Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dawn of the Pseudo-Conservatives, Part 3

In The Dawn of the Pseudo-Conservatives I quoted Sidney Blumenthal: "Robert Taft, the old standard-bearer of the Republican right, had always referred to himself as a 'liberal.'" Realizing this may sound odd, let me clarify. Several individuals of the right considered themselves "classical liberals". Robert Taft was one and Milton Friedman was another. Friedman who was identified as a conservative economist really considered himself a “liberal” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2002, p. 5-6): "It is extremely convenient to have a label for the political and economic viewpoint elaborated in this book. The rightful and proper label is liberalism… [which] emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs… [and] free trade abroad…. In political matters, it supported the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions, reduction in the arbitrary power of the state, and protection of the civil freedoms of individuals."

Friedman (p. 6) rejected the term "conservative": "Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism. But this is not a satisfactory alternative.... We do not wish to conserve state interventions that have interfered so greatly with our freedom.... [I]n practice, the term conservatism has come to cover so wide a range of views, and views so incompatible with one another, that we shall no doubt see the growth of hyphenated designations, such as libertarian-conservative and aristocratic-conservative."

And what was "the corruption of the term liberalism" to which Friedman referred? "Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis.... It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable. The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom."

My goodness gracious me; what, oh what, could have befallen these classical liberal defenders of freedom? What could have motivated their betrayal of classical liberal principles? Hmmmm. Dr. Friedman suggested that this falling away from first principles had its "beginning in the late nineteenth century." Hmmmm. I wonder if it might have had anything at all to do with the massive and unprecedented growth in power of huge trusts and corporations resulting from what has aptly been referred to as the American Industrial "Revolution"? Classical liberal laissez faire was a great philosophy in the America of 1825; an America where farms and small businesses were predominant. But slowly after 1825 there arose the railroads, the Rockefeller oil empire, the sugar trust, the steel trust, the copper trust, etc. etc. etc. By the late nineteenth century the American economy had been revolutionized and Robber Barons and their ilk possessed unprecedented economic and political power.

What institution of late nineteenth century America might have any chance at all of regulating and moderating the abuses of these new "malefactors of great wealth" (T. Roosevelt)? Obviously only one institution could have served this function, the government, and primarily the national government. That is why defenders of "freedom" turned to that national government to remedy the gross imbalance of power brought about by the industrial revolution. And again, during the Great Depression and after, Franklin Delano Roosevelt also used the federal government to ensure that not just the powerful, wealthy and privileged were able to endure and prosper. Here is what FDR had to say to the 1936 Democratic National Convention:

"For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital-all undreamed of by the fathers-the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service."

"There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things."

"It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man."

"The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor-these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age-other people's money-these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in."

"Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities."

"Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise."

"An old English judge once said: "Necessitous men are not free men." Liberty requires opportunity to make a living-a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for."

"For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor-other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness."

"Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended."

"The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live."

"Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place."

"These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike."

That was FDR's answer to the likes of Milton Friedman. That is why the "modern liberal" turned to government in the name of liberty. And preferential treatment for the privileged is no less the aim of pseudo-conservatives today than it was in 1900 or in 1930. They are just much more cunning and clever in their use of the modern means of politics and mass media than they ever were before.

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