We conservatives find ourselves in a state of bewilderment as to how our country could be slipping into socialism. “This is the United States of America” we cry. “This is not supposed to happen here!” But a moment’s introspection can clarify what happened and what needs to happen in order to reverse the nation’s course.
The simplest explanation for our country’s incessant drive towards central government is that we conservatives have failed to advance the system of liberty and free enterprise on moral grounds. We who call ourselves conservatives, to our own detriment I believe, have relied too much on tradition while blindingly revering our values as self-evident truths.
While our Founders provided us with valuable insights into human nature and government, we mistakenly believed that the debate was over. Too many of us failed to recognize that new challenges to our beliefs had arisen that demanded to be directly addressed.
The intellectual terrain shifted, making the appeal to freedom seem to elites like an unblinking, unthinking argument. The intellectuals who opposed freedom were written off by conservatives as members of a lofty elite scribbling away in their ivory towers; and of no consequence whatsoever for shaping the direction of the country. This attitude fed mutual resentment and divided the country into an “intellectuals versus the people” battle. No wonder the would-be ruling class members felt no compulsion whatsoever to be intellectually honest with us, nor have they sympathized with our point of view.
In retaliation for conservatives’ general unwillingness to acknowledge their brilliance, let alone engage their ideas, the hardcore left in academia ascribed everything we had to say as “capitalist false consciousness.” This mischievous argument dehumanized us further, radicalizing them against us.
The leftists won their ideological victories mainly because conservatives paid their time in academia as a kind of purgatorial pass to upward mobility, refusing to stand up to the left on moral grounds at the optimum time. After the defeat of collectivist nations in the second world war, and in the period after the Soviet gulag states were established, there was a prime opportunity to drive home the failures of central planning. But most conservatives became overconfident and intellectually lazy, instead enjoying the country’s moment in the sun.
Those rare intellectuals who challenged the socialist consensus in that golden hour, such as F.A. Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, and Milton Friedman, gained a modicum of respect even within left-leaning academia. That is because they openly and directly addressed the socialists’ arguments on a point-by-point basis and demonstrated their falsity. This was of momentous consequence, because these intellectuals’ ideas influenced future leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who helped lead the conservative effort to stall the collectivist tide. But our victories were temporary and fleeting.
Reason is a two-part process. If one side abstains from arguing its principles, instead silently holding them to be true, they fade in their full and true meaning from social memory. This leaves an opportunity for one’s opponents to make their claim.
As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” This holds true if we choose to remain silent.
That being said, the New Left’s goal since the late 1960s has been explicitly to undermine the process of reasoned argument about our differences, while taking away the political freedom that allows us to work our problems out without coming to senseless blows. The Alinsky doctrine of ridicule and personalization is intentionally aimed at leading the right and the left to blows.
That is why we must ally ourselves with the middle, and demonstrate that we can remain reasonable. This will erode the narrative that the left is our victims, while the Democrats abuse government to impose their will on us. By extension, we must remain of good cheer and continue to refute the left’s many intentional attempts at deception in a factual, case-by-case manner.
What do we do to remedy our situation? Those of us who advocate freedom must be up to the task of articulating our views to people who might not be conservatives. We must not only engage our fellows, but also moderates and intellectuals. We might be surprised by the effort.
But we must first appreciate a few things to be successful. The intellectuals that comprise the ruling class do not acknowledge or hold dear freedom the way we do. Those in the middle stratum of the would-be ruling class – the teachers, professors, non-profit managers, journalists – are animated by a utopian effort to transform the world into what they view will be a safer and more fair place. What makes their worldview utopian is that it is organized by the misapplication of the principle of equality; instead of by the inherent worth of every unique individual life.
On stark and unavoidably divisive ideological grounds, we must renew the fight against the progressives’ drive for increasing centralization and technocratic management of society. But just because we are divisive doesn’t mean we have to be combative. Ideology is unavoidable, because the nature of reality is complex. While there is a middle ground of citizens who are unable to decide which path is best, what we are fighting for is the direction of the country. The articulation of the extreme choices for our nation organizes and informs our thinking about the implications of policy. When one successfully informs others how to think and react to policies, it teaches people how to perceive threats and take action.
What we conservatives are not advocating is extreme reaction in the sense that we are not for using government coercion to force our opponents to submit to our particular point of view. What we ultimately want is freedom for ourselves and for those on the left to live our own lives; but even this entails sharing similar or at least compatible values. Freedom and tyranny are mutually exclusive.
Therefore, we can either dissolve our political bands or attempt to persuade those who are as yet undecided whose values are right. We can build out from this potential coalition and then mobilize it to political action. What we need therefore is time and opportunity; not reaction against moderate Republican candidates who fall far short of being tyrants or leftists.
This an opportune time to point out that the ideological divide between the intellectuals and the people drives the centralization of government. Inevitably, intellectuals rise to positions of government power in any society. It was the same with the founding of America as it is today. What makes the difference between ordered liberty and tyranny is a matter of the morality viewed to be fair and just by the ruling class.
Politicians’ view of the citizens’ capacity for self-government is informed by the people’s understanding and appreciation of political issues, ideas, and pressures. The reverse can be said of politicians truly understanding how constituents feel and thereby empathizing with them. The above preconditions are required to achieve fidelious representation, instead of professional politicians paying lip service to Americans’ hopes and fears and then proceeding as planned in disregard of the citizens’ wishes. If there is an intellectual and ideological divide between politicians and citizens, it ultimately leads to mutual distrust, broken government, and reciprocal animosity.
