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Dueling Socialisms, Ctd.

David Boaz takes friendly issue with my post, in response to George Will's column, suggesting that "insofar as there are two kinds of spreading the wealth around, 'rent-seeking' (which we can all agree is bad) and 'socialism' (which Will implicitly concedes is less bad), conservatives are relatively more friendly to the former and liberals are relatively more friendly to the latter":

I suppose if you think of the Bush administration as “conservatives,” then you have a good case. And Orr may be too young to remember actual conservatives back in the days B.G.W.B.

But I’m not. And I recall, for instance, the first program that Democrats rallied around when the Reaganites stormed ashore in 1981 with their pitchforks and meat cleavers in hand. Nexis confirms that a day after the administration made a broad budget-cutting proposal, these words led page A1 of the Washington Post: “The entire Democratic leadership in the House joined yesterday in warning the Reagan administration to keep its budget-cutting hands off the synthetic fuels subsidy program Congress created last year.” Democrats love corporate welfare, and even liberal intellectuals are far less critical of it than are libertarians and free-market conservatives.

Well, sure. If you want to argue that the Bush administration, and the GOP Congress that supported its budgetary priorities, and the conservative opinionmakers who (mostly) went along with its government expansions without much fuss are not "conservative," then you may have a point. But it's clear that Will was not using the term in such a narrow sense--i.e., to describe only libertarians and free-market purists--and neither was I.

It's telling that to find an example of what he considers to be "actual conservative" governance, Boaz has to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan's very first budget. But it's perhaps more telling that even the case he cites is a little more complicated than he makes it out to be. It's true that I don't remember the 1981 budget negotiations (I was 14 at the time) but, like Boaz, I have access to Nexis. And while Reagan did want to cut--and Democrats wanted to save--the synthetic fuels program that was a key element of Jimmy Carter's efforts to wean the country from foreign oil, it's not because he thought the Invisible Hand would fix everything on its own. Less than a month after the Washington Post ran the article cited by Boaz, on March 7, 1981, the paper had this to say:

In the budget to be revealed next week, President Reagan will ask Congress to increase dramatically the federal subsidies for nuclear energy that the Carter administration tried to limit. At the same time, Reagan will propose reductions in most of the other energy programs started since the 1973 oil embargo.

The hunt for "actual conservatism" continues.

--Christopher Orr