As Barack Obama begins his occupancy of the White House, conservatives are rallying around and attempting to heed William F. Buckley’s example and “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’.” They are seeking to stop Obama from instituting a sort of European style quasisocialism, and to prevent liberal style collectivist values from becoming entrenched in law.
That’s a worthy goal. But also one that is, in the long run, futile. Eventually, leftism must prevail. Conservatism as we know it cannot hold it back forever.
The reason for this is that all (or virtually all; the exceptions are few enough to be ignored) people do believe that greed is good. People want money: the most money for the least amount of work. And it is a whole lot easier to just vote yourself money instead of going to all the trouble to work for it. That explains why government programs are so popular. They might not be particularly efficient. But it is quite often more efficient to get an inferior product for free than to have to pay for a superior one.
(And yes, government programs are free. Unless you happen to be in the top, say, five percent of wage earners, you’re probably not paying for any significant chunk of government aid. The wealthiest one percent alone account for about a third of tax revenues—the average taxpayer’s dollars are a drop in the bucket).
The history of the United States bears this fact out. The Founding Fathers were the quintessential small-government libertarians—they were afraid that giving the federal government an army would give it too much power. So they designed a government to make it nearly impossible for the federal government to get too much control.
The Articles of Confederation didn’t work so well. So they tried again, and gave the federal government a bit more power with the Constitution. Although the federal government had much more power under the new model, it was still pretty limited. But as soon as it was enacted, the federal government started growing. In the beginning, the federal government didn’t even have a navy. Next thing you know, it’s fighting the Barbary pirates and starting a national bank and regulating commerce and ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment and declaring a military draft and the next thing you know, the Great Depression starts. And then government really took off.
During the Depression, the government started managing the economy and retirement. And to pay for all that, it raised tax rates to a nigh-confiscatory level (especially after World War II). Then came the Great Society, where the federal government set its eye on eradicating poverty, and set about reforming healthcare. And then…you get the idea.
The point of all this is that all of these expansions of government were driven by one common factor: the will of the voters. The common people wanted a national bank, and Social Security, and Medicare. These things weren’t forced on them overnight—people asked for them. The most popular presidents have been those who expanded government the most. (Hebert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge are not remembered as particularly good presidents. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt are. Guess which ones expanded government more.) Big government is a key tenet of liberalism—but is driven by the demands of the common man.
And no one wants to lose anything coming to him. That’s why conservatives have been so completely incapable of rolling back any welfare programs. The people want their free money—and they won’t stand for anyone taking it from them.
Most people, nowadays, assume that democracy is the perfect form of government and to suggest otherwise is simple lunacy. (Personally, I agree with Winston Churchill: democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others). But many philosophers have pointed out that in a democracy, there is little or nothing to prevent the people from voting themselves whatever they wish. And that is a weakness of democracy—the American democratic experiment is a perfect example of this.
Conservatism has been defined as “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’”. But history doesn’t stop. It is possible to slow it down—conservatives have done an excellent job of doing so over the past half century. But in the end, all their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure.