Everyone please welcome Darien Sumner, our fourth additional writer at Zeroth Position.
On July 23, Social Matter published an article by Mark Christensen titled “We Need Tremendous Government: Why Conservative Mythology Must Be Disrupted”. His contention is that modern conservatism has long been dominated by libertarians who want to shrink government purely for its own sake, with no attention paid to the costs or consequences. Conservatives, therefore, should rebel against this negative influence and get back to what he contends is the root of conservative thought: Making America Great Again. To do so, it is necessary to embrace the power of the state as a tool for advancing conservative interests. Unfortunately for Christensen, his quest to disrupt conservative mythology runs aground on three major flaws, which we will explore below.
What Christensen Gets Right
Christensen is far from wrong about everything. Indeed, he is highly perceptive on the subject of President Trump. He writes:
“The political leader of Republican America is a man with a very different message. In his journey to the White House, the words from Donald Trump’s mouth rang very different. Something like this: ‘I am a successful businessman. I have built great things and hired great people. The U.S. government is not successful and does not build things right now, but it used to. When I am in charge, I will use my tremendous ability to make it a success which builds great things once more. I will Make America Great Again.’”
This is a fairly accurate assessment, and it is a point that most commentators miss amidst their own axe-grinding: contra the wishful thinking of many libertarians who really ought to know better, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform has nothing whatsoever to do with limiting the scope of the power of the federal government (and, of course, contra the left, it has nothing to do with racism and Nazis). Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again” is all about “America”—read: the United States government—building “great things.” It is not merely compatible with big government; it positively requires it.
In this, Christensen is exactly correct, and his own views appear to be entirely in sync with those of the president. Indeed, were his article merely about how Trumpian American greatness is a big government philosophy, there would be no problems with it. Sadly, he attempts to position this philosophy as the One True Conservatism, and thus goes astray.
Flaw #1: Historical Knowledge
Christensen does not appear to be very knowledgeable about the history of conservatism, which is a significant problem. Indeed, the opening of his article reads:
“Since the days of Reagan—and perhaps those of Buckley’s then-new conservative movement—conservatism has been plagued by a false doctrine about government, which shapes both ideological theory and electoral slogans.
It goes something like this: for a variety of social and economic reasons, government is incompetent, inferior, and a necessary evil insofar as it must exist at all. It’s bad. The grand vision of the conservative movement is to roll it back and restrict it in future by whatever means necessary.”
The idea that conservatism owes its origins to William Buckley is patently absurd, and we need not engage in murky attempts to attach anachronistic political labels to the Founding Fathers in order to demonstrate this. It is sufficient, rather, to point out that the origins of conservatism lie in a reaction against what was arguably the first major “progressive” movement: the French Revolution. The true father of conservatism (though, as far as is known, he never used the word) is widely regarded as Edmund Burke, and as good a summary of his thought as can be found comes from his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
“But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work, for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make every thing the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm, and cheating hope, have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.”
The essence of conservatism at its birth, then, was restraint upon the power of man to destroy that which exists and replace it with that he imagines to be superior. Even Joseph de Maistre, whom one may reasonably suspect of being more sympathetic to Christensen’s cause, called not for stronger or more dynamic government, but for stable and orderly government that certainly did not attempt to create “great things”:
“If perfection was an attribute of human nature, each legislator would speak only once: but, although all our works are imperfect and the sovereign is obliged to support political institutions with new laws to the degree that they become tainted, yet human legislation draws closer to its model by that intermittency of which I was just now speaking. Its repose honors it as much as its original action; the more it acts, the more human, that is to say fragile, are its achievements.
What a prodigious number of laws has resulted from the labors of three French National Assemblies!
From July 1st to October, 1791, the National Assembly passed 2,557
The Legislative Assembly passed, in eleven and a half months 1,712
The National Convention, from the first day of the Republic until 4 Brumaire year IV [October 26, 1795], passed in 57 months 11,210
I doubt if the three houses of the Kings of France have spawned a collection of such magnitude. Reflecting on this infinite number, two very different emotions are felt successively. The first is that of admiration or at least of astonishment; one is amazed, with Mr. Burke, that this nation, whose frivolity is a byword, has produced such obstinate workers. This structure of law is so huge that it takes the breath away. But astonishment must quickly change to pity when the futility of these laws is recalled, and then one sees only children killing each other to raise a house of cards.”
Maistre was a monarchist, to be sure. However, he supported the monarchy not because he wanted a strong, dynamic leader with plans and visions for society, but because he believed, with quite a bit of evidence, that the monarch would keep things on an even keel:
“[T]he restoration of the Crown would weaken suddenly the whole machinery of the state. The black magic operating at this moment would vanish like a mist before the sun. Kindness, clemency, justice, all the gentle and peaceful virtues would suddenly reappear and bring back with them a certain general gentleness of character, a certain cheerfulness entirely opposed to the somber rigor of the revolutionary regime. No more requisitions, no more legal thefts, no more violence.”
Modern American conservatism arose as a reaction against the rise of American Progressivism, which in turn was spawned by the revivalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. As Murray Rothbard writes,
“The pietists were those who held that each individual, rather than the church or the clergy, was responsible for his own salvation. Salvation was a matter, not of following prescribed ritual or even of cleaving to a certain fixed creed, but rather of an intense emotional commitment or conversion experience by the individual, even to the extent of believing himself ‘born again’ in a special ‘baptism of grace.’ Moreover, the outward sign—the evidence to the rest of society for the genuineness and the permanence of a given individual’s conversion—was his continuing purity of behavior. And since each individual was responsible for his own salvation, the pietists concluded that society was duty-bound to aid each man in pursuing his salvation, in promoting his good behavior, and in seeing as best it could that he does not fall prey to temptation. The emphasis of the pietists was on converting the maximum number of persons, and in helping them to become and to remain sound.
Society, therefore, in the institution of the State, was to take it upon itself to aid the weaker brethren by various crusading actions of compulsory morality, and thus to purge the world of sin. The secular and the religious were to be conjoined. In the second half of the 19th century, the pietists concentrated on agitating for three such compulsory measures on the state and local level, to save liturgical ‘sinners’ despite themselves: Prohibition, to eradicate the sin of alcohol; Sunday blue laws, to prevent people from violating the Sabbath; and, increasingly toward the end of the century, compulsory public schooling to ‘Americanize’ the immigrants and ‘Christianize the Catholics’, and to use the schools to transform Catholics and immigrants (often one and the same) into pietistic Protestant and nativist molds.”
We see in the pietists, then, the impulses that characterize a progressive: the desire to use the power of the state to compel everyone to live a moral life, and thus to “perfect” society, and, of course, the drive toward great “public works”. Indeed, it was the progressives who sought to “Make America Great Again” in the 19th century. The conservatives, meanwhile, were the poor liturgicals who mainly wanted those nosy Methodists to mind their own business. As Rothbard shows (drawing on the work of the late historian Paul Kleppner), the voting results line up exactly along those lines; in the regions of the country dominated by Catholics, high church Lutherans, and old-style Calvinists (the liturgical faiths), the laissez-faire, mind-your-own-business Democrats consistently come out on top, whereas the pietist regions predominantly elected busybody Republicans. Prior to the election of 1892, the expected party roles were reversed; it is no coincidence that Theodore Roosevelt, the first progressive president, came out of the Republican Party.
It takes but a cursory glance at history to determine that the conservative skepticism of big government does not originate from Ronald Reagan’s stump speeches, and the conservative movement altogether does not owe its origins to William F. Buckley, the man who arguably more than any other, is responsible for turning it into progressivism with a cigar and a monocle. Rothbard writes,
“[T]ake one of Buckley’s early efforts, ‘A Young Republican’s View’, published in Commonweal, January 25, 1952. Buckley began the article in unexceptionable libertarian fashion, affirming that the enemy is the State, and endorsing the view of Herbert Spencer that the State is ‘begotten of aggression and by aggression.’ Buckley also contributed excellent quotations from such leading individualists of the past as H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, and criticized the Republican Party for offering no real alternative to the burgeoning of statism. But then in the remainder of the article he gave the case away, for there loomed the alleged Soviet menace, and all libertarian principles had to go by the board for the duration. Thus, Buckley declared that the ‘thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union’ imminently threatens American security, and that therefore ‘we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.’ In short, a totalitarian bureaucracy must be accepted so long as the Soviet Union exists (presumably for its alleged threat of imposing upon us a totalitarian bureaucracy?). In consequence, Buckley concluded that we must all support ‘the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,’ as well as ‘large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington—even with Truman at the reins of it all.’ Thus, even at his most libertarian, even before Buckley came to accept Big Government and morality laws as ends in themselves, the pretended National Review ‘fusion’ between liberty and order, between individualism and anti-Communism, was a phony—the individualist and libertarian part of the fusion was strictly rhetorical, to be saved for abstract theorizing and after-dinner discourse. The guts of the New Conservatism was the mobilization of Big Government for the worldwide crusade against Communism”.
This was the Buckleyite doctrine from the very beginning: a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. Surely the idea that Buckley’s ‘conservatism’ was just too small-government is patently absurd.
We see, therefore, that there is no merit to the claims that small-government philosophy somehow infiltrated conservatism during the Reagan years or through the work of Buckley. Indeed, the very origins of conservatism were in push-back against activist government attempting to “build great things” and produce “virtuous people”. If we jettison the historical errors and, with them, the pretense that the drive for a super-state is somehow going to return conservatism to its roots, we are still left with an article making the case for big government in a conservative guise. There are, however, flaws more grave than the historical errors cited above that sink the entire project.
