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February 02, 2005

No, Not THAT  Kind of Funny

The late Sen. Patrick Moynihan kept himself armed with a cogent quip to explain why fellow liberals resist improving Social Security's financial returns: “They worry,” he'd say, “that wealth will turn Democrats into Republicans.”

Now, I'm not equipped to diagnose the sources of liberal angst (after all, who knows what lurks in the hearts ...). But I do know there's some truth lurking in the second half of Moynihan's bon mot — though not for the reasons he likely imagined.

“Wealth will turn Democrats into Republicans.” Well ... yes, but not quite.

It's not wealth itself that can magically transform donkeys into elephants; a quick glance at Hollywood will confirm that. Rather, it takes a grasp of something deeper, an acceptance of a certain idea, the adoption of a certain philosophical physique. It requires, to be precise, a genuine appreciation for individual liberty, and the accompanying understanding that wealth is simply a byproduct of that liberty.

Conservatives uphold liberty, and liberty allows the creation of wealth. But liberals get it backward every time.

The left's biggest misconception about conservatism is that it's an enterprise constructed to protect and boost the rich. (Of course, the second big illusion — that conservatism is primarily driven by Christian fundamentalism — is in direct conflict with the first. But then, logic isn't a leftist strength.) This misreading of conservatism's underpinnings necessarily results in a misreading of conservative motivations. For many Democrats, the top hat, handlebar mustache and tails aren't just a Monopoly game caricature; they are the lingering, unshakeable image of fat-cat Republicanism.

That's why Moynihan's seemingly self-deprecating joke was actually a sly jab the other way: “Someone who gets wealthy becomes a Republican, you see, because Republicans are devoted to the interests of the rich.” It's the same reason President Bush's broad tax cuts led Democrats to instinctively fixate on the rich. The ritual is second nature.

Sure, variations abound on the conservative family tree. We're all familiar with the prefixes — the neo's, the theo's, the paleo's, and so on. But those are merely branches with a shared root, and at that root lies the real deal: an emphasis on liberty, rights and private property. Conservatives revere the ideals that were revered by America's founders.

That's where capitalism comes into the picture, because capitalism is the only economic system that meshes with liberty, rights and private property. The formula is simple: Liberty makes way for capitalism, which makes way for a free market, which makes way for the creation of wealth.

But those on the left get tripped up by the first two elements in the equation. Whether through willful blindness or simple ineptitude — or both, via an overdose of Marx — they focus on the "wealth" part. And that's where they make the logic-defying jump: Conservatives promote capitalism because conservatives want to protect the rich.

The reality, of course, is that conservatives promote capitalism because conservatives want to protect liberty. The free market is celebrated not because it is a path to a goal, but because it is the goal: freedom. Yes, capitalism lets people become rich. But that's incidental. Liberty, individual rights, capitalism — these are valued because they are important in and of themselves.

Pat Moynihan was smart, but not smart enough. The threat to liberalism isn't an increase in wealth. The threat comes when Democrats realize that it's impossible to force equality but it's easy to defend freedom, and that with freedom — hey! — we could also get rich.

Posted by Semolina Pilchard on February 2, 2005 at 05:06 PM | Permalink

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