From the earliest days of the republic, a faction of people have recognized the inextricable tie between economic and civil liberty.
During the days of the Constitutional Convention, minus the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights, much dissent focused on the affect unchecked taxing power could have in allowing despotism to flourish:
“By virtue of their power of taxation, Congress may command the whole, or any part of the property of the people. They may impose what imposts upon commerce; they may impose what land taxes, poll taxes, excises, duties on all written instruments, and duties on every other article that they may judge proper, in short, every species of taxation, whether of an external or internal nature is comprised in [Art. 1, Sec. 8].”
Anti-Federalists like Samuel Bryan, the author of such potent words, were the ideological forebears of an impressive heritage, added to by philosophical giants such as Milton Friedman and Thomas Sewell, whose endowment molded the attitude of strict separation between government, carefully constrained, and markets, organic and responsive to the actions of the populace, which has come to typify conservative belief.
However, those who would set themselves up as the party’s de facto leaders seem to have a warped conception of this traditional position. In fact, the party’s strategy of “repeal and replace” Obamacare reveals an alarming predilection for utilizing some government powers, effectively as a crutch for free market solutions. One only has to go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, when Keynesian economics first promulgated the mixing of public and private powers as a viable path for societal problems, to see how quickly the right has shifted from outrage to acceptance of such a strategy.
And if stoic acceptance in the face of government take over of the largest economic sector wasn’t alarming enough, many of the proposals put forth by the 2016 presidential contenders incorporate bureaucratic tools in their supposedly conservative end of eradicating ineffective programs.
There is Scott Walker’s “Patient Freedom Plan,” which purports to return control of insurance regulation to the states and private companies and individuals but aims to “insure financial stability” and “insure affordable and accessible health care for all” through Medicaid and various tax incentive schemes, none of which are means tested.
Then there is Donald Trump’s tariff-laden immigration plan, which also proposes raising the prevailing wage paid to H-1Bs in an effect to force companies into hiring American workers first. And, if this gentle squeeze from government’s iron fist isn’t enough incentive, Trump also proposes a requirement to prioritize Americans when companies are hiring. And in yet another egregious offense against capitalism, Trump stated just this week, literally minutes after supporting the flat tax, that he has a problem with a system where rich and poor pay the same percent.
This could all be chalked up to candidate schizophrenia amidst the deluge of demands for campaign speeches and hostile media questions.That’s a problem in and of itself, but it’s much more plausible that this is the result of a political culture shift.
The Overton Window- a political theory that a shift in the breadth of debate over a long period of time can make previously untenable ideas acceptable and popular- seems to have found a home in right wing attitudes towards economics. Federal government has become so omnipresent, so expansive that even those who oppose its broad powers paradoxically rely on them in their quest to neuter them.
But this is not only a stain on the principled rigidity of right wing politicians. The front-runner status of Donald Trump suggests either a tacit endorsement or an indifferent tolerance of such ideas amongst the base. There is a history of popular support for economic nativism and protectionism in America. But it is traditionally on the left, part of a doctrine of shepherdism, where the government with its superior powers and resources uses them to best serve those who most need them, espoused by Populists and New Dealers.
A wearing down of resistance, a shift in the terms of debate or a genuine ideological shift- any of these could be the driving force, but it’s hard to deny that the right’s support of pure free market economic theory has been diluted.