Our drive towards centralization of decision-making and power continues unabated and is fueled by a natively unrecognizable, yet distinctly European sense of paternalism. As the French author Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his indispensable Democracy in America:
The partisans of centralization in Europe are wont to maintain that the Government directs the affairs of each locality better than the citizens could do it for themselves; this may be true when the central power is enlightened, and when the local districts are ignorant; when it is as alert as they are slow; when it is accustomed to act, and they to obey. Indeed, it is evident that this double tendency must augment with the increase of centralization, and that the readiness of the one and the incapacity of the others must become more and more prominent. But I deny that such is the case when the people is as enlightened, as awake to its interests, and as accustomed to reflect on them, as the Americans are.
With this in mind, we must convince the middle managers of our Europeanizing welfare state that we understand them, that we know their arguments, and that there is a better way to look at things. We may point to the implosion of the welfare states in Europe, but that gives them only a circumstantial and superficial impression that those particular states were mismanaged. We have not driven home the concept that the entire premise of the welfare state is misguided and actually achieves ends opposite to what may be intended. It doesn’t help people as much as it harms them, and hinders the nation’s ability for the citizens to be well-provided for. What we are for are institutions that enable people to help themselves; what we are against are institutions that undermine self-government.
By extension, the notion that one can outsource morality to the state is mistaken; one cannot have a just society composed of amoral or immoral people. One cannot have a prosperous society filled with mutual dependents. One cannot have an altruistic society based on the premise of sacrificing others to one’s cause. The notion that society is an abstract self-sustaining and independent thing that can act upon others and can transform them into something more positive and different is false at its very core. Society is made up of acting individuals or agents.
It is difficult to confine an argument on the inhumane effects of centralized power to a few choice observations, while failing to address the shortcomings of decentralization. But it should be said that conservatives are not anti-government in the sense that we desire a “dog eat dog” world where everyone is left to suffer the cruelties of fate on his own. On the contrary, we want each individual to be valued for who he or she is as a unique human being.
Thus, individuals should be protected both here at home and abroad. They should have a way to exploit their unique talents to support themselves and provide valued goods and services to others, like the free market affords them the opportunity to do. The fruits of people’s labor should be protected from theft and not redistributed to those who don’t labor by choice, or to those whose work is not valued in the market, or to bureaucrats not needed in a government. Individuals should be free to help one another without obstruction or manipulation. They should be free not to help others and to suffer the consequences for their abstention from society. It is often futile to attempt to help people against their will.
But to make absolutely clear the most succinct expression of why centralized government does not work, it is this: it is founded on a misunderstanding of the nature of human beings as living creatures and attempts to replace their rational minds with a method of impersonal and universal social conditioning, which supposedly leads to a more harmonious society. More specifically, central government attempts to transform men into unselfish creatures. But since society is not an autonomous thing that is self-directing, and any government set up to protect or benefit individuals must necessarily be directed by individuals, there will always be the opportunity for self-interested individuals to position themselves in power and to exploit the system for their personal gain. This is unavoidable. That is why the introduction of altruism into government is not compassionate, it is fatal. As Ayn Rand would point out, it leads inevitably to men becoming sacrificial animals for the state.
Briefly, what is man’s nature and what is the state? Drawing on a number of great thinkers will make this clear to all.
As Ludwig von Mises opened one of his many great works:
“Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.”
This is an academic way of saying, “Man is the being that thinks and acts.” Man is also a political animal, as Aristotle pointed out. The purposes for which governments are founded by men (i.e. mankind) are addressed by John Locke, who was very influential with our Founders. In essence, the reasons for government are to promote security, peace, and the possibility of prosperity and happiness. Men and women do not found government for others to be their manipulators or exploiters.
So what is government? I believe Rose Wilder Lane in her excellent The Discovery of Freedom had it exactly right.
“Men in Government have no more power to control others than any man has. What they have is the use of force—command of the police and the army. Government, The State, is always a use of force, permitted by the general consent of the governed. [...]
There is no superhuman power in Government; men in Government have no natural nor Divine superiority to any other man. And no man can control another. No possible use of force can compel any individual to act. A use of force upon him can only hinder, restrict, or stop his acting.”
When James Madison penned in Federalist 51 that, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” he encompassed the full scope of the above argument. Madison understood human nature and government and we were fortunate enough to have him as our Constitution’s key framer.
The Constitution was therefore framed to both empower the government to carry out rightful ends and to restrain the government from pursuing immoral ends. The Bill of Rights was thus amended to The Constitution as a series of negatives making more explicit what the government could not do to people.
President Obama, and many intellectuals like him, profoundly and directly disagree with the entire premise of The Constitution. As the president stated during a 2001 interview about the Warren Court, “It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution… that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.”
It should be pointed out that a prerequisite for becoming president is to take an Oath of Office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The success of the United States following the Founding was unprecedented and indisputable. It advanced the cause of liberty for all, until Americans lost the leadership of the Founders, as should have been carried on by our intellectuals. We are now in danger of becoming more like the general lot of nations in world history, less exceptional and less free. Our refusal to engage moderates and intellectuals is now putting our nation in peril.
We have rested on The Founders’ laurels long enough. It is time to persuade those that can be reasoned with that the reasons for our nation’s freedoms are right and just. We must struggle for the soul of the republic, and that requires no longer conceding our best minds to the machinations of the state.