On April 15, 1943, tens of millions of Americans sat down at a broad mahogany desk or, many more of them, at a rickety kitchen table, and wrote out checks to the federal government. Most of those Americans wrote checks in the four or five figures, a few of the wealthiest in the six figures.
That day was a bonding moment for a chesty, prosperous nation, a moment when citizens from all stations came together and divvied up the bill for public services. It was also a republicanizing civic experience. Every taxpaying American, from the lawn guy to the industrial mogul, found the same two questions at the tip of his tongue. The first was, “Wow! How did my tax bill get so high?” And the second was, “Wow! What did I get for all of that money?” Both of those questions were potent, small-r republican questions. April 15, even more than religious holidays or the Fourth of July, had become the most conservative day of the calendar year.
That would never happen again, of course. The statists of all parties, as Hayek might have put it, made sure that it wouldn’t. Soft statists from the stupid party and hard statists from the evil party conjured up a swift, sure, bipartisan solution to a problem that no citizen had to that point detected. For all subsequent years, the tax bill for every American would be sliced into 52 bite-sized pieces, after which employers would be coerced into stripping tax revenues off the top before cutting an employee’s weekly paycheck. Never again would an American citizen feel the sandpaper scrape of hard-earned tax dollars passing through his fingers. Never again would an American taxpayer add his voice to the deafening chorus demanding answers to those two questions. The stealth phrase “take-home pay” would soon infiltrate the language and, as between the citizen and his government, it was now manifestly clear who would get paid first.
In the Museum of Modern Statism, which will one day break ground on the Washington Mall, an alcove should be reserved for the man or woman, or quite possibly, the committee that came up with this ingenious scheme to separate more Americans from more tax dollars with less resistance. (For the alcove, my mind’s eye suggests a bust of a man bearing close resemblance to Andrew McCabe. Just a thought.)
Another political development of like consequence rolled out over several decades, beginning with First Lady Hillary Clinton and consolidating under President Barack Obama.
For reasons now forgotten, I spent a few years helping to build a political organization in Nassau County, a big, fast-growing suburb of New York City. We were pretty good at it. With Nassau running up huge GOP majorities, New York State was led for a time by a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and two U.S. senators, all of whom were elected Republicans. (Our county committee proudly passed around a story describing ours as a “political machine led by one Jew, two WASPs, and ten thousand Italians.” For us political machinists, this story fell into the category of “too good to correct.”)
Our secret sauce was to recruit for leadership in every town, of which there were dozens sprawled across the vast county, a prominent family physician. “Prominent” because he saw lots of patients, all of whom had invested in him both financially and psychologically. “Family” because as a general practitioner he would come to know not only mom and dad but the kids, too. “Physician” because he was one of the most trusted men in town, the only man in a prim suburb whom neighbors would allow to poke and prod their naked bodies.
More salient than these surface attributes, the town doctor was a fiercely independent businessman. He did responsibility-accepting, BS-rejecting, profit-seeking, result-based work. He didn’t know it yet, but he was a born Republican leader.
Soon thereafter, predictably, he became a target. Mrs. Clinton, in her role as the overperforming spouse of an elected official, tried to run town doctors out of business. Health care for all, as she proposed to contrive it, meant private practice for none. Despite her tireless efforts, or perhaps in some measure because of them, Mrs. Clinton managed to scare the bejesus out of the American people and her campaign to nationalize health care came up short. But all, alas, was not lost. After unleashing the shock troops of Left activism — the tort lawyers — Mrs. Clinton secured a significant political victory: She softened up the doctors. Her tort lawyers distracted them with malpractice suits, squeezed them with rising insurance premiums, and intimidated them with reputational attacks. Staunchly Republican doctors began to appreciate the subtle charms of bipartisan solutions.
Barack Obama finished the job. After disarming the pharmaceutical companies, he demobilized the doctors. Obama, again, failed to deliver on his stated goals of universal health care at basement prices, but, again, he achieved substantial political gains. Consult your own experience. If it coincides with mine, your primary-care physicians, one after the other, went to work for a hospital, folded into a multi-practice consortium, or hired themselves out to some large health-care bureaucracy: The compliance python had crushed the prominent family physician. These doctors were soon converted from independent businessmen into nonprofit executives. Over time, and in thousands of towns across the country, the most trusted man in the Freedom Party became a stalwart of the administrative state.
Now to COVID-19, yet another crisis that Left activists are determined not to waste. This past year has been a radicalizing civic experience. Families have splintered, breaking down along generational lines. Church attendance has plummeted. Voluntary organizations have withered. In many communities, private services for the young and the old, the weak and the halt, have simply vanished.
