Against the Central Planners of Left and Right

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Although the federal government was larger after his two terms than it had been when he entered office, Ronald Reagan at least talked a good game. Television specials following his death in June 2004 showed Reagan uttering his memorable witticisms about the inefficiencies and evils of government power. That’s why it was so strange to listen to modern-day Republicans reflect on his legacy, since it required them to use language they hadn’t used in years (if they’d ever used it at all).

Look at the topics that consume conservative radio programs, publishers, and websites. Not one in twenty involves reductions in government power. Almost all we need to know about modern conservatism is that it enthusiastically endorses a president who has not vetoed a single spending bill, has expanded federal spending like no chief executive since Lyndon Johnson, and thinks the federal government can change the political culture of an entire region of the world.

Enter Lew Rockwell, president of the Auburn, Alabama-based Ludwig von Mises Institute. In this collection of essays, Rockwell introduces his readers to a tradition of thought that is rather more interesting than the stale platitudes of our one-party system: an American classical liberalism (quite unlike modern liberalism, needless to say) that opposes both the welfare and the warfare state, and favors property, free markets, and peace.

His essay "An American Classical Liberalism," which opens with an extended examination of the modern presidency, is particularly apt following the hoopla and inanity of another election year. Rather than lament the candidates’ failure to support this or that pet project, Rockwell dreams of an America in which "I don’t know or care who the president of the United States is. More importantly, I don’t need to know or care…."

In my daydream, the president is mostly a figurehead and a symbol, almost invisible to myself and my community. He has no public wealth at his disposal. He administers no regulatory departments. He cannot tax us, send our children into foreign wars, pass out welfare to the rich or the poor, appoint judges to take away our rights of self-government, control a central bank that inflates the money supply and brings on the business cycle, or change the laws willy-nilly according to the social interests he likes or seeks to punish.

His job is simply to oversee a tiny government with virtually no power except to arbitrate disputes among the states, which are the primary governmental units.

The next several pages go on to describe this modest presidential office and the exceedingly modest government over which it presided. The punch line is that this vision of the presidency and of the federal government more broadly, far from the uninformed daydream of misanthropes and malcontents, is precisely what the Constitution prescribes.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great nineteenth-century French observer of American affairs, acknowledged this constitutional and Rockwellian conception of the presidency when he observed, "No candidate has as yet been able to arouse the dangerous enthusiasm or the passionate sympathies of the people in his favor, for the simple reason that when he is at the head of the government, he has but little power, little wealth, and little glory to share among his friends; and his influence in the state is too small for the success or ruin of a faction to depend upon his elevation to power." Who the president was, therefore, could be largely a matter of indifference to the American population.

In our own day, the imperial state and its chief executive have grown larger than life at an accelerating pace, covering themselves in a quasi-religious veneer whose image of the president as messiah, promoted at both political conventions and in official iconography and ceremony, clumsily reveals the regime’s blasphemous spiritual aspirations. As Rockwell observes, "For all the browbeating that Richard Nixon took as president, and the humiliation of his resignation, the testimonials and tribute at his funeral spoke of a man who had ascended to godlike status, like some Roman emperor. Even with all of Clinton’s troubles [Rockwell wrote this essay in 1996], I have no doubt that he would be treated the same way." Even cabinet appointees enjoy the fruits of this sanctification process; Rockwell reminds us of Ron Brown, who upon his death in a plane crash "ascended to godhood status despite the fact that his legal troubles were on their way to sweeping him into jail."

To whom should we look in American history for the antidote to our present situation? Our court historians, who can so often be counted on to obscure important questions and manufacture dubious ideological lineages (Arthur Schlesinger’s portrayal of the Jacksonians as proto-New Dealers was particularly rich), have predictably but falsely associated Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s Treasury Secretary, with "capitalism," and Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State, with (incredibly) wealth redistribution and the Department of Education. In fact, Hamilton’s state capitalism was a system of subsidies, special privilege, central banking (why is it so difficult for liberal academics to understand that central banking, established by act of Congress, is not a market institution?), tariffs and internal taxation. Jefferson, on the contrary, favored the most minimal taxation, free trade, free banking, and local self-government.

It is this Jeffersonian tradition and its Southern lineage of John Taylor of Caroline, John Randolph of Roanoke, and John C. Calhoun that Rockwell points to as a philosophical pedigree to which friends of liberty could repair. None of these men would have had anything but contempt for the idea that the people should look superstitiously to the central government to care for them, educate their children, and make the world safe for democracy. Ours was a decentralized republic whose constituent parts were the self-governing states. It was in that spirit that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens observed after the war:

If centralism is ultimately to prevail; if our entire system of free Institutions as established by our common ancestors is to be subverted, and an Empire is to be established in their stead; if that is to be the last scene of the great tragic drama now being enacted: then, be assured, that we of the South will be acquitted, not only in our own consciences, but in the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all guilt of so great a crime against humanity.

Likewise, toward the end of 1866 Robert E. Lee spoke prophetically about the consequences of political centralization and the destruction of American federalism. In a letter to Lord Acton, he explained that he considered

the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it. I need not refer one so well acquainted as you are with American history, to the State papers of Washington and Jefferson, the representatives of the federal and democratic parties, denouncing consolidation and centralization of power, as tending to the subversion of State Governments, and to despotism.

Aggressive abroad and despotic at home — General Lee didn’t know the half of it. Our entire political establishment is united in despising George Washington’s noninterventionist advice in his famous Farewell Address. (Hillary Clinton, remember, was a big supporter of the Iraq war, even defending the faulty intelligence long after most war enthusiasts had stopped going through the motions of pretending a case could be made for it.) Yet thanks to the Internet there has been at least some debate on the subject, even if the two parties insist on being carbon copies of each other on this as everything else. Rockwell’s website, LewRockwell.com (updated daily), offers commentary on the whole gamut of issues of interest to supporters of the old republic, and has featured some of the best antiwar writing by people whose right-wing credentials are rather more impressive than those of the neoconservatives (who are more neo than conservative) who clamored for the war.

On his site and in Speaking of Liberty, Rockwell is also unafraid to take on aspects of American society that respectable opinion considers to be essentially off the table, like antidiscrimination legislation (the real reason that affirmative action exists) and the Federal Reserve System. There are probably more crank theories out there on money than on any other economic topic. In Speaking of Liberty, Rockwell explains all you need to know about the Fed, an institution that not one in 100 Americans understands — and the powers that be seem quite content to leave it that way. Good thing for them, too, since if most Americans possessed the information that Rockwell here imparts to them — particularly that the Fed, supposedly the great inflation fighter, is itself the cause of inflation — the mystical aura surrounding the Fed Chairman, already dissipating under the strain of the weak economy, would disappear forever. Rockwell also explains the Austrian theory of the business cycle, one of the greatest contributions of the so-called Austrian School of economics, which explains how the central bank’s manipulation of the interest rate causes the boom-bust cycle in modern economies. You’ll know more than anyone you know, and anyone you’re likely to meet, if you read just the chapters on these subjects.

We’re often at a loss as to what to give our curious friends to read to make them see things as we do. This is one of the few books that fit the bill. Pick an essay you like and have your friend read it. He’ll probably wind up reading more than one, and possibly even the whole book. Rockwell has a unique ability to make non-mainstream political views — i.e., ours — sound like plain common sense, and his writing style is compelling, enjoyable, and easy to understand.

In the little automaton factories to which some Americans still entrust their children, students are taught to treat politicians and government officials with the utmost reverence. Rockwell’s book smashes this moral presumption in favor of government. The central government has squandered Americans’ wealth, wrecked their communities, robbed them of their self-government, and embroiled them in wars that handsomely benefit the state apparatus but have nothing to do with the well-being and security of the American people. (Of course, the architects of these wars are always happy to have the "patriotic" support of Americans who are too bamboozled by propaganda to know any better.) The entire political class, with the occasional noble exception of a Ron Paul (R-TX), should be treated with the jeering contempt it deserves.

Forget going after government armed with public-policy studies showing that federal farm policy has been an expensive boondoggle or that federal poverty policy has only entrenched social pathologies that have rendered our cities unlivable. True and valuable as these statements are, they do not penetrate to the fundamental immorality of a system that is based on fleecing ordinary citizens in order to bestow special privileges on sectors of the population that did nothing to earn them.

Rothbard used to write articles about, say, federal agriculture policy, pointing out how counterproductive and idiotic it was. But he found that the average person was much more moved if it were explained to him this way: this supposedly "failed" government program hasn’t failed at all. It has done just what its architects wanted it to do: it enriched well-connected big farmers as well as a huge class of bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture. These people, Rothbard would explain, are ripping us off. Here was Rothbard the populist, mercilessly smashing the benevolent façade of government. Rockwell carries on this tradition with all the verve and persuasiveness of the master.

Rather than agitating for this or that reform, the entire system must be demystified and delegitimized. Superstitious reverence for Washington, D.C., must yield to the conviction that society, like the market itself, can order its affairs without the central direction of an imperial capital. Property owners, families, voluntary organizations, churches — in other words, all the institutions that the central state consistently seeks to marginalize or displace — can maintain a livable and decent social order far better than the would-be central planners of left and right. If you read this book you’ll discover a way of thinking about the world that you won’t hear about on MSNBC or Fox News. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good endorsement.

This article is reprinted with permission from Southern Partisan magazine, Vol. 24, No. 1. For more information or to subscribe, phone 1-800-264-2559.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia) and the forthcoming The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lexington). The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times (and LRC) bestseller, is his most recent book.

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