This is the third contribution to ISI's symposium, Conservatism: What's Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?
If Russell Kirk was right in saying that conservatism is a disposition, not a program, then one should not presume to lecture one’s fellows on the way in which it ought to head. I offer the following thoughts, then, not as a program, but as one conservative scholar’s considered stance concerning some of the most important issues of our time.
When asked, as I often am, I tell people that I am a Jeffersonian in my political outlook. To some extent, I suppose that every intellectual is a Jeffersonian, more or less, in his approach to the world. This holds true even for those of us, and I certainly am one, who come to conclusions markedly different from Jefferson’s on this issue or that. For Jefferson, the world was a grand smorgasbord of areas of study, of things to learn, and his thinking reflected the latest currents of his time. To that extent, he was a liberal, constantly denigrating inherited wisdom qua inherited wisdom—which is why I disagree with Clyde Wilson’s argument for Jefferson as a great conservative. Yet, even insofar as we intellectuals end up at loggerheads with Jefferson, we generally do not do so without having subjected our ideas to serious consideration. In that, we are Jeffersonians.
But not necessarily in political outlook. When it comes to foreign policy, in particular, Jefferson’s career was a debacle. He and James Madison, his great coadjutor, launched America on a 19th-century foreshadowing of the Carter Administration, insisting despite an ongoing world war (France vs. the world) in which neither combatant was a friend to the United States that America could not only remain neutral, but virtually disarm. If the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prodded Carter in 1979 to abandon talk of “inordinate fear of Communism,” repeated failed attempts at economic coercion moved James Madison to come as close as he thought his presidential role allowed to asking Congress to declare war on Great Britain. Congress complied, just as in 1979 it would accept Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s request to augment military spending, thus launching America on the Reagan arms buildup two years before Reagan took office.
Adventurism Abroad Threatens Liberty at Home
So fuzzy-eyed idealism of a liberal variety will not do. Yet, the Jeffersonian tenet that playing the diplomatic game would undermine republicanism has if anything acquired additional force from America’s post-1916 experience. While Jefferson in his 1801 First Inaugural explained abolishing all federal taxes other than the tariff by reference to an imperative to let labor keep the bread it has earned, today’s welfare-warfare state employs Milton Friedman’s preemptive taxation (“withholding”) to claim a large share of employees’ incomes before they ever see it. President Nixon may prudentially have called a halt to military conscription, but young men still must enroll in the unconstitutional system. As a result of foreigners’ resentment of, and resistance to, America’s ubiquitous meddling in conflicts about which American policymakers generally know naught, citizens now endure indignities at the hands of the TSA, snooping on the part of the NSA, death and maiming of young soldiers, and Fed-generated boom-bust cycles to pay for it all.
The central feature of America’s current diplomatic posture is devotion to various alliances. Most of them have outlived their usefulness. All of them date to the Cold War, when what conservatives and liberals alike took to be an existential threat to the United States from the USSR prompted Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to ring the Soviets with American alliances. Now, 22 years after Mikhail Gorbachev’s abolition of the Communist empire, American war vows to various third-rank states bring Americans precious little benefit in return for enormous costs, military and financial.
The situation cries out for reform. Inertia is not a conservative impulse, as Edmund Burke made clear; rather, the conservative favors reform in lieu of change. Conservatives should take the lead in a thoroughgoing reconsideration of the overblown role America now plays. We have no reason to think that we must forever play it. Even during the Cold War, critics such as Melvyn Krauss argued that America’s puffed-up posture weakened the West generally by opening the way for the Europeans in particular to abandon the military field; told that 10 or 15 years hence, America would no longer serve as World Gendarmerie, France, The Netherlands, Britain, Italy, South Korea, and even Germany and Japan could be expected to allocate more resources to maintenance of stable international relations.
The point is not that all American treaty commitments should be abandoned. It may be, for example, that serious deliberation would lead to the conclusion that we must continue to shoulder part of the burden of defense against China for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and some of their small neighbors. I am open to the idea that doing so is in America’s interest. Yet, there is clearly nothing conservative about the George W. Bush/John McCain project of “eliminat[ing] the evil-doers,” to say nothing of the Hillary Clinton/Madeleine Albright concept of the “indispensable nation” that dictates to all foreigners at all times, and it must be put out of our misery.
You Will See Your First Social Security Check ... in Hell
One might think that beginning with foreign policy, of all things, shows that I am in the grip of the bipartisan internationalist elite’s worldview, if only as a dissenter. He would be mistaken. Instead, I have begun with the category that has shaped our other governmental policies for nearly a century. So, for example, economic policy in the United States begins with foreign policy. America’s gigantic borrowing and currency inflation these past several decades are largely traceable to the Empire. The current depression resulted from the decision by George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan to finance the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars via currency inflation, which resulted in precisely the type of asset bubble and general economic contraction—boom and bust—that Austrian Business Cycle Theory predicted. Yes, America has other economic problems, and their effects will be even more calamitous, but first things first.
In the economic realm, too, I counsel a marked policy shift. Perhaps the needed economic course correction is so radical as to leap from Burke’s “reform” to his “change,” and leaves his “conservative” category altogether. If so, I remind you that Mel Bradford explained his famous book’s title by saying that when the world has gone far enough astray, what is needed isn’t conservatism but reaction. I note too that Hayek said he was not a conservative because he wanted more than merely stasis.
