“Socialism” is Not the Problem
Obama’s big government liberalism is bad enough
Something about Barack Obama has a way of driving some conservatives completely batty. John McCain detected something “a lot like socialism” in his tax plan. Veteran conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell has no doubt the new president will “deliver socialism.” But the prize goes to Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who says “we’ve elected a Marxist” who may create an American Gestapo.
In the radioactive atmosphere of modern partisan politics, no one puts much value on verbal precision. So it’s safe to say that over the next four years, the 44th president will come to think his name is Socialist Obama, as critics on the right abandon analysis in favor of invective.
That is a mistake—as McCain’s losing campaign confirms. Accusing Obama of socialism is unwise for three reasons: 1) It’s not true, and 2) it makes the accuser sound like an idiot, and 3) it distracts from Obama’s true inclinations, which are worrisome enough.
These days, no one believes in socialism—defined by the late, left-wing economist Robert Heilbroner as “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production.” A socialist wouldn’t favor government aid to the automakers or the banks. He’d propose that the government take them over and run them for the benefit of society. But you haven’t heard Obama or anyone else suggest that.
The president-elect is not unaware of the superiority of capitalism. His book The Audacity of Hope contains a testimonial that could have been plagiarized from Ayn Rand: “Our Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty…. The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history…. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and the efficient allocation of resources.”
Of course Obama believes the government should do more to help the poor and vulnerable. If redistributing wealth makes you a socialist, though, you have to apply that label to the legendary libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who proposed a “negative income tax” to assure everyone basic sustenance.
But just because Obama is not nearly as bad as his detractors claim doesn’t mean we have no worries. His biggest shortcoming is a common one in his party: the assumption that every problem can be solved by government intervention, and that if a little intervention is good, more is better.
His plan on climate change shows the problem. He has a sensible idea—putting caps on greenhouse gas emissions and letting companies buy and sell the right to pollute. That would discourage harmful activity while leaving market forces to find the most efficient means to that end.
Alas, Obama isn’t content to leave it there. He unpacks an array of bright ideas to reduce carbon emissions—demanding higher fuel economy from automakers, showering money on clean coal technology, giving consumers tax credits for plug-in hybrids, and on and on.
This belt-and-suspenders approach reflects a familiar liberal vice: the insatiable urge to meddle. It’s like the team owner offering the coach a generous new contract if he wins the championship—and then dictating the starting lineup and the play selection for the entire season. It presumes that the government knows in advance the right mix of changes to achieve cleaner energy use at the lowest cost, which neither it nor Stephen Hawking nor anyone else does.
Obama also seems to regard the nation’s productive sector as a laboratory for well-intentioned policymakers. In his “60 Minutes” interview, he praised Franklin Roosevelt for his “willingness to try things. And experiment in order to get people working again.” What he overlooks is that experimentation creates uncertainty, and uncertainty discourages businesses from doing what they are supposed to do.
During the 1930s, as economist Robert Higgs showed in a 1997 essay, the effect of all the experimentation was the opposite of what Obama assumes. The endless fear of what FDR might do caused net business investment to fall, year after year, prolonging the very catastrophe he was trying to end.
Obama exhibits blithe confidence in the government’s power to take economic problems and make them better. He will fare better if he keeps in mind its unbounded capacity to make things worse. For that you don’t need socialism.
By Pat Toomey
Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner have a tough two years ahead of them. For the second election cycle in a row, conservative-leaning voters gave the Republican party an ultimatum: Shape up or ship out. And now the leaders of the GOP better deliver if they want 2010 to go any differently. They can start by changing business as usual in the House and Senate.
In the House of Representatives, John Boehner should use his influence and leadership position to appoint Rep. Jeff Flake to the Appropriations Committee. Flake fans may recall the Arizona representative’s pursuit of an appropriations seat nearly a year ago. Though conservatives rallied to Flake’s cause, the House Republican Steering Committee rejected his bid.
This year, the GOP doesn’t have the luxury of choosing the status quo. If the GOP is serious about changing, its members can prove it by giving the most anti-pork congressman in Washington a seat in the heart of the lion’s den.
For years, Rep. Flake has shined a glaring light on Congress’s worst excesses, sponsoring amendments to strip the most outrageous pork projects from the various appropriations bills. Though only one of these amendments has passed to date, they serve a vital purpose in the ongoing fight to broadcast congressional profligacy. These amendments put all congressmen on record in support of or opposed to saving taxpayer money, allowing taxpayers to easily see where their congressmen stand. Flake’s crusade has also inspired over 40 House members to reject earmarks altogether this year. Now, imagine how much more effective Rep. Flake can be with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. In the world of earmarking, the members of the Appropriations Committee hold all the power. They decide who gets what and how much as they write the spending bills. Who better than the anti-pork hero Flake to have a seat — and a vote — at that table?
Rep. Boehner is known for a career of refusing earmarks and he deserves credit for leading by example. He recognizes that the party has been tarnished by its ethical and spending lapses. In a post-mortem op-ed, Boehner recommitted the GOP to “fight vigorously” against “wasteful pork-barrel projects, including taxpayer-funded ‘monuments to me’ and earmarks ‘airdropped’ into bills at the last possible minute to avoid scrutiny.” The best way to do that is to help appoint Flake to the Appropriations Committee.
In the same vein, Senator Mitch McConnell should appoint Senator Jim DeMint to the Senate Finance Committee — one of the most powerful committees with jurisdiction over all tax issues and entitlement programs. With the defeat of New Hampshire Senator John Sununu and Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, at least one Republican seat on the committee will be open for the taking.
Already, Sens. Jim DeMint, Mike Enzi, and George Voinovich have expressed interest in serving on the committee.
With no disrespect to Sens. Enzi and Voinovich, Senator DeMint is exactly the kind of leader the GOP could use at this low point in its history. Not only does DeMint have a business background, he has demonstrated a sophisticated grasp of the country’s tax and entitlement problems. He is one of the few members of Congress to think creatively about solving these problems in a manner that increases personal freedom and prosperity.
He sponsored the Economic Growth Act this year, which would cut the corporate income tax rate to a more competitive level, adjust capital gains for inflation, and reduce the alternative capital gains tax rate for corporations. On Social Security, he has insisted on free-market reforms, sponsoring several bills to create personal Social Security accounts.
Over the next two years, the Senate Finance Committee will tackle such important issues as the Bush tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax, and the looming bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats will surely push for eliminating the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and raising Social Security taxes. And some Republicans may join the Democrats in pushing this agenda. It is crucial that Republicans have a voice on the committee that can be counted on to lead the fight against these policies. Senator DeMint is that voice.
Filling the first empty seat on the Finance Committee is Senator McConnell’s decision to make, and it will be one of his first decisions as the leader of the Republican Party in 2009. That decision will set the tone for the weeks and months ahead.
Uncle Ben had it right when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both Senator McConnell and Rep. Boehner occupy the highest positions of leadership within the Republican party. Both have acknowledged the need for the Party to recapture the faith of the American people. All the talk about rebuilding the GOP will not amount to a flea on the tail of a dog, if there is no action behind those words. Action can begin with putting limited-government, free-market conservatives like Jeff Flake and Jim DeMint in positions to affect real change.
— Pat Toomey is the president of the Club for Growth.