Who's Conservative?

Jeff Tucker recently stated what we’ve long realized: there is something profoundly wrong with what passes for conservatism today. Entirely ignorant of the conservative intellectual tradition, many self-described conservatives sound more like Woodrow Wilson or Leon Trotsky than Edmund Burke. Unlike Jeff, though, I’m not ready just yet to give up on the word conservative. Leftists have taken enough of our words away.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, for instance, who hates being told he’s not a genuine conservative (even though nothing could be more obvious), offers this justification for war with Iraq: "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense." Elsewhere, he writes: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business."

If you’re wondering if these are the words of a conservative, try to imagine Russell Kirk uttering them.

But it is the various forms of Wilsonianism, uttered apparently in all seriousness, that most decisively disqualify neoconservatism from any place within the conservative intellectual tradition. When writing for Internet outlets, I inevitably receive a few emails from people who condemn me for not wanting to bring democracy to Iraq, and/or to "liberate" the Iraqi people. One man actually told me that if I weren’t a "liberal" I would be more eager to liberate this oppressed people. Such an ignorant remark impugns the decency of every early American patriot, who to a man believed in what would today be called an America First foreign policy, but this does nothing to stop a belligerent minority from uttering it.

It says a great deal about the state of conservative thought in America that any of this nonsense could actually be confused with genuine conservatism. To the contrary, this kind of messianic ideology, whereby there exists some moral obligation to spread democracy and to "free" the various unfree peoples of the world, is precisely what the great conservative Edmund Burke meant when he spoke of the "armed doctrines" of the French Revolution. Mesmerized by the universalisms of the Enlightenment, the Jacobins were ready to spread revolution throughout Europe — for why should only the French enjoy the blessings of liberty?

Burke is often referred to as the father of modern conservatism. It hardly requires much imagination to figure out what he would think of the neoconservatives’ imperial program of global democracy. To appreciate Burke’s arguments, though, one would have to shut off Rush Limbaugh and learn about conservative thought by reading actual books.

Let us assume that modern democracy is the best form of government — a debatable proposition, to say the least — and let us also assume that the War Party is being sincere in their professed desire to bring democracy to Iraq. Let us also assume that the Iraqis will eventually reconcile themselves to being invaded by American and "coalition" forces, and won’t engage in sabotage against the U.S.-installed regime. Let’s even assume that the U.S. will support a democracy in Iraq even when it becomes obvious, as it should be already, that free elections will of course yield an anti-American government. Let’s assume all of this.

There are still problems. First of all, majoritarian democracy is just about the worst arrangement for a place like Iraq. Although followers of the War Party tend to be more familiar with the conservatism of Sean Hannity than that of John C. Calhoun, whom they’ve never read, it is Calhoun whose wisdom is especially valuable here. Calhoun warned that majority rule, which can be justified only on the basis of convention and utility rather than on any strictly moral foundation, can work only in places where there exists a basic commonality of interests among the people. Otherwise, majority rule becomes just another form of tyranny, as interest groups with mutually exclusive goals use their electoral strength to oppress each other.

This is why Calhoun believed in the concurrent majority. He believed that distinct groups should be able to resist the oppression of electoral majorities. He appealed to ancient examples of such arrangements, in which measures did not pass unless they had the approval of majorities in each group, rather than simply requiring a majority of the entire people taken in the aggregate.

If someone wanted to establish a democracy in Iraq, surely Calhoun’s principle of the concurrent majority is the model to be followed. The Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shi’ites would be at each other’s throats under any other arrangement (and possibly even under this one as well). Naturally, of course, our global democrats consider Calhoun to be unacceptably reactionary, and insist on the French revolutionary model of political organization: a single aggregated people in whose name the government operates.

Yet this is almost nit-picking. The real difficulty with neoconservative ideology is the alleged imperative to spread democracy in the first place.

It is essential to note, first of all, that a conservative recognizes a hierarchy of concerns: I owe my children, my neighbors, and my co-religionists much more than I owe anyone in Iraq or anywhere else. Cicero, like so many figures in our classical past, held that "the union and fellowship of men will be best preserved if each receives from us the more kindness in proportion as he is more closely connected with us." Holy Scripture confirms the wisdom of the ancients, instructing us that "if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. 5:8).

The calling of the monk or missionary to serve distant peoples is often confused with a general Christian obligation to have equal concern for every individual in the world, and might be cited by globalists in support of their call for ceaseless wars of "liberation." But no such general obligation exists. For one thing, what the missionary does in leaving family and friends behind is known in theology as a supererogatory work. It is not an instruction binding upon the great mass of mankind. In fact, it would be positively harmful and disruptive if every Christian devoted himself to works of supererogation. Thus, for example, when in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries some of the stricter Franciscans insisted that their lives of absolute poverty must be binding upon anyone who wished to call himself Catholic, the popes absolutely denied this universal obligation at the same time that they praised it among those whom God had called to adopt it. Likewise, when socialists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to appeal to the common property of certain early Christian communities as a biblical mandate for communism, Catholic moral theologians were unanimous in responding that disorder and chaos would result if works of supererogation — expressly intended only for the few — were transformed into binding legal and social norms.