Social Security is completely unfunded. It cannot continue. Where something cannot continue, it will not continue. The same goes for Medicare. Conservatives should be screaming this from the rooftops. Instead, as I write, the Federal Government’s meddling in the Middle East has us close to yet another war. Trite metaphors—rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, blissfully ignorant—impose themselves. No one recognizes what everyone knows. I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s image of the annual meeting of the CPSU’s Central Committee, at which everyone clapped and clapped upon Stalin’s arrival for fear of being the first to stop clapping. The issue is not one of “saving Social Security,” but of salvaging what will be left when the borrowing binge ends. Wonks know it, but most people simply do not know. When at a recent family event I found myself explaining to three members of the older generation with graduate degrees what the significance of the figure $222 trillion was, all were dumbfounded.
God Is Not a Four-Letter Word
The third area requiring immediate exertion is of course the cultural. Although I recently wrote a biography of James Madison, whom I gave great credit for his underappreciated accomplishment of putting religion outside the realm of legitimate political debate in federal politics, I here make a radical proposal: conservatives must speak of religion more often. When it comes to art broadly considered—encompassing music, architecture, painting, and sculpture—the only way back is upward. Denude the artistic realm of Truth, and all it can do is wallow. Strumpets, sex, cacophony, and functionality are the predictable product.
In regard to questions such as gay marriage, abortion, prayer in school, and drugs, I say the same thing: point upward. No, there will not be a national religion, but there is no reason we should continue to pretend that the reasoning behind our stance regarding marriage or abortion is entirely secular. For one thing, everyone knows this posture is insincere. For another, invoking the actual arguments with purchase on our intellects is apt to persuade people. No more phony stories of George Washington kneeling in the snow, as if his “saintly” example were obviously one we should all follow; bogus tales only make us look dishonest or foolish. Tell the Truth directly.
Reverence for such as Washington (by all accounts an extremely good man—along with Neil Armstrong, one of two Americans thus far who will be remembered in a millennium) is what we can expect when we move the actual cult out of the mainstream. Have you noticed that the left does not follow this script? They do not pretend that religion does not matter. Jewish conservatives of various stripes, too, are perfectly comfortable referring to Americans, their history, and their culture as generally Christian, as I have heard Krauthammer, Savage, and Levin do in recent weeks. Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel. Instead, make your best argument.
Of course, neoconservatism, particularly of the West Coast Straussian variety, must be confronted. In general, people who subscribe to it are sympathetic to our cause. At root, however, they stand for the false account of America’s Revolutionary heritage laid out by John Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland, a divination of the Federal Government and the U.S. Military as a “Force for Good,” and subscription to the unconstitutional tradition of executive authority that began with Abraham Lincoln signing a warrant for the chief justice’s arrest and reached its recent nadir in the legal stylings of John Yoo. Inherent Authority is in contradistinction to the Constitution’s careful allocation of most war power to Congress, not the Executive. Alexander Hamilton wanted a Polish-style elected monarch exercising powers akin to George III’s, but that is not what the people ratified—whether Our Betters built Lincoln a temple or not.
And speaking of idolatry, various other accretions need to be pruned too. A Jefferson Memorial—any federal memorial—would have offended Thomas Jefferson’s constitutional sensibilities, and those of the ratifiers. So would Constitution Day. (Leave it to the Congress to create an unconstitutional celebration of the Constitution.) The State of the Union Address was abolished by Thomas Jefferson as monarchical, then resuscitated by megalomaniac Progressive Woodrow Wilson. “First Lady” was a title applied to Mary Lincoln in derision, but now attached to an unelected queen consort whose sole qualification is marital relation and whose budget for pursuing the cause of her fancy would make Prince Phillip blush. Let us get rid of the temples, the holiday, the speeches, and the queen (or, perish the thought, king).
One other element of the state worship for which we all now pay is the civil calendar. Over time, it has come to be festooned with holidays for several major voting constituencies—unions, Italians, veterans—besides Our Most Sovereign Presidents. Jettison all of these, too.
And in the place of it all, what? Citizenship. Let us begin to speak to our fellows as citizens to be respected, not consumers to be sold or constituents to be manipulated. In foreign policy, economic policy, and the culture, America faces very grave problems. With some of them, such as the momentous abortion epidemic, the elites deal by simply keeping us in the dark: no images ever appear on television. (Lots of gassed Syrians, but no aborted Americans.) In regard to others, such as the gigantic unfunded obligations, they simply ignore or deny what everyone knows. Sometimes, as in regard to what “marriage” means, they do whatever a mobilized constituency wants. Let us meet them with perfect candor.
Aristotle said that if we want to arrive at the truth, “First we call things by their right names.” There is nothing new under the sun.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times bestselling author of four books. Professor of history at Western Connecticut State University, Gutzman devotes his intellectual energy to teaching courses in the Revolutionary and constitutional history of the United States, to writing books and articles in these fields, and to public speaking on related topics. His books include The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, James Madison and the Making of America, and Who Killed the Constitution? (with Thomas Woods).