By David Beilstein
OVER at Front Porch Republic, a website dedicated to the glories of agrarian paleo-conservatism and its vagaries, Andrew Bacevich wrote an interesting post. What is interesting to consider about Bacevich’s article is how clearly it exegetes the political considerations consuming classical liberal paradigms and polities. More importantly, Bacevich’s post demonstrates the enormous disconnect between the Republican Party and varieties of conservative thought the GOP used to be able to count on for voting support.
As an independent, I am not especially interested in the fortunes of either party. I am interested in seeing an authentic conservatism have a place in our politics. Otherwise, liberalism in various guises dominates.
Bacevich seems to presume conservatism can germinate in a vacuum. British history contradicts this ‘neutral’ sentimentality. When Winston Churchill rose to power after Prime Minister Clement Atlee in England institutionalized democratic socialism, even Churchill The Great could not reverse the statist creep. Likewise, the Iron Lady Margret Thatcher was able to send statism into quiet remission – but again, she could not roll it back. The lavish British Empire has never returned to its classical liberal riches experienced before the socialistic crusade by Prime Minister Atlee.
Bacevich’s mistake is to assume that an Obama administration in comparison to a Romney administration does not create particular kinds of polity soil, more – or less – hostile to greater classical liberal parturition, governmentally and culturally. An Obama administration institutionalizes democratic socialism at the highest levels of the U.S. Government, etiolating wealth creation, civil liberties – the rights of free minds and markets. When people become dependent on government, it is almost impossible to role that back. Such dependency institutionalized amidst greater masses of the American populace will create a subjugation of state and individuals ability to preserve the localism and traditions of their communities.
A Romney administration would have provided much more ability to harness the separated powers of federalism against statist intrusion on state and individual sovereignty. Likewise, it would have slowed socialism’s ability to institutionalize itself, hurling America into deeper financial insolvency. The choice between an Obama or Romney presidency was, therefore, significant – far more so, than Mr Bacevich assumes. Lastly, a Romney administration would have made it much easier for paleo-conservatives to wrest the GOP away from the progressive and neo-“conservative” ideology poisoning it.
It is also of vast importance before going further to define liberalism. Bacevich seems to see political conservatism as opposed to liberalism, rather than seeing American conservatism as a “conservator” of liberalism in the classical sense. Conservatives are, thus, liberals in an American context. What needs to be understood is, “modern” liberals are not liberal, but progressive leftists. They are socialistic progressives.
I don’t view liberalism as inherently evil. It’s liberals rather than conservatives who have advanced the cause of racial and gender equality – a genuine accomplishment. When it comes to social justice, again, it’s liberals not conservatives who have made a difference. That said, liberalism needs a counterweight. Its excesses need to be checked.
Bacevich seems to be confusing ideological paradigms. It seems he reduces the etymology of conservatism to simply mean “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.” This is untrue. There is no greater environment for change than free markets and free minds. A society based in a creed of inalienable rights, where merit rises above class, race, sex, etc., is a society destined to continuous change. Federalism was the concept the Framers saw as a guide to reduce the excesses of change, giving more power to local municipalities. Still, the entire point of classical liberalism, politically, induces change, especially long-term. As President Abraham Lincoln advised, in America, one can rise to the loftiest heights and descend to the lowest bowels, in a short lifetime, because there is no system inherently protecting people from such oscillation.
The worst way to preserve things as they have always been is to allow citizens to be sovereign individuals with rights established apart from, and subsequently, above the reach of the state. If people are sovereign and the state a contract of a sovereign people, change is inevitable. In the American schema then, no longer would family or class dictate one’s station in life, but merit would be the driving force of in this temporal age. Merit is much more easily turned upside down because of the transient nature of life. For example, the Declaration of Independence made African slavery a problem in America. Slavery became an aberration to human endeavor because of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution made the institution of slavery alien to the creed of America, thus the slave’s stature from that point onward was destined to change – to become different, then it had been generations into the past.
Without the Framer’s composition of The Declaration of Independence, there would be no source upon which monumental change in the culture of slavery could bare fruit. And indeed the change in society in relation to gender equality, social justice, etc., was predicated upon a liberalism of the classical paradigm. It was the Federal Government controlled by racists and other bigots that defeated the armies of change – for it threatened the traditions of those privileged in the past, not based upon merit, but on station. Frederick Douglas did much to point this out and Douglas was a pure classical liberal. The more consistent Americans conserved liberalism in the classical sense, the more freedom to innovate and induce change in society and culture.
More from Bacevich:
What passes for conservatism these days in mainstream American politics is not authentic. When it comes to essentials, it’s not actually all that much different from or better than what passes for liberalism.
Bacevich is correct. Crede, ut intelligas has been trying to explicate this point. I have attacked the mainstream conservative movement and the Republican Party for not being comprehensively conservative throughout much of my blogging. The proper lights of classical liberalism happens to be one of the purposes of this blog. Bacevich’s indifference to an Obama or Romney presidency misses the entire point of the ideological battle; a battle needing more troops, and more munitions.
