American conservatism can be a baffling creed. It is a political philosophy that insists on due process for the accused, and the indefinite detention of the suspicious without charge or trial; on free-speech absolutism, and the criminalization of certain boycotts; on the inalienable right of gun owners to carry assault weapons in open view, and the unquestionable authority of a police officer to shoot down any gun-wielding citizen who frightens him.
Such contradictions can make conservative thought look incoherent — a bunch of “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.” But that appearance is deceiving. While the right’s rhetoric is riddled with mutually exclusive positions on state power, its underlying worldview seems (relatively) consistent. The conservative movement’s commitment to gun rights — and reluctance to judge police officers who summarily execute African-American men for carrying firearms — is only contradictory if one assumes that conservatives see such rights as universal. By contrast, if one posits that a deep-seated principle of the American right is inequality before the law — and, more generally, that the propriety of any state-imposed restriction on individual liberty depends on the identity of the individual in question — then all of the contradictions fall away.
If one rejects human equality, there is no tension in believing that white men of property deserve the presumption of innocence even in the court of public opinion, while young black men in poor, urban areas should be subjected to warrantless searches by police; or that Ben Shapiro should never be silenced by the heckler’s veto, but Palestinian students should be prosecuted for organizing a boycott of Israel; or that the government should never limit consumer choice for (or give dietary advice to) hardworking middle-class people — but should force all food-stamps recipients to live on a package of canned goods selected for them by D.C. bureaucrats.
That last proposition comes from President Trump’s new budget. As Politico reports:
The Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the coming years by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, nonperishable foods every month instead of food stamps.
White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday hailed the idea as one that kept up with the modern era, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program” … Mulvaney said the administration’s plan would not only save the government money, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now.
The proposal, buried in the White House’s fiscal 2019 budget, would replace about half of the money most families receive via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, with what the Department of Agriculture is calling “America’s Harvest Box.” That package would be made up of “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food” and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.
This is an idiotic, unworkable proposal that will never ever happen. But for that very reason, it’s a telling illustration of just how conditional the right’s faith in consumer choice — and aversion to the nanny state — truly is.
Much of the time, the Trump administration decries public programs for limiting consumer discretion and market competition. In its new budget, the White House calls for $1 billion in private-school vouchers, so as to empower active parents (especially religious ones) in making affirmative choices about their children’s education. And in rolling back regulations on payday loans, the administration has championed the “freedom” of low-income workers to choose usurious forms of credit.
But this trust in individual liberty does not extend to poor people’s decisions at the grocery store. The right’s contempt for that particular form of freedom is long-standing. In recent years, Republican lawmakers in many states (including New York) have introduced legislation barring food-stamps recipients from using their benefits to purchase lobster, expensive steak, decorated cakes, soda, or other indulgences. This distrust in the capacity of the poor to properly feed themselves is so deeply rooted, no less a “small-government conservative” than Mick Mulvaney feels comfortable arguing that if Uncle Sam decides what poor families get to eat, they’ll end up with “more nutritious food than they have now.” (Mulvaney’s trust in the discretion of the poor when it comes to financial products might seem to contradict his distrust of their nutritional judgment — but only if one assumes that his support for expanding access to payday loans is rooted in a desire to help low-income workers, and not to help lenders profit off of the former’s ill-advised financial decisions.)
And the administration’s desire to restrict the nutritional freedom of the indigent is so great, it’s willing to ignore the fact that their “America’s Harvest Box” idea embodies every pathology of “big government” that the right claims to abhor. Republicans often lambaste federal bureaucrats for substituting their judgement for that of a child’s parents; and yet, this proposal would ostensibly force some parents to accept groceries that their children are allergic to. Conservatives constantly argue that centralized programs often fail to take into account the peculiar needs of disparate regions; and yet, this proposal would require the government to deliver mass-purchased food baskets to remote, rural areas — where some local mom-and-pop shops likely depend on EBT dollars for their survival. The GOP routinely mocks the hubris of progressive lawmakers, who overestimate the government’s competence, and thus, underestimate the costs of ambitious public programs. And yet, the White House claims that its food-stamps proposal would save “over $129 billion” — on the assumption that the government could distribute Harvest boxes to 16 million households at zero cost: “The projected savings does not include shipping door-to-door for all recipients,” USDA spokesperson Tim Murtaugh told Politico.
No Republican administration would ever propose such a heavy-handed, statist approach to subsidizing the housing costs of the upper-middle class, or the research and development of corporations. But since the founding of our republic, Americans have had a habit of applying different conceptions of righteous government to independent and dependent populations. Most of our founders regarded African slaves, Native Americans, and women as inherently dependent beings — and thus, it was just for the state to circumscribe their liberty; propertied white males, by contrast, were republican citizens fit for self-rule, and so the state had no right to tread on them.
A lot has changed, politically and intellectually, since the late 18th century. But in its contempt for the liberty of those dependent on public benefits, Trump’s “Harvest” boxes testify to the durability of the idea that not all are fit for small-government conservatism.