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What’s Wrong with Conservatives

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You want to know what’s wrong with conservatives? Here’s what’s wrong. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas is widely regarded as the most conservative member of the United States Senate. He’s someone the national Democrats badly want to defeat next year in their bid to take firm control of that body.

So what does Hutchinson believe? He recently said, “Government can do good things, but government, like large corporations or large labor unions, … if left unchecked can be a threat to individual liberty…. The kind of country I think we should be is going to be one where individual liberty is enhanced, not restricted by do-gooders in government who think they know better than the individual.”

This sounds like a ringing endorsement of individual freedom. But if you look closely you will find gaps large enough to drive a Ford Explorer through. “Government, like large corporations or large labor unions, … if left unchecked can be a threat to individual liberty.” Here Hutchinson repeats a classic fallacy, namely, that government is like other institutions, such as corporations and unions. It is not. Government has one feature that makes it different in kind, not just degree, from everything else in society. It has the legal power to use physical force against people who have not themselves used force against anyone else. This power begins with taxation — fiscal force — and proceeds through everything government does. It is difficult to imagine government without that power.

Government may compel peaceful individuals to do things they would rather not do and stop them from doing things they wish to do. Only government can legally force people into the army and into combat where they might kill or be killed. Only government can legally take people’s money against their will. Only government can legally forbid people to pay willing employees less than a legislated minimum wage. Only government can legally imprison you for taking a drug you wish to take. Only government can legally demand that you pay for schools you abhor and refuse to use. Only government can legally decree that you will surrender part of your income for the sake of the poor, the middle class, and the rich. And only it can legally punish you if you refuse.

If you or I as private citizens attempted any of these things, we’d be jailed — and rightly so. But criminal activities are magically rendered virtuous if done by people elected to office or hired by bureaucracies. That’s moral alchemy.

Hutchinson’s problem is not merely that he can’t see the distinction between government and everything else. His blindness to that distinction opens the way to the very government meddling he says he opposes. If, as he believes, corporations and unions are a threat to liberty “if left unchecked,” then who do you suppose will have to do the checking? The government, of course. That’s what the open socialists of the Democratic Party say also. They would agree with him entirely that government must be powerful enough to prevent “abuses” by private organizations, which in fact have no inherent power to violate anyone’s rights. (Any such power that unions and corporations have is granted by government. For example, unions can force nonmembers to pay dues only because Congress passed a law making that possible. Without that law, union threats would be treated as extortion.)

Hutchinson’s position, then, obligates him to support all manner of government intervention in the peaceful, productive affairs of private organizations. This includes antitrust laws and myriad regulations of the terms of production and employment. In other words, Hutchinson’s seemingly innocuous statement concedes a major premise underlying socialism and the meddlesome welfare state.

Perhaps if Hutchinson were confronted with this argument he would revise his philosophy. But I rather doubt it. Conservatives talk a good game about liberty, but despite being shown their fallacies time after time, they stick to a wide range of government interference in our private lives. The war on drug users comes to mind. In this regard, it is appropriate to note that Hutchinson’s brother, former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, has just become chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The anti-freedom impulse runs in the family.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.