Flaw #2: Philosophical Confusion
“Let’s first reframe the concept of competent government. After all, the concept depends heavily on one’s concept of a good society. Precluding the debates of moral philosophy, let’s state that a society is good when it produces virtuous people, cultural genius and beauty, and economic prosperity. By extension, a government is good when it provides the support for society to achieve such things. Now let’s ask the pertinent question: is it big government or small government which best achieves these things?”
This question cuts right to the heart of the matter. Christensen assumes a set of criteria for determining whether or not a government is “good”, which I will grant for the purposes of this rebuttal. He then asks whether big or small government is most likely to be “good”. Granted, his very next sentence—“[o]f course, the question is ridiculous”—almost throws the entire thing away; not only is that question not ridiculous, it is the entire core of the argument! If big government does not do a better job of being “good”, then what on earth would be its purpose? Surely a smaller, less expensive government capable of achieving the same or a greater level of “goodness” would be preferable; why would one not choose the less expensive means of identically achieving one’s ends?
Having thus thrown away most of his cards, Christensen is left in the unenviable position of having to argue that, while big government may not be more “good” in general, it is obviously more “good” in certain specific circumstances:
“The United States achieved domestic development in the 19th century with relatively free trade within and protectionist tariffs without—a policy mix which would alarm both libertarian Republicans and Clintonian Democrats. On the other hand, China is achieving it through massive government involvement via state-owned enterprises. We can find examples of government which failed: for example, American alcohol prohibition. We can also point out many circumstances where the problem has been a lack of competent government: here we have the border crisis and a heroin epidemic.”
Notice how slippery this is. The phrasing “lack of competent government” is carefully chosen to suggest that what is needed is more government; after all, if one lacks good water, the solution is to get more water, but if one’s yard is full of garbage, more garbage will exacerbate the problem. A cursory glance at these examples, however, should be enough to demonstrate that neither of the success stories is a tale of positive government action, and none of the failures would be solved by adding additional government.
While it cannot be denied that domestic development occurred in 19th-century America, no clear connection between that development and the protectionist tariffs is apparent. This is not to say that it is in any way odd that development would occur with tariffs in place; no serious argument has ever been advanced claiming that the existence of any tariff somehow prevents all economic development, merely that the existence of a tariff hampers economic development relative to what it would have been without the tariff. As Robert P. Murphy explains,
“In the long run, a country pays for its imports by exports. If the U.S. government makes it harder for Americans to buy Japanese cars, this will boost employment and production in Detroit. But if Americans spend less on Japanese cars, then the Japanese have fewer dollars with which to buy American exports, such as wheat. Thus, the U.S. government tariff doesn’t boost industry or create jobs on net but merely rearranges production and employment patterns. What’s worse, the rearrangement leaves Americans and Japanese poorer, on average, because labor has been diverted in both countries into lines where it is less productive, all things considered.” [Emphasis original]
While the tariffs certainly benefited some people and some industries in the United States—those who were facing direct competition from cheaper or superior imports—they were a net harm to the development of the nation, even notwithstanding the fact that a disastrous war would eventually be fought over them.
The example of China is often given to support the notion of state-created prosperity, but this example, placed into any type of context, is highly perverse. China is saddled with a “tremendous government”, and that government intervenes mightily into the economy, but China has also recently emerged from total communism—surely the move to the current “state capitalism” model represents a radical reduction in the level of government economic control! The fact that Chinese prosperity has increased alongside the move toward economic freedom is hardly shocking, though it should also be noted that the China boom has a number of serious problems caused explicitly by the government’s involvement; from the centrally-planned development of hundreds of empty cities to the creation of a giant lake of radioactive poison, it is not hard to come by examples of truly grotesque mismanagement. Chinese prosperity is also highly overrated; to a great extent, it is built on a vast pile of debt, as China’s debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds 300%. In all, there are many signs present that the vast government China does possess is smothering the life out of the emerging prosperity.
We covered alcohol prohibition earlier in discussing the origins of American conservatism, though the border crisis has something significant in common with it: it is a problem that literally would not exist in the absence of government, and one does not need to be an open-borders advocate to see this. In a libertarian social order with fully privatized borders, immigration decisions would be localized to the greatest extent possible. Those who wished to allow open immigration could do so, but only onto their own property, and those who wished to forbid it could defend their own property precisely as they would against any other invasion. There would be nothing mystical about immigration that would make it any different from any other border crossing, of which number our daily lives are absolutely full. The only factors that complicate the border situation and turn it into a crisis are the one-size-fits-all border control approaches dictated by remote bureaucrats and the vast array of aggressions they will commit against the existing citizenry on behalf of the incoming immigrants. Those are problems of the state and by the state.
