Rick somehow transforms my arguments against "a high-taxation state that reduces its citizens to economic dependents" into support for the high tax systems of the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and France. In fact, I do think that many of the citizens of those countries have indeed become economic dependents. France is currently being crippled by strikes and protests against raising the retirement age to a mere 62! Where do these people think the money comes from, if not the private sector and the entrepreneurial spirit?
I grew up in socialist Britain where individual talent and success were actually stigmatized, where the economy was collapsing, where the top rate of taxation was 98 percent, where the state absorbed more and more of people's livelihoods, and where trade unions held successful businesses to ransom. Thatcher's radical return to a tradition of liberty and independence and self-reliance changed the public culture and the very psyches of Britons in ways that enhanced liberty. Hence their very different response to the notion that debts have to be paid today, compared with the French.
And I do not regard the Scandinavian collectivist states as any place I would like to live in, since I value the economic liberties that such high taxation takes away, and my ability to choose individually how I spend my money, rather than be forced by the majority to spend it the way that majority wants to. I value those liberties, moreover, as ends in themselves and not just as means to any particular ends. I like being free over my own life and decisions. It makes me happy.
Let me make one other point. A critical distinction between liberalism and conservatism, in my view, is the conservative insistence on the distinction between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. A mathematical proof cannot be disproven by someone's living experience. But a mathematical proof that tries to predict human behavior will always fail at some point, which is why economics is not a science in the way that, say, physics, is.
The case for free markets and low taxation rests on the idea that people are better judges of what is in their best interest when they have the most practical knowledge and real world understanding of any particular issue; and that human conduct is far too complex and nuanced and changeable to be extrapolated to any single person's theory or any movement's ideology (see Marx and Engels' total misjudgment of the future, even though they possessed some brilliant insights into the past; see neoconservatives' extrapolation of the success of democratization in, say, Poland to, say Iraq).
So the closer you are to the ground and the actual issue, the more likely you are to get it right. And so devolving decisions as much as possible to the people on the ground is conservative, while organizing societies around collective principles that have to be decided at the center is liberal.
In general, money = power. The more of their own money people keep the more likely it is that the society will evolve the way its people want it to evolve, and not be coerced by some rationalist in government. I prefer markets to make these decisions to governments. But of course, it is equally true (and this is where conservatism has gone off the rails in America) that it is the government's task to ensure that the game is not rigged, that private corporations do not gain too much power, that politics is not corrupted in this fashion, and that financial markets are robustly regulated and monopolies vigorously broken up. Like Adam Smith, I favor a small but very robust government. In America right now, no one seems to really be able to represent that tradition - although Obama says he does.
The problem is, of course, that neither this conservatism nor this liberalism can work on its own. In advanced societies, we need to find a balance between them. Some things, like infrastructure or defense or even funding public education will need to be done collectively. But there's a tipping point at which a society becomes centrally run and managed, rather than governed from the ground up by the wisdom of individuals, families, villages, towns and cities. This is the vision behind Cameron's Big Society, which is why he is a genuine Tory. Even within collectivist institutions, like the National Health Service, he is trying to empower local doctors or within public education, individual school principals, because they are closer to the problems they are tackling than someone in Whitehall or Washington or a state capitol.
In general you can see conservatism represented both in the absolute amount of money taken by the government from the people (I get queasy when the state takes up more than around a third of GDP) and in the way the distribution of public goods are structured (centralized or devolved in power). In general, I favor lower taxation and more local power over higher taxation and centralized power. I favor practical wisdom in the realm of prudential judgments. Because anything else mistakes what it is doing.
And will end in tears.
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