We Need to Drive a Stake into the Heart of Conservatism

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Dean Baker
TPMCafé Book Club (Talking Points Memo), October 6, 2008

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Thomas Frank has written a great book (The Wrecking Crew) that should help drive more nails into the coffin of the conservative movement. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that he doesn't quite put the stake through the heart, which is really what we have to do with this monster.

The problem is that Tom still accepts too much conservative rhetoric at face value. Conservatives do not dislike government or want small government. They just dislike government policies that are designed to help the bulk of the population. They want the government to redistribute income upward and they are happy to have a government that is as big as necessary to accomplish this task. The stuff about small government and leaving things to the market is just pretty rhetoric they use to fool the kids (i.e. us).

It sounds much better to say, "I want to get the government off people's backs" than "I want the government to make the rich even richer." But the latter is the real story of conservatism.

I'll give a few quick examples. Pfizer, Merck and the other major drug companies are extremely profitable because the government will arrest people who sell drugs for which the government has awarded these companies patent monopolies. This requires really big powerful government. The government threatens people with jail for selling a product (drugs) in a competitive market.

Of course, patents serve a purpose. They provide an incentive to innovate. But we can find much more efficient mechanisms to support innovation that won't make these companies rich and require as much government intervention. But the conservatives aren't interested in small government and market efficiency, they want to keep Pfizer, Merck and the rest of Big Pharma profitable.

The same story applies to copyrights in software and recorded music and movies. Isn't it big government when people are tracked in their homes and dorm rooms and face legal action for downloading material off the web? Again, we can find less intrusive ways to support software development and the production of creative work, but the conservatives are interested in making Microsoft and Time-Warner rich, not small government.

The recent reform of the bankruptcy law provides another example of conservatives supporting big government. Part of being a good businessperson is knowing how to assess credit risk. If banks lent money to people who turned out to be bad credit risks, then they are supposed to suffer the consequences. Banks that are bad judges of credit risks go out of business.

But, conservatives did not want to leave the big banks to the mercy of the market. (I'm not talking about last week's $700 billion bailout here.) The conservatives said that if the banks made mistakes and lent money to people who couldn't pay it back, then the big government would step in and help beat it out of them. The new bankruptcy law gives the government a far more active role as a bill collector than the old law, but the "small government" conservatives had no problem with this expansion of government power.

We will be at a serious disadvantage in confronting conservatives until we stop accepting their rhetoric at face value. They are not about small government; they are not about the market. They are perfectly fine with a big powerful government that intervenes in the market all the time. They just don't want a government (big or small) that intervenes on behalf of the middle class and poor.

We have to fight this battle on turf of our choosing, if we let the right pick the terms of the debate, we lose.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.