St. Thomas Aquinas had this to say in support of patriotism and against the suggestion that all people everywhere have an equal claim on our sympathy and assistance: "Our parents and our country are the sources of our being and education. It is they that have given us birth and nurtured us in our infant years. Consequently, after his duties toward God, man owes most to his parents and his country. One’s duties towards one’s parents include one’s obligations towards relatives, because these latter have sprung from [or are connected by ties of blood with] one’s parents…and the services due to one’s country have for their object all one’s fellow-countrymen and all the friends of one’s fatherland." Elsewhere St. Thomas remarked that "people’s charitable activities towards one another are to be exercised in accordance with the varying nature of the ties that unite them. For to each one must be given the service which belongs to the special nature of his connection with him that owes it."

Over 100 years ago, Fr. F. X. Godts spoke of those who "take the name of u2018Internationalists,’ boasting that they have no country and no fellow-countrymen." "Their unholy doctrine," he concluded, "is as much opposed to nature as it is to religion."

Fr. Edward Cahill, S.J., echoing Cicero, explained in The Framework of a Christian State (1932) that "obligations of piety extend in due proportion, directly or indirectly, to parents, relatives, fellow-countrymen, and to all persons closely connected with these." He went on:

"Hence, when St. Paul says that in the Church u2018there is neither Gentile nor Jew…Barbarian or Scythian, bond or free, but Christ, all in all’…he does not imply that the Church wishes to abolish or ignore the natural ties which bind individuals to their own country, no more than she would wish to abolish family ties or distinction of sex, or even reasonable distinctions of class, all of which are necessary for the good of the human race. He means rather, that just as the Church, while consecrating and upholding domestic ties and obligations, nevertheless, receives equally into her fold the members of every family, so also she receives and cherishes impartially the citizens of all nations, for all are equally dear to her Founder"

Although I am no admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, having written a chapter-long critique of his presidential tenure, he was obviously correct, if a bit colorful, when he observed that "the man who loves other countries as much as his own stands on a level with the man who loves other women as much as he loves his own wife."

It is the Stoics of ancient Rome with whom the idea of world citizenship has been historically associated, but the idea was given still greater impetus much more recently by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment tended to encourage the idea that the ideal man was a citizen of the world, his affections not limited by the merely immediate. In his book The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, Professor Louis Bredvold, speaking about William Godwin, noted that he "absolves man from all ties of attachment to individuals so that he may devote himself to the pursuit of universal benevolence." That is quite a perceptive summary of the temper of the Enlightenment: a denigration of the natural obligations that a man incurs by virtue of being a father, husband, and friend in favor of the obligation he is now said to owe without discrimination to the entire human race. Thus, for example, when John Lennon lectured the world on peace and brotherhood even though in his own life he went years without seeing his son from his first marriage, he was only one in a long series of universalist humanitarians dating back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century political thinker who was all broken up at the news of the suffering caused by the earthquake in Lisbon, but who placed all five of his own children in a foundling asylum, thereby condemning them to lives of hard labor and misery.

South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne, a genuine conservative, elaborated on this point in his famous 1830 debate with Daniel Webster. He spoke of those who exercised what he called "false philanthropy":

Their first principle of action is to leave their own affairs, and neglect their own duties, to regulate the affairs and the duties of others. Theirs is the task to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, of other lands, whilst they thrust the naked, famished, and shivering beggar from their own doors; to instruct the heathen, while their own children want the bread of life. When this spirit infuses itself into the bosom of a statesman (if one so possessed can be called a statesman), it converts him at once into a visionary enthusiast. Then it is that he indulges in golden dreams of national greatness and prosperity. He discovers that "liberty is power"; and not content with vast schemes of improvement at home, which it would bankrupt the treasury of the world to execute, he flies to foreign lands, to fulfill obligations to "the human race," by inculcating the principles of "political and religious liberty," and promoting the "general welfare" of the whole human race.

Hayne’s description of false philanthropy eerily anticipates the views of Woodrow Wilson, the American president who to any serious conservative was the Great Satan of twentieth-century American history. Wilson was eager to involve the United States in World War I, one of the worst conflagrations in human history, despite there having been no obvious American interest at stake. Oh, the president tried his best to trump some up, of course. But they generally made no sense. To paraphrase historian Ralph Raico, Wilson insisted that every American had the right, in time of war, to travel aboard armed, belligerent merchant ships carrying munitions of war through declared submarine zones. No other professed neutral had ever dared put forth such a doctrine, let alone gone to war over it.

Wilson’s mind was elsewhere: he was looking ahead to the peace settlement, at which he believed a genuinely disinterested United States would be able to forge a just and lasting peace. More importantly, under American leadership a League of Nations would be established to provide collective security against aggression. To those who protested that national sovereignty might be compromised by the kind of supranational organization that he proposed, Wilson replied that a time would come "when men would be just as eager partisans of the sovereignty of mankind as they were now of their own national sovereignty."

