It’s getting harder and harder to call the Republican Party “conservative” with a straight face.
Our Republican president has already overseen the largest budget increases since those of Lyndon Johnson, and is now calling for a staggering $16 billion in domestic AIDS relief and another $2 billion for foreign relief. His tariffs and protectionist measures are harmful to industry and consumers alike. The Patriot Act is an unprecedented inversion of the idea that the state is the servant of the people. Bush’s proposals for new drug benefits prescribe little but moral, fiscal, and medical irresponsibility, and his likeliest first pick for the Supreme Court is not a conservative. Whatever victories we may (or may not) be winning overseas, the President seems to have conceded – or simply dismissed – several home fronts to socialism and statism. Certainly, worse could have been expected from Al Gore – but at least no one would make the mistake of calling him a conservative.
Providing care – but at what cost?
Let us take a closer look at some of these issues. Consider health care and, in particular, prescription drug benefits. Unsurprisingly, the average American voter is getting older, and unsurprisingly, he wants stuff. Currently, seniors have to pay for their own prescription drugs-- costly appetizers to the free lunch, as it were. Aging workers want more out of Medicare-– and our President has decided that the old must get their free drugs, regardless of the consequences.
Bush’s prescription drug plan would commit about $400 billion over 10 years to an effort that amounts to socializing prescription drug benefits for seniors-— making it a single-payer system available to all seniors, regardless of their income. The fiscal nightmare embodied in this plan is obvious; it will make drug plans about as efficient as the Post Office.
But even more frightening is the fact that the plan is bound to weaken family, community, and private charity. In the name of “social responsibility,” the President is undermining personal responsibility-– which is a lot more real. Whether he intends it or not, Bush’s proposals contribute to the unfortunate modern mindset that the elderly are burdens on the young who simply need to be paid off so that they will die quietly without troubling the rest of us. The family-focused belief that it is the role of the children to take care of their parents in old age once thrived. The true conservative ought to understand that the family, not the individual taxpayer, is the true building block of society and government. He ought to encourage familial responsibility by taking away the easy but ultimately inadequate tax-supported social “safety nets.”
President Bush’s prescription drug proposal ignores this essential tenet of conservatism. American families seem to be failing in one of their essential functions. The government should attempt to cure this problem, not its symptoms. It should also fix another problem: the tendency toward early retirement encouraged by the Social Security scheme. But Bush’s administration is not living up to either challenge. Instead it advocates coercive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to anonymous tax authorities, who, after taking a cut of the proceeds, dole out cash to equally anonymous seniors.
It seems that Bush needs a rehash of conservative values. Children can, and do, support their elderly parents. Charities such as Meals on Wheels and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies take care of those senior citizens whose families are unwilling or unavailable to support them. Finally, let us note that senior citizens are the wealthiest demographic in America today. For how many citizens is this really an issue?
For this conservative solution to work, the cost of health care would have to drop from its current heights. Unlike the price of virtually every other consumer good, that of health care has skyrocketed in the past forty years. The reasons for that are eye-opening. No other industry has Medicare to contend with. This pure infusion of socialism has had drastic effects on the health care industry, driving up prices and driving down quality of services.
The proposal Bush is pushing will not solve this problem. Universal prescription drug coverage for seniors will artificially constrict supply, as the prescription-drugs-for-seniors market becomes essentially monopsonic (i.e. containing one, or nearly one consumer). In addition, because the government is a non-profit entity with the power of taxation and an anti-corporation bias, it is unlikely to offer high bids for drug purchases. The combination of these factors will cause the profits of pharmaceutical companies to fall, reducing the incentive to research and produce new drugs. This means that the quality of health care will improve more slowly, and may even start to deteriorate.
The insult in Bush’s program is that the government unjustly assumes responsibility for the health of the elderly. The injury is that the working public will become increasingly unable to afford health care for elderly parents, crippled by taxation and health care regulations that will send prices skyrocketing. And in promoting the stagnation of health care research, it will reduce the quality of healthcare products available even to the wealthiest, never mind the average citizen. Our President has called Medicare “the most compassionate program of the last century.” If that’s compassion, what does hatred look like?
