Piranhas on a Barracuda: The “Ownership Society” in a Nutshell

Ryan Sager has an interesting article in Reason discussing the defection of libertarians from the Republican Party. He observes that the “coalition between social conservatives and economic libertarians. . . served the GOP well from 1964 to 2006. . . . But the Bush years have proven to be one long pulling apart.”

I find libertarians’ regard for civil liberties an admirable basis for this distancing. But there’s a more worrisome side to their faith in the power of individualism. I see it reflected in a recent video where a Fox News correspondent alleges that Sarah Palin was unaware that Africa is a continent before being brought up to speed in September (before then, she apparently believed it was just one country).

Here’s the clip:

What I find sad here is Fox’s apparent decision to throw Palin under the bus once it became clear that she’s not a winner. She was a hero to them when she was on the rise, but now is briskly written off as an embarrassment subject to “tantrums.”

An “ownership society” does something similar to people who can’t afford health insurance or otherwise make their way in the world. It promises you more tax breaks when things are going well, but shreds the safety net you need when things go poorly. Such distributive decisions may be just when they reward productivity and success. But as Margaret Atwood has trenchantly observed, the financial crisis has revealed how many of the most successful among us were basically “snake oil salesmen.” They peddled mortgages to people who had almost no chance to repay them, and then built on that foundation one of the biggest pyramid schemes in history.

As Americans become more aware of our common vulnerability (and the chicanery of various “masters of the universe“), this kind of “worship the winner/laugh at the loser” attitude plays less and less well. I hope Douthat and Salam’s vision of a Grand New Party becomes a cornerstone of Republican rebuilding efforts in coming years–rather than the devil-take-the-hindmost individualism that has been a hallmark of the Bush years’ tax and health policy.

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