This is a recipe for endless warfare and ceaseless strife. Moreover, military intervention is always an uncertain undertaking, fraught with danger and unforeseen consequences, such that the genuine statesman of conservative inclinations determines upon it only after the most serious reflection and after the exhaustion of all alternatives. Woodrow Wilson truly and sincerely believed he would "make the world safe for democracy" by getting the U.S. into World War I even though he effectively admitted we had no national interests at stake. (He spoke of our "high, disinterested purpose.") The result was 120,000 dead Americans, 250,000 wounded, our government transformed (and not for the better) forever, and one of the most disastrous peace settlements in history, which gave rise to the Nazis less than a generation later.


As Professor Raico explains, "Instead of letting the European nations find their own way to a compromise peace, American power had swung the balance decisively in favor of Britain and France. Among the consequences was the fall of the Kaiser and the old Germany, which Wilson, believing his own propaganda, considered the epitome of evil." The catastrophe of Wilson’s policy becomes still clearer when we consider the testimony of George Kennan, writing just after World War II: "Today if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists — a vigorous Germany, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe, in many ways it would not sound so bad."

Isn’t that like saying that Wilson, in chasing after his visionary schemes, ultimately wasted all those American lives? I leave that to the reader to decide.

A conservative would never have entertained the saccharine expectations that Wilson appears to have had, or been so eager to sacrifice the sovereignty of his nation for the sake of an abstraction called "humanity." Leftists, not conservatives, deal in abstractions. Marx and Lenin wanted to save "humanity" — though, perhaps not coincidentally, they showed far less solicitude for the actual human beings they encountered. (There is no evidence that Marx, for all his braying about alleged mistreatment of workers, even once visited a factory.) Americans, historically, have been well wishers of freedom everywhere but defenders only of their own. That was the posture of Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and indeed all of our early statesmen. Federalist and Republican, Democrat and Whig agreed on a policy of America First. This is a sober, sensible, grown-up conservatism that is based on learning and solid thinking, rather than on MSNBC’s "Countdown: Iraq."

Senator Robert A. Taft, whom I recently had the privilege of profiling for a forthcoming encyclopedia, appreciated the prudent, limited, finite, and sensible foreign policy of American tradition, since it was so naturally appealing to the conservative instinct. Known in his day as "Mr. Republican," Taft explained in A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951): "No foreign policy can be justified except a policy devoted without reservation or diversion to the protection of the liberty of the American people, with war only as the last resort and only to preserve that liberty."

To those "who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world" and encourage our country to "assume a moral leadership in the world to solve all the troubles of mankind," Taft replied with the prudence and caution that are the conservative’s trademark. "I quite agree that we need that moral leadership not only abroad but also at home…. I think we can take leadership in providing of example and advice for the improvement of material standards of living throughout the world. Above all, I think we can take the leadership in proclaiming the doctrines of liberty and justice and in impressing on the world that only through liberty and law and justice, and not through socialism or communism, can the world hope to obtain the standards which we have attained in the United States."

It is simply not true that any moral obligation exists for those fortunate enough to live under politically stable regimes to spend their blood and treasure from now until the end of time to bring liberty to the peoples of the world. Harry Elmer Barnes used the apt phrase "perpetual war for perpetual peace." The relatively small number of livable places in the world would simply exhaust themselves in conflict and nation-building, and the constant warfare would doubtless have countless unpredictable consequences — as any government intervention has. Over two centuries ago, Charles Pinckney held out the more modest goals for which republican governments should strive: "If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt, and preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them — it is more than almost any other government ensures to its citizens."

Even if perpetual wars to install what would inevitably be perceived as alien regimes were in fact desirable, the fact remains that nations, even our own, possess finite resources. Even before adding the cost of invading Iraq, we are presently facing deficits in the $400+ billion range (when federal accounting tricks are taken into account). That also doesn’t include the projected $100 billion to $200 billion that respectable sources say the postwar occupation of Iraq is likely to cost. How many such operations can we afford before we bankrupt our own country once and for all? Anyone responding that the spread of democracy is more important than dollars and cents has simply taken leave of his senses, taking up residence in the Never Never Land of liberalism where there are no constraints and anything is possible if you simply wish hard enough.

In the nineteenth century, Henry Clay, explaining why America had contributed neither arms nor funds to the Hungarian cause for which there was so much American sympathy, raised this very point:

By the policy to which we have adhered since the days of Washington…we have done more for the cause of liberty in the world than arms could effect; we have shown to other nations the way to greatness and happiness…. Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary, and the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our pacific system and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore, as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and falling republics in Europe.

Likewise, William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, declared: "The American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference." In 1821, John Quincy Adams declared most famously of all that America "has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings…. She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

There is the prudence and perspective of the conservative. No conservative, whose hallmark is a disposition toward stability, would risk his own country’s well being, both financial and moral, in a ceaseless crusade of visionary schemes. A real sense of history, as well as an appreciation of what is possible in this fallen world, should sober us up from the utopian fantasies of liberalism. Great American statesmen of the past understood this: we can be an example to the world, but beyond that we dare not go. No mother should ever have to be told that her sons died trying to straighten out the political situation in Nigeria. As Lord Byron said, "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow."