The “distinguishing quality of Anglo-Saxon politics,” James Burnham wrote, “has always been hypocrisy, and hypocrisy must always be at pains to shy away from the truth.”
Burnham’s words are especially true of Conservatism, Inc., as it is no longer clear, at this point, what is being conserved beyond sinecures and special interests. Conservative think tanks are illustrative of this problem.
Government, writes Vance Ginn, chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, must refrain from “picking winners and losers—something incompatible with conservatism.” He’s referring to minimum wage increases specifically, but his comment is broadly representative of the contemporary conservative view that the state’s proper role is that of an umpire, an impartial entity that exists to oversee but never interfere with the ingenious designs of the free market.
But the lights of Ginn’s think tank are kept on precisely because the government has chosen TPPF’s donors as winners.
A leaked list of TPPF’s donors shows a long list of major corporate donors, with oil and gas interests figuring prominently, from Koch Industries, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Luminant, and others that have reaped fortunes in fossil fuels. And there is the irony: most of the work Ginn and his colleagues do is underwritten by a heavily subsidized, bailed-out industry.
“The U.S. oil and gas industry has received more than $10 billion from the federal government to cushion losses during the pandemic,” Quartz reported in November. The following month, TPPF republished an article demanding “Congress should oppose any stimulus proposals that carve out special treatment for or bail out energy companies, or any industry, and focus on responsibly stewarding our tax dollars.” They’re against bailouts in principle, but they don’t mind reaping the benefits in practice.
TPPF also staked out the incoherent position of being a small business advocate while participating in the effort to mislead the public about the First Step Act, a bill that ultimately released thousands of dangerous criminals. Incoherent, because small businesses bore the brunt of rioting through 2020, and jailbreak bills like the First Step Act benefit the kind of people who caused the mayhem last year.
Hypocrisy is the rule when it comes to conservative brain trusts.
The American Enterprise Institute recently issued a somber warning against Senator Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) proposal to provide direct payments monthly to parents. Under Romney’s plan, families with children up to five years old would receive $4,200 per year per child in $350 monthly payments, and families with children ages 6 to 17 would receive $3,000 per year per child, or $250 per month. Here is a rare piece of pro-family policy that would help reduce what the Brookings Institution calls the “time squeeze.”
The “average middle-class married couple with children now works a combined 3,446 hours annually, an increase of more than 600 hours—or 2.5 additional months—since 1975,” according to Brookings. While the entry of women into the labor market has helped families avoid a money squeeze, it has exacerbated the “time squeeze.”
As one mother put it: “How are you going to have time to devote to your children and teach them the right values if you’re working so that they can have a roof over their heads and food to eat?” The trend is “mostly driven by increases in the employment of, and hours worked by, women in dual-earner couples.” When given a choice, many women choose family over work.
As self-styled defenders of traditional institutions, one would expect conservatives to support policies that are conducive to the formation and protection of families. To this end, policies that enable parents to work less and spend more time with children are good.
But AEI scholar Angela Rachidi warns Romney’s plan would “reduce employment.” In other words, she worries parents may choose to work fewer hours or even leave the workforce. Far better for them, it seems, to slave away from home and leave raising children to day care, nannies, and screens.
And if that becomes too much to bear, adults and adolescents alike can help themselves to OxyContin, an opioid that fuels overdose deaths, and one that AEI helped put on the map.
Documents obtained by ProPublica show Purdue Pharma—the company that makes OxyContin—donated $50,000 annually to AEI from 2003 through 2019, plus contributions for special events, totaling more than $800,000. Purdue “aggressively countered criticism that its prized painkiller helped cause the opioid epidemic” with the help of a hidden relationship with AEI resident scholar Sally Satel.
“When you scratch the surface of someone who is addicted to painkillers, you usually find a seasoned drug abuser with a previous habit involving pills, alcohol, heroin or cocaine,” Satel wrote in 2004, defending Purdue’s prized product from critics. “Contrary to media portrayals, the typical OxyContin addict does not start out as a pain patient who fell unwittingly into a drug habit.”
The peer-reviewed Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology journal notes that Purdue’s coordinated effort to deceive the public about OxyContin as a non-addictive formulation of oxycodone helped fuel the opioid crisis. Researchers cite a DEA report published in 2019, showing “oxycodone products such as the 40-mg OxyContin® tablet became the most frequently encountered pharmaceutical drug by law enforcement in 2009 and are still among the most identifed [sic] pharmaceutical drugs by federal, state, and local forensic laboratories in the USA.”
Considering how AEI provided intellectual cover for Big Pharma as the mortality rate from opioid poisonings increased three-fold among children and adolescents, it’s not at all clear what these conservatives mean by “family values.”
AEI pushed the lie that people, rather than their donors’ poison pills, were the problem. It’s always everyday Americans who are to blame and hapless donors whom we must remember to spare. The best thing that we can do for Americans, anyway, is liberalize their access to painkillers and keep them working as many hours as possible.
Free-Market Liberation Theology
Arguing against a federal minimum wage increase, Heritage Foundation researcher Rachael Greszler takes a similar line as AEI’s Rachidi.
Greszler argues increasing the minimum wage could raise childcare costs to make it a kind of luxury expenditure. “That could reduce employment by causing some parents—particularly within two-parent families—to stay home with children instead of working,” she writes. “To the extent that women would be more likely to stay home than men, this could widen gender-based differences in the labor market.”
Greszler’s position on raising the minimum wage is less important than the worldview her responses reveal. On the one hand, she invokes a variation of the gender wage gap argument generally associated with left-wing movements like feminism. On the other hand, the notion that parents may stay home with children instead of working is framed as a negative outcome. This is essentially free-market liberation theology. Female autonomy, not family, is the concern. Women must be empowered to leave the crib side so that they can contribute to the all-important GDP.
The great irony of American conservatism is that it paves the way for its own demise by holding untenable, hypocritical positions. It preaches bootstraps for everyday Americans while taking money from bailouts. Conservatism decries socialism for the poor and middle even as it celebrates it for the rich. The family only matters as a consolidated unit of production and consumption. Conservatism, Inc. is guilty of virtually every evil of which it accuses the Left—but unlike the Left, against all social, moral, religious, and ethical teachings, it has declared greed is good.
Many of contemporary conservatism’s ideas are fundamentally indistinguishable from those of “liberals”—but unlike liberals who have the good sense to lie about their avarice, conservatives proclaim the supremacy of self-interest, of anti-social, atomizing individualism even as it facilitates the consolidation of control over our lives by a collective of managerial elites. It’s past time to pull down the pillars of this defeated and historically irrelevant movement and build something new.