Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fiscal Anticonservatism

Call me conservative.

I listen to classical, baroque, renaissance, and ancient music, not rock and roll. I do not use coarse, abrasive, or profane language, and I tend to congregate with people who likewise prefer not to lace their utterances with four-letter words. Our sixteen-year-old son has a strict weekday curfew: in the house by 9:00 in the evening, lights out by 10:00 p.m. I enjoy the routines of my life, and I am often averse to change.

Conservatism is “The disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.” It finds greatest emphasis in “placing value in established institutions, and subjugating individual freedom to order, rank, security, and the good of the community.” If this were the only definition of conservatism, I would be recognised as one of the leading proponents and practitioners of this philosophy of life. The primary definition I quoted is the first one listed in the unabridged Webster dictionary. The second is drawn from the Canadian Oxford. A person dedicated to the principles of conservatism would derive greatest satisfaction from governmental systems that preserved social order and provided for the common good. This is traditional conservatism, and I am a staunch advocate of this common-sense preservation of society.

There is no place in civilised society for anarchists bent on destroying the social order. There is no place in civilised society for Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or any other organisation dedicated to the killing or enslavement of people, or the creation of discriminatory structures based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, physical disability, or sexual orientation. In fact, freedom to engage in any of these uncivilised activities is no freedom at all, but slavery. The signature I use at Critique Circle, one of the writing organisations I patronise, expresses my philosophy in seven words: “Civilisation is incompatible with indiscriminate personal autonomy.” Civilised society is worth defending. If we do not preserve, protect, defend, and provide for the common good, we do not live up to the minimum standard by which we can be judged to have expressed our identity as human beings.

There is a more modern definition of conservatism, though. This one is taken from the Canadian Oxford dictionary: “Any of several political philosophies, esp. one... promoting individualism and non-intervention by the state.” This definition is also from the Canadian Oxford, and it certainly expresses a confusing and typically modern view of conservatism. Individualism is the supreme good. In this view of life, the state, or any organisation that reduces personal freedom in any way, is seen as a barrier to fullest expression of individualism. Even if a change tends to promote social disintegration, such a change is to be favoured above any social commitments that reduce or tend to obstruct personal freedom.

One of the greatest personal freedoms is the decision regarding allocation of personal property and wealth. If I do not wish to support the common good, I should not be obliged to do so. Taxes, in the eyes of the modern conservative—the American individualist or Libertarian—are the supreme negation of personal autonomy because these governmental mandates force me to allocate my wealth to projects I may not wish to support. Why should I pay for someone else’s children’s education when I have no children? Why should I pay for someone else’s dental care when I brush and floss and have no dental bills? If I pay for some fat slob’s heart and blood pressure medication all I’m doing is supporting an unhealthy lifestyle that’s going to end up killing the guy anyway; it’s money wasted, and I prefer to spend my money on things that matter, thank you very much.

Individualism, modern conservatives believe, is in fact the supreme expression of the common good. Any good thing we might wish to have will naturally flow out of a primary concern for the self, not for society. If jobs, for instance, are a good that society esteems, jobs will be created most effectively in a society that places no restrictions on individuals. Look at it this way, conservatives tell us: If a factory owner has a choice between paying twenty percent of profits in taxes or using twenty percent of profits to hire more employees, she’s going to prefer to hire more employees. Lower taxes lead to increased surplus capital, and surplus capital is turned into more labour to crank out more widgets at the factory. More jobs means more people buying widgets, factory workers are paid more to produce widgets faster, more people are hired to meet rising demand for widgets, and thus begins an ever-upward spiral toward prosperity.

Thirty years ago, this philosophy of rewarding the wealthy by reducing their tax burden relative to others was called “trickle-down economics.” Reward the wealthiest, most industrious members of society and the benefit would trickle down to us ordinary folk in the form of higher wages, more jobs, and greater prosperity for all.

History, of course, records that something very different occurred. Deregulation of the savings and loan industry, without a concurrent removal of loan guarantees, led to sustained and high-level gaming of the system, especially in the real estate market, where speculators built grand corporate meeting emporiums that were never rented and shopping malls that never attracted customers. This was an excellent investment, since the speculators owned more property, and when they received loans through savings and loan institutions, their loans were guaranteed by the United States government, and therefore they lost no money on their poorly researched investments. Ordinary people paid for their mistakes—or, in most cases, their deliberate gaming of the system. The stock market crash of 1987 was a direct result of deregulation, corporate greed, and significantly lower corporate income taxes. The debt of the United States, which had slowly increased to one trillion dollars from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt all the way up to Jimmy Carter, was tripled to three trillion dollars by the time Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. In eight years he had inflicted three times as much fiscal damage on the country than all previous administrations combined. This was accomplished by decreasing the amount of corporate and individual income tax collected to support government programs.

The most destructive legacy of the Reagan years was the retooling of the entire U.S. economy toward service companies and away from manufacturing. Manufacturing was discouraged since it was expensive. If a factory had to be built, a strong preference was made, and tax incentives were created, for building the factory overseas or in Mexico or in any other country where labour was cheap and plentiful. The same trend has applied all over North America. Lower taxes are used to move labour overseas. This leads to higher unemployment.

These are historical facts.

Modern-day conservatives recognise they face a tough sell when it comes to lowering taxes. They try to appeal to both the greedy, selfish, modern-day conservatives, as well as the traditional conservatives. “If you lower my taxes,” they tell us, “I’ll hire more workers at my factory.” Selfish conservatives like this, because they have more money to spend and less to pay in taxes. Traditional conservatives like this, because they recognise the benefit to society in creating more jobs.

But then we run into those nasty historical facts, and the unavoidable repetition of historical events. If you give a selfish person more money, she’s just going to try to use that money to earn more money, or power, or political influence, or any other resource she can apply to serve her unquenchable whims and lusts. Selfish people don’t care what happens in society, they care only about their individual freedom. As Karen Howlett and Paul Waldie reported in today’s Globe and Mail, lower taxes in Canada have not led to job creation. Lower taxes have led to more unemployment, more jobs in overseas sweatshops, and decreased spending on Canadian infrastructure. Basically, lower taxes lead to a multi-tiered destruction of Canadian society. Howlett and Waldie take specific examples of Western Glove Works, which used to operate a factory in Winnipeg. Now the Silver denim jeans line is manufactured in Asia, and those who used to make jeans on the production floor are working at Tim Hortons or at any of the other fine service establishments that pay a fraction of what they earned making jeans.

Nowadays, if you are a traditional conservative, you vote NDP or Liberal. Voting Conservative is the surest way of destroying the society that our parents and grandparents fought to preserve—some of them literally with their very lives. Some of my relatives are buried in graves in France, because they did not wish to see Hitler and Mussolini destroy civilisation. Selfish conservatives—the modern-day anarchists and Nazis who would preserve their wealth and power while deliberately destroying social order and the common good—are much more effective in their destruction of civilisation than Hitler and Mussolini ever could have been. They are finding among us more and more people willing to believe in the good to be derived from the selfish abandon to wealth, power, and lust.

I remain a traditional conservative. And if I could vote, I would exercise that privilege in voting for either of the parties that have consistently supported traditional conservative values: the NDP and the Liberal Party of Canada. And just as I have never, ever voted for a Republican, I would never, as long as I draw breath, vote for a candidate of the Conservative Party of Canada.

April 19, 2011

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