The Road Behind: Conservative Defeatism and Beyond

Conservatives are inclined to be defeatist. It is hard to blame them. They have been fighting a rearguard action against the friends of the administrative state for almost a century.

It all started in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson was elected President after a campaign in which he forthrightly criticized his compatriots for not getting “beyond the Declaration of Independence,” arguing that our founding document can be “of no consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day and substitute them in some vital way for the examples it itself gives, so concrete, so intimately involved in the circumstances of the day in which it was conceived and written,” and intimating that such a translation cannot be accomplished given that the Declaration is “an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men;  not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action.”

Wilson was not satisfied with the old freedom – constituted by the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration. He wanted what he termed, in giving a name to his administration and to the book fashioned from his campaign speeches, The New Freedom, and he articulated his vision of that freedom in opposition to the thinking of Thomas Jefferson with his theory of the natural rights of the individual, his commitment to limited government, and his conviction, most fully expressed in his First Inaugural, that “the sum of good government” is “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” In his campaign, he issued a “call for emancipation of the energies of a generous people” – by which he mean regulating everyone’s pursuit of industry and improvement, and taking from the mouths of select laborers the bread they have earned.

In Wilson’s opinion, the Constitution of the United States was the great obstacle standing in the way of his “new freedom.” Thanks to the baron de Montesquieu – the only opponent, apart from Jefferson, whom he mentioned by name in his speeches – the American constitution “was founded on the law of gravitation” and “was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of ‘checks and balances.” The “trouble,” Wilson asserted, with “the theory” underpinning federalism, the separation of powers, and the system of checks and balances

is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick cooperation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day, of specialization with a common task and purpose. Their co-operation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive co-ordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.

“All that progressives ask or desire,” Wilson concluded, “is permission – in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”

theodore-roosevelt.jpgWilson’s polemic would not have been so forceful and so effective had it not been buttressed by the argument articulated by Theodore Roosevelt – first in the speech The New Nationalism that he delivered in 1910 and then, even more emphatically, in the platform of the Progressive Party which he formed in 1912 when he failed to wrest the presidential nomination of the Republican Party from William Howard Taft. The simple fact that Taft came in third in the presidential race that year settled the direction that the country would take.

In 1913, the United States began dismantling the Constitution and eliminating the barriers to limited government. First came the Sixteenth Amendment – which, by legalizing the federal income tax, opened the way for a massive expansion of the national administration. Then came the Seventeenth Amendment—which, by substituting the direct popular election of Senators for their selection by the state legislatures, eliminated the capacity of the states as corporations to defend their prerogatives against federal encroachment and prepared the way for a gradual subversion of federalism.

That same year, at Wilson’s urging, Congress established the Federal Reserve Board, and we began our century-long experiment with what Franklin Delano Roosevelt would term “rational administration.” The estate tax followed in 1916, and during World War I these new federal taxes, as applied to the well-to-do, were raised to sky-high levels. It was during that war that progresssives and Americans more generally got their first taste of a centralized administration of the economy. The latter did not like it.

Warren_G_Harding_portrait_as_senator_June_1920.jpgIn consequence, in 1918, it was by no means obvious that progressivism was the wave of the future. Calling for “a return to normalcy,” Warren G. Harding was elected by a landslide. And, in the aftermath, he and his successor Calvin Coolidge pared the federal administration, paid down the national debt, and steadily lowered income taxes. It was not until the election of the progressive Republican Herbert Hoover as President in 1928 that storm clouds returned to the horizon, and it was his response to the recession that began in 1929 – which involved raising tariffs and federal income tax on high earners to very high levels, keeping interest rates high, and bailing out bankrupt businesses through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation – that laid the groundwork for the New Deal, turned the recession into a depression, and prepared the way for the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Since that moment, the size and scope of the administrative state has grown by leaps and bounds, the courts have come to operate in accord with Wilson’s Darwinian principles, and hardly anyone has had the temerity to look back. In 1946, the newly elected Republican congress did manage to persuade the Truman administration to eliminate wage and price controls, and that congress also managed to limit union power by passing the Taft-Hartley Act. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan managed to reduce taxes, and George W. Bush later proceeded in the same direction. But for the most part, the Republicans have aided and abetted the growth of federal administration. Lyndon Baines Johnson may have launched the Great Society. But it was Richard Nixon who made it work. We owe to him affirmative action, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupation Safety and Health Administration. Ronald Reagan was not a typical Republican, and he was notably unsuccessful in his attempt to reduce the size and scope of the administrative state.

Since Reagan’s time, no Republican presidential nominee has done more than give lip service to the notion of limited government, and none of them has articulated a principled argument in defense of that notion with an eye to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. George H. W. Bush, Robert Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain – they were no doubt preferable to the alternative on offer. But we have to face the facts. They were all progressives of one sort or another. Their claim was that they were better than the Democrats at managing the administrative state. None of them sought to reduce it in size and scope or to dismantle it, and the two who did get elected left it considerably larger and more intrusive than they had found it.

Let me add that most of the Republicans apt to run for their party’s nomination in 2012 are cut from the same cloth. Mitt Romney is a capable, experienced businessman. By instinct, he is a manager, and in Massachusetts, with Romneycare, he demonstrated that he knows of no principles limiting the proper scope of government. Newt Gingrich is a man of ideas, and some of them are excellent. All honor to the Congressman who invented the 401k! But he, too, is a managerial progressive, perfectly capable of joining Nancy Pelosi in launching a campaign against global warming. Mike Huckabee is no better. Just look at what he did as Governor of Arkansas.

It is not hard to see why this country has entered on the road to serfdom. As I argued in my book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, the progressive agenda suited the opinion-makers educated in our best universities. It flattered their vanity by promising to put them and those crafted in their image in control. And that agenda suited many of the men in the street. As I argued in that book, the freedom provided in liberal commercial societies such as our own brings with it a less pleasant companion – the psychological state that Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville called inquiétude, which is to say, uneasiness. In the best of circumstances, the inquietude that accompanies political and economic liberty can give rise to what was called in the eighteenth century political jealousy – i.e, to the wariness and vigilance that makes one sensitive to tyranny’s approach. In the worst of circumstances, however, it can eventuate in servility: in our trading liberty for a promise of security.

“What was our hope in 1932?” asked Franklin Delano Roosevelt in an address that he delivered at Madison Square Garden in October, 1936. “Above all other things the American people wanted peace. They wanted peace of mind instead of gnawing fear.” FDR was no fool. He was a political genius. He understood perfectly the psychological foundations of liberal democracy’s despotic drift, and he exploited this understanding to the hilt.

HarryHopkins.jpgHow, then, can one blame conservatives for being defeatist? They have been defeated time and again. As FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins reportedly once said, “We will tax and tax and spend and spend and elect and elect” – and so they did.

There is, however, one fly in the ointment. As Margaret Thatcher one observed, “The trouble with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” Then, you can no longer elect and elect if you tax and tax and spend and spend.

That day has come. We went from the New Freedom to the New Deal, from the New Deal to the New Frontier, from the New Frontier to the Great Society, and from the Great Society to Barack Obama’s New Foundation – and now, thanks to that same Barack Obama, we stand on the edge of an abyss, and we are beginning to think about returning to the old foundation.

Everyone knows that we stand on the edge of an abyss – and grudgingly, bitterly, angrily, petulantly, as is his wont, in his speech at George Washington University on 13 April, Barack Obama admitted as much. When was the last time that a President of the United States had to abandon his proposed budget within two months of submitting it? The issue now is not whether the administrative state is going to be rolled back. It is by how much.

I read on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that the “financiers” are switching to the GOP – that the “hedge-fund titans who backed [the] Democrats” are opening “their wallets for [the] Republicans.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the rats are leaving the ship.

If I am an optimist and think that conservatives should embrace the slogan “Hope and Change,” it is because things are so bad that they are apt to get much, much better, not worse. Thanks to Barack Obama – the best friend we conservatives have had in the White House since Calvin Coolidge, we are on the verge of what I described last April as a new birth of freedom.


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