Sam Tanenhaus, an editor of The New York Times, has written a book, blessedly short, that announces the extinction of conservatism. The announcement implies that libertarianism may soon follow, because most of Tanenhaus’ criticisms of “conservatives” — involving their friendship to small government, for example, and their emphasis on the original provisions of the Constitution — also apply to libertarians.
“On the great issues of the day,” says the author, “the conservatives are silent.” Is his hearing impaired? It’s hard to believe the rebellion on the right hasn’t reached his ears, even above the New York traffic noise. The book was, I suspect, timed to surf the wave of Obamania, now largely dissipated.
Whatever its intent, author Tanenhaus does what previous critics of the American Right have done — choose a non-threatening politician or man of letters (in this case, Edmund Burke), label him an exemplary conservative, and dismiss those to his right as kooks, extremists, or in the present author’s terms, movement or revanchist conservatives. Of course, these “movement conservatives” are blind to realities, unattuned to the unique forces of modernity that have created problems requiring new solutions, negating the wisdom of the free market and the Constitution.
Ah, yes, a new age has dawned, one of revitalized liberalism. Conservatives must now decide whether to “shine in reflective radiance, or spin futilely on their lonely, unlit orbit.” Worse yet, conservatives today resemble the “exhumed figures of Pompeii,” those killed in the pyroclastic flow of Vesuvius. The author’s hyperbole makes me wonder whether he believes his own thesis. But wait, there’s more: conservatives have killed themselves off by denying the politics of consensus, by being (gasp!) un-Burkean.
Author Tanenhaus refers often to Burke. In describing the relationship of elected representatives to their constituents, however, he leapfrogs Burke and chooses a passage from Walter Bagehot: “Those who desire a public career must look to the views of the living public. . . . You cannot, [though] many people wish you could, go into parliament to represent yourself. You must . . . conform to the opinions of the electors.” Burke famously rejected such a view in his speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774): “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
To Burke, human beings err, singularly or in crowds, but the species is wise, and its wisdom is revealed in history and tradition. A key to his thinking is his devotion to the English constitution, that great unwritten document, the product of a thousand years of political experience and common law jurisprudence. It became his model for the evolution of settled societies and led him to denounce the British East India Company for its insults to the ancient cultures of India, and the French Revolutionists for their imposition of dogma on an entire nation without regard for its ordering traditions. Representation of the people’s immediate wishes had nothing to do with Burke’s political principles.
But what exactly turned American conservatives into corpses? Here, Tanenhaus is short on substance, except to show they sometimes lose elections. Oh, yes, and most of them did favor an offensive posture in the Cold War. They opposed arms treaties and test bans. But the author never mentions that the Soviets violated nearly every agreement they made with the United States (as Barry Goldwater liked to point out), and there was little reason to trust them. Nor did he mention that the offensive posture assumed by Ronald Reagan probably aided the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Tanenhaus adds this odd criticism: “These conservative intellectuals recognize no distinction between analysis and advocacy, or between the competition of ideas and the naked struggle for power.” The statement is surprisingly arbitrary, even for what the dust jacket calls “a sweeping history.” One finds it difficult to recall conservatives or libertarians whom this characterization would fit. It is true that James Burnham, whom Tanenhaus describes with respect, thought there were no such distinctions to be made. In “The Managerial Revolution,” he wrote that the flow of political power runs inevitably toward the government by way
It is the conservative (and of course the libertarian) suspicion of political solutions that Tanenhaus resents.
of the corporation and its managerial class, which ultimately becomes a power elite. The process, he said, was unstoppable, and issues and ideologies were mere instruments in the struggle for power. But Burnham, perhaps the most pessimistic of recent conservatives, was hardly a fool. His predictions are now even more sobering.
Indeed it is the conservative (and of course the libertarian) suspicion of political solutions that Tanenhaus resents. He sees it as “the politics of enmity, of polarizing devisiveness” and asks, “Why does the contemporary right define itself less by what it wants to conserve than by what it wants to destroy: ‘statist’ social programs; ‘socialized medicine’; ‘activist Supreme Court justices’; the ‘media elite’; ‘tenured radicals’ on university faculties; ‘experts’ in and out of government?”
Answer: because all these things represent threats to what thinking people should want to conserve — personal freedom, private property, social stability, the right to keep what they earn, say what they think, and think what they please. The author complains that the “movement” conservative has stood by the same principles for years, while the majority of voters and their representatives have consistently violated them— abetted, I would add, by that media elite and those activist Supreme Court justices.
