Republicans, the anti-conservatives

Some time ago, I wrote a column in which I explained why I try very hard not to self-identify as a conservative.

The reason was simple: The word conservative did not describe me. The American definition of “conservative” has come to mean “politically right wing” and in opposition to the left.

But the true meaning of the word, politically, has little to do with what side of the aisle you are on. Being conservative really means that you want to promote tradition, favor the status quo, and oppose fundamental, large changes to society. Liberal, by contrast, is supposed to mean somebody interested in radical, wholesale changes.

Occasionally, you will hear some members of the right describe themselves as “classical liberals.”

Classical liberalism is an old term that predates our current political definitions, and it essentially describes a person who believes in the freedom of the individual and is interested in constraining government. It seeks to promote civil liberties, a laissez-faire economic policy, and a smaller, efficient government that functions under the rule of law.

The reason some people on the right side of America’s political spectrum decide to describe themselves as such is mostly because they are uncomfortable with being identified with conservatism.

They have no real interest in using government to promote and defend traditional institutions, and they have no interest in the status quo. Indeed, they seek radical change to liberalize the individual freedoms experienced by Americans.

This is also why the related term “libertarian” is so in vogue these days, including with me.

Regardless, the point here is that “conservative” is about the last thing that should describe most of the political right. Indeed, while Democrats continue to defend business as usual, it is the Republicans who are cooking up new ideas and attempting to implement sweeping change.

Consider the period of Democratic dominance in Maine for the previous four decades before the GOP takeover of 2010. Can you name more than a couple bold, large-scale major proposals meant to fundamentally change how government operates or relates to its citizens? Can you name one?

The “big ideas” of the left wing of Maine politics typically amount to making existing government programs bigger, or spending more money on them. Even when they come up with something “new,” it ends up being something like buying laptops for pre-teens. Wholesale reform of just about anything is never something you hear from a Democrat.

In the two years Republicans had power, they certainly showed they were interested in changing things in Augusta. Reforming welfare, reforming medical insurance, putting the brakes on endless new debts while paying back debts accumulated under Democratic administrations and legislatures are all proof that the right is about just about anything but the status quo.

But an interest in reform isn’t the only place this is demonstrated. Coming up with the only genuinely new ideas happens to also be something the right does.

Take, for example, the new proposal being pushed in Republican circles for a major change in tax policy.

George Gervais, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, has expressed the administration’s interest in pursuing a development initiative that would seek to lift up the most economically depressed areas of the state.

The policy would eliminate state taxes in Maine counties that demonstrate they are in economic distress by meeting certain benchmarks (such as high unemployment). The plan would likely begin in Washington County.

The plan seeks to kickstart growth in areas of the state that have suffered the most, as a way to even out the disadvantages experienced by counties such as Washington, such as being remote, rural and sparsely populated.

It would also be a general proof of concept that tax policy can help direct economic growth and impact business, employment and living decisions, which could hopefully make all of Maine tax-free someday.

If it were to work, the model could then be applied to other counties and could begin to balance the scales between the “two Maines” we have heard so much about over the years. The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” would certainly apply, making Maine more broadly prosperous, which would benefit everyone who lives in the state.

The plan is not without questions, of course. Tax policy alone is not the only engine for economic growth, and infrastructure development would likely have to be done in concert with targeted tax relief to make sure growth was actually possible. But it is an idea, a radical one, and one worthy of real consideration.

Even if it doesn’t happen, we should appreciate that there is one party of radical change agents interested in trying new things, and they are not at all conservative, even if they call themselves as much.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.