One of the (very few) benefits of growing old is that you gain perspective. Sometimes, that also leads to a modicum of wisdom, sometimes not–but it does mean that one’s frame of reference is larger and longer. To use a very common example, you can’t truly appreciate how dramatically the internet has changed society if you were born after the invention of the world wide web.
This morning’s Paul Krugman column reminded me again that those of us born in the mid-twentieth century have a vantage point to assess political change that younger folks don’t have.
My students are frequently aghast when they learn that I was a Republican for most of my life–that I even ran for Congress as a fairly conservative Republican, and won a primary. But as Krugman points out, and as I try to explain to my students, the positions that made me “conservative” in 1980 make me a pinko/socialist/liberal today. Most of my students grew up in an environment where conservative Republicans reject evolution and the science of climate change, talk a lot about fiscal prudence, but practice “borrow and spend” economic policies, and are totally without compassion for the less fortunate. The only Republicans they’ve known are those who preach limited government while insisting on their right to control women’s reproduction and their right to discriminate against gays. They are shocked to learn that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights and still was able to win a GOP primary.
Krugman explains the change with his usual clarity, beginning with the example of the Tea Party’s “let ’em die” eruption at the recent GOP Presidential debate:
“In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds. Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in “The Road to Serfdom” his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.
Given the agreed-upon desirability of protecting citizens against the worst, the question then became one of costs and benefits — and health care was one of those areas where even conservatives used to be willing to accept government intervention in the name of compassion, given the clear evidence that covering the uninsured would not, in fact, cost very much money. As many observers have pointed out, the Obama health care plan was largely based on past Republican plans, and is virtually identical to Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.
Now, however, compassion is out of fashion — indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.
And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.”
What Krugman fails to note, and these radicals fail to understand, is that if they actually are successful in their frantic efforts to keep government from “stealing” even a penny in taxes to be distributed (in their fevered imaginations) to the “less deserving,” they would also be impoverished. What Hayek understood–and what those who invoke his name without reading his arguments do not-is that, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, an ebbing tide lowers all boats. They remind me of a two-year-old snatching a toy from a playmate while screaming “mine, mine, mine.”
What we are seeing from this radical fringe is not a political shift. It’s a tantrum.