August 31, 2020 Reading Time: 11 minutes
trump, paternalism

Mind your own business. Every one of us has thought or said words to this effect when others have told us how to live our lives. Who our friends should be, what career we should pursue, where we should live, the person we should marry, how we should spend our money, or even what clothes we should wear or how to furnish or decorate the place we live. Even when others have the best of intentions, after all, whose life is it?

Yet, especially in presidential election years, we hang on the words of candidates who all have “plans” to tell us precisely what should be the answers to most of these matters, and many more, in our everyday lives. Not only do we often hang on every word they say, but we actually end up voting for people who are determined to use their election to political office precisely to attempt to run our lives. 

Joe Biden and the Democrats have made it clear what their plans are for us. They want to plan our health care, “guarantee” our retirement, cover most or all of the cost of going to college, put us to work on infrastructure and “green” jobs that they know will make our existence “clearer,” “safer” and more meaningful, along with telling us how to associate with people, including the words we can use and the forms of interaction we may practice in our relationships with others. And all at someone else’s expense, of course (See my article, “Biden’s ‘Passion and Purpose’ is More Political Paternalism”.)

Trump Trumpeted How all Good Things are Due to Him

Donald Trump shared his vision for America in his acceptance speech on August 27, 2020 as the Republican Party’s candidate for his reelection to the presidency of the United States. He reminded people that he had overseen cuts in taxes and a reduction of various government regulations that limited the market-based decision-making of private enterprises. 

He proudly hailed how these and other policies sponsored by him had reduced unemployment to modern lows, including for minorities and women across the country, accompanied by improvements in wages and standards of living — before the coronavirus crisis struck, that is, in the early months of 2020. In his first term in office, Trump had been making America “great again.” 

Donald Trump, like all politicians, wants you to think that everything good is due to and dependent on him. He “saved” and created jobs by “protecting” American business from those big, bad foreign competitors. He started the process of restoring the industries that he knew are the right ones for America’s future. He held China at bay, made our North American trading partners, Canada and Mexico, stop “stealing” our jobs and “robbing” us of factories at home; plus, he did all in his power to prevent people that he considers “alien” threats from entering the country and joining the American melting pot of opportunity. 

In his acceptance speech, Trump warned of the radical socialist policies that putting Joe Biden in the White House would bring to the United States. In theory and practice, socialism has and does mean government direction and planning of economic and social life. That is, government telling people what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and determining the socially just “fair shares” that everyone in society should receive. 

Donald Trump as Central Planner in the Coronavirus Crisis

So, what did Donald Trump say he has done and insisted he would do more of, with his own form of government direction of various aspects of social and economic life? He “took on Big Pharma and signed orders that will massively lower the cost of your prescription drugs.” He has “done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.” He has put in the right leadership at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to assure that “talented American Workers have been re-hired” to supply energy to a variety of southern states. “He” has been imposing mandated prices, determining who has jobs and to do what, and lifting up black Americans more than any president since emancipation! 

Trump told the American people that if Joe Biden is elected, “China would own our country.” While he, instead, held the Chinese off not only in the arena of economic trade, but in China’s “export” of the coronavirus. Warning of the socialism of Joe Biden, Trump praised his own pandemic central planning in fighting the spread and impact of the virus. Donald Trump stood before the American public in the spring of 2020 and assured them that he had the authority to shut down the U.S. economy and reopen it whenever he considered it good for the country. Where he found such authority in the Constitution, he did not bother to explain.

His administration oversaw the boondoggles of government regulations and controls that delayed or prevented the ability of the private sector to respond to and redirect its production activities to meet the needs resulting from the virus in terms of medical equipment and sanitizing products. Donald Trump placed before the American public the medical “experts” who first said face masks and lockdowns were not needed, and then insisted that they knew how far we should stay apart of from each other, why and how we had to stay home and not go to work, and then insisted that we did have to cover our faces.

In conjunction with the draconian policy decisions by governors and mayors around the country, the Trump Administration oversaw the collapse of a good part of the U.S. economy, reflected in a contraction of more than 30 percent in Gross Domestic Product (at an annualized rate) in the second quarter of 2020, and a rise in overall unemployment from 3.5 percent in January to over 20 percent in April of this year. Even with the allowed “unlocking” of various economic activities, unemployment is still over 10 percent of the workforce in July. 

Many small, medium, and large-sized businesses have been pushed into permanently shutting their doors or filing for bankruptcy in attempts to reorganize and maybe save their existence. People’s life savings have been consumed in a government-created recession caused by socialist-style command and control over production and employment.