The heroin epidemic, on the other hand, is a genuinely perverse example; if anywhere there is a case of maximal government, the heroin epidemic is that case. The US government prohibits the sale, possession, or consumption of heroin and provides truly draconian penalties for violating this prohibition: up to thirty years of imprisonment and $50,000 in fines per count. Not only this, but it is itself the world’s leading possessor, seller, and manufacturer of the drug:
[I]n Afghanistan…the first local drug lords on an international scale–Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abu Rasul Sayyaf–were in fact launched internationally as a result of massive and ill-advised assistance from the CIA, in conjunction with the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While other local resistance forces were accorded second-class status, these two clients of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, precisely because they lacked local support, pioneered the use of opium and heroin to build up their fighting power and financial resources…
CIA involvement in the drug trade hardly began with its involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war. To a certain degree, the CIA’s responsibility for the present dominant role of Afghanistan in the global heroin traffic merely replicated what had happened earlier in Burma, Thailand, and Laos between the late 1940s and the 1970s. These countries also only became factors in the international drug traffic as a result of CIA assistance (after the French, in the case of Laos) to what would otherwise have been only local traffickers…
In this same period the CIA recruited assets along the smuggling routes of the Asian opium traffic as well, in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, France, Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico. These assets have included government officials like Manuel Noriega of Panama or Vladimiro Montesinos of Peru, often senior figures in CIA-assisted police and intelligence services. But they have also included insurrectionist movements, ranging from the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s to (according to Robert Baer and Seymour Hersh) the al-Qaeda-linked Jundallah, operating today in Iran and Baluchistan…
Perhaps the best example of such CIA influence via drug traffickers today is in Afghanistan itself, where those accused of drug trafficking include President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (an active CIA asset), and Abdul Rashid Dostum (a former CIA asset).
Given that the US government is the producer and trafficker of the heroin, and the institution that prohibits, polices, and punishes private use and distribution of the heroin, it is difficult to see what possible further role there could be for government in the heroin epidemic. This is another case of government run badly amok, and the solution, once again, is to eliminate it.
Christensen has one more example to point to in his attempt to show the folly of small government, and it is a doozy:
“We can even point to the financial crisis of 2008 as a perfect storm of incompetence: government was involved in the worst places (like encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them), while failing to govern precisely those areas which needed it (deregulation of a variety of financial devices and a pathetic bailout deal in the aftermath).”
The only part of this that is at all correct is the statement that “encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them” was in fact a failure of government. Everything else here is almost entirely counter to reality. Deregulation, as commonly understood and clearly as intended here, played no role in the financial crisis; the repealed portion of the Glass-Steagall Act, that piece of repealed legislation generally pointed to as the “deregulation” that brought on the financial crisis, did nothing but prohibit investment banks from taking demand deposits, and vice-versa. Clearly this had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis. Indeed, the only type of deregulation that was involved in the crisis was the type that allowed banks to take greater investment risks with a guarantee that the taxpayers would be forced to absorb the losses. In other words: the deregulation that led to the crisis was nothing more than a restatement of “encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them”—an action that certainly was not caused both by too much and too little government involvement! As Thomas Woods explains,
“Commercial bank deposits are insured by the federal government up to $100,000 (and, temporarily, up to $250,000). Any ‘deregulation’ of the banking system that permits the banks to take greater risks while maintaining government (that is, taxpayer) insurance of their deposits is not genuine deregulation from a free-market point of view.
When the moral hazard of deposit insurance is combined with the ‘too big to fail’ mentality, which will not allow large institutions to fail, the result (a conclusion compelled by common sense and bolstered by recent research) is that banks will take on considerably more risk than they would if they were subject to genuine market pressures.”[Emphasis original]
And what to make of the complaint of the “pathetic” bailout deal? Note carefully its inclusion under “failure to govern”; are we to conclude that the $700 billion in taxpayer money spent to preserve the monthly bonuses of a handful of bankers was insufficient? Is Christensen somehow reaching the madcap conclusion that, if only the government were more involved in the banking sector, the bailout never would have happened?
The remaining error in the above passage underlines the final large pothole in which Christensen finds himself.
Flaw #3: The Nature of the State
“We can even point to the financial crisis of 2008 as a perfect storm of incompetence.”
We can do that, yes, but to do so is to look directly away from the truth. There was no incompetence involved whatsoever. The American financial sector, with the help of the federal government, had spent almost a hundred years building itself a rigged casino in which it literally could not lose. The financial crisis, far from reflecting any incompetence, demonstrated the amazing competence with which the system was designed. Everything went wrong—the wheels fell completely off—and the bets paid out anyway on the backs of the taxpayer, and even in the face of overwhelming, nearly-unanimous taxpayer opposition.
