When I last spent some time with Jim DeMint, it was six years ago, and he was a member of the House of Representatives hoping to win a seat in the Senate representing South Carolina. The encounter produced an editorial in the New York Sun, "The DeMint Agenda," that described the politician as "a Republican who can see over the horizon" and concluded, "If Republicans are scouting for ideas, Mr. DeMint's office is a place worth a stop."
I've just finished spending some more time with Mr. DeMint – not in person, but with the senator from South Carolina's new book, "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide Into Socialism" (Fidelis, $26.99, 277 pages). And the book is worth a stop for anyone, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, interested in what arguments can be marshaled against an expanded role of government in the economy.
Mr. DeMint writes that his goal is "to expose the historical failures of socialism and to help Americans see how socialistic policies have incrementally worked their way into all areas of American life." He approaches the task in a folksy manner and with a sometimes dry wit, sprinkling quotations from Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and the Bible into the text between his own argument and anecdotes.
He quotes Ronald Reagan recounting a class experiment explaining the contrast between socialism and capitalism. In the first, socialist, round of the experiment, the class did push-ups. The total number of push-ups was averaged, and every student got one piece of candy for every five push-ups averaged by the group. The average number of push-ups was 16.2, and everyone got three pieces of candy. In the second, capitalist, round of the experiment, individuals were rewarded for their own performance. The average number of push-ups for the group rose to 21.2, and "A large majority of the group received more candy than under the socialist system (an average of four pieces of candy per student), and only a few received less."
"We need to know the true enemy of freedom: socialism," he writes, describing it later as a more formidable threat than terrorist groups or foreign governments. He acknowledges that the word socialism sounds, even to him, "like a conspiracy theory exaggeration." But he defines it as "a socioeconomic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by government."
He rejects the idea of a mixed system. "Socialism and capitalism don't work well together," he writes. "There is no functional compromise between freedom and socialism."
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Mr. DeMint's analysis is his observation that "more than 50% of Americans now receive a significant portion of their income from government programs." That includes seniors dependent on Social Security or government pensions for income and Medicare for health care, nine million Americans on food stamps, and five million either in government housing projects or receiving government-subsidized housing. One in five Americans hold either a government job or one that depends on federal spending. Government, he writes, "is now the nation's largest property owner (nearly one-third of the land mass)." Meanwhile, he observes, fewer Americans are paying the taxes to support these programs: "Nearly a third of all American pay no federal income taxes…The larger the number of dependent voters grows and the fewer who pay taxes, the less likely politicians will have the political courage to stop the growth of dependency-creating programs."
It's an analysis reminiscent of Steven Malanga's dichotomy between tax-eaters and taxpayers. An optimist might think that just as a dividend-receiving shareholder of a company may want that company to be well-run and solvent over the long term, participants in government programs will provide a constituency that works through the political process for those programs to be well-managed and on a sound fiscal basis. But Mr. DeMint's view is less sanguine.
Mr. DeMint devotes considerable space to what one might call the religious argument for free markets. His acknowledgements conclude, "Most of all I am thankful to Jesus who saved me and gave me freedom." Raised a Catholic, he was later elected an elder of his Presbyterian church. "As government grows, it displaces faith in God as the source of security and hope," he writes. "Religion is a threat to socialists because it creates a cultural authority that supersedes government authority."
This appeal to religion is one the political right is making increasingly often on economic issues rather than just the social issues such as abortion where it has been heard in the past. In the June issue of the American Spectator, for example, supply-side economist Brian Wesbury writes, "men's souls are undermined by government. … When people count more on government, they lose sight of God and start taking personal responsibility less seriously." These are difficult arguments with which to persuade Americans who are atheists or agnostics. And even those who believe in God may have a harder time assessing empirically the effect of government on "souls," as opposed to say, more tangible measures such as Gross Domestic Product, or the unemployment rate, or the stock market indices.
A strength of the book, and one that is unusual to free-market polemics against government, is Mr. DeMint's insider's perspective. "Most members of Congress lean toward socialistic policies," he writes. To give one example of how it works:
If Republicans offer a bill to increase funding for veterans programs by 10 percent, Democrats will offer an amendment to increase it by 15 percent (even though everyone knows this exceeds the budget and violates common sense). If Republicans vote against the 15 percent increase, veterans groups will immediately send out emails and newsletters telling all their members Republicans voted against veterans… I've actually been in the Republican cloakroom (cloakrooms are like baseball dugouts, connected to the Senate floor for both teams, only with chandeliers and couches) when our leaders said we should vote for the higher amounts for veterans because the Democrats already agreed to reduce it later in conference with the House. In other words, we could do a 'show' vote for veterans and reduce the amount in secret.
