Jonah Goldberg recently declared victory in the ideological struggle between Left and Right: “After decades of war, the Right (broadly defined) has won (even more broadly defined).” It occurred to me that it would be interesting to examine the nature of “our” victory, while we’re cleaning up the battlefield and putting away our guns and all.
Another neocon who can see “we” have won is David Frum. Writing in the National Post of Canada, Frum explained his recent decision to take a job in the Bush administration:
Conservatives have never been anarchists. They have always believed government was necessary and that, in its proper sphere, it was even a positive good. But in reaction to the terrifying excesses of government in the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives sometimes talked like anarchists. As government ceased to look so terrifying, the conservative reaction against it came to seem to many nearly as excessive as government itself had once been.
If you just got back to the United States from a 30-year trip during which you were isolated in the remotest jungle, Frum’s statement would lead you to believe that the US government had become much smaller during the intervening decades. After all, if the scope of government interference with citizen’s lives was “terrifying” in the 60s and 70s, but now it is not, it follows that this must have been cut back significantly.
Further, since Frum professes to be a conservative, you would conclude that, well, we at least went back to a pre-New-Deal level of government. Perhaps even the “Progressive” era reforms had been repealed. And since conservatives venerate the original meaning of the founders when interpreting the Constitution, they really shouldn’t be happy until the Federal government has been cut back to its original, enumerated powers.
Imagine your shock when you examined the years between when Frum found the excesses of government were “terrifying” and today, and discovered that the Federal government had merely continued to grow, becoming ever more intrusive, taking on ever more tasks not listed in its Constitutional powers, spending ever more money. By 1999, the federal budget had grown to approximately 17 times its 1960 size. Federal discretionary spending is now growing at the fastest pace in over two decades.
The new, “not so terrifying” government has decided it has the power to seize your property for simply suspecting you of a crime. It has roasted up some kids because it suspected they were being abused. It has starved half a million Iraqi children to death, and bombed such powerful, threatening countries as Serbia, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
So why is it that Frum is so sanguine about the much larger Federal government of today than the “terrifying” one of the 1960s? It couldn’t be because he’s now part of it, could it?
Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute blames the “public” for the neocons’ lack of interest in reducing the size of government: “We can solve the problem [of government funding of the left] by scaling back government and de-funding the Left. But the public seems to have rejected that option. In fact, learning that lesson is what made George Bush president.”
In fact, Mr. Kurtz, the one recent time when Republicans ran on a platform of scaling back government – 1994, with the Contract for America – they won an overwhelming victory. Of course, almost immediately neocons like Bill Kristol moved in to advise them, vis-à-vis that “scaling back” business, to do nothing of the sort. Following the advice of the “Sage of Good Morning America” has led to a loss of Republican congressional seats in every subsequent election. The masses who had come out to vote Republican in ’94 became disgusted when they saw that the GOP had no more intention of rolling back government than did the Democrats, and they have since stayed home. Only the power of incumbency and the dollars in pork they are now in charge of has maintained the slim Republican majority.
In a similar vein, William F. Buckley chastises conservatives for their lack of realism:
Conservatives aren’t thoughtlessly enthusiastic about the Bush program inasmuch as, once again, we have the instrument of government engaged in activity that is best supervised by a) non-government; and b) a smaller unit of government. What conservatives are going to have to get used to is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost. It is fine, in our little seminars, to make the case against a federal Social Security program, but it pays to remind ourselves that nobody outside the walls of that classroom is going to pay much attention to our Platonic exercises.
This suggests a new motto for National Review: “Standing athwart history, yelling, ‘We surrender!’” Certainly, if everyone who believes that Social Security is an egregious program is persuaded to stop making a fuss about it, it is likely to remain around for a long time. Buckley’s admonition is not essentially different than someone who advised a Soviet dissident, in 1985, that there was no sense in fighting communism – that battle was long since lost. Best to just see if you can get an extra pair of shoes each year.
Now, these people are supposedly opinion leaders, swaying other people with their words. And they supposedly adhere to an ideology that features constitutionally limited government as one of its central tenets. If they are advising everyone that the battle for such government is lost, then it is any wonder that the public begins to think so?
Jonah Goldberg inadvertently explains this phenomenon in the article mentioned above:
…good Lord, how many former Leftists, socialists, Marxists, Trotskyists, and Democrats have moved right? Literally hundreds. If you count normal, non-pointy headed people, millions. Generation after generation of the Left’s best minds have decided they like things over here more.
The problem, of course, is that many of them have “gone Right” only skin deep. In their hearts, they are still socialists. They can’t quite stand the idea that people should really be left alone. While paying lip service to “the market,” they add “but the market must be tempered with [our] government policies, to protect the weak, guard morality, defend our interests abroad, eliminate illegal drug use, discourage pre-marital sex, uplift the public, provide nice parks, build roads, fund scientific research, promote great art… Oh, and as long as we need all of these policies, you know, we’d be willing to come in and give you a tip or two on running them.” Well, Jeez, next thing you know that old Federal budget has gone and growed again!
Perhaps the neocons themselves need a motto. I’ll suggest one:
“We’re giving up the fight, but just a little bit at a time!”
February 6, 2001
Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.
2001, Gene Callahan