“[The] alleged threat to millions of policyholders was a beard—behind which stood the handful of giant financial institutions which had purchased what amounted to wagering insurance from the AIG holding company.
To be sure, AIG’s giant financial customers like Bank of America or Société Générale had not reached their tremendous girth due to their prowess as legitimate free market enterprises. They were lumbering wards of the state and…products of the cheap debt, moral hazard, and serial speculative bubbles being fostered by the Fed and other central banks. Not surprisingly, therefore, they were now desperately petitioning the treasury secretary for help in collecting their gambling debts from AIG.
Needless to say, Paulson did not hesitate to throw the weight of the public purse into the arena on behalf of these gamblers, because it resulted in an immediate boost to the stock price of Goldman Sachs and the remnants of Wall Street. Hank Paulson thus desecrated the rules of the free market, and for the most deplorable of reasons: namely, to make Goldman, Deutsche Bank, and the rest of the banking giants whole on gambling claims which had been incurred to carry out an end run around regulatory standards in the first place.”
Surely there was no incompetence about this; there was only cold, calculated evil. This was not a series of innocent errors, but an intentional and callous plundering of the American people. Yet this is hardly an isolated example; it is not through incompetence that the government roads are terrible, but by design: only if the roads are unsatisfactory and lethal can the road bureaucrats increase their share of the power and pelf. It is not merest happenstance that the government schools are constantly becoming more expensive and less educational. It is not due to a lack of resources that the government’s wars drag on into eternity. “Incompetence” is the cover the government hides behind to obscure the fact that its very nature is to fail; the roads are terrible, the schools are terrible, the wars are a loss—why, they must all need more money and a greater priority in civic life, then!
One could surely advance the argument here, and not without merit, that these problems are a feature of democracy, and would be put to rest under a monarchic government. While I surely concede, following Maistre and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, that a monarchy would be far less damaging than a democracy, it would still suffer from the same problems, merely to a lesser degree. Any command activity—any action undertaken by the state—will of necessity be arbitrary and bureaucratic, as it cannot be guided by market incentives and the profit motive. Bureaucrats will rule in a monarchy as they do in a democracy, though likely to a lesser extent. No king can change this, for as Ludwig von Mises writes,
“As he lacks ubiquity, he must delegate a part of his power to subordinates. They are, in their districts, his deputies, acting in his name and under his auspices. In fact they become local despots only nominally subject to the mighty overlord who has appointed them. They rule their provinces according to their own will, they become satraps. The great king has the power to discharge them and to appoint a successor. But that is no remedy either. The new governor also soon becomes an almost independent satrap. What some critics wrongly assert with regard to representative democracy, namely, that the people is sovereign only on election day, is literally true with regard to such a system of despotism; the king is sovereign in the provinces only on the day he appoints a new governor.”
Falling into the trap of believing that the government suffers from insufficient competence, and that this competence deficit can be cured by more government, is the means by which virtually all people throughout history have acquiesced to tyranny. At first it works; “great things” are built. The strong man makes the trains run on time. That is the bait; the initial “fix” one gets for free. Beyond this point lies nothing but an endless cynical game in which we are not the players—we are the prize.
Having thus cleared away the underlying philosophy, it may seem unnecessary to rebut Christensen’s policy ideas as well, but for one thing: the possibility remains that Christensen, though his premises are faulty, has nonetheless arrived at the correct conclusion. His proposals therefore still need to be dealt with on their own merit. He writes,
“The lesson is clear: big versus small government ranges from inaccurate to useless as a metric for policy-making. The bias either tilts toward government involvement in unnecessary areas or its absence in necessary ones. This is even true if we are considering things in purely economic terms. A pure devotion to free markets ignores political questions such as preserving cultural sovereignty and maintaining good relations between social classes. Meanwhile, the opposite tendency interferes with the ability of productive people and companies to work without the restraints of red tape; this is why modern Chinese socialism has taken advantage of policies such as special economic zones while preserving the state’s active role. We must demand a more substantive metric: competent government.”
It is odd to see the line “big versus small government ranges from inaccurate to useless as a metric for policy-making” in an article entitled “We Need Tremendous Government”. How can one assert both of these things? If the size of the government is truly so meaningless, why claim that we need it not only to be significant, but “tremendous”?
Notwithstanding that, the language of the rest of this passage is exceedingly slippery. It is tacitly asserted that “preserving cultural sovereignty and maintaining good relations between social classes” is a function of the state, and that those who wish to have less of the state are therefore unconcerned with culture and social peace, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Far from ignoring such questions, we argue that the state is the wrong answer to them. Social peace and cultural sovereignty are best served by the minimization (or absence) of the state: that institution that preserves its own power by debasing the culture with its bread and circuses, and by destroying social peace through the divide et impera strategy—pitting the people against each other to keep them distracted and disorganized.
