The most encouraging trend of our time is the widespread loss of faith in government. No longer do people look to the government as the great problem solver, economic planner, social unifier, or cultural czar. The government is more likely to be seen for what it is, a haven for grafters, liars, and would-be tyrants. Americans, like the Russians, no longer believe anything until it is officially denied.
It’s an encouraging trend because it foretells the restoration of liberty in economic relations, political and social self-determination, and in the autonomy of communities, families, and individuals. There are many barriers to these goals, but the largest is the overwhelming power of the central state, the foremost evil of our time. Its remaining power rests on its perceived authority, which, once stripped away, collapses leaving only the unimposed order of market relations and voluntary associations.
The turning point, of course, was the end of the Cold War and the return to normalcy some seven years ago. Ever since, the governing elites and their intellectual apologists have been searching for some grand national project to revive the spirit of collectivism from days gone by. Back then, hardly anyone questioned the need for the Leviathan state or the moral necessity of absolute obedience to the federal government.
To bring back the old days, there were massacres in Panama and Iraq. Then there were the “humanitarian” police actions in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. But public enthusiasm waned quickly, and these international schemes began to backfire by increasing opposition to government and all its works. The state has tried other diversionary tactics including the drug war, the everlasting war on poverty, the terrorist threat, the “crisis” of unaffordable health care, and a proposed manned mission to Mars.
Nothing works. There are no domestic or foreign crises left to grab our attention away from demanding what we should always demand, which is the ability to live normal lives unencumbered by the central state. “It’s hard when you’re not threatened by a foreign enemy,” President Clinton pouted after his State of the Union this year, “to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor.”
Precisely, and may it always be so. Clinton’s attempt to make education a national issue fell flat because most people have an instinctive sense that education is and should be addressed at the local level. When we think about the federal government, its talent at managing the education of the young is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Government always takes advantage of the citizens’ sense of loyalty. It wants us to put the nation-state first, second, and third, so that our families and communities, our liberty and our property, are of minor importance. This is why Jefferson said the proper attitude toward government is not confidence and trust but eternal suspicion. If that was true of the constitutional government of his time, how much more is it true of a Leviathan state with a proven record of running scams, destroying wealth, telling lies, and needlessly harassing its citizens?
Not everyone is thrilled at these positive trends. Some people are panicked, especially the bureaucrats and politicians who have lost their exalted status in public life. Mario Cuomo says it all signals the loss of collective responsibility. “There’s no hero, no heroine, no great cause, no soaring ideology,” he says. We “need something to hold onto. Something deeper, stronger, grander” that can make us “better than we are.”
What is that something? The heroic central state, of course. To Cuomo, “better” means subordinating the individual to the collective. He openly longs for a socialist leader – he’s available, of course – to define and dominate our collective consciousness.
Intellectuals and journalists also want to return to the good old days of statism. They prefer times of national crisis, when people are willing to give up their liberty for the sake of common goals, like getting through a depression or beating some foreign foe.
“Communitarians” like Cuomo would have us believe that unless the tax state unites us in a common endeavor, nothing else will. For people like Amati Etzioni, the Golden Rule means give unto the state as the state prods others to give unto you.
Even more curious is the growth of national socialist ideology on the right, particularly in the pages of the Weekly Standard. David Brooks, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, glories in the days when Americans trusted their government and never questioned its need for vast and increasing amounts of revenue. He proposes to bring those times back, not by giving anyone a good reason to love the government, but by embarking on another grandiose national program, which he equates with “greatness.”
The Panama Canal was “greatness.” The Library of Congress building was “greatness.” Trust-busting is “greatness.” Global supremacy is “greatness.” Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier – “these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor.” How can these boondoggles be described in this way? Because “American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.”
But this voice has grown hoarse or silent, and Brooks thinks this means “we don’t have a clear sense of what America is for, what we, as a nation, should achieve with all our wealth.” he is not speaking of what individuals should achieve, but what the government should achieve with our money. And, oddly, he doesn’t even come up with a suggestion for what our new national project should be.
In fact, “it almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself,” so long as it’s done with “energy and effectiveness.” For those who think that the government ought to defend the borders and otherwise leave everyone alone, Brooks offers this corrective: “the first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of a nation. Stagnant government drains national morale.”
His sentiments are nothing new. They are summed up by the Nazi slogan, Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz, which means communal welfare precedes individual welfare. This has been and is the first principle of national socialism. As the party newspaper put it in 1936, “there exists no law which binds the State. The State can do what it regards as necessary, because it has authority.”
As an ideology, national socialism exalts the Great Leader as the embodiment of the national will, and insists that citizens be loyal to the nation-state and the regime above all else. It insists on a planned economy, where the priorities of the regime supercede those of private entrepreneurs. It glorifies the people working for the military sector or the civil service for answering a higher calling than “petty” business or professional life.
National socialism is protectionist and expansionist at the same time. Its trade policy tries to bar imports, but insists every other nation buy its products as a test of loyalty. Foreign regimes that don’t go along are denounced as enemies, and public hysteria is whipped up against them. National socialism has an ambitious foreign policy that attempts to gain control of whole regions in order to expand its global market share, and it praises global organizations dominated only by its own regime. Its chauvinism is worn on its national sleeve.
National socialism is different from international socialism in that the state prefers property control to nationalization. And it attaches sacramental significance not to class (as with Marxism) but to nationality (which in the U.S. means no more than paying into, or living off of, the welfare state).
In another distinguishing mark, its leaders deny the reality of economic law. That allos them to deny there is any downside to statism. They won’t admit that government programs cost money, which means taxes, which means coercing people to forfeit earnings they would otherwise use to provide for their families. What the state can’t get in taxes, it assumes in debt, which is followed by inflation that loots savings that could otherwise be invested to make people better off.
National socialism and aggression go together. Brooks, for example, praises war as a heroic enterprise, but never mentions how it results in the deaths of young people for the sake of the state and its connected interest groups. Who can doubt that oil barons were ultimately behind the U.S. intervention in the Gulf War? Is such a war worth the life of a young man who joined out of a desire to defend our own borders? That war had as its lasting effects the permanent stationing of troops in that region and the introduction of mysterious new diseases to the American continent, not to mention the deliberate killing by starvation and disease of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
National socialism also means a national police force, snipers shooting and burning political dissenters, and phony evidence presented at state trials. It means spying on people’s bank accounts, tapping their phones, reading their mail, grabbing their land, and stealing their children. It means a military and national security state unaccountable to the civilian population, a welfare state that grows without limit, a regulatory state that drives small business underground, and a tax system that causes whole sectors to stagnate.
It means that the central state is enlisted, in thousands of ways big and small, in a war against the citizenry. This was well describe in Gunter Reimann’s 1939 work The Vampire Economy, a compelling account of the plight of German businessmen under the Nazis. John T. Flynn, in As We Go Marching, told similar stories of business life under the New Deal. Making the link between varieties of socialism were Ludwig von Mises ( Omnipotent Government in 1944) and F.A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom in 1945).
Business faces even more crushing burdens today, but people have gotten used to them. Thirty years ago, who would have imagined that two incomes would be necessary to support a middle-class existence for a family, and that economic conditions would force parents to turn over their children to strangers to raise? It’s been so long since we’ve experienced free enterprise, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in true prosperity and security.
Brooks longs for national socialism, knowing full well that it is precisely the system of government we have now. What is missing, in his mind, is the public spirit essential to making it thrive, the civil religion of statism. This is what the federal government started with Lincoln, and has tried to foster from McKinley to Clinton.
As Mises says, “the worship of the state is the worship of force.” This is why Brooks’s article is not only wrong, but also evil. What he celebrates as “greatness” is actually the greatest enemy civilization has ever encountered, the unencumbered rule of the political and bureaucratic class.
But in his apparently triumphalist article, Brooks is whistling past the D.C. graveyard. National socialism is no longer an option. It’s been tried, and it’s failed. The locus of national life has at least shifted outside the beltway. Few care anymore what Washington has to say, and fewer still believe it when they hear it.
Even more importantly, the fear that once restrained fundamental criticism of the government is largely gone. And this fact, more than any other, is what is driving the power elite out of their living minds. Their authority is now radically in question. Let the media and the political class decry this as cynicism, or even hate. People who can look beyond this bloody century of statism, and imagine the truly great ideal of liberty, rejoice at the meltdown of the national socialist state.