The death of Ronald Reagan provides an opportunity to reflect on the conservative movement at a time when principled conservatism means to conserve the foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson and the domestic policies of Lyndon Baines Johnson. This, sadly, reflects the state of conservatism in the Age of George W. Bush.
But it was not always thus. Back in the 1980s, the heyday of what author Steven F. Hayward called the Age of Reagan, mass conservatism meant opposition to communism abroad and to big government at home. Conservatives seemed to accept the idea that fighting the former required embracing the latter, although a few honest ones admitted that the process required that they hold their noses. That is why Reagan could propose budgets with what were then record deficits and, contrary to his rhetoric, expand the size and scope of the State.
It was much later in the 1990s that a light bulb went off in my dense head — a light bulb that probably illuminated Murray Rothbard when he was in the womb — that this strategy was self-defeating, because by fighting Leviathans abroad we had created one at home. Rothbard referred to the process when he noted that the warfare and welfare states are one and the same, and that you can’t feed the former without feeding the latter.
Feeding either requires a serious departure from constitutional strictures on the separation of powers — a process that began in earnest with the rise of Reagan’s beloved Republican Party in the latter half of the 19th century and was soon joined by the Democratic Party during the height of the Progressive Era.
Perhaps the high water mark of this departure in the U.S. can be traced to the months leading up to World War II, when the Roosevelt Administration was trying frantically to push the U.S. into the war in Europe — a war that was all but over in 1940 after the Nazis lost the Battle of Britain. It was a few months later, in April 1941, when arch-New Dealer Harry Hopkins wrote an essay with the brash title "The New Deal of Mr. Roosevelt is the Designate and Invincible Adversary of the New Order of Hitler."
Hopkins and the New Dealers embraced the possibility of war in the crassest of terms — as an instrument necessary to revive their discredited and demoralized ranks. Hopkins tried to rally them to support war mobilization, oppose the widely popular America First movement, and extend the New Deal to the rest of the world. To paraphrase Randolph Bourne, war would be the health of the New Deal.
Hopkins urged a fight with Nazi Germany at a time when many on both sides of the Atlantic believed that that country’s national socialist experiment had, like the New Deal, run its course. But Hopkins provided a curious strategy for victory over fascism abroad: America must adopt fascism at home. So he argued that democracy "must wage total war against totalitarian war. It must exceed the Nazi in fury, ruthlessness and efficiency."
The theme of becoming your enemy in order to defeat him continued eight years (and two wars) later when a craven William F. Buckley called for the creation of "a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores" to fight communism in Commonweal magazine (January 5, 1952). Buckley added that "if [Americans] deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington." In other words, to fight the Soviets, the U.S. must become like them.
It was the Hopkins argument redux. Needless to say, neither Hopkins nor Buckley could be described as people with an abundance of faith in republican institutions. But it was an argument that came to define conservatism during the Cold War, and it clearly influenced Reagan, whose anticommunist credentials defined his political life and whose "peace through strength" doctrine helped him win the White House. Ideas really do have consequences.
But a funny thing happened along Reagan’s path to that shining city on a hill. The Cold War ended, but the vast nation state that was created to supposedly defend that shining city became its greatest threat. As a result, today the federal government often seems as entrenched and as encompassing as did the Soviet state — a gigantic, wasteful, divisive, and warmongering edifice that had become a joke from around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall but which has been resurgent following that fateful day in September 2001.
It is run today by conservatives, and if they are to run it successfully, then conservatism can never imply small government. As a result, in this first decade of the 21st century, conservatism apparently means support for preemptive wars too important to risk asking Congress to declare (effectively transforming the armed forces into the sitting president’s private army), accompanied by the advancement of a Republican welfare state at home that grows at a faster rate than the Great Society. While at one time conservatives at least paid lip service to the idea of abolishing the Department of Education, today they expand it with ominous sounding programs such as No Child Left Behind. While at one time conservatives bemoaned the destruction of the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution, today they celebrate a federal definition of marriage. While at one time conservatives were united against the Clinton Administration’s brazen attempt to impose Canadian-style medical socialism, today they implement the same policies piecemeal.
Buckley’s counsel — that the U.S. must become like Soviets — may not seem like it was such a good idea today. By adopting the policies and rhetoric of Cold War anticommunism, and the deification of the central State that this required, Reagan helped bring this about.
The irony is that Reagan was the first United States president since the 1920s to show any appreciation for or understanding of the Old Right. He was a former economics major before Keynes who read The Freeman and quoted Bastiat. He derived much of his popular appeal from his willingness to joke about the federal State. He should have known better.
But then again, he would probably never have been invited to the national stage had he not adopted arguments that were originally made by Hopkins and Buckley. If this is so, then the Great Communicator should also be known as the Great Compromiser, and for this we pay a price today, when the specter of international terrorism offers to embolden the State in the same way that National Socialism and communism did in the past. No wonder a massive federal building and airport in Washington — symbols of the bloated government that was so often the target of his rhetoric — have been named after him. No wonder he is so often compared to FDR.
Reagan’s smile provided a happy face to the federal government of the 1980s — a smile the bankrupt neoconservatives and left-liberals of today dearly wish to extend to our time. This is why his legacy is being extolled today. It is up to the paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians — members of the ascending Old Right — to take up Reagan’s anti-government cudgels and use them against those who would consolidate and centralize power today. It is the least we should do.
In today’s political environment, this would mean using Reagan’s words against many of the Republicans in power. May he rest in peace.