It is similarly perverse to describe the effects of socialism—the opposite of devotion to free markets—as “interfer[ing] with the ability of productive people and companies to work without the restraints of red tape”. This glib phrasing makes it sound as though a century of socialism had produced a handful of minor inconveniences for businessmen; so many forms to fill out! The reality of it is considerably less pleasant: impoverishment on a truly unbelievable scale, environmental catastrophes vastly worse than anything seen in the “free world”, and over 100 million deaths. Christensen continues,
“Ironically, the conservative disdain for government has often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem is that much of American government truly has become inept. But being a dominant power between two oceans, America has perhaps failed to check if this holds true elsewhere. In fact, there are many examples of competent government to be found. We need not even limit ourselves to the small-state powerhouses like Singapore and Switzerland. In a matter of decades, the Chinese state has achieved massive industrialization, the establishment of political norms and institutions after a chaotic era, extensive geopolitical power, and the lifting up of two hundred million souls from poverty. We can point to Poland, which has achieved tremendous economic growth that it has effectively translated into political clout within Europe, pursuing its own vision informed by Polish and Catholic values, rather than those of Brussels. Not just competent but even (dare we say?) dynamic and accomplished government is eminently possible. So why has it so often failed at all levels of American life: city, state, and federal?”
We have discussed the case of China already, and Christensen mentions but looks past the examples of Singapore and Switzerland, so we are left with Poland as his exemplar of big government being beneficial. But this example contains its own refutation; Poland, as Christensen acknowledges, is asserting its own interests against those of the European Union. This is a secessionist act. This is a smaller, more localized political unit asserting its independence from the super-state that allegedly rules it. Far from being an example of big government leading to competence and greatness, the case of Poland at most illustrates the principles of federalism—a smaller, more local government is pushing against the unwanted behavior of a larger government. The analogy is not to the United States government expanding its power in the world, but to one of the individual states deciding to go its own way. Indeed, one could argue that the reason efforts like this have so often failed in the United States is exactly because of the large, powerful federal government.
The case of Poland is remarkably similar to the Nullification Crisis. On November 24, 1832, the state of South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, declaring that the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void inside the state of South Carolina. This is quite of a piece with Poland’s recent rejection of EU mandates that run counter to the interests of Poland, with both South Carolina and Poland asserting their own local interests in the face of the “greater good” being dictated to them by bigger governments. As Thomas Jefferson wrote earlier of this idea,
“[T]he several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes—delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force…”
If this is not a rejection of “tremendous government” to achieve “great works”, then nothing is, and this describes the current behavior of Poland precisely.
Not long ago, different states had different legal drinking ages, different speed limits, and a whole host of other local rules and customs that varied across the nation. Many of these are now uniform. This happened not as the result of reasoned discourse and competent evaluation, but as the result of naked force applied from Washington. It is surely not outside the realm of possibility that the different circumstances in different states warrant different rules; driving in Alaska is a different experience from driving in Nebraska. If we accept that government should set rules for driving in the first place, does it not stand to reason that the state of Alaska is more competent to establish rules for driving in Alaska than is the federal government, thousands of miles away? It would seem once again that bigness of government and competence of government are at odds with one another. Christensen writes,
“American political life has long suffered from a focus on means to the exclusion of ends. The most obvious example of this is the privileged position of the U.S. Constitution in moral and political life. Of course, many countries have great respect for their constitutions. But few if any treat theirs with the sheer awe and sacral emotion with which American conservatism treats that of the United States. Progressives have always seen the Constitution more as something to be expanded and fleshed out with the changing of the times, which is perhaps why they have managed to cement so many more of their political victories in law. It is easier to change society by writing new norms than by trying to repeal them.”
Actually, conservatives everywhere traditionally regard constitutions with a great deal of respect, if not veneration. A constitution, properly understood, is not merely a paper containing the daily whimsy of the ruling class. To quote Maistre:
“Modern philosophy is at one and the same time too materialistic and too presumptuous to see the real springs of action in politics. One of its follies is to believe that an assembly can constitute a nation, that a constitution, that is to say, the totality of fundamental laws which suit a nation and should give it a certain form of government, is an artifact like any other, requiring only intelligence, knowledge, and practice, that the job of constitution-making can be learned, and that, the moment they think about it, men can say to other men, Make us a government, as a workman is told, Make us a fire engine or a loom…
If a man of goodwill, relying only on good sense and rectitude, asks what the old French constitution was, the straightforward reply can be given: ‘It is what you felt when you were in France: it is the mixture of liberty and authority, law and opinion, that made the foreign traveler in France believe that he was living under a government different from his own.’” [Emphasis original]
The primary reason that few people nowadays hold constitutions in much regard is, of course, precisely because of the desire for political expedience championed here by Christensen. As Maistre understood it, a proper constitution was not a bill enacted by a legislative body, nor was it a fiat declared by a king. Rather, a constitution was an organic outgrowth of the culture and the society, and it defined and delineated what form the government should take. As such, it was not subject to breezy legislative overwriting; indeed, in Maistre’s view, a constitution should not even exist as a written document, since to write it down is to invite amendments devised by the minds of men.
