The Republican establishment, and to some extent the Democrats as well, are labeling Paul Ryan “a conservative of the libertarian kind.” I reject this characterization in its entirety. Libertarianism has three basic positions: strict adherence to free markets; strict protection of civil liberties; and strict defense of property rights (which strongly correlates with non-intervention in foreign affairs). Paul Ryan has affirmed in word and deed his desire to limit civil liberties, legislate morality and spread around the world his version of Americanism by use of force. Ryan, therefore, has denied two of the three tenets of libertarianism right out of the gate, but he does not renounce the third: he claims to support free markets and tries to continue to lay claim to the label of fiscal conservative. The question is, what kind of conservative is Paul Ryan really?
Over the past several decades, the definition of conservative no longer presumes a belief in truly free markets, small government and balanced budgets as it once did. As a matter of fact, the official talking points on Ryan seem to emphasize that we’re NOT talking about shrinking government. I have read and heard from the right numerous times since Ryan’s selection that it’s Obama who wants to slash Medicare, not Ryan. I was listening to Rush last week, who was saying something to the effect of: Ha Ha! We got ‘em on the run now! Rachel Maddow and Debbie Blabbermouth Schultz don’t know WHAT to do with this guy! They can’t argue Republicans want to cut entitlements anymore! It’s Obama who’s cutting Medicare! It’s Ryan who’s saving it! That’s what I’m hearing in the Republican media these days while I find myself wishing that what the Democrats are saying about Ryan were actually true: that he wants to end Medicare as we know it and return government to its legitimate functions. I might borrow from Harry Reid again (as I did in part one): “Let him prove that he does, because he doesn’t!”
What is going on here? It’s exactly what Newt Gingrich called it on the campaign trail last year: “right-wing social engineering,” which Newt spilled in the same kind of slip (or trial balloon or insider code) that George Bush, pere, made when he famously referred to The New World Order in public.
What Newt was referring to, and of which Paul Ryan is undoubtedly aware, is that this is the moment the neo-conservative movement has been working toward for over 30 years. In what I consider to be an act of hubris, Irving Kristol revealed the plan in his book, Neo-Conservatism, the Autobiography of an Idea. In the book, Kristol, father of the neo-conservative movement (and of William Kristol of The Weekly Standard), laments that
[The Republican P]arty has never fully reconciled itself to the welfare state, and therefore has never given comprehensive thought to the question of what a conservative welfare state would look like….The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy.
He goes on to exhort power-seeking Republicans “to believe that the American people really need some sort of medical insurance program, or old age assistance program.” And that
[t]he basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: Wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money—rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state—on condition that they put it to certain defined uses.
Of course being told how to spend your money is not the same as keeping it, and although it may cut out the middle man and some of the inefficiency of government, it does create dangerously inefficient markets in targeted services. We’ve already seen the effects of government-promoted spending in industries such as health care, education and housing, effects that include excess demand and inflated prices. In addition, anytime you encourage certain behavior over others by artificially interfering with free market pricing you reduce the total utility that otherwise would result. That is, people maximize their utility with each free choice they make—being induced to make a different choice either by being taxed and given a “free” service, or by being forced to use your own money to consume that service, results in a reduction in net social utility.
It is this plan of manipulating the populace into making “socially desirable” choices that is evidenced in Paul Ryan’s Medicare “premium support system,” and which makes his plan the fulfillment of the “conservative welfare state,” not of the libertarian ideal based on Austrian economics. Libertarianism emphasizes social power and free choice over state power and coercion and calls for a government that limits itself to its Constitutional mandates (at most!)
The ideological tension in the Republican Party is between neo-conservatism on the one side and libertarianism and traditional conservatism on the other. Paul Ryan falls squarely in the camp of the neo-conservatives, although he and the establishment try to use the mantle of fiscal conservatism to maintain their claim on traditional conservatives who are increasingly asserting themselves within the voting rank and file.
But this is not the end of the story. My concern about Paul Ryan is not simply that he is a neo-conservative, but that he is the pivotal figure in the neo-conservative metamorphosis not only of the Republican Party but, they hope, of the whole country.
Click here for the next and final post in this series.