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Is There Something About Conservatism?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, March 04, 2003 by

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Thomas Woods recently wrote on LRC, "It still frustrates me that some people who really believe themselves to be conservatives are so enthusiastic about the impending war with Iraq." We've all encountered this in our private lives, people with whom we have agreed with on a huge range of economic and cultural issues are just downright wrong on the war.

They don't trust the government to run the economy, our families, or our schools, but think it is just great for the United States to amass the largest military machine owned by any government in the history of the world, for the US and its allies to be the sole nuclear monopolists, for the US to slaughter people in a foreign country who have never done anything to us and spend twice that country's GDP in doing so.

Conservatives moan on about cultural decline and the loss of civility and old manners. Look, I'm really sorry about rap music; it's awful. But how can the cultural effects of rap be compared to the incessant calls for our country to slaughter tens of thousands of people abroad as if they had no souls? Rap creates an irritating thud thud that shatters public tranquility; war stains an entire nation's hands with blood.

That's only the beginning of the incredible ironies associated with conservatives who support this war. Whatever happened to Russell Kirk's "politics of prudence," to pro-life politics, to rules against entangling alliances, to opposition to big government? Every one of these tendencies is obliterated by the tyrannical mass killing associated with war.

In the 1990s, there was a brief but shining moment when conservatives were against "nation building" and blasted Clinton for his interventionist international stand. Now Clinton is a mild critic of Bush on Iraq. Are we only against foreign wars waged by Democrats?

Let me attempt to organize possible explanations for the lurch of the Right into warfare ideology:

  • The influence of the neoconservatives. This is the theory of Paul Gottfried. The idea here is that a group of ex-Trotskyites who never really developed a fondness for liberty came on board the Right and began to exercise undue influence. Just as they once favored world communist revolution, they now favor the global imposition of democratic "capitalism," which really means a New Dealish regime administered by enlightened bureaucrats wholly beholden to the United States. They have no authentic sympathy for real American history and no attachment to the decentralist theory of the framers. This theory has great explanatory power day to day. The trouble with this view is that the conservative penchant for backing war and intervention predates the neocon invasion; it actually dates to the mid 1950s, as Rothbard argued. What we see today may just be a holdover from Cold Warriorism, not the introduction of a new sensibility as such. Moreover, support for the current war goes far beyond the neoconservatives. It embraces conventional Republicans and conservatives of all sorts who absurdly think that Bush's war machine is merely the working out of a constitutional mandate to guard the homeland.

  • Loyalty to the GOP. This theory holds that the typical Republican will go along with anything so long as it is enacted by "our" president. This theory easily explains the Congress, which depends on favors and largess from the executive. For low partisan reasons, GOP activists have a tendency to demonize the opposition to the point of not seeing how their own party has become just as bad. This is easily observed when Republicans congratulate the president for "outflanking" the Democrats and otherwise "stealing their issues" by becoming just like them. Under this theory, principle plays no role in politics; it is all about us versus them. This theory has explanatory power, and is especially alarming considering the thesis of Jeffrey FrankelDownload PDF that the parties have switched places, with Democrats becoming the party of fiscal responsibility, free trade, competitive markets, and minimal government, while the Republicans have become the party of trade restriction, big government, and interventionist economics. If this is really true, in a relative sense, we have a vast gulf developing between appearance and reality. How long will the conservative faithful continue to support political realities that are opposite of the rhetorical apparatus?

  • TV versus Web. I've yet to meet a warmonger who isn't addicted to television watching, nor a peace person who is. Peace people tend to be better educated, avid readers of history (actual books!), and attached to alternative news sources. When a Bush administration official makes a claim about the perfidy of Iraq and the threat it presents to Americans, peace people Google it in order to verify it, and by doing so discover all the lies and distortions. In contrast, TV people are manipulated by the incessant hype of television: "Showdown with Saddam!!!" These days, for all the contrary points of view aired by television, they might as well be owned and run by the government. Yet television creates the impression that you are getting all the news and being well informed. Under this theory, the best thing that could happen to save civilization from the war party is for everyone to shut off the television. There is nothing unsocial about doing so. TV is, for the most part, a wasteland.

  • Talk Radio. The same point applies to warmongering talk radio. In the 1990s, talk radio seem to be the cutting edge of populist opposition to big government. We loved it. In a strange transformation since Bush beat Gore, talk radio has become a national menace: ill-educated loud mouths whipping up party-line frenzies and treating all who disagree as vermin. Or maybe talk radio was always awful. I recall worrying in the early days that Rush Limbaugh never bothered to draw people's attention to books or history, that he claimed that all knowledge is in his head and that people only needed to listen to him. Just show biz? Apparently not. These people are serious that all truth can be auto-generated without the aid of serious thinking. Insofar as conservatives listen to this stuff as a source of information, they have also become anti-intellectual, unreflective, arrogant, prideful, loudmouthy, and generally stupid. Perhaps instead of embodying a new mode of popular education that can save the country, talk radio has merely dumbed down conservatism and turned it into a megaphone for fascist ideology.

  • Intrinsic corruption. Under this view, American conservatism is inherently and hopelessly bankrupt because of its lack of intellectual rigor and rejection of systematic thinking. It holds too many contradictory ideas (emphasis on law and order plus liberty; free trade plus mercantilism; pro-American plus anti-empire; pro-freedom plus anti-personal liberty). There are no principles to which it is unyieldingly attached. It is therefore easily manipulated by the state and its interests. This view would help explain the pro-war stance of such conservative stalwarts as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I admit to having increasing sympathy with this perspective. Maybe conservatism is just a hoax, not an ideological cousin of libertarianism but rather from a different tribe entirely! And yet, there is The American Conservative, which has been sound – thank God for the publication (for all its problems).

  • The eternal problem of nationalism. American conservatives have always prided themselves on their patriotism and seen liberals as alienated from our land and history. This sensibility has mutated to become a grotesque political form that periodically pops up in the history of nations: uncritical embrace of the ruling regime as if it embodies the mystical will of the people, combined with a belligerence toward foreigners and their sympathizers at home. It always leads to the dehumanization of the "other." This theory invariably raises the specter of Germany in the 1930s. Every school kids knows the question: how could a civilized country descend into barbarism in such short order and without people really recognizing what was happening right under their noses? How indeed! Perhaps conservatism is not a unique victim but rather its descent is only symptomatic of a generally base tendency in the nature of any people.

Of course these theories are not mutually exclusive. Maybe in combination we have the whole answer: the nationalist tendencies inherent in any people are mixing with the intrinsic flabbiness of conservative thought and the baseness of the media culture to generate uncritical loyalty to a nutty president who happens to be a Republican, a party which is increasingly dominated at the intellectual level by internationalist social democrats who know nothing and care nothing for liberty or traditional American values.

In any case, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for any friend of freedom to call himself a conservative. This seems to be some sort of important moment in history, a time when old ideological loyalties must be radically reassessed. Perhaps the problem runs very deep. Perhaps it is not the conservatives who are somehow diverging from the modal type. Perhaps this war reveals something more fundamental: namely that those attached to the idea of liberty are not conservative in either the European or modern American sense.

We have all had the feeling of reading some piece on National Review Online and thinking: I have nothing in common with these people! Well, perhaps it is they who are the conservatives, and you are not. We lost the word liberalism long ago, and only adopted the term conservative with the greatest reluctance. It is time to give it up too, neither describing ourselves as such nor allowing others to do so.

We don't take our marching orders from neocons. We don't believe what we see on TV. We do not love the GOP. We are not nationalists. We believe in the idea of liberty. We are libertarians – a word that is not yet completely lost (though people like Brink Lindsey are doing their best to take that one too.)