Like most members of the Republican leadership in both Houses of Congress, Paul Ryan should be voted out of office, in the primary, by the majority of his constituents who are significantly more conservative than he is. But Mr. Ryan should not be replaced because of his role in engineering passage of the vast omnibus spending bill last month. Were it the case that Mr. Ryan was merely some vote-for-hire who sold out his constituents in favor of a “better deal” for himself and his financial backers, there might be some reason to hope that he could be brought to heel by increased pressure from conservatives. Instead, however, Mr. Ryan honestly believes that he has done the right thing, that the omnibus spending bill was necessary to “keep the government working” and support our economy. He even believes (honestly, I am convinced) that the subsequent legislation he has offered to defund Planned Parenthood and roll back Obamacare is all that conservatives have any right to expect from him.
Like most members of the Republican establishment, Mr. Ryan believes that the reforms he “won” in the omnibus spending bill—principally allowing the sale of American petroleum oversees and yet another increase in the number of temporary work visas—are great victories. And he believes that these victories make business as usual in government an overall benefit to America. Mr. Ryan believes this, not because he has not bothered to think about his constituents’ interests and opinions, but because his entire adult life, again, like that of most in the Republican leadership, has been lived within a warped reality of parochial interests and abstract ideology. People like Mr. Ryan must be primaried out of office, not because they are false to their principles, but because their principles are false.
To begin with the parochial: like most politicians, Mr. Ryan listens to those he knows, those who contribute to his campaign, and those who are politically active. This set of influential people is not composed solely of the super-rich. Often these people are no more than well-off. Moreover, many of them are owners of small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of any conservative movement or party. Unfortunately, many of these small and medium-sized businesses have been co-opted by the administrative state for decades, becoming reliant on barriers to entry against their competition, dependent on lawyers and accountants to fill out massive amounts of paperwork, and convinced that any sudden return to free markets and individual responsibility would be at least as dangerous to their well-being as continued, incremental growth of the welfare and administrative state. Their conditions and interests have trained these business owners (and managers) not to rock the administrative boat, lest the IRS or some agency come calling; their conditions also have accustomed them to dealing with the ills of an economy and society long mired in various forms of corruption. As Joseph Schumpeter observed in the mid-twentieth century, the growth of the state has made even “entrepreneurs” into the equivalent of clerks, looking for nothing so much as stability and a steady stream of income.
Of principal interest, here, is the issue of immigration. It is common for conservative Americans to decry temporary work visas for taking away American jobs. This is fair because that is exactly what these visas do—they import workers with lower expectations, fewer responsibilities, and markedly less power to take the place of American citizens. That said, owners of smaller businesses in America face a difficult quandary. They must pay massive taxes to support unemployment insurance and the vast expansion of welfare programs (especially Food Stamps) under President Barack Obama. At the same time, business owners find themselves unable to find people willing to take the relatively low-level jobs they must fill in order to conduct their business. Anyone who has tried to hire a contractor in recent years should be aware of this problem.
The reasons for this mess are many, but prominent among them are 1) Americans’ failure, through massive abortion and habitual contraception, to have children over the last fifty years; 2) increased availability of government payments to those who choose not to work at low-level jobs and cannot secure higher-level jobs; and 3) a decline in work ethic and embarrassment at unemployment that have been precipitated by cultural decay. (Lest I be accused of “blaming the victim” I would note that the cultural decay at issue includes structural unemployment wrought by outsourcing, open hostility toward certain classes of workers in the name of affirmative action, and a general degradation of working-class economics.) It is not surprising under such circumstances that smaller employers would look to increase the number of immigrants—both legal and, sadly, illegal—available for hire. From business owners’ perspective, this is the only way to get crews together to do the work that keeps America in business.
Of course the resulting policy is terrible for America—for its economy, its cultural continuity, and its workers. Mr. Ryan and his cohorts think that by giving their more well-off constituents what they want they are keeping the engine of commerce from breaking down. In fact, our current immigration policies further a vicious cycle, already well advanced here and approaching maximum destructive force in Europe. That cycle? Workers with skill sets and customs that do not fit our economic and social structure are brought in, requiring massive governmental interference to make them ready for work and for peaceful interaction (one used to say assimilation, but that itself has become forbidden). As a result, the culture fractures, social trust is undermined, the government grows, businesses become yet more reliant on the state, and average Americans see their standard of living decrease yet farther as they lose control over their local communities.
Perhaps Mr. Ryan genuinely believes that only stupid racists seek to maintain the continuity of their culture by limiting immigration to those willing and able to assimilate fairly quickly. Regardless of his prejudices on this issue, Mr. Ryan’s central motivation in promoting immigration is to promote job creation. That he is wrong and blind to the downside of his policies does not necessarily make him a bad person, and definitely does not make him a traitor. But it makes him a representative of an establishment that fundamentally misreads the values and interests of its constituency.
The rest of the omnibus spending bill, including the other “victory” it contains (foreign sales of petroleum) are of a piece with Mr. Ryan’s false vision of America. Free markets are a good thing, making the elimination of restrictions on petroleum sales a good thing. But to confuse this narrow, limited victory for free markets for a general victory in the face of the Obama Administration’s functionally uncontested onslaught of overregulation is just sad.
Calvin Coolidge is said to have opined that the business of America is business. Only he actually did not say that. What that great President actually said was “the chief business of the American people is business.” The difference between these statements is crucial. Coolidge’s statement evinces an understanding that the people themselves are chiefly concerned to make a living and go about their lives unmolested. The misquotation identifies the people’s business with the nation and, by extension, its government. America as a nation cannot be run as a business. Mr. Ryan and his establishment colleagues seem to believe that a bit of common sense of the business variety will reign in Mr. Obama and his social justice warrior administration. They are wrong. By seeking to merely streamline governmental machinery that warps the values and motivations of the people, Mr. Ryan is aiming, in reality, to make that machinery more efficient. This might buy his well-off constituents some more years of relative prosperity, but it definitely will empower those who always run such machinery (the sort of people who prefer administering others rather than letting them do for themselves) and who always see its central purpose as reconfiguring society. Whatever economic surplus the rest of us may produce, these would-be masters will see as rightly belonging to them.
Mr. Ryan and his allies in the Republican establishment must go, not because they have betrayed conservative principles. They must go because they never have held conservative principles. Their vision of a good society is of an efficiently managed economy in which all inputs, including the human inputs known as citizens, are arranged in as efficient a manner as possible for the good of overall production. It is a vision fundamentally opposed to the conservative understanding that our constitutional republic is intended to protect self-governing persons and communities against violence and foreign invasion while respecting their traditions and ways of life. The sooner Americans become clear on why it is that they cannot accept the government their “conservative” leaders insist on giving them, the sooner they will find the strength and determination to replace those leaders for good.
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