Progressivism’s Vanquished Foe—Conservatism

Part 1 of 3

Note: This is an excerpt from Progressivism: A Primer on the Idea Destroying America (2014). 

After Progressivism replaced liberalism as America’s dominant ideology, liberals faded from the scene and, like the cheetah, almost went extinct.  From 1900 through 1960, as the saying goes, all the prominent liberals in America could have fit into Murray Rothbard’s living room.

Nature abhors a vacuum so conservatism stepped into the void left by the apparent death of liberalism.  Sandwiched in between progressive Republicans Taft and Hoover were two men who could be considered conservatives in the contemporary sense: Harding and Coolidge.  Harding did cut spending and Coolidge kept spending low in his brief tenure; however, neither rolled back the basic progressive tools of the modern welfare-warfare state, the income tax and the Federal Reserve.  They created no movement and had little if any lasting influence over American politics.  The next several GOP nominees and Presidents can safely be classified as progressives: Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, Eisenhower and Nixon. Progressivism: A Prime... James Ostrowski Best Price: $8.99 Buy New $10.95 (as of 08:30 UTC - Details)

Modern conservatism as a political force dates from 1964 when Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for President.  Goldwater’s losing but energetic campaign paved the way for the rise of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Thus, from 1964 through 1980, conservatism was the dominant force within the GOP and had the full attention of the American people.  In 1980, conservatives took power, capturing the White House and the Senate.  That began an era during which conservatives held actual political power in at least one branch of the federal government for 27 out of 33 years. Overall, we can calculate that conservatives have held center stage in American politics for fifty years.  Conservatives cannot complain that they never had a chance to make their case and never had control over the levers of power.

Let’s examine the conservative era more closely.  During this era, conservatives held the White House for at least sixteen years—Reagan, 1981-1988; Bush I, 1989-1992; Bush II, 2001-2008. I will concede that calling Bush I a conservative is a stretch but he at least had to pander to the conservative base of his party.

The Republicans held the Senate from 1981-1986; 1995-2000; part of 2001; and 2003-2006. The Republicans took the House in 1994 in a “revolution” that had conservative and libertarian elements.  While they restrained spending with a hostile Bill Clinton in the White House, they accomplished little to roll back big government.  They controlled the House until 2006 and then from 2011 to the present.

Ronald Reagan appointed four justices to the Supreme Court.  Bush I appointed two and Bush II added two more. The Court is now considered to have a 5-4 moderate conservative majority.

With all this raw political power, has conservatism been able to roll back the progressive state?  Quite the contrary.  The federal government is bigger and stronger than ever.

Under Reagan, federal spending increased faster than it did under Clinton and Obama![1]  LBJ’s Medicare program was expanded. The Veterans Administration was made a cabinet department and over 200,000 civilian employees were added to the payroll.[2]  The war on drugs, a classic progressive idea, was escalated and the drug czar’s office was created.  Reagan “saved” another classic progressive program, Social Security, by increasing the payroll tax.  Debt and inflation increased. Instead of cutting spending, Reagan raised taxes six times to pay for the insolvent progressive state built up by Wilson, FDR and Johnson.  The moderate conservative Bush I signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, an open-ended invitation for continual government growth in that area.

The “revolutionary” 1994 GOP Congress increased federal spending and taxes collected each year.  They eviscerated the ancient right of Englishmen and Americans―habeas corpusThey flunked the acid test of economic sanity―raising the minimum wage (mandatory unemployment law).  They also passed the Freedom to Farm Act (at taxpayers’ expense, that is).  Spending was relatively restrained in the mid-to-late 1990’s but that can be explained by the extremely hostile relationship with Bill Clinton.

The worst performance came under Bush II.  Under Bush, the GOP briefly held both branches of Congress and also had a sympathetic Supreme Court for the most part.  Spending increased under Bush II and he added a gigantic new welfare program, the so-called prescription drug benefit.  Bush II appointed Chief Judge Roberts who would later cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, one of the biggest progressive programs in the last 100 years.

Why did conservatism fail in its duel with the progressive state?  First, conservatism is an incoherent and ill-defined doctrine.  It is difficult to defeat a powerful and appealing set of ideas like progressivism with such a vague doctrine.  Who will go to the barricades for a mishmash?  Few, apparently.  Progressivism offers a simple and very satisfying panacea for all human ills.  Conservatism offers hostility to that simple solution without offering up an alternative vision.

Second, American conservatism is a reaction to progressivism as opposed to a positive doctrine itself.  It defines itself as an attempt to slow down progressivism.  As Mises argued, “conservatism is an empty program.  It is merely negative, rejecting any change.”  Mises also asked rhetorically, what do conservatives stand for?[3]  In the battle for public opinion between progressivism, which promises utopia on earth via the government and cost-free as well, and conservatives who said either “No” or “slow down,” it is no surprise that progressivism has defeated conservatism for decades and especially currently.  Similarly, Hayek argued correctly that conservatism:

“by its very nature . . . cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments.”[4]

Hayek identified other critical flaws of conservatism as an antagonist to progressivism.  Conservatives, he argues, are too willing to use government force to preserve authority and to impose moral values on others: “like the socialist, [the conservative] regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds on other people.” This explains for example why conservatives have willingly signed onto the “war on drugs” started by the progressives.  Hayek also notes that conservatives tend to be nationalists (entitled to place their nation’s interests over others), thus inclining them to statist policies such as protectionism and imperialism and war.[5]  Hayek aptly calls nationalism “the bridge from conservatism to collectivism.” Mises agrees:

“Economic nationalism, the necessary complement of domestic interventionism, hurts the interests of foreign peoples and thus creates international conflict. It suggests the idea of amending this unsatisfactory state of affairs by war. . . . Interventionism generates economic nationalism, and economic nationalism generates bellicosity. If men and commodities are prevented from crossing the borderlines, why should not the armies try to pave the way for them? . . . Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez-faire. It cannot be preserved under the ideology of government omnipotence. . . . The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war. [p. 831-2]”[6]

Third, as argued in Chapter 2, we are all progressives now.  Conservative and Republican politicians instinctively know this and therefore, even if they were so inclined, moving against the progressive state would be to risk their power and position.  Power and position are seductive things when weighed against a fuzzy ideology lacking a positive vision.

Fourth, however conservatism is defined, liberty is not its highest priority so in that sense it shares the basic premise of progressivism that government force, in some cases, can produce a better result than free individuals voluntarily cooperating in society.  The conservative thus faces the difficult task of explaining why government intervention is useless here but not there.  In practice, logrolling occurs.  To preserve the coercive aspect of their agenda, they have traded away the libertarian element to progressives in deals that enhanced whatever it is that the progressives wanted at that time.  For example, conservatives signed onto the welfare state lest they lose the power they needed to coerce morality and fight their global crusade against communism and terrorism.  Progressives, fearful of being seen as soft on communism, lose power and be unable to create the “Great Society,” decided to fight the communists in Vietnam. The reason Bush I reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge was to gain progressive support for the Gulf War. Bush II allowed domestic spending to rise as he was busy garnering support for his Asian land wars.

What was useful in conservatism’s battle with progressivism was the small and watered-down element of fiscal conservatism.  However, this presumptive support for liberty in fiscal matters was countervailed by a disregard of liberty in foreign policy and matters of personal freedom.

As the above examples illustrate, superficial differences between and among various ideologies on the basis of the kinds of government intervention they favor, are essentially illusory. All government intervention — foreign, military, cultural, or economic — involves the use of force to transfer life, liberty or property from some people to others, causing negative consequences for the victimized group, and leading to demands for further intervention to remedy the problems caused by the initial intervention. Support for intervention in one area, by reinforcing the principle that force is an efficacious means of solving human problems, tends to legitimize intervention in other policy areas. Since progressives and conservatives believe in the use of aggressive force in principle, they lack a principled basis for opposing its use even in ways that make them uncomfortable.

Since power is their ultimate premise, conservatives will logroll over liberty to maintain their power. In the end, we got all the bad stuff even though certain groups paid lip service against each program: Cold War, hot war, war on poverty, drug war. Notice that all these wars were brought to you by a coalition government of progressives and conservatives and featured massive centralized state coercion aimed at preventing Americans from living their lives as they wished. You cannot trust conservatives to advance liberty. In the end, they will choose power over principle and power over you.

Regardless of how they describe themselves, or for what particular reasons they wish to push people around, progressives and conservatives can be counted on to join forces to oppose the dangerous concept that individuals have the right to control their own bodies, minds, and property.

Finally, conservatives have a progressive-like faith in the efficacy of government when it comes to the military, police and war. This causes two problems.  Progressives have frequently drawn an analogy between government at war and domestic policy in order to re-create its awesome and centralized power on the home front.  Conservatives are powerless to disagree.  More importantly, war and foreign intervention have negative consequences on the home front which create demands for increased government intervention.  Government creates its own demand.

Examples abound.  The Civil War disabled many men and created many widows and orphans, leading to a demand for veterans’ pensions.  These pensions created a demand for broader coverage leading ultimately to Social Security.  World War II disrupted the lives of millions of men leading to a demand for educational aid under the G. I. Bill.  This created the model and the demand for a broader program—student loans. Veterans’ hospitals created the model for socialized medicine.    Many of the advocates of the Great Society had fought in World War II and wanted to use the war model to create a War on Poverty.  Similarly, many New Dealers had their first experience in central economic planning under World War I and put that experience to work under FDR.[7]  War is truly the health of the state domestically as well.

[To be continued.]


[1] D. Mitchell, “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which President Is the Biggest Spender of All?”, May 24, 2012 (counting all spending and adjusted for inflation).

[2] S. Richman, “The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” The Free Market (Oct. 1988).

[3] Jorg Guido Hulsmann,  Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism,  Mises Institute, Auburn (2007), p. 922.

[4] “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” in The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 520 (emphasis added).

[5] Id.

[6] Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Contemporary Books: Chicago, 3rd. Rev. ed., 1949) p. 831.

[7] See, M. Rothbard, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” in Egalitarianism: A Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, p. 36.