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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.


What's Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America

David Frum

3 1996
Volume 2, Number 3


Right by Half

Fall 1996

WHAT'S RIGHT: THE NEW CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY AND THE REMAKING OF AMERICA
David Frum
Basic Books, 1996, xv + 208 pgs.

David Frum's new collection of essays and columns is like the curate's egg good in parts. He sometimes provides insightful defenses of the free market; but curious blind spots spoil the book. Frum completely fails to grasp the tension between a free economy and a militaristic foreign policy. Moreover, the merest mention of anyone to his right excites him to frenzy, a tendency he also manifested in his earlier book, Dead Right, when the same topic arose. (What will his next book be called, What's Dead?) In his assault, he evinces a remarkable capacity to misstate facts.

I begin with the latter topic, for a personal reason. Frum mentions the Mises Institute in one of his broadsides; and I naturally gravitated toward his remarks. He criticizes, through the medium of a column by Pat Buchanan in which it is cited, an article by Paul Gottfried. By careful attention to reports available to the public, Gottfried showed that several foundations have skewed the ideological direction of the right by massive grants to a favored few neoconservatives. The Old Right, which supported a noninterventionist foreign policy, has been displaced.

What is Frum's response? He does not deny the financial subventions in question. Instead, he reads the Old Right out of conservatism: "who wouldn't be 'viscerally hostile' to a capital A, capital F 'America First' policy a policy that as late as the dangerous summer and fall of 1941 denied that a Nazi-dominated Europe from Moscow to Madrid was anything the United States ought to be bothered by" (p. 61)?

The rhetoric of this passage merits analysis at some length. Frum is perfectly entitled, if he wishes, to endorse an interventionist foreign policy. But for Frum, opponents cease to exist: "who wouldn't" be hostile to the America First policy? I suggest that Frum acquaint himself with Eric Nordlinger's book, reviewed above. Do the names Charles A. Beard, Charles C. Tansill, Frederick Sanborn, and Harry Elmer Barnes mean anything to our author? Why should the works of these distinguished scholars be deemed unworthy of serious answer?

Further, the position of the America First Committee was hardly that a Nazi-dominated Europe was a matter of indifference. Quite the contrary, all the major figures of the group opposed the Third Reich and its Fuehrer. But they did not believe that involvement in the war in Europe would best serve American interests. Perhaps they were mistaken; but surely their strongly argued case merits careful attention rather than contemptuous dismissal.

Perhaps I am quibbling over a mere detail, but Frum's phrase "from Moscow to Madrid" disconcerts me. Would not the natural reading of the passage be that both Moscow and Madrid were in 1941 under Nazi control? In fact, of course, neither was. Incidentally, as long as quibbles are on the table, consider this: Keynes "went to his death caring more for the good opinion of Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey than that of anyone other than (just possibly) his wife" (p. 179, emphasis added). One wonders how, during World War II, Keynes managed to discover Strachey's opinion of him. Did his dead friend appear to him in a sance?

But I digress. Frum is by no means finished with those who dare to oppose his neoconservative friends. It is a "legend" that Irving Kristol "persuaded President-elect Reagan not to nominate the historian M.E. Bradford to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The job was given to Kristol's friend William Bennett instead" (p. 61). You will not be surprised to learn that "the legend is false. By his own admission, Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation (who never in his life had a good word to say for the Great Society) was much more instrumental than Kristol in kiboshing the Bradford appointment" (p. 62).

Once again Frum's technique repays study. The neoconservatives were not responsible for undermining Bradford's position because someone who is not one of their number had greater responsibility. The logic of Frum's statement escapes me. Has he never heard of joint causes of an effect? And Frum's account is factually as well as logically deficient. According to Mel Bradford, whose knowledge of the circumstances surrounding his nomination is perhaps comparable to Frum's, Kristol did play a major role in the affair. The anti-Bradford efforts were hardly confined to a discreet word of warning from Feulner to Reagan. Frum's neoconservative associates launched a massive smear campaign against Bradford.

And it appears that Frum shares their exemplary standards of fairness. He concedes that Bradford was "a fine mind and a graceful writer" (p. 62; permit me to assure Frum that Bradford's opinion of him was rather less exuberant). Nevertheless, it was right to deny Bradford the NEH chairmanship. He "had published essays that could reasonably be understood by an unfriendly reader to liken Abraham Lincoln to Hitler" (p. 62). Note Frum's complaint: it is not that Bradford likened Lincoln to Hitler. It is that an unfriendly reader might take him to do so! Sentence is thus to be passed on Bradford by a hanging judge.

Mel Bradford is not alone. When a paleo is in the vicinity, Frum strikes with his customary modus operandi illogical reasoning and factual inaccuracy. He finds Paul Gottfried a suitable victim. "Gottfried repeats. . . the weird allegation that he himself lost a tenured appointment at Catholic University of America because a very junior faculty member named Jerry Z. Muller told the authorities that Gottfried was 'anti-Zionist' at the behest, Gottfried believes, of Norman Podhoretz. If the story is true, the only thing more astonishing than Podhoretz's sway over the Catholic Church is Catholic University's amazingly respectful treatment of its junior faculty" (p. 62).

Note the two-step technique. Mistaken logic: the fact that an accusation has effect does not show that the accuser holds sway or is the recipient of respectful treatment. And misleading facts: Muller's criticism was only one of several voices Gottfried believes were orchestrated against him.

But I must beware myself of giving a mistaken impression. Frum's book does not consist entirely of squalid diatribes against his betters. He sometimes interrupts his abuse and defends the free market. In the book's best essay, "Not So Wild About Harry," Frum ably dissects Harry Truman's domestic policies.

Frum states forthrightly: "No American president ever proposed worse economic policies than Harry Truman. The great post-war economic boom that began in 1945 appalled and disgusted Truman, and he exerted all his political power in an attempt to shut it down. Truman wanted to impose a permanent war economy on the United States" (p. 85).

For Truman, price controls were not a (misguided) wartime emergency measure but a way of life. He responded to strikes by threatening to draft strikers into the army. "But the only solution to the inflation and shortages problem that Truman could imagine was to redouble the policies that had created the problem in the first place: easy money and price controls" (p. 86). There could be no better illustration of Mises's point that government intervention in the free market requires ever further intervention in a frantic effort to stave off failure. (Frum relies on Alonzo Hamby's 1995 biography of Truman for his data.)

The unwary reader may jump to the conclusion that Frum holds Truman in contempt. Quite the contrary, his verdict on Truman is mixed. In spite of his failings domestically, he scored "magnificent successes" in foreign affairs: he "saved Western Europe from starvation and communism, . . . imposed democratic institutions in Germany and Japan, and . . . won the Korean War" (p. 85; one would enjoy hearing Douglas MacArthur's comment on this last achievement).

For Frum, intervention in the domestic economy is an unmitigated evil; but once the magic words "foreign affairs" are mentioned, matters change entirely. Now the government becomes transformed into a Guardian Angel.

Has it ever occurred to our author that Marshall Plan Aid to Europe, which he celebrates, did not arise out of the free market? Suddenly, coercive taxation and governmental direction of the economy earn his plaudits. (For some much needed skepticism on foreign aid, Henry Hazlitt's Will Dollars Save the World? remains unsurpassed.) And drafting men to fight overseas, at the risk of their lives, in an unconstitutional "police action" under the aegis of the United Nations is not my idea of a free society.

Frum is anxious to import the blessings of militarism to his native country, Canada. Since, "as de Gaulle observed, states are rather inhuman monsters," Canada must acquire the means for independent action atomic weapons (p. 163). Absent these, Canada is doomed to be a ward of her nuclear allies.

In order to act effectively in a world where "it's every state for itself," the necessary measures must be taken. No doubt nuclear proliferation is a problem, but Canada can do nothing to halt this. To arms! Frum is no doubt right that a state without nuclear weapons is apt to be at a disadvantage in a struggle with a state that possesses them. But why Canada need engage in this sort of battle at all, Frum never discloses.

I have sometimes been accused (always unfairly) of displaying excessive hostility to some of the books I review. Even were I to try as best I can to mock David Frum (as of course is not my intention), I would not be able to match his own words. He remarks that Adam Smith "seems to have been a singularly unamusing man." In support of this assessment, he quotes a remark of Thomas Carlyle that, incredibly, he interprets to mean that Carlyle thought Smith a dull dinner companion (p. 171). If Frum will take the trouble to look up the dates of Smith's death and Carlyle's birth, he will, I venture to suggest, discover a slight problem with his interpretation.


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