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Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Why I'm not a leftist any more
The short answer is that I had seen the future and it didn't work.

Let me elaborate. I spent nearly ten years working for the Social Security Administration, mostly in the SSI program, in a run-down small city north of Boston. What I saw was that the money used for welfare programs of one sort or another were at once too generous and too miserly. They were too generous in that they permitted one generation after another to live without making any serious attempt to get an education, a spouse, or a job. They were too miserly in the amount they provided and in letting people keep some of their pitiful savings. I'm not going into details, but when I recognized a homeless family on TV and knew the details behind their "plight," I had a lot more insight into it than the sympathetic reporter. Giving them more money was not going to help. They had already had a windfall and blown it in spectacular fashion.

Growing up during the Vietnam era had given me an unshakable distrust of the government. Seeing the devastation left by the anti-poverty programs led me to distrust the government even when it intended to do laudable things. Screw-ups were inevitable, and failures were never addressed. This set me apart from my brothers and sisters, most of whom are reliable Democratic voters. They continue to see government as essentially a good thing, income redistribution as justice, and concentration of power as benign, as long as it is in the proper hands. Seeing the effects in person persuaded me otherwise. I was seeing the unintended secondary effects, and they were destructive. From mistrusting those in power when I disagreed with them to mistrusting them even when I agreed with them was not such a big step. When Jimmy Carter came up for re-election, I voted Republican for the first time in my life. Why? Because Carter was not only clearly incompetent, but kept trying to fix things. Reagan was at least promising to do less, which meant fewer opportunities to make a mess.

Still, I'm a pretty poor excuse for a conservative
I can't say much of the social conservative program appeals to me. I'm the veteran of too many failed self-improvement campaigns to think I can do much to improve anyone else. Reagan's initial attraction for me was his lack of energy. Where Carter had even personally allocated court time on the White House tennis courts, Reagan took a lot of naps. In his two terms, I don't think I ever saw him posing on a golf course -- too strenuous, I suppose. I'm still inclined to vote for whoever seems likely to stay out of my hair for his entire term of office.

It turned out that Reagan actually had a few ideas. They weren't complicated, but he held them firmly:

  • Governments are typically incompetent (see discussion above). It's best to give it fewer things to do, so fewer things will get fouled up.

  • Communism, as one of the most intrusive forms of government, fouls up beyond any recovery. Clear some space for it to fall down.

  • We live in a pretty nice place. Let's not mess it up ourselves or let anyone else do it, either.

  • There may have been another, or maybe not.

There was not much of Pat Robertson's or Pat Buchanan's program enacted in the eight years Reagan held office. He may not have gotten around to it. The man was a genius at leaving things alone. Maybe Reagan was not much of a conservative, either.
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