By Darien Sumner

On July 23, Social Matter published an article by Mark Christensen titled “We Need Tremendous Government: Why Conservative Mythology Must Be Disrupted”. His contention is that modern conservatism has long been dominated by libertarians who want to shrink government purely for its own sake, with no attention paid to the costs or consequences. Conservatives, therefore, should rebel against this negative influence and get back to what he contends is the root of conservative thought: Making America Great Again. To do so, it is necessary to embrace the power of the state as a tool for advancing conservative interests. Unfortunately for Christensen, his quest to disrupt conservative mythology runs aground on three major flaws, which we will explore below.

What Christensen Gets Right

Christensen is far from wrong about everything. Indeed, he is highly perceptive on the subject of President Trump. He writes:

“The political leader of Republican America is a man with a very different message. In his journey to the White House, the words from Donald Trump’s mouth rang very different. Something like this: ‘I am a successful businessman. I have built great things and hired great people. The U.S. government is not successful and does not build things right now, but it used to. When I am in charge, I will use my tremendous ability to make it a success which builds great things once more. I will Make America Great Again.’”

This is a fairly accurate assessment, and it is a point that most commentators miss amidst their own axe-grinding: contra the wishful thinking of many libertarians who really ought to know better, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform has nothing whatsoever to do with limiting the scope of the power of the federal government (and, of course, contra the left, it has nothing to do with racism and Nazis). Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again” is all about “America”—read: the United States government—building “great things.” It is not merely compatible with big government; it positively requires it.

In this, Christensen is exactly correct, and his own views appear to be entirely in sync with those of the president. Indeed, were his article merely about how Trumpian American greatness is a big government philosophy, there would be no problems with it. Sadly, he attempts to position this philosophy as the One True Conservatism, and thus goes astray.

Flaw #1: Historical Knowledge

Christensen does not appear to be very knowledgeable about the history of conservatism, which is a significant problem. Indeed, the opening of his article reads:

“Since the days of Reagan—and perhaps those of Buckley’s then-new conservative movement—conservatism has been plagued by a false doctrine about government, which shapes both ideological theory and electoral slogans.

It goes something like this: for a variety of social and economic reasons, government is incompetent, inferior, and a necessary evil insofar as it must exist at all. It’s bad. The grand vision of the conservative movement is to roll it back and restrict it in future by whatever means necessary.”

The idea that conservatism owes its origins to William Buckley is patently absurd, and we need not engage in murky attempts to attach anachronistic political labels to the Founding Fathers in order to demonstrate this. It is sufficient, rather, to point out that the origins of conservatism lie in a reaction against what was arguably the first major “progressive” movement: the French Revolution. The true father of conservatism (though, as far as is known, he never used the word) is widely regarded as Edmund Burke, and as good a summary of his thought as can be found comes from his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work, for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make every thing the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm, and cheating hope, have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.”[1]

The essence of conservatism at its birth, then, was restraint upon the power of man to destroy that which exists and replace it with that he imagines to be superior. Even Joseph de Maistre, whom one may reasonably suspect of being more sympathetic to Christensen’s cause, called not for stronger or more dynamic government, but for stable and orderly government that certainly did not attempt to create “great things”:

“If perfection was an attribute of human nature, each legislator would speak only once: but, although all our works are imperfect and the sovereign is obliged to support political institutions with new laws to the degree that they become tainted, yet human legislation draws closer to its model by that intermittency of which I was just now speaking. Its repose honors it as much as its original action; the more it acts, the more human, that is to say fragile, are its achievements.

What a prodigious number of laws has resulted from the labors of three French National Assemblies!

From July 1st to October, 1791, the National Assembly passed 2,557

The Legislative Assembly passed, in eleven and a half months 1,712

The National Convention, from the first day of the Republic until 4 Brumaire year IV [October 26, 1795], passed in 57 months 11,210

TOTAL 15,479

I doubt if the three houses of the Kings of France have spawned a collection of such magnitude. Reflecting on this infinite number, two very different emotions are felt successively. The first is that of admiration or at least of astonishment; one is amazed, with Mr. Burke, that this nation, whose frivolity is a byword, has produced such obstinate workers. This structure of law is so huge that it takes the breath away. But astonishment must quickly change to pity when the futility of these laws is recalled, and then one sees only children killing each other to raise a house of cards.”[2]

Maistre was a monarchist, to be sure. However, he supported the monarchy not because he wanted a strong, dynamic leader with plans and visions for society, but because he believed, with quite a bit of evidence, that the monarch would keep things on an even keel:

“[T]he restoration of the Crown would weaken suddenly the whole machinery of the state. The black magic operating at this moment would vanish like a mist before the sun. Kindness, clemency, justice, all the gentle and peaceful virtues would suddenly reappear and bring back with them a certain general gentleness of character, a certain cheerfulness entirely opposed to the somber rigor of the revolutionary regime. No more requisitions, no more legal thefts, no more violence.”[3]

Modern American conservatism arose as a reaction against the rise of American Progressivism, which in turn was spawned by the revivalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. As Murray Rothbard writes,

“The pietists were those who held that each individual, rather than the church or the clergy, was responsible for his own salvation. Salvation was a matter, not of following prescribed ritual or even of cleaving to a certain fixed creed, but rather of an intense emotional commitment or conversion experience by the individual, even to the extent of believing himself ‘born again’ in a special ‘baptism of grace.’ Moreover, the outward sign—the evidence to the rest of society for the genuineness and the permanence of a given individual’s conversion—was his continuing purity of behavior. And since each individual was responsible for his own salvation, the pietists concluded that society was duty-bound to aid each man in pursuing his salvation, in promoting his good behavior, and in seeing as best it could that he does not fall prey to temptation. The emphasis of the pietists was on converting the maximum number of persons, and in helping them to become and to remain sound.

Society, therefore, in the institution of the State, was to take it upon itself to aid the weaker brethren by various crusading actions of compulsory morality, and thus to purge the world of sin. The secular and the religious were to be conjoined. In the second half of the 19th century, the pietists concentrated on agitating for three such compulsory measures on the state and local level, to save liturgical ‘sinners’ despite themselves: Prohibition, to eradicate the sin of alcohol; Sunday blue laws, to prevent people from violating the Sabbath; and, increasingly toward the end of the century, compulsory public schooling to ‘Americanize’ the immigrants and ‘Christianize the Catholics’, and to use the schools to transform Catholics and immigrants (often one and the same) into pietistic Protestant and nativist molds.”[4]

We see in the pietists, then, the impulses that characterize a progressive: the desire to use the power of the state to compel everyone to live a moral life, and thus to “perfect” society, and, of course, the drive toward great “public works”. Indeed, it was the progressives who sought to “Make America Great Again” in the 19th century. The conservatives, meanwhile, were the poor liturgicals who mainly wanted those nosy Methodists to mind their own business. As Rothbard shows (drawing on the work of the late historian Paul Kleppner), the voting results line up exactly along those lines; in the regions of the country dominated by Catholics, high church Lutherans, and old-style Calvinists (the liturgical faiths), the laissez-faire, mind-your-own-business Democrats consistently come out on top, whereas the pietist regions predominantly elected busybody Republicans. Prior to the election of 1892, the expected party roles were reversed; it is no coincidence that Theodore Roosevelt, the first progressive president, came out of the Republican Party.

It takes but a cursory glance at history to determine that the conservative skepticism of big government does not originate from Ronald Reagan’s stump speeches, and the conservative movement altogether does not owe its origins to William F. Buckley, the man who arguably more than any other, is responsible for turning it into progressivism with a cigar and a monocle. Rothbard writes,

“[T]ake one of Buckley’s early efforts, ‘A Young Republican’s View’, published in Commonweal, January 25, 1952. Buckley began the article in unexceptionable libertarian fashion, affirming that the enemy is the State, and endorsing the view of Herbert Spencer that the State is ‘begotten of aggression and by aggression.’ Buckley also contributed excellent quotations from such leading individualists of the past as H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, and criticized the Republican Party for offering no real alternative to the burgeoning of statism. But then in the remainder of the article he gave the case away, for there loomed the alleged Soviet menace, and all libertarian principles had to go by the board for the duration. Thus, Buckley declared that the ‘thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union’ imminently threatens American security, and that therefore ‘we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.’ In short, a totalitarian bureaucracy must be accepted so long as the Soviet Union exists (presumably for its alleged threat of imposing upon us a totalitarian bureaucracy?). In consequence, Buckley concluded that we must all support ‘the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,’ as well as ‘large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington—even with Truman at the reins of it all.’ Thus, even at his most libertarian, even before Buckley came to accept Big Government and morality laws as ends in themselves, the pretended National Review ‘fusion’ between liberty and order, between individualism and anti-Communism, was a phony—the individualist and libertarian part of the fusion was strictly rhetorical, to be saved for abstract theorizing and after-dinner discourse. The guts of the New Conservatism was the mobilization of Big Government for the worldwide crusade against Communism”.[5]

This was the Buckleyite doctrine from the very beginning: a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. Surely the idea that Buckley’s ‘conservatism’ was just too small-government is patently absurd.

We see, therefore, that there is no merit to the claims that small-government philosophy somehow infiltrated conservatism during the Reagan years or through the work of Buckley. Indeed, the very origins of conservatism were in push-back against activist government attempting to “build great things” and produce “virtuous people”. If we jettison the historical errors and, with them, the pretense that the drive for a super-state is somehow going to return conservatism to its roots, we are still left with an article making the case for big government in a conservative guise. There are, however, flaws more grave than the historical errors cited above that sink the entire project.

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

References:

  1. Burke, Edmund (1790). Reflections on the Revolution in France.
  2. de Maistre, Joseph (1796). Considerations on France. (Jack Lively, trans.)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rothbard, Murray N. (2017). The Progressive Era. Mises Institute. Ch. 4.
  5. Rothbard, Murray N. (2007). The Betrayal of the American Right. Mises Institute. p. 158–9.
  6. Murphy, Robert P. (2015). Choice. Independent Institute. p. 282–3.
  7. DiLorenzo, Thomas J. (2006). Lincoln’s Tariff War [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.mises.org.
  8. Mallonee, Laura (2016). “The Unreal, Eerie Emptiness of China’s ‘Ghost Cities’”. Wired.
  9. Maughan, Tim (2015). “The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust”. BBC.
  10. Durden, Tyler (2018). “China’s Economy is Held Together by Capital Controls. If Those Fail, the Whole System Fails”. ZeroHedge.
  11. LaMance, Ken (2018). Heroin State and Federal Penalties. Retrieved from http://www.legalmatch.com
  12. Scott, Peter Dale (2010). Opium, the CIA, and the Karzai Administration”. The Asia-Pacific Journal, volume 8, issue 14, number 5.
  13. Pearlstein, Steven (2012). “Shattering the Glass-Steagall Myth”. Washington Post.
  14. Woods, Thomas E. (2009). Meltdown. Regnery. p. 46.
  15. Stockman, David A. (2013). The Great Deformation: the Corruption of Capitalism in America. PublicAffairs. p. 9.
  16. Von Mises, Ludwig (1944). Bureaucracy. Yale University Press. p. 40.
  17. Courtois, Stéphane, et al (1999). The Black Book of Communism. Harvard University Press. (Mark Kramer and Jonathan Murphy, trans.)
  18. Jefferson, Thomas (1798). The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Rothbard, Murray N. (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Humanities Press. p. 113–4.
  21. Foss, Paul-Martin (2016). “Today in 1971: President Nixon Closes the Gold Window”. Retrieved from http://www.mises.org
  22. Chiles, Nick (2014). “7 Ways the War on Poverty Destroyed Black Fatherhood”. Atlanta Black Star.
  23. Saunders, Frances S. (1995). Modern Art was CIA ‘weapon.’ Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk
  24. Roosevelt, Theodore (1901). State of the Union address.
  25. Bastiat, Frédéric (1850). The Law (Dean Russell, trans.).