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Conservation in Crisis: the Cause and the Solution

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Tags U.S. History

07/01/1989Joseph Sobran

The Free Market 7, no. 7 (July 1989)


When Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in 1980, many conservatives (myself among them) were euphoric. They expected a wholesale reform in American government; there was even talk of a "Reagan Revolution." It seemed likely that there would be an early campaign to repeal the Great Society programs Reagan had always opposed, and, once that was accomplished, a repeal of the New Deal itself.

Liberals, meanwhile, nervously insisted that Reagan had "no mandate" for any such sweeping changes. Some of them predicted, with more hope than confidence, that "reality" would force Reagan to subordinate "ideology" to "pragmatism."

When Reagan left office eight years later, it looked as if the liberals had been right. Not much had changed. The system remained what it had been in 1980; Reagan hadn't even abolished the federal government's commitment to "affirmative action," which Lyndon Johnson had established by executive order, and which Reagan could have done away with by the same simple means—a stroke of the pen, requiring no legislative or judicial support.

Federal spending had doubled across the board. The federal government was committed to a budget of over a trillion dollars per year, or about $4,000 per U.S. citizen. Though nobody took a poll, it. seems safe to say that few citizens felt they were getting $4,000 worth of government "services."

For all that, Reagan left the stage bowing to wild applause, as if his two terms had been an era of heroic achievements. Both he and his Democratic opponents had a vested interest in the idea that he had made radical changes—he because he wanted credit, they because they needed a bogeyman.

No doubt Reagan had made a difference in the tone of American politics. He had made conservative and free-market rhetoric fashionable, and helped put liberalism in disrepute. Reagan's presidency had also coincided with the collapse of socialism around the world, and may well have helped supply the impetus for it, though of course the ultimate cause of socialism's collapse was socialism itself.

It isn't easy to assign causes to historical processes. A great many things happen in any eight-year period, and Reagan was surely more symptom than motor of the decline of collectivism. It was part of his political and theatrical genius to personalize the process, modestly assuming the lion's share of the credit for what was happening anyway.

He did give dozens of worthwhile initiatives more support and encouragement than they would have had under almost any other president. Conservatives in Washington are now keenly aware that they enjoy much less access to President Bush than they did to President Reagan, under whom they encountered frustration enough, and there seems to be a concerted effort to remove "Reaganites" from the bureaucracies.

The result is that the conservatives now feel bereft by Reagan's absence. They regard his presidency as a lost opportunity, but at least while it lasted, it seemed an opportunity; now there is barely even the illusion of hope for real reform. George Bush is pretty clearly a status-quo man who wants more than anything to avoid conflict with Congress. He doesn't even daydream of radical change. In fact his rhetoric often implies that he is offering relief from the highly-charged ideological confrontations of the Reagan years.

In his own way, Bush supports the myth that the Reagan years were years of a drastic unsettling of the American political system. His special angle is the suggestion that Reagan's alleged achievements have been so fully realized that there is no need for him to disturb us further by adding anything significant to them.

Conservatives would be much happier, and better off, if they recognized frankly that Reagan was always primarily a politician and an insider, a loyal member of the establishment he seemed to challenge. He simply understood that the way to rise within the system was to make a special appeal to the voters who were dissatisfied with it from conservative motives—moral traditionalists and economic libertarians. He succeeded within that system by growling at it a little, enlisting popular discontent on his side. He was sincere enough. But he was also too prudent ever to enrage the establishment—including the pressure groups and tens of millions of voters who receive income and other special benefits from the federal government—by seriously threatening their interests. The main difference between Reagan and Bush is that Bush dropped his conservative campaign rhetoric almost as soon as he had won his election; Reagan kept speaking it while in office.

In short, Reagan posed as a right-wing outsider, while he / was in fact not much more than the extreme right wing of the insiders. Maybe he couldn't have succeeded any other way; but it was his own success, not that of conservative causes, that was always his real concern. In that sense, Bush was his appropriate successor. Bush is merely less skillful at persuading conservatives that he has their interests at heart.

This is all to the good. Conservatives spent eight years waiting for Ronald Reagan to start acting like the messiah they were hoping for. "Let Reagan be Reagan," they said, unable to see that he was being Reagan by arousing their yearnings and enlisting their loyalties while letting them cool their heels. Now they may begin to understand that they are on their own.

