The Old Right Was Right

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The "Old
Right" is the name given by Murray N. Rothbard to the critics
of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies of the 1930's, who
were subsequently silenced or ignored during World War II and
the emergence of the Cold War. Most of the names
are now forgotten; H.L. Mencken is still popular, but he was the
least systematic political thinker of the lot. And Rose Wilder
Lane is probably more remembered as Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter
and editor than as the author of The
Discovery of Freedom
.

Many of the
rest, like Garet Garett, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and
Isabel Paterson, have been entirely forgotten in the culture's
mainstream, and it is because of efforts by people in the libertarian
movement that their lives and thoughts can be discovered on the
Internet today.

I'm only
getting my feet wet with the literature of the Old Right, but
I could recommend their writings for just one reason: American
English prose was never better than in the period between the
World Wars. This was the age when the principles of Strunk and
White's The
Elements of Style
were not some unattainable ideal, but
the standard expectation for publishable work. These people knew
how to write, and lovers of American English will find no greater
standard-bearers.

But there
is a second reason. Rothbard gave the "Old Right" its
name in juxtaposition with the "New Right" which the
CIA, um, I mean William F. Buckley, founded in 1955 with National
Review magazine. The Old Right was individualist; the New
Right was pragmatic and imperialist. But the Old Right was a fitting
term nevertheless; when FDR began to lead our country into its
own style of fascism, his most eloquent critics were, well, old.

Not very
old, but definitely middle-aged. The Old Right writers were born
in the 1870's and 80's, and were definitely not the children of
privileged, government-protected robber barons. Whether growing
up on the wild frontier or on the streets of New York or Baltimore,
they all came of age well before the Sixteenth Amendment imposed
the income tax in 1913. By FDR's inauguration in 1933, they were
either in their fifties or soon to be. By the time Buckley made
himself judge, jury, and executioner of all things conservative
two decades later, the "Old Right" was definitely very
old, and for the most part dead or retired.

This may
have more significance than first glance suggests. While the post-Civil
War governments up until 1913 were for the most part evil –
granting land to railroad companies at the expense of homesteaders,
breaking treaties with native Indians, and impoverishing farmers
by protecting domestic industrialists with high tariffs –
it was otherwise, fortunately, weak. The federal government had
no small-c constitutional (i.e., bodily, practical) ability to
increase its power, because it had no big -c Constitutional (i.e.,
legal) authority to raise the revenue for it. When tariffs and
excise taxes are a government's only means of revenue, the ambitions
of politicians are necessarily curtailed.

It is in
the weakness of our government that our freedom was preserved
and prosperity attained. This is what the Old Right knew. Note
that I didn't say "believed," but "knew,"
because they experienced it. They were of the last generation
to experience it. To be raised by adults who were neither directly
taxed nor dependent on government subsidy. And to live life as
an adult under the same conditions. To realize that in the struggle
for survival, one must struggle, and not sit idly by waiting for
someone else to struggle successfully enough to provide for two
or more. Who understood that capitalism did not create the injustices,
it was government favoritism of one industry, or one industrialist,
over some other that was the cause. And that the solution was
in the further weakening of government, and not in the expansion
of its powers.

Which brings
us to Chodorov's The
Income Tax: Root of All Evil
. (New York: Devin Adair Co.,
1959). Born in the 1880's, Chodorov knew what it was like to live
without income taxes, and understood that the income tax robbed
a person of his essential dignity. Since a man works only to satisfy
desires, then if a proportion of his reward is confiscated – if
achieving his desires is frustrated – he has less reason to work.
And if, as with the income tax, he can place himself as a beneficiary
of government benevolence – that is, of other people's work – he has a great incentive to do so.

Chodorov's
little book has its strengths and deficiencies. Originally published
in 1954, over forty years since the income tax and 20 years since
the New Deal, it correctly places blame on the income tax, not
on politicians like Roosevelt who capitalize on it. According
to Chodorov, Roosevelt or someone like him was inevitable. And
I would add to that: the policies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon,
Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush who have made this country increasingly
self-righteous and tyrannical under the rhetoric of "freedom,"
are further products of the same evil seed. Once the power to
tax is unlimited, government power will become unlimited. The
Sixteenth Amendment essentially repealed everything else in the
Constitution, save for the strictly procedural provisions.

Whereas we
might think of 1954, the year the first edition of The Income
Tax: Root of All Evil was published, as the "good old
days" with high church attendance, a polite public square,
and superior literature, movies, and music, Chodorov – who
remembered how things "used to be" at the turn of the
century, saw the cultural decline. As government is now bigger
than it ever has been, it should not be surprising that subsequent
generations have become even more wicked and perverse. When government
robs society of its freedom and power, we must expect cultural
and moral decline. Unlimited taxation means unlimited government.
Tyranny and cultural decline are the inevitable outcomes; it is
to the credit of this great and proud people that we haven't,
after ninety years of income taxes, slipped even further into
tyranny and disintegration than we already have.

But what
Chodorov fails to explain was the rapid agreement by the states
to ratify the income tax via Constitutional Amendment. I could
provide an answer Chodorov doesn't provide, which is that the
mind of a politician is like the mind of the criminal, because
they are both in the business of taking life and property without
consent. If, fueled by the ignorance and class envy of his constituents,
the state legislators of 42 states decide to adopt the income
tax amendment, the thing would pass. But Chodorov doesn't point
to why or how this could have happened.

The reformist
or progressive spirit of the age of the 1910s, which placed the
ideals of nationalism and democracy over localism and liberty,
no doubt played a role. But there were greater incentives. The
state legislator, whose sole purpose in life is to spend other
people's money, would gladly trade his state's sovereignty and
liberty in order to spend the money of people from other states.
Thus, as more taxes go to Washington and less to the state capitol,
the state legislator may actually have more power than before,
provided the state's Congressional delegation and lobbyists could
bring in to the state more money than the citizens of the state
paid out. And the ambitions of the politician, who in his most
virtuous moments conscientiously pursues the "public good,"
would, previously, probably be more effective in state government.
But now, his conception of the "public good" could extend
to the whole nation, because the United States now had the power
to raise revenue without limits. Serving as a Representative in
Congress would be more effective than serving in the state Senate;
a seat in the U.S. Senate would now be more powerful and prestigious
than even a Governorship.

The political
apparatus was transformed to reward the ambitious and craven elective
officeholder with the opportunity to impose his will on the entire
nation, not just his own little state.

Chodorov
was therefore naive about chances of starting a movement to repeal
the income tax amendment. He thought an appeal to localism or
States' Rights could do the trick. That was more possible in the
fifties than now, but unlikely even then, for the reasons just
stated. The central government in Washington had become the Holy
Grail for all aspiring politicians and bureaucrat, and still is.

Nevertheless,
the unceasing bitterness and dissatisfaction which fuels contemporary
politics leaves open the opportunity for alternative views, particularly
those of the Old Right, which were simultaneously and more genuinely
"liberal" and "conservative" than the statists
of the Democratic and Republican parties who now lay claim to
those labels. With forerunners such as John C. Calhoun, Henry
David Thoreau, and the "anti-Federalists" who opposed
ratification of the Constitution, and with inheritors such as
the founder of modern libertarianism Murray Rothbard, and today's
Lew Rockwell, Joseph Sobran, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, the Old Right
understood the truth and spoke for it even when truth was unpopular.
And they were correct to do so, for the only thing that never
dies is the truth. So to choose the truth, is to choose to be
on the winning side, no matter how bleak the current prospects
may appear.

Chodorov
was right. The income tax must be repealed. And because truth
never dies, one day, it will be. It is on us to see that that
day is sooner rather than later.

April
16, 2003

James
Leroy Wilson [send
him mail
] lives in Chicago.


     

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