Beyond these incalculable social costs — costs borne disproportionately by the Freedom Party — there have been huge and ominous financial costs. The decline of the dollar in international markets tells us that we have spent too much; that some smart people think we will be unable to pay our bills; and that — here’s the ominous part — it’s time to consider swapping out the dollar for the renminbi as the world’s reserve currency. That would be the tipping point of all tipping points. (The radical wing of the Democratic Party, the loud wing, has been silent in this matter. They profess to believe that some redundantly modernized monetary theory will float the boat.)
Beyond these widely distributed costs of the pandemic, consider the targeted measures implemented by blue-state Democrats and complicit Republicans. Have the authoritarians imposed harsh lockdown measures on tech executives, teachers unions, debtors, rioters, media organizations, government bureaucrats, Hollywood producers, academic types, talking heads, tort lawyers, and tax-advantaged activists? No? Well, have they imposed harsh measures on merchants, savers, working couples, amateur athletes, salesmen, churchgoing Christians, synagoguegoing Jews, police officers, parents, students, clergy, and senior technophobes? They have?
Indeed, so. The groups hit hardest by the lockdowns happen to be the constituent elements of the Freedom Party and, to those of you who choose to see this division as the work of coincidence, we say that you are sweet souls and you have our concern.
Take the egregious case of restaurants. Immigrants who come to America for the right reasons open restaurants for good reasons: (1) they can leverage their intellectual property (Mom’s recipes); (2) the kids will never go hungry; (3) it is still in some measure a cash business; and (4) they can launch and grow their business with a loyal, hardworking, and underpaid staff — the kids and their cousins. Immigrant restaurants have been for more than a century a first-class ticket to the American dream.
Here in Florida where I live, we are blessed not only with the legacy restaurants — French, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican — but with more recent arrivals, including Cuban, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, and most recently of all, Venezuelan. These restaurants are run by independent businesspeople, who ripen over time into prime prospects for the Freedom Party. (The Puerto Ricans present a special case. Since the turn of the century, a million Puerto Ricans have settled in the Orlando area. That’s more than New York, more than San Juan. It’s been a veritable diaspora from an island with three million people. To overstate but accost the central point: The early arrivals came for opportunity and started their own businesses. The later arrivals, after Hurricane Maria, came for social services and became welfare clients. To read the national press, you would think that “Hispanics” are a fungible lot.) The Associated Press reports that, across the country, 110,000 restaurants have closed during the pandemic. That’s an astounding number, a tragic number. Not one of those families came to America aspiring to become government dependents.
I recount these episodes to drive home the obvious point. It is not only in war — when the patriotic citizen cedes ground carelessly to the national-security state — that individual freedoms shrink and shrivel. It is not only in bursts of ideological exuberance — the New Deal, the Great Society, the Biden Infrastructure-Boondoggle-To-Be-Named-Later — that the state advances. As every American knows in his hips, to borrow Willmoore Kendall’s timeless phrase, the state never sleeps. Sometimes slowly, sometimes with gathering speed, sometimes on cat’s paws, sometimes with the banging of rhetorical pots and pans, the state advances. The era of big government is never over.
Which makes it surprising, and troubling, to hear the conversation rising in Zoom confabs, and extended in political journals, to the effect that conservative writers, even “conservative leaders,” have lost patience with libertarians. The contention is that our cause has been damaged or even contaminated by libertarian excess, as if libertarians were a problematic faction in need of ideological cleansing. I’m not clear as to precisely what “cause” is referenced here, but some of this talk is surely disingenuous: It is no more than strawman-swatting to conflate healthy libertarian impulses with the handful of capital-L voters who march to the polls with perverse intention to tip close elections from the slightly less statist candidate to the slightly more statist candidate. To the extent that the current talk is substantive, however, and seeks to drive libertarians from our coalition, it is both amnesiac and misguided.
I have spoken here of the Freedom Party, by which I mean to denote that once dominant, now receding community of Americans who cherish individual liberty: those Americans who have been willing to defend the tiny but sacred space within which we are permitted to exercise our God-given rights as promised by the Declaration and secured by the Constitution; those Americans whose philosophical yearnings have been fire-started by the clarity of Locke, the passion of Jefferson, the poeticism of Oakeshott.
Freedom-loving Americans. We share a long and honorable tradition. At the very birth of our nation, the 56 brave men who pledged their lives and their fortunes — assuming, correctly, that many of them would lose both — did not take on mortal risk in the cause of a levelling statism, or some form of socially engineered equality. They took on the certain perils, and hoped for the uncertain rewards, of a robustly free society pursued in the cause of individual liberty.
As of course did the founders of the conservative movement. Russell Kirk may have begun with his quirky individualism, William Buckley with his Nockian anti-statism, and Frank Meyer with his hard-shell ex-communism, but they all took it as a given that conservatives would begin by layering their own fusionist priorities atop a foundational commitment to personal freedom.
The hour is late, but we are still the Freedom Party.