The Old Right Was Right

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