In recent decades, the Republican Party’s version of conservatism has emphasized three major themes:
First, in the realm of political economy, Republicans favor small government and unbridled capitalism, looking to the market to solve our domestic problems. Second, in the realm of foreign policy, Republicans favor big government and unbridled activism, looking to the military to prolong the American Century. Third, in the realm of culture, Republicans have spoken in defense of so-called traditional values, making much of their putative opposition to abortion and the defense of traditional marriage.
Republicans have made the first two themes the actual basis for policy. On the third theme, they have offered little more than symbolism and sanctimonious posturing. So the real guts of GOP conservatism in recent decades have focused on unleashing the market and the military – less state regulation of the economy, more state resources funneled to the Pentagon. I submit that neither of these qualifies as a genuinely conservative position. To the extent that I have accurately characterized the Romney campaign’s position, I am glad Romney lost.
I reject Bacevich’s premise. The GOP has blocked pure capitalism; embracing a fetid version of crony-capitalism. That is not free market capitalism. Big difference! The conflation, is, an error. Like the GOP’s Democratic Party opposition, it has subsidised state-run capitalism.
On foreign policy, Bacevich makes several good points, but clarification is needed. The U.S. Constitution gives unprecedented power to the Federal Government for to combat international thugs threatening American security and interests. The Constitution gives very little power to the state over sovereign citizens (especially their consensual choices) in relation to domestic issues. This is something the cats over at Front Porch Republic cannot seem to comprehend. Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution gives immense war powers to Congress, and Article II, Section 2, gives like-powers to the President of the United States as Commander-and-Chief.
Bacevich is correct that Republicans of late have favoured unbridled activism in the world militarily. This has been a large mistake in contradiction to classical liberal thinking of the constrained vision paradigm of natural law. This does not mean, however, an active foreign policy is against the Constitution without exegesis. In illustration, the Iraq War was constitutional. The Bush administration followed Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Section 2. A Joint Senate Resolution authorizing military force is a Declaration of War (Article I, Section 8). The Constitution does not prescribe the exact wording of such a declaration. Whether the Iraq War was wise – another matter entirely – or whether it was consistent with classical liberalism — is again, another matter.
Too often these folks turn away from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the way they interpreted Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Section II.
The larger point though is – what is constitutional and what is in fidelity to classical liberalism? For instance, there are ways, constitutionally, to ban alcohol if one has the votes to do so under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in Florida, for example. Such a vote, however, would not be consistent with Enlightenment ideas about law and about human behaviour.
What can be passed as law constitutionally, is not necessarily consistent with liberalism in the classical paradigm.
Bacevich’s larger point is accurate enough. The GOP has bought into social engineering when it comes to foreign policy and it has failed. But the Democratic Party under Barack Obama has double-downed on that error (without following Article I, Section 8) in regards to Libya and North Africa. The Republican Party would do well to return to the Reagan foreign policy post-Lebanon — America as lethal foe poised in defense, not police force for the world. Republican’s honoured this tradition until George H.W. Bush began sending troops all over land and sea for humanitarian missions and the like.
It was an unwise move.
Bacevich seems to make more of a progressive argument when he chimes in about the GOP “unleashing” the market while funneling state resources to the military. I have my doubts the GOP has unleashed the market place. They have not. Secondly, military spending as apart of GDP is low. The U.S. Constitution does not allow for much regulation of the state — but it does force the Federal Government to protect and defend American citizens. Our financial mess in America is because of entitlement spending, not military spending. That is so obvious Bacevich’s gas here is hard to understand. Entitlement spending is the reason for budgetary madness. Likewise, the duties of national security have grown complicated and more nuanced. The collapse of other world powers the last century places a larger burden on America to defend itself and build allies in security.
The U.S. Constitution does not describe a small government; it sets the parameters for a limited government based upon enumerated powers confined to checks and balances. The powers given to the state to protect national security are immense – the powers given to the state to shape culture, lording over people’s individual lives, are again, almost non-existent.
Those things left out of the constitution are delegated to the states in the 10th Amendment. Writers at Front Porch Republic have never had much reflection on this relationship in the articles I have read.
Bacevich ends with saying he is glad Romney lost based upon his above conclusions. This semblance of contrariness aids only impuissance; for it is a jackass comment based on my above points. If you agree with all of Bacevich’s political ideology, then an Obama presidency makes it harder to realise Bacevich’s own stated political preferences. ObamaCare makes Federalism harder to develop; Obama’s regulatory state etiolates localism, fostering greater breakdown of place and custom. And President Obama’s wild-eyed foreign policy makes it harder to withdraw and get back to a constrained idea of American military might.
The list goes on.
Romney had significant ideas that harnessed federalism and localism – all FPR ideals. Both would have enabled a more consistent and comprehensively classically liberal (conservative) impetus for policy to immerge. Both would have innovated place and custom over statist leviathan. Both would have placed more control not less to individuals and states.
The reelection of Barack Obama dissipates both. Ron Paul waged his war during the GOP primaries mostly against Rick Santorum and Michele Bachman because Mitt Romney had more libertarian views than other moderate Republican candidates.