It is well to remember the warnings of the Old Right intellectuals, such as Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, who influenced both the conservative and the libertarian movements. Chodorov, free market advocate and antiwarrior, sketched the process in which “the state, in its insatiable lust for power, destroys “the economy of society,” and with it society’s “moral and cultural values” (see Chodorov’s essay “Economics Versus Politics”). Rather like Burnham, Chodorov saw this process as inevitable — unless the state kept its hands off the economy. Perhaps it’s time for an Old Right revival.
Tanenhaus speaks well of Whittaker Chambers, a conservative who recognized “historic realities.” He thought that the growing reliance on government was a product of the machine, which made the economy socialistic. Why that should be, I do not know. It hardly seems the product of the careful “analysis” that Tanenhaus prizes. What would Chambers have thought of the internet, a novelty that has made people less dependent on government — on the post office, the public library, even the public schools?
But to Sam Tanenhaus, the times require more government, and Chambers’ insights therefore delight him. He praises Chambers as not only Burkean, but Disraelian.
But was Disraeli Jeffersonian, or Madisonian? Disraeli’s countrymen — and Burke’s, of course — lived under a regime only recently evolved from various forms of despotism. They gained their liberties by a sort of historic adverse possession. They were, and, to a degree, still are subjects of a monarchy and its anointed and hereditary heirs.
And this brings me to American exceptionalism — the belief that our founding documents and the Republic they established were something new in history, as new as the New World that produced them. The founding documents, admittedly, have not prevented the growth of the Federal Register and the bureaucratic army that soaks up what used to be the public treasury. But Tanenhaus doesn’t see the corruption of American ideals as wrong. He simply redefines the ideals. He promotes moderate Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wants his party to do “what people want rather than get- ting stuck in your ideology.” But it was doing what people wanted, or thought they wanted, that got California into the fiscal mess it’s in right now. And it was similar conduct by Congress that led to the banking mess. So much for the politics of consensus, which Lady Thatcher defined as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects.”
So are traditional American principles really dead? Of course not. There is plenty of evidence for their vitality, an example of which is Mark Levin’s feisty little book, “Liberty and Tyranny.” The title reflects the idea that in the long run, Americans must choose between those two conditions, and if they choose liberty, they must defend the Constitution.
Levin substitutes the word “statist” for “(modern) liberal,” which may please libertarians, who frequently, and with good cause, call themselves classical liberals. And what Tanenhaus calls “moderate,” Levin calls “neo-Statist”: “An ‘effective’ government that operates outside its constitutional limitations is a dangerous government. By abandoning principles for efficiency, the neo-Statist, it seems, is no more bound by the Constitution than is the Statist.” He goes on to say that the neo- statist “seeks to devour conservatism by clothing himself in its nomenclature.” True conservatism is the antidote to tyranny because “its principles are the founding principles.”
The statist, he argues, has brought the nation to its present condition by hypnotizing the electorate with a utopian vision. Having done so, he chips away at property rights, the value of the currency, and, in advocating the rationing of medical treatment, even the right to live. Individual rights must give way to the statist vision — society must be fine-tuned; equality of outcome must replace equality before the law. This new equality is to be justified by a new kind of rights, whose definition blurs the concept of legitimate rights. Levin quotes C.S. Lewis: “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
To Levin, the Constitution says what it said in 1789. It doesn’t allow for the dreams of “progressive jurisprudence,” which envision the separation of individual liberty from property rights and mandated social and economic equality — all of which might, to quote Thomas Jefferson, turn the Constitution into a “blank paper by construction.” Levin points out that Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein would have it that way. Sunstein, Obama’s appointee to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, believes that the distribution of wealth arises not from productive capacity but from a “coercive system of legal rights and obligations.” If the homeless are without a roof, it’s because the laws of property are enforced to evict them. As Levin points out, to dismember private property from liberty is to make the individual dependent on government for his sustenance — and of course, that government would include Cass Sunstein.
Levin addresses the assault on federalism. In pursuit of his utopian dreams, the statist finds a nation of federated states inconvenient — all those little governments solving their own problems in their own way. But he was assisted by those who would improve upon something they could never have created. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution (1913) denied state legislatures the power to elect senators. Later, the Supreme Court, in Wickard
v. Filburn (1942), extended federal regulatory power to enterprises operating entirely within a state’s boundaries; power flowed from the states to the federal government by the process of judicial review. That power flow has led to an expensive federal bureaucracy, monitoring the minute details of every- day life, even including toilet flow.