The notions that the constitution should be given only symbolic value, and that it should even be conceivable “to change society by writing new norms”, are the essence of progressivism. Writing new norms is nothing more or less than the old pietist drive to perfect man through the power of the state. Christensen continues,
“Even for such fundamental questions as demographics, the nature of marriage, and the involvement of money in elections, the question of the common good appears to have often been absent. What was important was whether the policies around these issues aligned with the Constitution or not, the moral worldview behind them being of little consequence.”
It is one thing to suggest that the goodness of one’s means is irrelevant if said means fail to achieve a desirable end, but it is quite another to suggest that the goodness of means is irrelevant as long as a good end is reached. Yet:
“Conservatives have traditionally been so devoted to ideas like property and markets that they have aided their most ardent enemies in the process. For example, conservative voices rallied during Citizens United to protect independent spending from corporations and unions on political speech. This, despite the fact that many of America’s largest corporations back globalist free trade agreements and HR-mandated progressive norms that would make Hillary Clinton raise an eyebrow.”
If we are to abandon respect for property and markets, what is there to fear from “globalist free trade agreements”? I suspect the forest is being lost for the trees. Surely it is preferable to live under a government that enacts crony state capitalist deals but otherwise does not interfere with property and markets than it is to live in a society in which property and markets are abrogated. We need not even speculate; this is the precise situation in modern China, which was earlier being celebrated as a grand success.
Recall Christensen’s definition of good government given earlier: a government that enables “virtuous people, cultural genius and beauty, and economic prosperity”. I trust it has been sufficiently demonstrated that economic prosperity depends on property and markets. The other two conditions do as well.
“Cultural genius”, if the term has any meaning, no doubt refers to high art, sophistication, and refinement. Which societies in history have produced the best art and culture—those with relatively high respect for property and markets, or those with relatively low respect? Sparta certainly produced a highly efficient, effective government, but produced so little cultural genius that the word spartan is present in the lexicon meaning “marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort”. Athens, meanwhile, is still today considered a high point in the history of world culture. I trust the reader knows which of these states respected property and markets and which did not. With no art and no culture, the only beauty that can exist is the incidental; the beauty of a rainbow, or of a sunset. Man can encourage or develop beauty only by encouraging and developing culture.
How are we to define a people that is virtuous? Plato, of course, filled volumes attempting to answer that very question. For our purposes, I propose a very simple, basic definition: people are virtuous who respect the rights of others and the norms of their society. A society that denies property rights, however, puts those two conditions in conflict with one another, as Rothbard explains:
“[T]he concept of ‘rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard…
In short, a person does not have a ‘right to freedom of speech’; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a ‘right to freedom of the press’; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra ‘right of free speech’ or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.” [Emphasis original]
There is no means of understanding rights that does not reduce to property; any other way of defining rights leads to unresolvable conflicts. As such, if one lives in a society that does not respect property rights, one cannot, by definition, respect any rights of one’s neighbors without violating cultural norms. It thus becomes difficult to see how one can jettison property and markets while retaining Christensen’s “good government”. Christensen writes,
“Red and blue America began with two different ideologies, each with a different agenda in the legal realm. Red America from the 1970s onward became committed to a philosophy of negative rights and the shrinking or decentralizing of government.”
Is this truly the case? If so, it becomes impossible to view Red America as having had any impact whatsoever on the country. The government has ballooned and centralized at an alarming rate over that period. If Red America means the Republican Party, then clearly there is no truth to the claim. However, the Republicans are responsible for some of the most outrageous expansions and centralizations of state power, from the closing of the gold window in 1971 to Medicare Part D and the USA PATRIOT Act. The idea that Republicans are the party of small government is laughable.
If not the Republican Party, then are we referring to the ordinary people in “flyover country”? It seems a severe stretch of credibility to describe such a broad swath of people as being committed to any particular philosophy. Christensen continues,
“Blue America was committed to the pursuit of positive rights and an activist government pursuing social issues (although we should note that by Clinton’s era it had abandoned economic ones). These translated into competing moral visions. Ironically, both are quite grounded in a version of individualism and freedom from coercion. But for the former this is a civic individualism and economic freedom, while for the latter this is a social individualism and moral freedom. The former subverts the political state while the latter subverts the moral community. America will not survive either tendency.”
