One of the virtues of the old conservative movement was its sense of limits. This sense is fast disappearing among neo-conservative ranks, almost as fast as support for laissez-faire is amongst conservatives. Evidently, the old is making way for the young, an inevitable transition. What is worrisome, though, is what is being lost along the way as the guard changes.
The old modern conservatives continually complained about how they were shut out; this is true. These complaints, though, were explicitly or implicitly held up as exemplifying the dangerousness of putting too much power in the hands of the State. The careful reader of conservative apologetics written at the time when William F. Buckley was my age (36) will pick up a political seriousness that was not confined to intellectual matters. The now-Old Right still remembered what State power, even power which seems to benefit, can turn into when the wind shifts the other way, or when the wind had reaped the whirlwind. The chief character flaws of liberals, according to them, was not decadence or libertinism, but arrogance and present-centeredness. The conservative doctrine that human beings have limits, ones which they find easy to ignore, was linked tightly, if sometimes subtly, to conservative criticism of statists’ arrogance. The scary aspect of present-day neo-conservatism is the breaking of this link. It seems that the neo-conservative only remembers one thing about the life path of the old boys of the conservative movement: that some of them were put through hell thanks to big-government liberals.
It is admirable, in a way, to see a continuity of loyalty between old conservatives and young neo-conservatives. As Republican activists, the young ‘uns do their granddaddies proud. What is disturbing about their loyalty, though, is that it has become infected with the same kind of statist arrogance that their grandparents-in-spirit were warning about. As the neo-conservative movement has grown, the Buckleyite emphasis on tying conservative tracts to intellectual seriousness has transmogrified into "just put into play whatever’ll git the bastids. And don’t hit your own." Consequently, we now have a new breed on K Street: conservative statists, showing the same kind of arrogance that the 1960s liberals used to. Had these youngbloods not had the help of better economists than the old liberals had, their own adventurism would have gotten them in the same kind of trouble that the "Big Johnsons" got themselves, and the American economy, into. Since the neo-conservatives have learned their economics well, though, they do lack this particular blind spot. Their own weakness is for war.
I know through experience that it is hard to come to terms with a definite weak point in an area that you have a strength in. In my own case, I have a weak point in math, whose source is my insufficiently paying attention to the referents of equations when back in school. Once I was set straight with regard to answering questions step-by-step in grade nine, I did fall into exam-passing-machine mode, which has left a weak point which still dogs me today. I had learned to answer instead of to think carefully, and now I have to live with the consequence of that earlier stretch of lackadaisicalness. Fortunately, I am not a government official, so I have no intrinsic incentive to get stubborn when I’m wrong. I also have no fear of impugning the majesty of the State blocking or hobbling me from setting things right: I don’t have to mix any such effort up with the need for a photo op. The absence of the same two strictures would have applied had I been a professional mathematician in a private school or academy, and had had a different weak point, but not in a government-run one. As a member of the last kind of institution, I would have had to show a bit of stubborn because government always puts its own authority first. Every government official, or employee, knows that keeping the State strong is always Job One; the consequent effect on the citizenry is Job Two.
The same principle would apply had I had an overall talent for armchair generaling. Had I come up with today’s answer to the von Schlieffen Plan and missed something that a professional soldier would spot instantly, I’d be obliged to undertake the same self-assessment. It would be my responsibility to determine the cause, whether it be youthful lackadaisicalness coming back to haunt me or more immediate arrogance on my part, or a combination of the two. Had I been a government official in the State Department or in the Defense Department, though, I would be doing nothing of the sort unless I was told to. I would have the prime duty of making sure the department didn’t lose its effectiveness, and another, more political, duty to make sure whatever party I didn’t belong to didn’t find out. Both duties would impel me to be stubborn and silent (or evasive), to be a classic "dumb bureaucrat."
The above think-through should make clear why "the worst get on top" in the State. It certainly makes clear why the worst, or the most mediocre, stay on top. It also points out why the division-of-powers principle is not as protective as it seems, and consequently why it makes sense to speak of "the State" as a single entity. What official, from any branch (or level) of government, would take the risk of telling the people about mistakes made by government except in the comparatively rare instance of the other party, or the mainstream media, treating him or her as a hero for doing so? None who have any realistic expectation of lasting long in their job.
It is unsurprising, therefore, to see the current doleful outcome of the present Iraqi war being chalked up to either inaccurate and therefore bad press or poltroonery in the face of peace creeps, or both. Since the hard-core neo-conservative would be deaf to any lesson, no matter how logical or sensible, which used the current war as a tale of woe, the point can best be illustrated through the use of a suggestion from the pundit Spengler. His most recent column contains an insightful suggestion for a future war with Iran: America should deliberately trigger the use of the "oil weapon," suffer through six-dollar-a-gallon gas, and show the entire Middle East that the oil weapon doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. This turn-into-the-skid tactic would make a lot of the aggressiveness towards the United States in the Middle East go away, even if the underlying hostility to America would only be hidden but still present.
Militarily, there’s a lot to be said for this idea. If a hostile region’s Big Bazooka can be shown to be as ineffective as a BB Gun would be, then they will end up desisting from aggressive action for a long time. In addition, one major fear of widening America’s military actions in the Middle East would melt away, making the case for peace less credible to the typical voter. There would also be a political benefit, too, for the neo-conservative with a war thirst: it would make the environmentalists, publicly, look and act like either pinkos or flapdoodles, or both. What pumped-up neo-conservatives would not delight in belting out "how do like your six-dollar-a-gallon gas now, u2018trail mix’?" to any green they came upon if a "righteous" war was the cause of it?
In addition, there is an indirect consequence that could be described, lyrically, as pro-business. The American public, finally getting fed up to the teeth with high gas prices, roar into Capitol Hill, demanding energy independence through reduction of drilling restrictions. The legislators quake. Alaska and the ocean shoals open up. Drills finally get sent. Cheap oil flows. The greens are obliterated. What Rosier Scenario could a neo-conservative think of?
Sending the Greens back to the Jimmy Carter peanut farm may seem worth chortling over, but consider what’s been lost in the excitement. First and foremost, the United States will have a major war on its hands. Secondly, getting American citizens used to "sacrifice for their country" again will lend added credence to the calls for the restoration of conscription. Thirdly, any civil libertarian who has called attention to the diminishing respect for individual rights that have been respected in the English-speaking countries since Magna Carta will be cast aside as yet another breed of traitor. Fourthly, one or more of those same civil libertarians may very well be one or more of the economists who kept George Bush, Jr. from becoming Lyndon Johnson, Jr. Fifthly…
…an eventual change in the governing party is inevitable. Let’s assume that Hillary gets whooped back to Arkansas and the Republicans just keep on winning, for a long time to come. Let’s further assume that the next Democratic President coming America’s way will be Ted Kennedy, Jr., and it takes place in 2024. All Republican, all the time, until then.
What Presidential powers would Teddy Junior have at his disposal?
What use would he make of signing statements? What civil liberties would he suspend? Whose civil liberties would he suspend? What if he smells war in the air and doesn’t bother to secure a Congressional declaration of war before deploying the troops, just as his uncle’s successor didn’t? What kind of side deals would he permit, or look the other way at, should such a war be undertaken? What if he saw the need to resurrect the draft? What if he saw an opportunity to resurrect a plan close to the heart of his uncle’s Secretary of Defense: using the draft for "national service," too? What if he saw the need for war propaganda in order to whip up the nation for a serious moral adventure, as six-dollar-a-gallon gas would? As far as the first three or four items are concerned, which President could he cite, in all seriousness, as the precedent setter for such actions?
It’s true that a power-hungry liberal would build volumes upon President Bush’s expansion of Executive power. The more that President Bush expands the Executive’s reach, though, the more of a base any such liberal will have to build upon — and the more "bipartisan" precedents he, or she, will have available to invoke.
Political equivalencing can only go so far before the resultant damage to liberty is lost in the scramble. Neo-conservatives may very well have a righteous grievance when they complain about liberal statists verbally tarring and feathering them as "Nazis," but the more substance there is to their case, the more it implies that those power-hungry liberals really mean it, still.
How would today’s crop of thirty-something neo-conservatives, once they reach retirement age, like to undertake the chore of explaining why the content for 2036’s answer to the good old National Review has to be smuggled out of Guantanamo Bay?…