Raising taxes, and raising taxes some more
Bush’s record on free trade does not add any polish to his conservative credentials. Last year, in a return to the GOP’s protectionist roots, the President signed off on new tariffs on imported steel that drove up import prices by as much as 30 percent. In a textbook example of special interest politics, the bipartisan passage of the tariffs delivered substantial benefits to a loud minority, with the costs dispersed among the entire populace. Both Democrats and Republicans leapt at the opportunity to please a dying industry at the expense of the public. Yet, in the ironic words of Bush’s own trade representative, tariffs are “nothing more than taxes that hurt low- and moderate-income people.”
That tariffs save jobs is a flimsy fiction. In the short term a protected industry becomes artificially competitive and can usually stave off layoffs as a result. However, the industries that depend on the protected good, such as automobile and construction companies in the case of steel, see costs rise even when the market says they should not, and must cut both staff and production. The result? Jobs are lost and consumer goods become more expensive. On top of it all, the steel industry loses its strongest incentive to modernize-– low profits-– and consequently falls even further behind.
Tariffs both fly in the face of sound economic sense and violate a conservative legacy of free trade that dates back to Washington. It was then, and remains now, a poor political theory that permits government to decide which businesses prosper and which die. Time will undermine and destroy industries kept alive only at the behest of government; protectionism can only make the process painful for everyone involved-– which, in a capitalistic society, is in fact the entire population. When it comes to tariffs, President Bush and Congress have benefited only their re-election campaigns, taking advantage of popular myth and short-term improvement.
No hope for a Republican court
The President’s tariff doggerel pales in comparison to what he might yet do with his first Supreme Court appointment. Throughout the 2000 presidential campaign, when confronted with Bush’s tirelessly centrist politics, conservatives frequently consoled themselves with the belief that Bush would appoint Supreme Court justices who would stand firm on conservative issues. The fact that President Bush is even considering White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as a Supreme Court appointment has killed those hopes. Gonzales’ views on matters like affirmative action and abortion are clearly liberal, and his record on the Texas Supreme Court demonstrates his willingness to partake in judicial activism to realize these ideals. In Re Jane Doe, Gonzales co-wrote a rule defining exemptions from parental notification of teenage abortions, fleshing out a clause that exempted a teenager from having to notify her parents of her pending abortion if she was “sufficiently well-informed” to make the decision on her own. When this new rule failed to produce any change in either the trial or the appellate court ruling, the Texas Supreme Court decided 5-to-4 to send Doe to get an abortion less than 48 hours after receiving the trial record. Gonzales joined the decision. Wrote a dissenting justice, “[l]ongstanding principles of appellate review and our Texas Constitution do not permit this court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court and/or to ignore the evidence, as it has done.” A president willing to nominate for Supreme Court justice a man who has engaged in judicial activism to protect a teenager’s access to abortion does not deserve to be called conservative at all.
Perhaps conservatives are as content as they seem to be with Bush because he has managed to prosecute wars against two evil regimes without getting many Americans killed. Plus there have not been any big terrorist attacks lately; that must mean we are safer. But even without a more careful examination of Bush’s so-called War on Terror, the lack of conservative outcry at the President’s domestic policy – expressed most fully in the Patriot Act – is rather astonishing. Ronald Reagan managed to effect a domestic policy that was actually conservative, both socially and fiscally. Still, the liberal-leaning flaws of that policy could have been fully justified by arguing that he needed to save all of his political capital to deal with the Communist threat. Bush has a weaker enemy to fight than Reagan: he has far less opposition in Congress, given the GOP’s slight numerical majority. Yet his record as President does not look much more conservative than that of the other Texan who occupied the White House between 1963 and 1968.
Isn’t just a little outcry in order?
Dirk Huang is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.