Are Conservatives Crazy?

Here is a book review of no particular book but rather a class of books that has been the ruling genre in conservative nonfiction for fifty years. Actually, we can include blogs too, since thousands upon thousands partake of the same error.

This critique applies to nearly every tract written from the right: from Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative to the latest publishing venture of the talk show wing nut to the statement of principles of the local College Republican club.

Here is the argument, in reduced form:

On domestic policy, the government is the enemy. We need to scale back government spending and regulations that tie up business in red tape. The public schools are failing and need an injection of competition. Too many welfare programs are out of control. Taxes are too high and too complex. Politicians and bureaucrats shouldn’t run our lives, lest liberty be lost. Let’s return to our founding principles and return government to the people.

On foreign policy, we are surrounded on all sides by enemies. Dangers lurk everywhere. We need to strike them before they strike us. We must not shirk our responsibilities to ourselves and the world. We need not fear the use of power, even war, even relentless global war. We cannot cut our defenses. Our allies need us. We need not listen to the cowards who would recoil from this struggle against evil because freedom isn’t free. If anything, we need to beef up military spending.

Do you see the contradiction? Apparently it is not obvious to thousands of writers, activists, and thinkers, and not just today but dating back for decades. The problem is this: in the first paragraph, the government is rightly presumed to be the coercive enemy that takes from the people and saps their productivity. It cannot perform tasks as efficiently as property owners. It hurts rather than helps. Government does not know best. Our choice is government or liberty.

All that is fine as far as it goes. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysis is entirely reversed. The presumption that the American people and the government are unified is integral to the analysis, as summed up in the plural pronouns “our” and “we,” as if the people have direct control over the foreign-policy decisions of the political leadership.

Whereas the government is considered to be bubble-headed and ham-handed in domestic policy, in matters of foreign policy the government is suddenly imbued with virtuous traits such as courage. Taxes, in this case, are not a burden but the price we pay for civilization. The largest and most violent government program of all — namely war — is not an imposition with unintended consequences but an essential and praiseworthy effort at protection.

I don’t mean to pick on the right exclusively. The left often offers the inverse of this recommendation. They believe that the government can’t but unleash Hell when it is waging war and spending on military machinery. But when it comes to domestic policy, they believe the same government can cure the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach the unlearned, and bring hope and happiness to all.

Each side presumes that it potentially enjoys full control over the government it instructs to do this thing as versus that thing. What happens in real life, of course, is that the public sector — always and everywhere seeking more power — responds to the demands of both by granting each party’s positive agenda while eschewing its negative one. Thus is the left given its welfare, and the right given its warfare, and we end up with a state that grows ever more vast and intrusive at home and abroad.

What neither side understands is that the critique they offer of the programs they do not like applies also to the programs they do like. The same state that robs you and me, ties business in knots, and wrecks the schools also does the same — and worse — to countries that the US government invades. From the point of view of the taxed, the destination of the money doesn’t matter; it is all taken by coercion and all of it saps the productive capacity of society. Similarly, the state that uses military power to impose its imperial will on foreign regimes — destroying property and lives, and making endless enemies — is the one the left proposes to put in charge of our economic lives.

It is impossible to make sense of the contradictions, particularly in the American political context, where the rise of American military power parallels the rise of big government at home. This is true from the Civil War to the present. These two parts of the state grow together. (Understand that this critique is not the usual libertarian rendering that you hear in the media that we supposedly agree with the right on economic policy and the left on social policy; there are too many problems with that apparatus to go into here, but suffice it to say that it leaves foreign policy completely out of the picture.)

Now it is perfectly true that history and present reality provide many examples of government that are invasive internally but not externally. Sweden, Canada, Italy, and a hundred other nation-states have huge welfare states but no noticeable international military presence. However: many of the world’s welfare states were actually imposed by military conquest (e.g., Japan after WW2). Also, the left would do well to observe that the best guard against a warmongering state is a state that is powerless in all aspects of life.

What makes no sense at all — conceptually, historically, or politically — is the rightwing view that the state should be expansionist and imperialist abroad but do nothing at home beyond the limits set forth in the constitution or the political writings of the founding generation. It is undeniable that the warfare state will not restrict itself to harming and bullying foreign peoples. It always and everywhere does the same to the domestic population. It occupies us, attacks our property, ferrets out political enemies, and wages low-intensity warfare against us.

The suggestion of conservatives that the government engage in all-out war on the world but otherwise leave people free to manage their own affairs is completely absurd in every way. It is akin to the demand that one’s left leg march in one direction and the right leg march in the other direction. If we know how the human body works, we know that this suggestion is ridiculous. So too, if we know how government works, we know that a state that is expansionist abroad will never let well enough alone at home.

Back to the leg analogy. The person who is told to march in two separate directions faces a dilemma. He cannot do both at once so he must evaluate the priorities of the instructor. He must discern what is the most important course. For American conservatives, this choice is obviously clear: so important is their foreign-policy agenda to their overall worldview that they are willing to live with leviathan at home for the duration.

One way we can discern this is the utter non-negotiability of the interventionist position. That the United States must wage war is surely the one point that unites the American right. To be sure, it wasn’t always so: before the early 1950s and immediately after the end of the Cold War, some intellectuals on the right began to see that empire and liberty are incompatible.

But these were brief periods. For the most part, the political tracts of today live with the same contradictions that stained them in the 1980s and before. All the neoconservatives contributed in the 1970s and 1980s was an embrace of the welfare state that had been previously rejected on the right; otherwise their foreign policy position was largely the same as that pushed by the National Review crowd since the 1950s. What’s more, the end of the Cold War changed nothing.

Whereas the fear of Communism was the great reason for expansionism and the delay of liberty back then, now there is a new enemy — radical Islam and its terrorism — that must be beaten into submission.

In all this, conservatives have two brains. One sees the government as a menace, something stupid, inefficient, brutal, isolated from real life, and the enemy of liberty. The other sees government as smart, wise, and all-knowing, a friend to all, in touch with life around the planet, and the friend to liberty everywhere. How these two brains are integrated is never explained. But the truth is that the Jeffersonian-Misesian-Hayekian-Rothbardian critique of the state applies in both cases. You either embrace it or you don’t. As Harry Browne said: “The government that’s strong enough to give you what you want is strong enough to destroy you.”

In this sense, President Bush at least has consistency on his side. He has expanded both the domestic and international leviathan more substantially than any president since Lyndon Johnson, who was also consistent in this respect. Their love of the state began differently, but it has ended in the same support of the welfare-warfare state. And it is those who would keep the foreign-policy circuses but decry the domestic-policy bread who need to have their heads examined.

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