This is the final argument raised, though it is merely asserted; neither logic nor evidence is provided to support the idea that America will not survive the subversion of the political state, which seems a bit difficult to accept when one considers that political states are subverted on a fairly regular basis, yet I am at pains to identify the last nation that failed to survive it. Indeed, America itself was born from the subversion of an existing political state!
The nation itself and the people taken as a whole are resilient. What is fragile is a given cultural order, and, indeed, the biggest threat American culture faces comes not from enemies in the Middle East, nor from some type of causeless malaise, but from active government programs specifically designed to disrupt it. From the welfare system and its destruction of the black family to ceaseless militarism, from the constant attempts to push new sexual perversions into the mainstream to the CIA’s deliberate destruction of American art and culture, the federal government is that agency most likely to destroy the social order. Conservatives—who are meant to care about culture and tradition, after all—should be standing against this, not celebrating it.
Christensen’s next passage reads eerily like Theodore Roosevelt, a man who had no fondness for the Constitution when it interfered with his political goals and often declared that the federal government must intervene to mobilize resources and put them at the service of the people:
“American political life must regain a vision of the common good which the legal and political structures are tools to achieve. In other words, it must embrace a standard against which to judge the Constitution… America is a country of wealth with a huge population. It deserves a political order which can properly mobilize these resources and put them at the service of its families and its visionaries.”
“The object of the Government is to dispose of the land to settlers who will build homes upon it. To accomplish this object water must be brought within their reach.
The pioneer settlers on the arid public domain chose their homes along streams from which they could themselves divert the water to reclaim their holdings. Such opportunities are practically gone. There remain, however, vast areas of public land which can be made available for homestead settlement, but only by reservoirs and main-line canals impracticable for private enterprise. These irrigation works should be built by the National Government. The lands reclaimed by them should be reserved by the Government for actual settlers, and the cost of construction should so far as possible be repaid by the land reclaimed. The distribution of the water, the division of the streams among irrigators, should be left to the settlers themselves in conformity with State laws and without interference with those laws or with vested fights. The policy of the National Government should be to aid irrigation in the several States and Territories in such manner as will enable the people in the local communities to help themselves, and as will stimulate needed reforms in the State laws and regulations governing irrigation.
The reclamation and settlement of the arid lands will enrich every portion of our country, just as the settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys brought prosperity to the Atlantic States. The increased demand for manufactured articles will stimulate industrial production, while wider home markets and the trade of Asia will consume the larger food supplies and effectually prevent Western competition with Eastern agriculture. Indeed, the products of irrigation will be consumed chiefly in upbuilding local centers of mining and other industries, which would otherwise not come into existence at all. Our people as a whole will profit, for successful home- making is but another name for the upbuilding of the nation.”
Theodore Roosevelt, of course, was America’s first truly progressive president. Christensen concludes,
“In order for the healthiest segments of the conservative movement to move forward, it is vital that they embrace the power and institutions of government. They must be seen not only as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. The shocking paradigm shift of 2016 will be of little use if national and sovereigntist forces refuse to use the very tools which they now control. They can rest assured that the forces of neoliberalism will not.”
Shorn of its philosophical underpinnings, having failed to provide any evidence linking big government to the creation of the good society, our final policy proposal devolves into a purely defensive move: conservatives must use the power of the state to the maximum extent in a simple attempt to counterbalance progressives doing the same. I would suggest that it does not work that way; increases in government are cumulative, not competitive. When the Democrats controlled the government during the Obama years and granted unprecedented new powers to themselves, those powers did not dissipate when the Republicans took back the reins. Similarly, if conservatives now embrace big government and grant it a whole plethora of new powers, the progressives will inherit those same powers the next time they are in charge. A much better idea if one wishes to defend against progressive overreach is to work to reduce—even to eliminate—those very powers. That way, one does not hand one’s ideological enemies the ammunition they need.
If history is to be any guide, it shows us that no dynasty lasts forever. Even if the progressives are vanquished forever, are we to assume there will be no new enemies to guard against? Are we to assume that future generations of great leaders will be wise and incorruptible? This was not the assumption made of the monarchs of which Burke and Maistre wrote fondly. They wrote of kings who were a source of stability—whose personal interests were served by the maintenance of justice, peace, and tradition, and who, as such, kept society insulated from would-be great men and their utopian visions.
“Unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.”
In writing the above words, with their strong echoes of Edmund Burke’s rebuke of the French revolutionaries, Frédéric Bastiat puts to rest the notion that “we need tremendous government”. The more force society places at the disposal of the unscrupulous, the more the law will become perverted. The more the law becomes perverted, the more we are all at the mercy of those who see us as nothing more than chattel. The drive to repose more and more power in the hands of strongmen in the hope that they will use it to create a “good society” is antithetical to conservative principles and doomed to fail.
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