Another insider anecdote is when Mr. DeMint tells of his tour of the new Capitol Visitors Center, which opened in December 2008. It included a replica of the speaker's chair and platform from the House of Representatives that looked just like the real thing – except that the words "In God We Trust" had been removed from where they are carved above the speaker's chair in the actual house chamber. Carved in one marble wall of the visitor center were the words "Our National Motto: E Pluribus Unum." In fact, Mr. DeMint points out, the national motto, by law, is "In God We Trust."
The senator sometimes overstates his case. "There is no example of any effective and efficient federal government program," he writes. Well, I thought hard and came up with the Manhattan Project that built the nuclear bomb during World War II and the National Park Service that protects scenic treasures such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the battlefields at Lexington and Concord. Now, granted, much of the Manhattan Project was contracted out by the federal government to private universities. The National Park Service, too, contracts with private concessionaires to run some of the landmark hotels like the Ahwanee in Yosemite. And the National Park Service too falls victim to the occasional boondoggle such as $400,000 outhouses and the creation of parks that aren't as obviously striking as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite but nevertheless fall within the districts or states of influential, or pork-hungry senators or congressmen. But overall, as a relatively frequent visitor to National Park Service sites, my impression has been that the service is effective and efficient.
Sometimes he overgeneralizes, as when he writes, "Unions and gays have a common interest in secularism, as do environmental extremists and other groups who support a stronger federal government." In fact the American labor movement has had strong Catholic and Jewish involvement, and religion is important enough to many gays that they have fought for the right to be ordained as clergy and to marry within religious ceremonies of their chosen faiths.
Fully buying in to Mr. DeMint's narrative requires a fairly grim view of the last 75 years of American history. It was during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Mr. DeMint writes, that "The seeds of socialism took root," when we "took a sharp left turn from a free republic and headed down the road toward a social democracy." He refers to "America's decline." That period of "social democracy," though, saw America defeat Communism, land on the moon, enjoy widespread prosperity, and experience technical innovation in health care and computer science — Google, Microsoft, MRIs. It's hard to sound optimistic like Reagan if you think, as Mr. DeMint sometimes sounds like he does, that America is headed down the road to godless socialism and has been since FDR's presidency.
Occasionally Mr. DeMint contradicts himself. On page 10, he writes that 'China and India were backward economies until capitalism began to raise the standard of living of their citizens." On page 59, he writes, "India has been a democracy since 1947, but it has become less tolerant, less secular, less law-abiding, and less free." Well, which is it, India is getting more free or less free?
Another contradiction: On page 40, Mr. DeMint writes that Friedrich Hayek was "born in Germany." On page 222, Mr. DeMint writes that the economist was "born in Austria."
Mr. DeMint may lose some readers who agree with his diagnosis when he turns to prescriptions for healing. They include a new "business consumption tax" amounting to an 8.5 percent sales tax on everything a business buys, along with a new 8.5 percent tax on products imported from other countries. The latter smacks of protectionism, a term that also describes the policies of the anti-immigration groups to which Mr. DeMint steers readers at the end of the book. Both run counter to the principles of freedom that he espouses.
The volume lacks an index, which could have been helpful. It ends with a full-page advertisement for a novel by Oliver North, who is described as "commanding editor" of the book's publisher, Fidelis Books. The cover features an image of the American flag covered with barbed wire, and one is left wondering what exactly the image is that Mr. DeMint wants to evoke. Will Americans end up in gulag-like camps as in other nations where socialism triumphed over freedom? The barbed wire may also evoke the border fence that Mr. DeMint's recommended anti-immigration groups so ardently advocate, or the Guantanamo prison for terrorist detainees that Mr. DeMint has opposed efforts to close.
Discerning readers may want to look past the barbed wire to focus on the American flag. The most powerful arguments for freedom and against socialism, after all, dwell less on the horrors of socialism or of a mixed economy, and more on the growth and dynamism that come with freedom, and on the possibilities that exist in free countries for Mr. DeMint and others like him to band together and voice their concerns.