Floyd Norris notes in the New York Times (Feb. 9, 2008, p.B3),“George W. Bush is in line to be the first president since World II to preside over an economy in which federal government employment rose more rapidly than employment in the private sector.” It is another bit of confirmation of the truth behind a comment that “Joe S.” posted in response to my blog entry of February 6 (“Reagan and Stalin”): “What, pray tell, does the Republican Party have to do with conservatism?”
The liberal and conservative labels are no longer useful. It’s not that shorthand political labels are never useful; they are, even though individuals resist pigeonholing.
And it’s not just that these particular words have long since lost their original meanings. Linguistically, “liberalism” of course was supposed to refer to a philosophy of leaving individuals free from interference by government and other entrenched institutions, while “conservatism” was supposed to mean valuing continuity and stability. But it is a commonplace that Americans use the word “liberal” to mean the opposite of what it meant in the 19th century (which is now often called “neoliberal,” for some reason).
Supporters and detractors alike still considered George W. Bush a conservative, despite the original meaning of the word, when he launched radical departures from longstanding American principles in the spheres of foreign policy and domestic policy. The White House has asserted maximal political powers for the executive, and has used these powers to enact virtually unprecedented levels of interventionist policies, ranging from Iraq to domestic citizens’ right to privacy.
But people still seem to think that the Bush Administration also stands for conservatism in the economic sphere as well. Or some think that President Bush may no longer stand for economic conservatism, but that other Republican politicians do. I would contend that, not just George W. Bush, but also Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and (to a lesser extent) George H.W. Bush, all — in sharp distinction from their conservative rhetoric – in practice have been interventionist. They have all wandered, far from the principles of good neoclassical economics, and far from from the principles of small government and laissez faire. How far? Farther than did, for example, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The criteria are:
(1) Growth in the size of the government, as measured by employment and spending.
(2) Lack of fiscal discipline, as measured by budget deficits.
(3) Lack of commitment to price stability, as measured by pressure on the Fed for easier monetary policy when politically advantageous.
(4) Departures from free trade.
(5) Use of government powers to protect and subsidize favored special interests (such as the oil and gas sector, among many others).
Documentation that Republican presidents have since 1971 indulged in these five departures from “conservatism” to a greater extent than Democratic presidents can be found in some writings of mine, listed below. The name I would give to this set of economic policies, as well as to the parallel abuses of executive power in the areas of foreign policy and domestic policy, is neither “liberal” nor “conservative” but, rather, “illiberal.”
Original: “Republican and Democratic Presidents Have Switched Economic Policies,” in Milken Institute Review, vol. 5, no.1, 1st Quarter, 2003, pp.18-25.