During the Reagan years, conservative activists have developed a detailed agenda—securing government appointments for their own, implementing the Strategic Defense Initiative, aiding various insurgent forces around the world—that may or may not be defensible in piecemeal terms but is less and less clearly related to broadly shared principles of government.

This agenda has something baroque about it: more and more, it resembles the familiar menus of liberal causes and programs. In fact, most of its items can co-exist with the liberal programs that have already been installed, which conservatives have quietly stopped trying to repeal. Jack Kemp, the conservative activists' favorite during the 1988 primaries, is the most conspicuous example of the conservative who has come to terms with the liberal programs that have been instituted since the New Deal; it's appropriate that he is now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (The career of William Bennett—first as Education Secretary and then as drug czar—also illustrates how readily some conservatives drop their objections to federal power when it is exercised in the name of their "values.")

Whatever maybe said for fine-tuning liberal programs by adapting them to market incentives, this is not an approach that will make conservatism a powerful political force, because it does nothing to assert conservatism as an independent rival principle to collectivism. It merely tries to sell conservatism as a set of superior methods for achieving collectivist goals. This was also the weakness of supply-side economics: it offered to increase rather than cut federal revenues. It located itself in a marginal area of common interest between liberalism and conservatism.

Since Reagan, in other words, conservatives have lost their identity. Loyalty to Reagan himself has helped make them forget and abandon their traditional purpose of reducing the size of government, and, more fundamentally, of defining the role of government in strict and principled terms. If liberals have programs, conservatives now offer alternative programs. They seldom offer philosophical and constitutional objections to the goals of liberalism.

Among other things, this has relieved liberals of the necessity of having, or defending, a philosophy. As a practical matter, everyone seems to accept without discussion the crude assumption that government should solve whatever is presented as a political problem or redress whatever is asserted as a grievance. The result is an ever-growing accretion of State programs, enterprises, institutions, bureaucracies. These are usually failures or waste of money on their own terms, but since there are no firm criteria for success or failure except a literal-minded common sense that has no political purchase, it hardly matters; once established, they operate autonomously, their subsidization assured.

After all, Lyndon Johnson promised that the War on Poverty would attack the "root causes" of crime, as well as abolish poverty itself; he pledged that the programs would be dismantled if they didn't achieve these ends. Poverty (variously defined) is still with us, and the crime rate is higher than ever; but nobody in politics proposes to do away with the programs, least of all Secretary Kemp.

Conservatives now do little more than add to the confusion of the current scene. They have given up on the kind of thorough reform they thought was at hand in 1980; they have ceased posing a threat to the status quo of pragmatic interventionist liberalism. Something vital has gone out of the movement, something to which it owed all its original energy and appeal.

People have debated the meaning of conservatism for more than a century, but in the American political context I think it should be defined fairly simply: it's an attachment to a classic Western understanding of the rule of law. It understands the role of the State to be that of umpire, custodian, and enforcer of some rather minimal rules of conduct, designed to allow citizens to pursue their own private purposes without coercion or violence or fraud.

In the Politics, Aristotle explains the character of law well. He recommends that there be as few laws as possible, and that they be altered as seldom as possible. The reason for this is that law should be an extension of our normal sense of right and wrong, so that people can observe it, for the most part, simply by living what they regard as morally upright lives. Law should seem to be impersonal, applying equally to all, rather than the expression of any special or partisan will or interest. The less frequently it changes and the more permanence it has, the more citizens will feel reverence for it.

When Jefferson says "that government is best which governs least," he is saying something similar. He means not that the ideal would be no government at all, but that the law should be so much in accordance with the spontaneous behavior of decent people, so harmonious with the community's moral consensus, that it requires a minimum of surveillance and enforcement. He would probably see the development of an entire "underground economy" as a sign that the State had grown far too powerful. A tax system in which cheating has become endemic among people who would never think of stealing from their neighbors is a sign of a State that takes far more from citizens than they instinctively feel to be fair.

The word "law" has become indiscriminately applied to two fundamentally different, incompatible, and even opposite sorts of things, which have in common only the fact that they may be imposed by the apparatus of the State. One is the genuine rule of conduct, usually negative ("Thou shalt not steal"), which limits rather than specifies behavior, and which requires people to behave as they might ideally behave anyway out of simple respect for their fellows. The other is the command, which is the imposition of the will of some upon others. ("And the King said, Bring me a sword.")

