Mises Wire

Robert Kagan Goes on a Tear

Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again
by Robert Kagan
Alfred A. Knopf, 2024; 243 pp.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, has acquired over several decades a well-deserved reputation as a defender of war. Like Woodrow Wilson, he believes the world must be made safe for democracy. He strongly supported George W. Bush’s war against Iraq, and though the war is widely regarded as a failure, Kagan disagrees. Bush was right, and to Kagan, that hapless incompetent is a figure to admire, in large part because of Bush’s support for expanded immigration from non-European countries.

In a statement that, as [the historian Gary] Gerstle notes, would have gotten him “tossed out of the GOP” in 2016, Bush declared in his 2000 campaign, “America has had one national creed, but many accents.” It had become “one of the largest Spanish-speaking nations in the world”—if one stood in Miami or San Antonio or Los Angeles with eyes closed, “you could just as easily be in Santo Domingo or Santiago.”. . . As president, Bush tried twice to pass immigration reform, which would include a path to citizenship for those immigrants who were in the country illegally.

Why is expanded immigration an issue of such concern to Kagan? In answering this question, we reach the heart of Rebellion. Not content with making the rest of the world safe for democracy by waging perpetual war, Kagan now proposes to wage war on a large part of the American people, especially—though by no means exclusively—whites living in the South. The American Revolution was a unique moment, he holds, when the American people committed themselves to the universal principles of freedom and equality. Alas, though, that moment was not sustained, and racism has dominated much of American history. Although the beliefs of racists have remained constant throughout our history—racist whites today view blacks exactly as they did two hundred years ago—there have fortunately been a few breakthroughs in the battle against this scourge, including Abraham Lincoln’s invasion of the South, the reconstruction measures favored by the Radical Republicans, and the post–World War II civil rights movement.

These breakthroughs, however, have not proved decisive. The evil forces of reaction have struck back, and they now dominate the Republican Party. They have a good chance of victory in the 2024 presidential election since Donald Trump, virtually certain to be the Republican candidate, is a charismatic figure. His victory might mean the onset of a fascist dictatorship and, very possibly, an end to the United States. All is not lost, though; if he is defeated, enough new non-European immigrants will enter the country to enable the cause of progress to triumph.

A reader of the book unfamiliar with Kagan’s reputation would probably characterize the author as a leftist of a familiar sort, not a neoconservative, and here lies the book’s true significance. To the extent that Kagan, often viewed as the foremost neoconservative theorist on foreign policy, accurately represents that movement, it becomes clear that neoconservatism is a variety of the revolutionary Left. Like other leftist movements, it demands perpetual revolution to make the world conform to its illusory ideal—in this instance, the ideal of the American Revolution.

When one first encounters that ideal, it seems appealing, indeed one that supporters of Murray Rothbard could readily endorse:

Yet liberalism as it emerged from the American Revolution was both less and more than both supporters and critics often claim. Its sole function was to protect certain fundamental rights of all individuals against the state and the wider community—rights that John Locke identified as life, liberty, and property, with “liberty” encompassing the right to believe in the gods one chooses, or no god at all, without fear of oppression. . . . These rights, Locke asserted—and this was what was truly revolutionary—could not be granted by rulers, or even by “the people.” They were inherent in the nature of being human—“natural rights,” as the American founders called them.

Given such a fine statement, it would be churlish to object that John Locke didn’t extend tolerance to atheists. What exactly is wrong with it? The problem with it is that, as Kagan portrays the liberalism of the American Revolution, it allows extensive government interference with the property rights it professes to defend; it transpires, for example, that Kagan supports Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Kagan explains,

In fact, the founders had not specified how much government involvement in the economy was too much, or too little.

On the one hand they did believe deeply in the importance of property, because, following Locke, they believed that if people owned nothing, if government or society or the community controlled everything, from a person’s land to the clothes on a person’s back, then what could a person call his own?. . .

On the other hand, the founders were not property fetishists. None of them believed the government should have no role in the economy. They believed in tariffs and taxes, and not only to raise revenue but to protect American producers from foreign competition. . . . Many in the revolutionary period did worry about the consequences of too much wealth, luxury, and inequality on “republican virtue.”

Kagan has no sympathy for “railing against ‘omnipotent government,’” which he takes to be a way of defending racism by opposition to civil rights legislation. What he aims for is the extension of his conception of equality to more and more groups whom he deems oppressed. His quest sometimes leads him to advance incredible claims:

Yes, “wokeness” can be and has been carried to excess, and there does come a point where the legitimate desire to insist on inoffensive speech and behavior conflicts with the vital liberal values of free speech and free thought. . . . But most of the demand for “wokeness” today—as was true a century ago, when demanded by a different set of minorities—is the unavoidable consequence of a liberal system and the accompanying egalitarian spirit.

Antiliberals may complain about wokeness, therefore, but it is the liberal system of government bequeathed by the founders that they are really objecting to.

When Kagan talks about the extension of equality to more and more groups, that must not be taken to indicate his belief that history progresses inevitably toward equality. Quite the contrary, his “liberalism” is not an empirical claim about the trend of history but rather a faith that demands our ever-renewed commitment. Moreover, viewing equality as inevitable might lead us to view those who resist egalitarian demands as temporarily failing to “get it” but who will sooner or later catch up. Then, we might deal gently with those Southern reactionary racists, not target them for extirpation.

What primarily interests Kagan is not property rights but the expansion of “equality” to more and more groups.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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