive (Mitch Daniels, who courageously offered zero red meat to the crowd, just a grown-up exposition of what it would actually take to cut the deficit) to the slickly effective (Mitt Romney–although he never seems able to really rouse a Republican audience), to the eminently forgettable (John Thune), to reality television (Donald Trump).

I’m going to deal more with the substantive argument Daniels made in my print column this week, but there are two other aspects of the meeting I’d like to deal with here:

Foreign Policy: It has been widely noted that the would-be Presidents had little or nothing to say about the events in Egypt. They also had little or nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan (with the exception of Ron Paul’s well-known isolationism, a weird temptation for a party that was known for its isolationism until World War II). There were some lame attempts at criticizing Obama, which has become so hard to do that even Dick Cheney seems to be abstaining these days. The lamest was the criticism of Obama’s unwillingness to be bombastic when the Green Revolution took to the streets in Iran. I’ve explained, more than a few times, why this was prudent: Had Obama associated himself more vehemently with the protesters, the disgraceful regime would have felt free to inflict itself more vehemently on them. It was also rather hilarious, in this context, to watch Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty say that the only language bullies understand is strength, that you have to stand up strong against terrorists: I couldn’t help remembering–this being the Reagan centennial and all–that Reagan, as president, sold arms to Ayatullah Khomeini, paid ransom to the Lebanese terrorists and came within a whisker of making a deal with the Evil Empire to abolish all nuclear weapons. Mr. Pawlenty–and also Messrs. Romney and Santorum–tear down this artifice!

Ron Paul’s Offer: Paul is, as we know, a fresh voice and an independent thinker. (His son, Rand, gave a substantive exposition of the libertarian dogma the day before.) He opened his speech with an attack on the Patriot Act. He blasted the war in Afghanistan. His supporters–a very sizeable chunk of the crowd–cheered these positions, to the dismay of more traditional conservatives in the throng. But make no mistake, Paul’s libertarianism is as extreme a form of conservatism as there can be. And in the conclusion of his speech, he proposed the following offer to his youthful supporters, which I believe cuts right to the heart of the difference between liberals and conservatives: “Would you consider a deal where you agree to opt out of the system entirely? You would pay a flat 10% tax for the rest of your lives, but in return you would agree to not ask the government for anything?”

This, of course, seemed a great deal to his young, educated supporters. It would have been a great deal for, say, me. I’ve had a charmed life, a successful career. I’ve been healthy, saved my money for retirement. I”ve never been fired or laid off. The Republicans believe that most people are like me. We can do this ourselves. And, who knows, they may be right.

But there were an awful lot of people–even Ivy League graduates like me–for whom the deal would be a nightmare. Say you’re an entrepreneur–a hero of the Republican party–and your business collapses, or your spouse has a wasting, chronic disease that the insurance companies in Ron Paul’s radical free enterprise system refuse to cover: how do you survive? Or, for less lucky people than Ivy leaguers: what happens if you work hard your whole life and your job gets sent to China? Or your company can’t pay the pension you were counting on?  Or you work in a non-union job without a pension or health care plan? What happens if free market predators–people Ron Paul would never regulate–create a fraudulent market in mortgages which crashes and destroys the value of your home, which you were hoping to use to pay for your retirement?

What happens if everyone pays in only 10% and climate change turns out to be a real problem–one that we’ve not had the resources to plan for? Or if there’s a new disease for which we need a collective response, but don’t have the government structure to face?

Some liberals are afflicted by the reverse of Paul’s conceit–they assume that a majority of people can’t make intelligent choices for themselves, that parents can’t chose the best school for their kids, that the elderly can’t choose the best health plan, that government should regulate risk-taking of any sort, that firing employees should be highly regulated (as in Europe). This can be a safer model–or a more disastrous one, if it goes so far as to crush enterprise.

The answer lies in a phrase that conservatives are loathe to use: the consent of the governed. At CPAC, speaker after speaker invoked the “endowed by their creator” phrase of the Declaration of Independence. Paul Ryan called it “natural law.” And it is true that the founders believed that there were certain inalienable rights–life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. But they also believed, in order to form a more perfect union, that the enumeration of those rights would be established in a process where the ultimate decisions were by made by democratic vote, by the consent of the governed. In our country, the governed have consented to the establishment of an old-age pension plan called Social Security. They have consented to Medicare and Medicaid. They have consented to have an FDA and EPA and SEC and OSHA and the IRS. I’m not saying that any of the above can’t be modified and improved–they can be. What I am saying is that the American people, over time, have rejected Ron Paul’s 10% offer because it places too much emphasis on individual rights and too little on the common good. The bright line between those competing goals is the essence of our political discourse; it’s an honest argument–and I must say, Ron Paul presents his side fearlessly and with impressive intellectual integrity. But the building of a social safety net isn’tcreeping socialism. It’s ground-zero democracy.