C.S. Lewis notes that the decline of the idea of natural law, an eternal order of right and wrong to which positive law should conform, gave rise in early modernity to the idea that the source of law is the will, whether the king's or the people's. By now we have come to take it for granted that this is not only natural but inevitable. The concept of a law that transcends will has been lost, though it lurks in our moral habits, and we act as if it were perfectly proper, in a democracy, for the majority to impose its will on the minority. There should be limits, of course: we somewhat incoherently reserve little pockets of "minority rights," without explaining to ourselves how these can fit in with the principle that the State is entitled to legislate as it pleases, and ought to be (in Lewis's phrase) "incessantly engaged in legislation."

Conservative and classical liberal thinkers are converging on a common insight in this area. Both Michael Oakeshott and F.A. Hayek have distinguished sharply between "nomocracy," or government according to impartial rules, and "teleocracy," or government intended to achieve some substantive purpose of the State itself. Both feel that nomocracy is the true Westem tradition, and that this tradition of rule has been unfortunately confused by recent ideologies that can only understand governing as the pursuit of substantive goals, e.g., "social justice." Teleocracy, by its nature, demands that the individual subordinate his will and purposes to the State's. Under Communism, the individual may be directly conscripted into the State's enterprises. Modern democracies are less monolithic, combining a residue of nomocracy with various elements of teleocracy; taxation pays for both the services all receive (e.g., police protection) and for the appeasement of special interests through the redistribution of wealth.

Conservatives and libertarians have been widely dismissed by intellectuals as "reactionaries" defending what are essentially lost causes. On this view, history has passed them by. And those who felt that the Reagan era was their last chance are implicitly accepting this view. But if Oakeshott, Hayek, and Mises are right, the current despair of conservatives is groundless.

Reagan's election in itself was a symptom of enormous popular discontent with the present system. So are the undergrolJ.nd economy and tax cheating; many other examples might be cited. Even the special interests that compete for our wealth have to use various .moral and political subterfuges to justify what Frederic Bastiat calls "organized plunder": they don't dare to assert simply that their fellow citizens have a duty to support them, but are forced to claim "need" and "victimhood," implying that their demands are justified exceptions rather than direct rights to others' wealth. A moral stigma is still attached to the idea of "welfare" and to the very concept of "special interests." There is a widespread, probably ineradicable suspicion that special claims on the State's favor are subversive of genuine equality before the law, no matter how such claims are advanced in the name of equality.

The multiplication of special laws, lacking the character of genuine law, has done nothing to improve the lot of the ,average American citizen. The net effect, in fact, has somehow been to leave him more exposed to criminal violence than ever. Anyone who is not receiving subventions from the federal government is now likely to be deeply suspicious of all its works and pomps. It was this skepticism that Reagan so effectively exploited.

That skepticism deserves to be more seriously exploited. At bottom it is Western man's deep-seated resistance to teleocracy, to any State that pushes him around in the name of any cause, however high-sounding its pretensions.

Modem politics, in its corrupted versions, is a series of devices for obscuring lines of economic, moral, and even sexual responsibility. By directing its concern to alleged victims, while multiplying the categories of victimhood, it increases the number of its dependents and turns the productive into virtual defendants before the tax police. By depriving the earner of his reward, it destroys the ratio between act and consequence and renders constructive action futile and irrational. It systematically undermines not only property ownership but family relations. By pandering to man as victim of circumstance, it makes itself the enemy of man as responsible agent. And by the same token, its chief enemy is not the violent criminal, who after all poses no threat to the redistributive system, but the citizen who wants to keep his own money.

In the current political vocabulary, "need" means wanting t( get someone else's money. "Greed," which used to mean what "need" now means, has come to mean wanting to keep your own. "Compassion" means the politician's willingness to arrange the transfer.

If they could leave off the specialized commitments they burdened themselves with during the Reagan years, conservatives could address the clashing principles at stake in every new statist initiative. They might find, to their surprise, that when the issues are properly defined, they belong not to a reactionary minority but to the abiding mainstream of the West. And millions of Americans who feel vaguely oppressed by their own political system, but are not burning with enthusiasm to aid the Nicaraguan contras or install ad anti-missile system, might discover that their discontents, far from being idiosyncratic, stem from the irrepressible desire to live as free human beings.

Cite This Article

Sobran, Joseph. "Conservatism in Crisis: the Cause and the Solution." The Free Market 7, no. 7 (July 1989): 1, 4–6.

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