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The Ballot in the Hand

Frank Meyer (The
‘The only ground on which conservatives have to stand is a moral and spiritual criticism of the essential inhumanity of socialism and welfarism.’

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the December 6, 1958, issue of National Review, one of hundreds of pieces from the magazine archives that confirm a relentless attention to and battle with the ideology  —  now politically resurgent under the guise of Democratic Party leaders, in particular Senator Bernie Sanders  —  that is a true menace to the American project and to unalienable rights. National Review’s unfailing efforts to expose and combat this threat depend on your selfless financial support, which can be accomplished through NR’s “Defeat Socialism 2020” webathon. It expires on Sunday, February 16. Before that happens, please donate here.

In the early days of the acquisitive State, when Lloyd George was rousing the rabble of Britain, one of the campaign songs that sparked his confiscatory attack upon the landowners ran this way:

The land, the land,
The land on which we stand,
God gave the land to the people!
The land, the land,
The land on which we stand.
Why should we be beggars
With the ballot in our hand?

With appropriate diminution of the appeal to the divine — to the point of zero — and with a transfer of the attack from the landowners to property owners in general, this is the theme upon which all variations of the twentieth-century socialist revolution have turned. It is most blatantly developed by the Communists, who forthrightly demand the total confiscation of productive private property; but in a lower pitch it is the theme of the continuing American revolution in its successive phases: the New Deal that launched it; the Fair Deal that continued it; and Modern Republicanism which has been its stage of consolidation.

The Modern Republicans, their function of making the revolution respectable fulfilled, have gone down to defeat before those who are ready and anxious to carry the revolution to its next stage. The combined forces of the Reutherite trade-union oligarchy and the left wing of the Liberal establishment now dominate the national scene. Their program as expressed in the demands of the AFL-CIO, the proposals the New Republic is pressing upon the incoming Congress, and the ideological pronouncements of such stalwarts of the New and Fair Deals as Justice Douglas and Leon Keyserling would make even Franklin Roosevelt startle in his grave. The magnitude of their demagogy is indicated by Keyserling’s bland assumption that any family with less than $7,500 a year, any family that cannot “afford trips abroad [and] university educations for their children” is, as the social workers say, “underprivileged.”

Keyserling may go a bit farther in his demagogy than others, but he sets the tone of the demands with which the new Congress will be greeted by those who brought about its election: a federal health program, a federal education program, legislation to destroy the effectiveness of Taft-Hartley and entrench the power of the union leaders, sharply increased social-security benefits and public-housing expenditures.

From Lloyd George to Reuther, the advance of the welfare state, the advance of the bureaucracy to power, has been almost unchecked. The formula is always the same: “Why should we be beggar [or be content with less than $7,500 a year] with the ballot in our hand?”

What can conservatives oppose to this call to safe and legalized robbery? Certainly not the Modern Republican counsel to rob more slowly and more delicately. It is immoral counsel; and even if it were not, all the me-too election campaigns, including those of the Modern Republicans this year, have shown that it doesn’t work.

But neither, I think, can conservatives rely upon the argument which they have too much used, the argument that the socialist or welfarist system, whether in its simple form or in the form of a “mixed economy,” will not work, that it will in the immediately foreseeable future collapse. This simply is not true, as theory could have foreseen and history has shown.

It is true that the industrial revolution and the immense leap in productivity and the standard of living that accompanied it were only possible because of the capitalist economic system; it is also true that the high standard of living which welfarism can distribute in the United States, and to a lesser degree in Britain, is a distribution of reserves accumulated by the success of capitalism; and it is true that even in the Soviet Union and Communist China, where capitalism had never functioned sufficiently to accumulate such reserves, the economic development achieved depends upon the existence of a technology which was the product of capitalism.

What is not true is that, given the historical conditions of the abundance made possible by capitalism, welfarism is certain to collapse in the short or medium run. Welfarism, or any form of socialism not dependent on terror, can survive as long as the fat inherited from capitalism lasts. But even this is not the end. When the fat rims out and the incentives to productivity have been drowned beneath the sea of leveling social policy, the methods of Communism still remain: Coercion and the threat of coercion can be substituted for the lost incentives of a free society. In the long, long run, the human spirit will indeed rebel against the lowering of the skies. But this is a far cry from depending upon immediate collapse of a welfarist economy as the decisive argument against welfarism.

No, the only ground on which conservatives have to stand is a moral and spiritual criticism of the essential inhumanity of socialism and welfarism: the leveling that, by reducing the person to a statistical number, degrades all men, whatever their capacity or position; the ignominious removal of responsibility for his future and his family from the hands of individual man into the hands of an all-probing bureaucracy; the steady attrition of all separate and rooted centers of power and the massive growth of a single bureaucratic center of state power which from day to day gains more and more control over all the avenues of thought and life.

Upon a platform of opposition to these, the true evils of welfarism, conservatives can firmly stand. To such a platform men of spirit will rally. And if men of spirit do not outnumber those to whom the ballot is a weapon for self-aggrandizement, they overweigh them in will, in intellect and in influence. Once united, they would have the capacity to save the Republic.

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