Conservatism at its ‘best’

Chuck McIntyre is a Sacramento writer and economist.

Thomas Frank’s new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, points out that the huge wave of corruption and failure of government in Washington, D.C., is not the result of conservatism gone wrong or the actions of a few “bad apples,” but rather is the result of conservatism at its “best,” because the ideology essentially has greed at its base. While a bit hyperbolic, his book may be right on the mark.

It’s an interesting thesis, the perfection of which seems to have begun with Ronald Reagan, and is exemplified by his famous quip, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” There’s plenty of evidence that he and others since—Norquist, DeLay, Abramoff, Gingrich, Cheney, the Bushes, Rove, et al.—have worked diligently and successfully to dismantle our government and make a ton of bucks in a kind of conservative cronyism, all in the name of the marketplace.

But there are a number of goods and services (national defense, education, security, public health and the like) that cannot be left entirely to the marketplace. That’s because the “free market” assumptions of many buyers and sellers, perfect information and profit maximizers do not hold, and the markets’ pricing and output do not produce efficient solutions. Moreover, some goods are natural monopolies: Once underway, the marginal costs of production are near zero (communications, some forms of energy and the like) with the result that higher-than-efficient prices are charged. The solution: collective action in the public interest. We call that “government.”

Even with such resource allocation intervention, free-market capitalism always results in an unequal distribution of income. Sometimes it’s so unequal that, while some folks live in 10,000-square-foot homes, just a few miles away others are homeless. The solution: collective action in the public interest (government, again) to redistribute wealth through progressive taxes and social programs we call the “social safety net.” It’s not a policy set generally favored by the conservatives Frank describes.

The Bush administration has taken the whole notion of privatization one step further, profiting substantially from dismantling government by turning over public functions to private enterprises—usually to friends, cronies and accomplices. The most famous example is the Iraq war, in which more private contractors are deployed than Defense Department military. Blackwater, Halliburton, KBR and others have made billions off this war.

Blackwater Worldwide, a private firm accountable to no one, currently performs as much intelligence work as the CIA does, under tax-supported contracts. Blackwater’s conduct as a security operative in Iraq is infamous. Halliburton and KBR have overcharged the government (and the taxpayers) millions for goods and services: Halliburton by providing substandard food to the troops and KBR with faulty showers cited in the electrocution deaths of a number of servicemen. Frank has many more illustrations of such outrageous and illegal behavior in The Wrecking Crew.

Fascinating; but where does all this leave us? With the Bush administration on the way out, the current purveyor of conservative cronyism is John McCain. Rest assured, in the background are the big oil, drug, military and assorted other industries described by Frank, who bargain on continued dismantling of government and extending empire in, say, “100 years of war” for their private benefit in the event of a McCain victory.

Even if there’s a departure from the cronyism described in The Wrecking Crew following this November’s election, it will take us a generation or two to repair the damage of the past eight years. A further continuation of this ideology might just be irreversible, and our children and grandchildren should line up to kick our behinds. They’ll be the real losers in such a debacle.