Mark Steyn: 'Center-right' America lurches further left
With about half the electorate 'on the dole,' a change of direction isn't likely.
"Give me liberty or give me death!"
"Live free or die!"
What's that? Oh, don't mind me. I'm just trying out slogans for the 2012 campaign and seeing which one would get the biggest laughs.
My Republican friends are now saying, oh, not to worry, look at the exit polls, this is still a "center-right" country. Americans didn't vote to go left, they voted to go cool. It was a "Dancing With The Stars" election: Obama's a star, and everyone wants to dance with him. It doesn't mean they're suddenly gung-ho for left-wingery.
Up to a point.
Unlike those excitable countries where the peasants overrun the presidential palace, settled democratic societies rarely vote to "go left." Yet oddly enough that's where they've all gone. In its assumptions about the size of the state and the role of government, almost every advanced nation is more left than it was, and getting lefter.
Even in America, federal spending (in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars) has gone from $600 billion in 1965 to $3 trillion today. The Heritage Foundation put it in a convenient graph: It's pretty much a straight line across four decades, up, up, up. Doesn't make any difference who controls Congress, who's in the White House. The government just grows and grows, remorselessly. Every two years, the voters walk out of their town halls and school gyms and tell the exit pollsters that three-quarters of them are "moderates" or "conservatives" (i.e, the center and the right) and barely 20 percent are "liberals." And then, regardless of how the vote went, big government just resumes its inexorable growth.
"The greatest dangers to liberty," wrote Justice Brandeis, "lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."
Now who does that remind you of?
Ha! Trick question! Never mind Obama, it's John McCain. He encroached on our liberties with the constitutional abomination of McCain-Feingold. Well-meaning but without understanding, he proposed that the federal government buy up all these junk mortgages so that people would be able to stay in "their" homes. And this is the "center-right" candidate? It's hard for Republicans to hammer Obama as a socialist when their own party's nationalizing the banks and its presidential nominee is denouncing the private sector for putting profits before patriotism. That's why Joe the Plumber struck a chord: He briefly turned a one-and-a-half party election back into a two-party choice again.
If you went back to the end of the 19th century and suggested to, say, William McKinley that one day Americans would find themselves choosing between a candidate promising to guarantee your mortgage and a candidate promising to give "tax cuts" to millions of people who pay no taxes he would scoff at you for concocting some patently absurd H.G. Wells dystopian fantasy. Yet it happened. Slowly, remorselessly, government metastasized to the point where it now seems entirely normal for Peggy Joseph of Sarasota, Fla., to vote for Obama because "I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage."
While few electorates consciously choose to leap left, a couple more steps every election, and eventually societies reach a tipping point. In much of the West, it's government health care. It changes the relationship between state and citizen into something closer to pusher and junkie. Henceforth, elections are fought over which party is proposing the shiniest government bauble: If you think President-elect Obama's promise of federally subsidized day care was a relatively peripheral part of his platform, in Canada in the election before last it was the dominant issue. Yet America may be approaching its tipping point even more directly. In political terms, the message of the gazillion-dollar bipartisan bailout was a simple one: "Individual responsibility" and "self-reliance" are for chumps. If Goldman Sachs and AIG and Bear Stearns are getting government checks to "stay in their homes" (and boardrooms, and luxury corporate retreats), why shouldn't Peggy Joseph?
I don't need Barack Obama's help to "spread the wealth around." I spread my wealth around every time I hire somebody, expand my business, or just go to the general store and buy a quart of milk and loaf of bread. As far as I know, only one bloated plutocrat declines to spread his wealth around, and that's Scrooge McDuck, whose principal activity in Disney cartoons was getting into his little bulldozer and plowing back and forth over a mountain of warehoused gold and silver coins. Don't know where he is these days. On the board at Halliburton, no doubt. But most of the beleaguered band of American capitalists do not warehouse their wealth in McDuck fashion. It's not a choice between hoarding and spreading, but a choice between who spreads it best: an individual free to make his own decisions about investment and spending, or Barney Frank. I don't find that a difficult question to answer. More to the point, put Barney & Co. in charge of the spreading, and there'll be a lot less to spread.
I disagree with my fellow conservatives who think the Obama-Pelosi-Reid-Frank liberal behemoth will so obviously screw up that they'll be routed in two or four years' time. The president-elect's so-called "tax cut" will absolve 48 percent of Americans from paying any federal income tax at all, while those who are left will pay more. Just under half the population will be, as Daniel Henninger pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, on the dole.
By 2012, it will be more than half on the dole, and this will be an electorate where the majority of the electorate will be able to vote itself more lollipops from the minority of their compatriots still dumb enough to prioritize self-reliance, dynamism and innovation over the sedating cocoon of the Nanny State. That is the death of the American idea – which, after all, began as an economic argument: "No taxation without representation" is a great rallying cry. "No representation without taxation" has less mass appeal. For how do you tell an electorate living high off the entitlement hog that it's unsustainable, and you've got to give some of it back?
At that point, America might as well apply for honorary membership in the European Union. It will be a nation at odds with the spirit of its founding, and embarking on decline from which there are few escape routes. In 2012, the least we deserve is a choice between the collectivist assumptions of the Democrats, and a candidate who stands for individual liberty – for economic dynamism not the sclerotic "managed capitalism" of Germany; for the First Amendment, not Canadian-style government regulation of approved opinion; for self-reliance and the Second Amendment, not the security state in which Britons are second only to North Koreans in the number of times they're photographed by government cameras in the course of going about their daily business.
In Forbes last week, Claudia Rosett issued a stirring defense of individual liberty. That it should require a stirring defense at all is a melancholy reflection on this election season. Live free – or die from a thousand beguiling caresses of Nanny State sirens.
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