Risk, Relativism, and Resources
Three things conservatives must know about progressivism in order to defeat it


Kevin D. Williamson

Republicans have for too long made holding down the top marginal tax rate their hill to die on, confirming in the minds of many voters the Democratic charge that the GOP is the party of the rich. Conservatives have an entire arsenal of good ideas for improving the lives of the middle class and the less well off, from encouraging savings and investing to reforming education, but none of those ideas brings out the fire in Republicans the way the top tax rate does. Do congressional Republicans sign a pledge to support school choice and tremble to break it?

Republicans are more libertarian in rhetoric than in practice; it would be better if it were the other way around. For a gifted orator such as Ronald Reagan, the language of freedom is uplifting and unifying; for a less gifted orator (say, one who decides to share eccentric theories about the biology of rape), the language of freedom can sound atomistic and Randian. In most conservative rhetoric, there is very little sense of solidarity, little sense that we are all in this together. (The subject of national security is an important exception.) To the extent that conservatives do invoke a spirit of solidarity in economic matters, it is too often in the form of yahooism regarding China, immigration, or trade. (Though Republican yahooism on the subject of the awfulness of foreigners who want to sell us things cannot hold a candle to recent Democratic yahooism on that subject.)

It is not entirely clear that there is a good policy option for encouraging the linkage of marriage and parenthood — the single most effective weapon we have against child poverty — but it would be beneficial (politically and substantively) if Republicans talked about that issue at least half as much as they do the 35 percent top tax rate. Indeed, it would be great if Republicans talked more about poverty in general than they do, given that conservatives have the better policy side of that argument. Instead, Republicans’ attitude toward the poor is too often something resembling contempt — witness the recent rhetoric regarding food stamps or unemployment benefits. The scandal is not that so many Americans use these benefits — the scandal is that they need them. Republicans not named Marco Rubio are not very good when it comes to talking about this sort of thing. Phil Gramm is one of the great American leaders, but “nation of whiners” is not a winning choice of words.

So, how do conservatives translate this into policy?

Three: Conservatives see people as assets, and progressives see people as liabilities. Marx and Engels may have hated Thomas Malthus and seen him as an apologist for the capitalist status quo, but the post-Marxist Left is thoroughly Malthusian. Conservatives see every individual as a potential butcher or baker, but progressives see him as a mouth to feed. Anybody who has spent much time arguing about abortion has seen the Left in full Malthusian mode, e.g.:

There’s no such thing as “taxpayer-funded abortion” because “taxpayer-funded abortion” saves the government money! . . .

How is that? Because whenever a child is born into poverty — guess who picks up the tab? Who do you think pays the costs of the delivery at the hospital? Who do you think pays the costs of the public schooling? Who do you think pays for the health care? Who do you think pays for any potential criminal justice costs? (Children born into poverty to parents who have no business having children are more likely to grow up to commit violent and non-white-collar crimes.) Furthermore, it increases our nation’s already exploding population, resulting in increased pollution and environmental costs and higher prices for food, land, and other natural resources.

In a similar vein, abortionist Ron Virmani, being hassled by some pro-life activists, was refreshingly candid in his response: “Don’t put it on the taxpayers, okay?” he said. “I don’t wish to pay for the baby with my money.” He then challenged the pro-lifers to “adopt one of those ugly black babies.” (Really.) More sophisticated Democrats make a very similar argument, as when Jennifer Granholm charged that Republicans do not sufficiently commit to financially looking after unwanted children. Progressive favorite Ruth Bader Ginsburg covered much of the same ground: “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” Environmentalists, another key progressive constituency, are big on population control, too: Environmental groups ranging from the National Audubon Society to the Sierra Club either explicitly or tacitly endorse it; a former Sierra Club director describes the human race as “the AIDS of the Earth,” and, in case you are wondering where he stands, adds: “I make no apologies for that statement. Our viral like behavior can be terminal both to the present biosphere and ourselves. We are both the pathogen and the vector.” This is not fringe stuff from the Sixties, either: President Obama chose John Holdren, an acolyte of Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, to be his science adviser. From population control to peak oil, Malthus still looms large in the progressive imagination.

But that line of thinking is not always obvious. It is the Malthusian tendency that explains, among other things, Democrats’ remarkable enthusiasm for the General Motors bailout. In the progressive view, people are liabilities, mouths to feed — problems, in a word, and a job is one possible solution to that problem. It does not matter whether that job is in fact productive or the enterprise is economically viable: If there’s a paycheck coming every two weeks, then that liability is dealt with, at least for now. Thus the eternal progressive love affair with the WPA and other make-work programs. (They do not even get that the make-work fallacy is a fallacy.)

Conservatives, on the other hand, see every individual as a potential contributor to economic productivity. (In the coldest version of this, conservatives see people as indistinguishable from capital.) So we’re mystified by the desire to prop up GM when those workers could be put to use doing something more productive, and by the popularity of using protectionist measures to sustain otherwise moribund enterprises that lock up a great deal of potentially fruitful human capital. The capitalist cannot understand why anybody would want to waste good human resources on nonproductive activity; the Malthusian cannot understand why you wouldn’t.