Throughout the spring, Donald Trump zig-zagged back-and-forth: No, there is no coronavirus crisis; yes, there is a dangerous crisis. Yes, we need to direct and dictate what and how businesses respond to it; no, we need to let American business get back to normal work and rehire those millions let off or told to stay at home. For weeks, Trump hosted daily press conferences with himself at center stage, creating an impression in many people’s minds that his only real concern in dealing with the coronavirus crisis was to seem to be in charge and to “look good” to assure his reelection in November of this year. (See my articles, “To Kill Markets is the Worst Possible Plan” and “Leaving People Alone is the Best Way to Beat the Coronavirus” and “The Coronavirus and the Attack on Liberty and Privacy” and “The Conquest of America by Communist China”.)

Probably the greatest irritant with Donald Trump is his own “cult of the personality.” This has repulsed not only “progressives” and mainstream Democrats, but large numbers of independents and (though many refuse to say it in public) Republicans who cannot stand his tweeting, boasting, exaggerating, abusing of people around him, and his embarrassing anti-intellectualism of even traditional Republican market-oriented ideas. If only he would shut up, stop tweeting, and only say what’s on the teleprompter! To use an old phrase, Donald Trump is a legend — in his own mind. 

Middle-of-the-Road Socialism and the Foreign Policy Elite

Donald Trump’s own version of “socialism” is in fact not much different from what Republicans have been peddling and presiding over for many decades. Duck taping an unsustainable Social Security, offering some hybrid private-government medical system, implementing a “conservative” version of educational interventionism, advocating “incentive-friendly” welfare statism, compromising personal and civil liberties in “wars” on drugs, terrorism and various forms of personal behavior not approved of. 

Where Democratic and many mainstream Republican elitists have had common ground against Trump has been against his rhetoric of America withdrawing from its role of being policeman of the world, both diplomatically and militarily. The leadership of both major political parties are united in believing that it is America’s duty to monitor and move the world into the directions that a joint foreign policy elite in Washington, D.C. think has been the responsibility of the United States to bring about since the country’s participation in the Second World War. 

Oh, they bicker with and berate each other for being either too “realist” or “idealist,” in how and for what America should put its hand into, seemingly, the affairs of every other country in the world. But suggest and attempt to follow through with a more modest and non-interventionist foreign policy? The heavens will fall, and planet Earth will fall into darkness. 

This is what frightened and angered many if not most of these mainstream foreign policy analysts and advocates. Trump said he was going to end some of these foreign adventures, and pull back from others. Instead, he has wanted to use economic and military pressure on China and build up a “space force” for a future military confrontation among the stars. That Trump has not really followed through with many of these plans, and in fact often did the opposite, while also pushing for much larger defense budgets, has not diminished the panic and fear among the foreign policy elite that America might stop playing the attempted central planner of the world. 

Every American citizen who chooses to vote in November will have to make their own decision, either in the actual voting booth or on the mail-in ballot this year, which of the two major party candidates is the least repugnant and less dangerous for the next four years; or a decision may be made to vote for the candidate of an alternative party; or it may seem that the best choice is not to vote at all. 

Democrats Set the Collectivist Tone, Republicans “Me-Too” It

The fact remains that both major political parties represent variations on the same political paternalist theme. There is no doubt that the Democrats in their rhetoric and their policy proposals are the far more determined and dedicated “activists” for a road to despotism, not only in economics, most certainly, but in threatening a tribalist identity politics, a cancel culture campaign, and a “systemic racism” agenda to remake the institutions of the country and the conception of the society that is both collectivist in its vision and totalitarian in its practice, if implemented in its entirety. (See my articles, “Save America from Cancel Culture” and “‘Systemic Racism’ Theory is the New Political Tribalism” and “Self-Censorship and Despotism over the Mind”.)

But what is the Republican Party other than the “middle-of-the road” me-tooism party that still uses the phrases and catchwords of freedom and free enterprise, but that, in my view, has lost both its understanding of the meaning of liberty and the courage to believe that they could win if it were effectively and persuasively presented. Many years ago, in one of her writings, the individualist philosopher, Ayn Rand, suggested that in politics the more consistent and uncompromising party is more likely to succeed in moving a country in one direction or the other. They more clearly know where they want to go, and they have more determination to push their agenda in that direction. 

