If there is one distinctive quality that sets apart the American conservative movement from its counterparts in other democratic polities, it is a refusal to think about domestic economic questions in measured terms. Conservatives don’t differ from liberals in the weight or scale of their preferences, wishing to have less of this or more of that; they reject higher taxes and domestic spending everywhere and always.
Indeed, they tend to greet any new effort to expand government not as a political negotiation, but as an existential threat to liberty. The New Deal was communistic, the enactment of Medicare a twilight struggle to preserve the dying embers of American freedom, Bill Clinton’s upper-bracket tax hike a terrifying exercise in class warfare, Obamacare a socialist plot.
And while conservatives have generated little in the way of popular disaffection with the Biden administration’s proposals, its intelligentsia has followed the historical pattern.
Biden’s plan contains a wide array of discrete proposals: subsidies for child care, community college, child tax credits, health insurance for people whose governors refused Medicaid expansion, and so on. It is accordingly financed by an array of measures ranging from letting the government negotiate prices on Medicare drugs to raising corporate taxes and closing loopholes for wealthy heirs.
A pragmatic right-of-center party could negotiate a plan like this, picking and choosing which menu items it can accept and which it cannot. (In the United Kingdom at this very moment, Boris Johnson is currently pushing through a major tax increase.) One could imagine an American conservative party amenable to at least some of these things. Letting Medicare bargain with big pharma would, after all, allow the federal government to spend less money. Maybe conservatives don’t like subsidized child care, but perhaps if the subsidies were to include stay-at-home parents, they might see the value of subsidizing work?
But instead, the reality is that conservatives regard every one of these proposals as categorically verboten. Because conservative thought treats any expansion of the welfare state as a disastrous and irreversible slide, catastrophism becomes a kind of reflex. Dan McLaughlin casually suggests the defeat of Biden’s bill would “save America from ruin.” Charles C.W. Cooke cannot understand why people haven’t taken to the streets en masse to stop a plan that “would be nothing short of a catastrophe.”
One fascinating aspect of this habit is that conservatives never reconsider their previous predictions. They continue to revere Ronald Reagan’s diatribe against the establishment of Medicare, yet rarely seem to ask themselves whether it was actually true that, as Reagan foresaw, subsidizing medical care for the elderly would automatically lead to the government telling doctors where they must live and what sort of medicine they could practice.
The failure of the catastrophe to occur simply moves back its date. It is always the next step in the welfare state that will usher in the final demise of liberty.
Often, the conservative rhetoric contains an implicit recognition that liberals of the past may have been tolerable, but now they are finally and irrevocably plunging into the abyss. Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column offers a useful specimen. The headline, “Joe Biden (D., Socialist)” — if you put aside its odd belief that “Socialist” is a location — captures the premise. “‘State control of the means of production’ means different things to different people, but I’d say [Biden’s program] qualifies as socialism in America,” he argues. “Traditional Democrats wanted to ‘tame’ the economy. Bidenism is replacing it.”
The plan Biden is advocating would spend $3.5 trillion over a decade, which amounts to about one percent of gross domestic product over that time. He is ultimately likely to sign into law a package somewhere around half as big. A program of that scale can effect a lot of change, but it does not represent some mystical demarcation between capitalism and socialism.
Conservatives often lament that their party has detoured from the path of pure anti-government ideology. And while it has to some extent, Donald Trump has drawn from a tradition of apocalypticism that is deeply rooted in orthodox conservative-movement thinking. Trump’s deepest appeal was his claim that the party has been losing for decades, and would now finally win. Conservative Republicans have experienced the last eight decades as a long trudge down the road to serfdom. It is only logical that they finally handed the controls to a leader who promised an uncompromising battle to smash their enemies before they are themselves destroyed.