When Conservatives Fall for the Fatal Conceit

When New Hampshire’s unemployment rate dropped in May from 4.9 percent to 4.8 percent — a change reflecting about 800 jobs — Deputy House Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland, happily took credit on behalf of the Concord politicians:

“We are finally seeing that job creation now as [employers] know we are not going to pass new taxes. They know we are creating a good business environment. That New Hampshire again is open for business,” Tucker said.

Catch that? Government is responsible for creating those jobs — not the business owner in Weare or wherever who believed adding one more person would help her increase revenue by more than the cost of the new position, which is how jobs are really created. And by the way, Tucker meant, if you have a job, thank a Republican, since they’re the ones running the show at the State House.

Never mind that the state’s unemployment rate has been slowly falling for 18 months, going back a year before the new Republican majority took over; or that when seasonal adjustments are factored in, there were actually fewer Granite Staters working in May than in April, even though the unemployment rate fell.

Tucker, usually a sensible conservative, was seduced, at least momentarily, by what Friedrich Hayek identified as “The Fatal Conceit” in his book of the same name. If you haven’t discovered Hayek yet, you’re missing something.

The fatal conceit is the belief that government can manage economies. A small group of the right planners, preferably with degrees from Harvard, though Dartmouth might due in a pinch, are smarter than markets. The experts have the ability to anticipate supply and demand and to fine-tune employment and economic growth. It’s the old Soviet five-year plan updated and improved by the Governor Dukakis School of Government.

The fatal conceit explains why the stimulus package worked so well and how Obamacare will bring sight to the blind and make the lame walk. It’s why properly regulated banks never fail, why properly inspected oil rigs never leak, why properly designed dikes approved by the Army Corps of Engineers prevent floods in the Midwest and New Orleans. It’s why you’ll ride a high speed train to your green job one day.

In politics, the fatal conceit means that when things go well, it’s because of something your side did. When things go badly, it’s because of something the other side did. Evidence that doesn’t fit the theory is set aside or ignored.

The fatal conceit fits the left so well because deep down — OK, not so deep down — they really believe government is smarter than the typical citizen, indeed that government is needed to protect the average citizen from the consequences of his own stupidity.

Conservatives are meant to have a healthy skepticism for government, which is why it’s disappointing to see a conservative fall into the fatal conceit trap. Ben Bernanke doesn’t know how to manage the economy, but Alan Greenspan did. Ronald Reagan knew how to start an economic boom, but Bill Clinton just got lucky. Our bureaucrats are better than your bureaucrats.

This spring, the conservative Washington Times ran a story headlined, “Gasoline Up 100% Under Obama.” Gas was $1.79 a gallon when President Obama took office and two years later approached $4 a gallon. This factoid became a popular Facebook post among Republicans.

These Republicans had fallen for the fatal conceit: Presidents control the price of gas. Were that true, wouldn’t the President deserve credit for the 10 percent drop in prices over the past two months? And what does it mean that gas went from $2 to $4 and back to $2 during the Bush administration?

This is why first principles and core beliefs have to trump temporary partisan advantages. Here’s Mitt Romney at the Saint Anselm debate last month: “There is a perception in this country that government knows better than the private sector, that Washington and President Obama have a better view for how an industry ought to be run. Well, they’re wrong.” Here’s Ron Paul: “It’s a fallacy to think that government and politicians and bureaucrats are smart enough to manage the economy.”

This has to be true even when the unemployment rate is falling.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com. This column originally appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader  on July 1, 2011.

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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