If one spends any amount of time, even a few torturous, agonizing, ascetical-works-of-purgation moments reveling in the 'insights' delivered by conservative talk radio, one will encounter a certain meme which, roughly, reduces to the idea that any policy at variance with the policy preferences of the economic wing of the Republican party - the supply-siders, the free-traders, and Wall-Street bagmen - is tantamount to socialism. Nay, may be socialism itself, cloaked as obscurantist populism, and will assuredly set us off on the Broad Way of the Road to Serfdom. For example, some possibly well-intended pol may proffer, as a means of encouraging the nation to lessen its increasingly-ruinous path-dependence upon foreign sources of energy, some tax, or tax-credit, intended to subsidize research in potential alternatives, and the talk-radio personalities and members of the conservative punditocracy will often deride the proposal as utterly illiterate, Big Government on the march, running roughshod over 'consumer preferences', and portending a buckboard ride down the road to serfdom. Such proposals, however, may or may not be wise, depending upon the details, the expected implementation, and the economic rationales and ramifications; nevertheless, where such proposals are of dubious merit, the reasons are particular and empirical, and do not reduce to the assertion that they are truck stops on Hayek's road.
Hence, it is all the more discomfiting to read William F. Buckley deploying this tired trope, in an effort to expose the folly of John Edwards' economic policy proposals:
Consider health care, with which Mr. Edwards is so clearly identified. He deplores the fact that so many lower-income citizens are not insured. But he has a simple remedy: decree universal health insurance. But who will pay for universal health insurance? Well…the big insurance companies can bear some of the burden. And for the rest? Why, let the government pay for it!
...Lower-income citizens are victimized by predatory lenders. So, cap interest rates on credit cards and unsecured loans. Prohibit abuses in the mortgage market, including prepayment penalties, mandatory arbitration, balloon mortgages, and excessive fees. Encourage states to make low- or no-interest emergency loans to low-income families. Well, why not?
...Energy and the environment? No liquid-coal experiments. Require oil companies to install biofuel pumps at 25-percent of their gas stations. Cap utilities’ profits on sales of electricity.
...And so it goes, the whole latticework of a free economy brought under the control of the federal government.
I trust that it is patently obvious to anyone reading this that I have not the slightest intention of defending any of Edwards' proposals. Some of them are manifestly misguided, and others simply hold no interest for me at this moment. I merely wish to observe that such policies, were they to be implemented, would emphatically not constitute the reduction of the "whole latticework of a free economy (to) the control of the federal government." If the "whole latticework" of the American economy is nothing more than health care, energy corporations, and the infrastructure of debt-service, then we have graver threats to fear than millionaire populists campaigning for the presidency. Moreover, were the aforementioned policies to be implemented, the American economy would be rather more like the economies of Europe in certain respects, respects that Americans of certain conservative commitments would find uncongenial, but not respects that constitute the Road to Serfdom. To the contrary, they would merely shift the balance within our managerial capitalist system - a system which, of itself, disproves the notion that there really obtain but the two poles of capitalism and socialism, such that any step from the former toward the latter sets one on an irreversible and logical course to the completion of the latter - providing a bit more of the former in exchange for a bit less of the latter, which a percentage of the electorate consider uncongenial.
American conservatives of a certain stripe might, however, conjure images of 1970s Britain, or the France of conservative devil-tropes, arguing that such societies are obviously sclerotic and dysfunctional. Even if this point is conceded, however, it still remains that neither society qualified or qualifies as being on the road to serfdom; dysfunctional in certain respects, characterized by a certain hypertrophy of the public sector, yes, but nascent slave-states? Hardly. If anything, if indeed there is a road to serfdom along which the West now journeys, it has little to do with proposed regulations of the energy and financial sectors - which, if anything, have been, since the era of Reagan and Thatcher, freer than at any time since the one immediately preceding the unpleasantness of the 1930s - and much to do with the creeping, multicultural, therapeutic statism so evident in Britain and not without potent influence here. About this, and its principal causes, conservatives are wont to kvetch, though the actual remedies still horrify them, even only in prospect.
In the end, then, the policies of a John Edwards might bespeak many things, among them an era of incompetent governance. They do not, however, bespeak the road to serfdom, or the commandeering of the "whole latticework" of a free economy. Conservatives would do well to repudiate such inordinate and illogical rhetorical figures; the argument concerning whether the United States should emulate Europe (albeit in an American fashion) is one to be settled by patient deliberation, philosophical and empirical, and not by grand gestures of disapprobation.