The essence of conservatism should be to conserve, showing respect for what is good in our inheritance. I refer both to our human inheritance and our inheritance in the natural world.
The market does not conserve. Capitalism is good for one thing: creating wealth. As an arena in which the pursuit of profit takes precedence over all other considerations, the market destroys much of what conservatives should value.
Hm. Bacevich treats conservatism here as little more than an adjective, not a nuanced ideology. As I wrote earlier, the locus of conservatism is what it is “conserving.” The historical, culturally, and polity context of a particular entity determines what kind of conservatism is being defined. The late Frederick Hayek used to talk about America being the only place where to be conservative, meant being liberal – free minds, free markets, and private property. This is in stark contrast to other forms of political conservatism in other countries.
American conservatism animates the free market and individual autonomy, not to conserve, but to animate liberty, and unleash human mobility based on the individual conceptions of happiness. American conservatism, then, animates individual freedom; it unleashes individual autonomy. The rule of law helps animate orderly boundaries, preserving individaul rights and property against coalesced state usurpation.
Capitalism does far more than produce just wealth; it induces orderly, societal, morality. It does this because to succeed the individual’s market involvement is based solely on serving – on producing something for fellow individuals. In the free market place, an individual has to produce something, fix something, or provide a service someone wants or needs, before he can claim his own monetary reword. If one desires to have pizza on a balmy Saturday, one must first produce something for someone else. One can speculate, then, the less capitalistic America; the less economically free citizens have become, the less moral they are; for there is far more people in American society who enjoy the monetary benefits of wealth, yet do not produce goods or services concomitant to their usage.
The production of goods and services for ones fellow man, millions of times over, as the root of ones own prosperity, then, is of fundamental importance in producing and maintaining a basic morality in an orderly civitas. Capitalism distributes wealth based upon service to neighbour, thus it preserves and animates moral accountability. Free markets are only the consequence of libertas of the individual. The values conservatives hold require freedom; progressivism limits that freedom. Market places riddled with overregulation impede upon the innovation and preservation of individual, local and state economies. And it impoverishes self-dependence, an immoral creed. Over regulation impoverishes and creates victims of those on the lowest economic ladder. Thus, market dislocation is created – the poor bare the burdens most heavily in such a system. Bacevich misses this entirely. His last line is throwaway leftist agitprop. The market place animates what conservatives’ value, and it is the intrusion of the state, of big government, that has dissipated the culture and values conservatives hold dear.
Bacevich’s error, it seems, is drawing a very small circle around his definition of what he thinks conservatism entails. A false dilemma. It is also important to understand conservatism is not the answer for all of life. It is the answer in terms of how society is organised in terms of polity.
More from Bacevich,
Second, conservatives should lead the way in protecting the family from the hostile assault mounted by modernity. The principal threat to the family is not gay marriage. The principal threats are illegitimacy, divorce, and absent fathers. Making matters worse still is a consumer culture that destroys intimate relationships, persuading children that acquiring stuff holds the key to happiness and persuading parents that their job is to give children what the market has persuaded them to want.
I agree. With less than 4% of the population homosexual or lesbian and of that percentage 1% demanding marriage rights, I’ve never understood the GOP animus toward gay marriage in terms of Federal law. The U.S. Constitution gives no jurisdiction of marriage to the federal government. It is not the federal government’s business. It is a state issue. Move on! Do not misunderstand, I understand the Biblical teaching against homosexuality; I simply don’t understand the political issue with it. Holy Scripture teaches fornication is a sin too, but the GOP cultural warriors have never tried to make sure all sexual gymnastics between consenting adults require marriage licenses.
Still, one could argue based on empirical evidence (Bacevich makes the point!) it is fornication, more than homosexuality that threatens the fabric of cultural sobriety. That’s because there isn’t much of the population that is homosexual. Bacevich is correct, then, in assigning far larger cultural breakdown to heterosexual relationships. That is a large issue and it is of foundational importance in understanding the cultural attenuation in the broader American culture.
Finally, when it comes to foreign and national security policies, conservatives should be in the forefront of those who advocate realism and modesty. Conservatives should abhor the claims of American dominion that have become such a staple of our politics. Saving humanity is God’s business, not America’s. Sure, we need a strong military. But its purpose should be to defend the country, not to run the world. And anytime Washington decides it needs to fight a war, then popular support should going beyond cheering.
I agree! The GOP; mainstream conservatives; have thoroughly walked away from this insight. I wrote a handful of blogs on the drift away from a constrained vision of American purpose in foreign policy. American foreign policy is aimed at preserving American security and sovereign status – not other countries. American foreign policy is American-centric.
The dimensions Bacevich illuminates, however, are why the Republican Party bleeds more and more support. The importance of Bacevich’s piece, is in showing how disconnected the GOP is from its base. Thirty years ago, it can be imagined Bacevich would have small complaints with the GOP, certainly, but he would not declare himself as “glad” the Republican candidate for president lost to an avowed leftist. This reality, will continue to shrink the support the party assumes going forward – sentencing it to even more political irrelevancy. And it also shows how far the GOP has slipped from a relatively consistent classical liberal boundary.