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Dan Ancona

Handy Nanny State Rebuttal, Part I

The comments to my previous post on jamming the cycle of failure included a lengthy, fairly well written and thoughtful response in the comments that (to sum it up perhaps a bit unfairly) essentially calls my arguments those of a nanny state loving socialist. While a bit overreliant on name-calling, standard issue conservative talking points, and spurious appeals to what conservatives try to portray as the clear and incontrovertibly conservative intent of the founding fathers (including, sometimes, a tendency to just plain make stuff up), the arguments put forward here certainly have significant amount of cultural traction behind them. This is not an infrequently made argument and it's something progressive activists should have a handy rebuttal to. This post, along with the solid response and questions raised by my co-author here in the comments to that post, is a start at just that.

This is a textbook example of great conservative framing: who would ever want to live in a nanny state? It sounds terrible. Elected leaders sometimes unwittingly play into this, especially on the center-left at the state level, by pushing small-bore legislation. This gives the impression that the big problems - traffic or crumbling schools or boiling the atmosphere off or paving over the last couple of parks or ongoing poverty and racism amid incredible wealth and diversity, or whatever - are getting ignored.

Sometimes with conservatives, it really is just about the money, and the last line of the comment (" have no right to run my life and steal my money as you see fit") certainly is an argument in that direction, with its attendant libertarian notes of paranoia and greed. This argument - "it's your money!" - rests on a certain, peculiar mythology of how wealth is created: that it is the lone individual entrepreneur battling the odds and those pesky bureaucrats to singlehandedly build his fortune.

Anyone who has actually tried their hand at entrepreneurship will tell you it's just not that simple. Individual action certainly plays a role, but so do communities, clearly, as for a product to succeed there have to be buyers willing and able to afford purchasing it. Luck most certainly plays a role as well; individuals can and do create their own luck by working hard, but that is never the end of the story. The larger civilization always plays a role. Even Russell Kirk, one of the founders of modern conservatism, acknowledges this, in his Ten Conservative Principles: "The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully."

Mr. Kirk must roll over in his grave every time a conservative says "it's your money" during the course of a campaign. It was clear to him that that money would be worthless without the government backing of it, and that government exists because of the taxes government is able to raise. Paying taxes is one of the duties of possessing property. These are simple, obvious facts completely left out of the conservative narrative of wealth creation.

The irony is thick here, because if modern conservatives can be said to have aligned themselves around anything at all consistent, it's the full-scale looting of our democratic system for anything of value that isn't bolted down. One of the common threads between Arnold Schwarzenegger's term in California and President Bush's regime is proud and unapologetic leadership of a culture of no bid contracts, Enron style scams, unchecked monopolistic price gouging on everything from gasoline to communications, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, lays out the case against this approach to governing in his book The Conservative Nanny State, which is available in its entirety on the web.

These kleptoconservatives are threatening to give all of conservatism a bad name. But the current crop vying for the Republican primary nod and their numerous allies in the punditocracy aren't having much trouble spinning Bush as not a true conservative. Robert Borasage demolishes this line of attack in a recent article, Conservatism Itself:

Each of the signature Bush follies -- Iraq, Katrina, Enron, privatization of Social Security, the Terri Schiavo case, trickle-down economics that didn't trickle -- can be traced directly to conservative ideas and the conservative think tanks and ideologues that championed them. In every case, conservatism failed, not simply because of corruption or incompetence, but because of original conception. Sensate conservatives have, in the words Irving Kristol once applied to liberals, "been mugged by reality." Actual existing conservatism fails because it gets the world wrong. And invoking Reagan offers not salvation but confirmation of that failure, for Reagan championed many of the same ideas and inflicted similar debacles on the nation.

It's Reagan/Bush conservatives, not liberals, who are benefiting from a nanny state, their numerous protests to the contrary notwithstanding. The next part of this series will cover more about the fundamental ideas at stake here - including the different ideas of freedom and the ramifications of the fact that both communities and individuals create wealth - that lie at the heart of this debate.

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 23, 2007 in Economy | Progressive Agenda | Tax Policy | activists
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