The GOP changed its mind about 'big government'

The GOP changed its mind about 'big government'
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Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to do the same thing over and over for a long time until something comes along to disrupt habits. We have witnessed so many somethings – the pandemic, the Goerge Floyd protests, the J6 insurrection and the fall of Roe – that we must concede that we’re living through a realignment. One outcome is a GOP changing its mind.

Changing its mind? This is transparently true. State legislatures dominated by authoritarians have recently been using the hard power of their respective governments to determine social conduct for the purpose of shaping their cultures according to the desires of rightwing politics.

Republican-dominated states are telling, or attempting to tell, people what they can say, what they can read and where they can travel. They are now telling private for-profit firms what they can say, what they can sell and who they can hire. Republicans used to be the party of “economic freedom.” It now stands ready to punish businesses that don’t do what they’re told.

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The Republicans are, if nothing else, practical in that they don’t think about whether something is good or bad, but whether its outcome advances their agenda. That means its intellectuals don’t think about courses of action for their party comrades to follow. It means they dutifully follow along, willy-nilly, scrambling to provide rationalization for outcomes after the fact.

The most recent example of this comes from the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that played a leading role in the rise of “neoliberalism” in the 1970s and 1980s, and that provided the brainy gravitas needed to undergird what had been called “intellectual conservatism.” The Heritage Foundation was perhaps the loudest champion of minimal taxes, minimal regulation of business and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs.

In rightwing political circles, the federal government was at the time seen as standing against the interests of white people. The federal government had just completed a transformative two decades in which it recognized for the first time the rights and privileges of outpeople, and enshrined them in high court precedent and federal law. Minimal taxes, minimal regulation and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs were not only seen as good for corporate America. They were good for white America.

So it was surprising for some to see the Heritage Foundation release a paper this week flipping 40 years of policy on its head. Heritage used to see economics and government as antipodes, as opposites. But the paper argues for their integration. Its title: “Free Enterprise and the Common Good: Economic Science and Political–Economic Art as Complements.”

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Here’s a sampling of reactions: “I remember when you could walk into a room full of Republicans and say that economic liberty was a good thing in and of itself.” Plus: “This is entirely antithetical to the principles of limited government and individual liberty.” And finally: “There are times in my life where I cannot believe that I spent an entire decade working for Heritage. Have you taken down the paintings of Hayek and Friedman in the lobby? I hope so, because they wouldn't want to be associated with the place.”

Fact is, the government has always played a role in the economy. It was never socialist, nor was it communist. This was true even when “intellectual conservatism” reigned. (Spending on national defense has risen by orders of magnitude since the 1980s, juicing military-contract firms and everyone who does business with them.) The question wasn’t whether. It was how.

The Democratic view has usually been that the government should grow the economy from the middle out. (This is Joe Biden’s line, too.) The Republican view has usually been that the government should grow the economy from the top-down – with the very obscenely rich taking the most obscene share and passing it to heirs who do nothing but be born.

You might favor one or the other, but both are legitimate, and both have always informed the federal government’s steerage of the economy.

“Movement conservatism” papered over these facts with stentorian talk of “limited government and individual liberty.” It hid this so well that many people, many respectable white people, believed conservatives meant what they said. They believed it so much they were s h o c k e d to see the house organ of “limited government and individual liberty” say it’s time to swap “the invisible hand of the marketplace” for “the visible hand of the state.”

The best reaction? A quote from the paper – “Achieving these goals means buttressing the invisible hand of the marketplace with the visible hand of the state” – and a meme: “Sounds like Communist propaganda, but OK.”

The Heritage Foundation isn’t descending into communism, nor is it really reversing itself. It has always stood for the interests of white people, and with this new paper, it continues to. The “common good” in the title? There’s something common about it. It’s a coy way of identifying who most benefits from the rightwing integration of government and economics. They are the same people who most benefited from minimal taxes, minimal regulation and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs.

If you want to call it socialism, go ahead. But don’t call it socialism for all.

It’s socialism for white people.

A Republican Party changing its mind about “big government” isn’t the only BFD in American politics. Changing its mind means that the best argument against greater regulation of banks and corporations and against higher taxes on the 1 percent has melted into the air. There are no arguments standing in the way of Democratic attempts to reshape the economy. The choice is no longer between the party for government or the party against government. The choice is between competing theories of government.

Do you want one that influences the economy for all?

Do you want one that influences the economy for some?

That’s not a good choice for the Republicans.

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