And as the author shows, it put lead fetters on the swift legs of the free market. The market rewards virtue — prudence, diligence, thrift, a positive view of life and of the self. Private property is acquired by productive effort; consumption is the incentive for production. As Chodorov said, “A slave is a poor producer, not because he lies down on the job, but because he’s a poor consumer.” The government’s power to tax and regulate leads to higher prices and lost productivity. When tax rates are graduated, and tax money flows from one voting block or “class” to another, social cooperation becomes class warfare. By taking from one and giving to another, the statist adds to the troubles of both — lowering productivity, reducing the number of jobs.
The federal government’s amazing ability to make a mess of things is evidenced in the recent collapse of the housing market. Liberalizing bank-loan policy to offset alleged racial discrimination in granting loans, compelling banks to hold minorities to a lower standard, encouraging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up questionable loans with taxpayers’ dollars — all of this pushed the home-loan market to the brink. And of course, the crude, almost contemptuous broadcasting of more federal dollars couldn’t possibly solve the resulting problems. As Levin says, the money didn’t add value to the economy. Here again, the republic was badly served by the politics of consensus.
And Levin describes the ordeal of the oil industry, hamstrung by the statist’s energy policies. As you might expect, when the price of gasoline goes up, statist politicians blame the oil companies, which labor under the burdens placed on them by the state. Meanwhile, tax subsidies flow to farmers for producing such biofuel precursors as corn and sugar cane, when there is no real need for the biofuels. These subsidies are necessary because the product would not be produced without them. It never occurs to the statist to let things alone, to let the free market provide biofuels, when a real demand arises. Why not? Because the statist isn’t after solutions; he’s after power. If food prices
Tanenhaus doesn’t see the corruption of American ideals as wrong. He simply redefines the ideals.
rise because farmers are producing less for human consumption and more for biofuels — well, who cares? Perhaps the statist could blame the farmer, just as he blames the oil industry.
Now, we have the crisis of the automobile companies, finally bled dry by the United Auto Workers. The union buzzards, with powers granted by the Wagner Act, stripped the industry of profits and pricing flexibility. Unable to compete with foreign producers, the American car industry may disappear in the way Big Steel did, and for the same reasons. And as Levin points out, supporters of Big Labor blame the loss of jobs, not on themselves, but on the industry — for “outsourcing.”
But believe it or not, the welfare state doesn’t seem half bad, once you get to enviro-statism. The chapter on this subject is the high point of Levin’s book and worth careful reading and reflection. One neglected issue it takes up is the astounding case of DDT. Use of this chemical, once widely praised as an insecticide, was banned in the United States by EPA Director William Ruckelshaus in 1972, acting on claims of toxicity that were largely chimerical. The World Health Organization followed with its own ban, making the prohibition, in effect, worldwide. But when DDT was used, it saved millions from death by insect-borne diseases, especially malaria. Its shelving may have killed more people than Pol Pot’s rampages in Cambodia.
Fuel economy standards have added to the death toll of misconceived environmental programs. Lighter cars, as Levin argues, have led to more highway deaths and more serious injuries. Yet, undaunted in its quest for fuel economy, Congress has set even higher miles-per-gallon standards. The likelihood of more deaths in tin-can cars didn’t deter the politicians for whom the fashionable lie trumps the value of human life. To justify the tradeoff, they need only consult the environmental “experts” who act as if they considered humanity a blight on the planet.
Levin provides a list of looming disasters, each supposedly attributable to, of all things, global warming. In fine print, the list runs to three-and-a-half pages and includes such horrors as “Buddhist Temple threatened,” “circumcision in decline,” “hibernation ends too soon,” “hibernation ends too late.” From this level of imbecility comes the potentially ruinous cap-and-trade proposal now pending in Congress. Even the Supreme Court bought into the nonsense: it declared greenhouse gases subject to the Clean Air Act, extending the rule of the EPA by an end-run around the legislative process. And now we have a Global Warming Czar.
Levin ends his book with a call “to blunt the statist’s counterrevolution.” Is Levin’s list of imperatives irrational and outmoded, as Tanenhaus would have us believe? