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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


To Renew America

Newt Gingrich

4 1995
Volume 1, Number 4


The Sci-Fi Speaker

Winter 1995

TO RENEW AMERICA
Newt Gingrich
Harper Collins, 1995, xii + 260 pp.

To Renew America conveys a vivid sense of its author's unusual personality. But the vital core of the book lies elsewhere. In the guise of a reassertion of American values, Speaker Gingrich prescribes a thoroughly statist agenda.

Our author proposes to confront six challenges that confront contemporary America. Among them are "Creating American Jobs in the World Market," "Balancing the Budget and Saving Social Security and Medicare," and "Decentralizing Power." For each challenge, Gingrich offers his response, often in the form of yet another numbered list. The reader, thus armed with an Outline of Wisdom, is next treated to a breathless account of the Speaker's efforts to ram his Contract with America through the House.

But Gingrich is not content with what he and his cohorts have so far done to restore America. He follows the account of the Contract with a further brace of proposals; these leave the reader in no doubt of his ultimate aims.

But before dealing with Mr. Gingrich's proposals, one cannot avoid consideration of Mr. Gingrich himself. He tells us: "At heart, I am still a happy four-year old who gets up every morning hoping to find a cookie that friends or relatives may have left for me somewhere" (p. 245).

The most commonplace ideas and events fill him with glee. As generations of parents have known, small rewards may encourage children to behave. To Gingrich, this offers the key to educational revolution. Do many children end their school years illiterate? Why not pay them to read? "Volunteers visit housing projects once a week and counsel the children in their reading. They then offer the children two dollars for every book they read during the next month" (p. 149).

I do not suggest this idea is silly. Rather, what strikes one as odd is that Gingrich blows it up into something of immense moment. He cannot contain himself. "I am convinced that for 10 percent of the $7 billion now spent on the Federal Title One Reading Program, we could have a revolution in literacy rates among the poor and change standards of acceptable behavior as well" (pp. 150-51). Thus, we have only to give Gingrich and his associates at Earning by Learning a paltry $700 million and he will end illiteracy. Rather a high price for Gingrich to indulge himself in his latest toy, is it not?

As everyone knows, it is technology that most readily arouses Gingrich to yammer. He asks us to "[i]magine a society in which first graders are able to check out their very own laptop as soon as they achieve a minimum standard of reading and writing" (pp. 147-148). (No doubt, a boost from Earning by Learning will help them here.) And the Speaker's technological imperatives are by no means limited to those whose chronological age corresponds to his own emotional level.

Do you sometimes find life without meaning? Gingrich is puzzled: "I am amazed every time I hear reports of teen suicide or stories about people who despair because of boredom or because they have nothing left to look forward to" (p. 189). Do those puzzled by life's meaning not realize the marvels that lie ahead? "I believe that space tourism will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of children born this year [1995], that honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020" (p. 192).

As one might expect, such science fiction writers as Arthur Clarke and Jerry Pournelle helped to shape his political thinking. And he presses others who do not fit into the same mold. As a teenager, Gingrich came under the sway of Arnold Toynbee's Study of History. Amazingly, he treats Toynbee as if he were a proponent of growth through technology in the style of Arthur and Heidi Toffler. He admires Toynbee's "broad sweep" (p. 23) but never stops to notice that Toynbee considers undue emphasis on technology a sign of Western decay.

But to view the book principally as an involuntary revelation of a superficial personality is a mistake. Gingrich has proclaimed himself leader of a Conservative Revolution, and his fantasies threaten to become reality.

Is this not, though, an overly harsh view of the Speaker? How can I term him a dangerous statist, when the President and his camarilla proclaim him a heartless reactionary? Does he not, for example, call for a devolution of power to the states, and, better, to local communities, as every conservative of sound doctrine should?

Well, let us look at what he says: "There was certainly some justification for a centralized bureaucratic effort when one-third of the nation was legally segregated. The federal government had to be prepared to intervene to protect minorities from the legal oppression of state and local governments. . . . Today, however, as long as the federal government enforces the basic civil and voting rights (and I approve using the full power of the federal government on both of these issues), it is unnecessary to have a Washington bureaucracy overseeing the actions of honestly elected local officials" (p. 106).

In other words, so long as state and local officials obey orders without prompting from Washington, further federal ukases are unneeded. So much for decentralization.

As Gingrich makes clear, his version of "conservatism" rests on strong government: "This drive to decentralize should not be mistaken as a plea for weak government. I strongly favor the Constitution over the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution is a device for strong central government, and so it should remain" (p. 108).

But once more the claim may be raised; have I not been too severe on the Speaker? Perhaps civil rights are for him an exceptional case: could not the strong government he favors be otherwise compatible with the strictly limited state of the standard conservative?

Gingrich's own account provides a full answer. Like his friend William Bennett, he calls for a total war on drugs, the effect of which cannot but be a massive growth in the power of government. Property rights are of small consequence: "If you are a drug dealer, all your assets must be presumed to come from the drug trade unless proved otherwise" (p. 180). As such, they stand subject to confiscation.

Seizure of property is not confined to drug dealers, in Gingrich's New Jerusalem. "I would favor charging a [drug] user 10 percent of their [sic] gross assets for first conviction, 20 percent for second conviction, and 30 percent for third conviction. The first time a baseball player or rock star had to pay a multimillion-dollar fine, drugs would begin to lose their glamour" (p. 180). So much for property, if it gets in the Speaker's way.

Laws that regulate drugs directly affect only part of the American people; laws that deal with the environment concern us all. Under the guise of protecting the environment, the left has subjected the economy to a Draconian set of controls. Does Gingrich, as one would expect of a conservative revolutionary, adamantly oppose these intrusions on the free market? Of course not.

We must protect endangered species: to do so, a "worldwide biological inventory" must be undertaken (p. 198). We must encourage "pro-environmental technologies" (p. 198); our "moral obligation to take care of the ecosystem" (p. 196) imposes clear duties.

Speaker Gingrich, as one would expect of so far-seeing a statesman, does not confine his revolution to the domestic front. Quite the contrary, he knows what is best for us in foreign affairs as well. Here, one might think, he is bound more closely to approach a genuine conservative posture. After all, he wishes to balance the budget; and the Cold War has ended. Will he not call for a reduction in military spending and a return to the traditional American policy of non-intervention?

Gingrich, I fear, views the situation in an entirely different way. "The simple fact is that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the need for American leadership has become greater" (p. 187). To rule the world, constant military investment is necessary: the imperative of technological development is indeed a demanding one. We can take heart in our struggles from the achievements of the Gulf War. Superior technology enabled American troops to plow under untold numbers of Iraqis. Who could ask for more?

Faced with views so abhorrent, one naturally asks: how has Gingrich arrived at them? If his program cannot be accepted, does he at least support it with arguments that bear consideration? Our author's manner of reasoning, like his enthusiasms, has not much progressed beyond the bounds of late infancy.

In a chapter on illegal immigration, he writes: "First, anything illegal is by definition wrong. We are opposed to illegal drugs, to illegal violence, to illegal immigration. It is against the law, and it should be stopped" (p. 155). So much for the American Revolution.

Gingrich is not concerned at all with undue immigration: quite the contrary, he supports a liberal immigration policy. It is the illegality of the immigration that bothers him: "Anything illegal is by definition wrong." This, I readily acknowledge, has a certain resonance; so let us not mock the Speaker any further. Rather, here is a suggestion that will enable him to achieve his aims more efficiently. Why not declare all immigrants legal? Then, "by definition" we would no longer face the problem of "illegal immigration." How readily may difficult social problems be solved when a devotee of Buck Rogers takes the helm.


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