Even if the Republicans hold on to half of the Congress and re-elect a president to the White House, it will not change the general direction in which the country is going until there is a change in the political philosophy of what America can and should be about. And that, unfortunately, is a longer-term project and agenda than the political cycle of 2020 or those of 2022 or 2024. 

The Collectivist Politics of Today Began Decades Ago

A little over 70 years ago, the Austrian economist, Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992), published an essay on, “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949). He suggested that the politics of today is the lagged result of intellectual currents that took form and began decades ago to influence those who think and write about ideas in ways that others can understand and show how they apply and are relevant to the issues and problems of the day. This process of intellectual and cultural percolation of ideas through the society comes to be the implicit mindsets in the context of which a growing number of people think about themselves, others, and the nature and workings of the social order in which they live out their lives. 

For decades now, long before the emergence of the “woke movement” and all the related political groups demanding radical change in American society, “socialism” in its many variations and forms captured the minds and hearts of a good number of those who helped mold “public opinion.” There were “extremists” among them back then, but most of the intellectuals attracted to the socialist critique of liberal market society mostly wanted to simply “reform” or “reconstruct” the seeming cruelties and callousness of “capitalism.” Hence, the interventionist-welfare state. 

As time went on, the “tamed” capitalism seemed to fail to make that better, “fairer” and more “socially just” society, that those on “the left” had hoped for; indeed, it seemed to make some things worse. Those especially in the halls of modern academia — those islands of government-funded educational socialism that are relatively free from the winds of market supply and demand — could dream their dreams of a post-capitalist world, but one that had to be different from the embarrassing failure of the Soviet socialist system. Their intellectual parents and grandparents had had such high hopes for those “first experiments” in the making of a socialist future, but the economic stagnation, the tyranny and terror of real socialism-in-practice could not be ignored when the Soviet Union and its satellite “captive nations” not only “gave up the ghost,” but could not wait to see it go. 

So, the socialist critique of capitalism had to be rewritten. Too many of the “working class” viewed themselves as and part of the “middle class.” Far too many in the American segment of the “workers of the world” owned homes, had retirement plans based on the success of private enterprise, and had dreams that their children might even make it into the “one percent,” maybe, someday. 

From Class Conflict to Race and Gender Warfare

So, the argument was transformed. It really wasn’t as much anymore about the “class conflict;” no, it was about slavery, racism and sexism. The greedy capitalists now became the greedy white male capitalists who were all about oppressing “people of color” and exploiting women and all the others in the kaleidoscope of genders that seemed to emerge in a matter of a handful of years after tens of thousands of years of the “presumption” that there are men and women. Who could have imagined that such gender “diversity” was right there under our noses for all of human history? Go figure.

But when minds are unhinged from reality, all things are possible; only believe. These tribal collectivists have been at work now for more than a generation on the next generation of young people, who have been indoctrinated to believe that individual liberty means racism, that freedom of speech means fascism, that equality before the law means race and gender oppression, and that limited constitutional government is the cover for Nazi-like tyranny. 

Like the real Nazis, fascists, and Marxists before them, the leaders and spokespersons for the new tribal collectivism demand to remake society by tearing down the entire structure and history of the existing society. The more moderate “progressives” and party Democrats, already brought up on the premises of an evil capitalism and a wonderful world of rightly constructed “democratic” socialism, are pulled in the direction of the more radical identity politics warriors because to hesitate or resist it means that they are “really” on the enemy side of racism and fascism. And to be labeled these is a psychological and social fate worse than death for far too many of them. (See my articles, “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality” and “An ‘Identity Politics’ Victory Would Mean the End to Liberty”.)

The Case for a (Classical) Liberal Utopia

This is the America we face today. Toward the end of his essay on “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Friedrich Hayek said that, at the end of the day, the only way to stop and reverse these types of trends was to restore and reconstruct an understanding about and a radically and appealing case for a new “liberal Utopia.” Or as Hayek up it:

“We must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must take the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the sensibilities of the mighty . . . which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as the politically possible.

“We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects for its early realization. There must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their realization, however remote . . . Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere ‘reasonable freedom of trade’ or a mere ‘relaxation of controls’ is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire enthusiasm . . .

“Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task that challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain the belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.” (pp. 25-26)

This means that regardless of each citizen’s decision on how they may or may not vote in the coming November election, the real battle for the future of America is in this longer-term conflict of ideas, and the courage and willingness to not be despondent but, instead, shoulder some part of the effort to make that liberal Utopia an ideal wanted by a growing number of our fellow Americans. (See my book, For a New Liberalism.)

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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