It's not hard to get depressed about the prospects for economic freedom these days, given all of the government interventions of the past 18 months in response to the Great Recession. However, I think it's important to remember that freedom encompasses much more than escaping government's oppression and intrusion, and growth in government spending and taxation don't automatically lead to totalitarianism.There's not much question that Bartlett has been treated shabbily by some in the conservative movement for having said some harsh truths about Bush 43 and the K Street Gang (see his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy). Personally, I admired Bartlett stand against Bush 43 greatly.
I think many conservatives and libertarians look at government's share of the gross domestic product as the central measure of freedom. Implicitly, they assume that if there were no government we would be 100% free. If government taxing and spending consume one-third of GDP, then we are only two-thirds free and so on.
Obviously, there is something to this. But because it's so easy to measure government's share of the economy, I think there is too much attention paid to it to the exclusion of other important factors. On the one hand, we underestimate the importance of government regulations because they are hard to quantify yet may affect our lives more significantly than taxation or other governmental actions. On the other, I think we tend to underappreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like cellphones, PDAs and the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy. To the extent that technology boosts productivity, it makes the burden of government more bearable.
Another thing we tend to forget is the great benefit of the wealth that almost all Americans have today. Not that many years ago, people had to spend an enormous percentage of their waking hours simply acquiring and preparing food. Now, even among poor households, obtaining adequate food is a minor concern. Indeed, obesity is a far bigger problem among the poor than malnutrition. The freedom to do things other than grow crops, raise livestock and cook on a wood stove is not one to be underestimated.
Because of the declining cost of things essential to life, burdens that might have been unbearable in the past can be borne with relative ease today. Consider taxation. If much of society is barely able to produce enough to live on then even the smallest tax can be extremely burdensome. That's the main reason why tax burdens before the 20th century were minuscule by today's standards: There was simply nothing to tax. Wealth, incomes, output and productivity were too low for there to be much for government to take.
Now that the cost (both absolutely and relative to income) of basics--food, water, clothing--have fallen dramatically from just a few generations ago, people can afford to pay more taxes without suffering the deprivation that similar burdens would have imposed in the past. And we get more back for our tax dollars. In the past most government spending went for wars. Today, at the federal level, the vast majority of people will get back every dollar they pay in Social Security taxes plus a lot more, and Medicare provides a valuable service that will eventually benefit almost everyone. At the state and local level, spending mostly goes for things that people want, like police and fire protection, schools, parks and roads.
Yet, it now seems fair to say that he's gone from being inside the tent pissing out to being outside the tent pissing in. In his latest book, The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward, for example, he embraces the sort of Keynesian economics he one would have found anathema. And, if I get the gist of this column correctly, he's arguing that I should be happy about bigger government and higher taxes because <SARCASM> I get to buy an iPad </SARCASM>.
Sadly, other conservatives for whom I have great admiration are trending in the same direction. Bartlett's column prompted James Joyner to opine that:
I tend to agree with Bartlett here: “Perhaps we are moving toward European levels of taxation and spending. While I would prefer not to live that way, I certainly don’t view those in Scandinavia, where the level of government is twice what it is here, as twice as close to slavery as we are.” More to the point, I would prefer to live in Scandinavia — and, needless to say, the United States — than Hong Kong or Singapore.
Both Bartlett and Joyner seem to have forgotten a point Hayek made in the preface to the 1976 edition of The Road to Serfdom:
Sweden ... is today very much socialistically organized than Great Britain or Austria, though Sweden is common regarded as much more socialistic. This is due to the fact that socialism has come to mean chiefly the extensive redistribution of incomes through taxation and the institutions of the welfare state. In the latter kind of socialism the effects I discuss in this book are brought about more slowly, indirectly, and imperfectly. I believe that the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same ....
This is precisely the point that seems to have escaped Bartlett. Yes, we are wealthier today on the whole than 100 years ago. Yes, we can afford higher taxes without suffering deprivation more easily than out ancestors. But it still puts us on the slow, indirect, and imperfect road to serfdom. And that's a road I would prefer to avoid.
Bartlett doubtless will protest that:
My point simply is to suggest that there tends to be a myopia among conservatives and libertarians that is very quick to condemn governmental curtailments of individual liberty, while failing to appreciate or even acknowledge expansions of personal freedom that have enormously improved our lives over those of our parents and grandparents, not to mention those in the distant past.
But William F Buckley famously proclaimed that is the function of a conservative to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop." We do so because we believe that:
- It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side.
- The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.
I'm happy to acknowledge that the free market economy has produced profound blessings. But I'm not willing to swap my birthright of economic freedom for a "PDA" (how technologically quaint). Nor am I willing to stand by without protest while ever larger chunks of the American economy are turned over to the Obamabots--the very definition of "Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias." After all, if we rely today on government to provide us with bread and circuses, what will we rely on government to provide tomorrow?
At bottom, my problem with Bartlett's argument that we can afford higher taxes and greater regulation is that regulation and taxation are like the story about how to boil a frog. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
In the United States today, the thermostat is still set pretty low. The Heritage Foundation has warned us, however, that the Obamabots have turned up the heat a tad. It is the proper function of conservatives to resist and to seek to turn down the heat. It would be nice to have Bartlett and Joyner with us.
In closing, would I rather live in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Sweden? Tough call. There's more to freedom than just economic freedom. My guess is that Sweden ranks higher on issues like free speech and free elections than Hong Kong or Singapore. On the other hand, the food's better in both Hong Kong and Singapore. So's the weather. All things considered, however, I think I'd prefer a Los Angeles in which free people work in a free market.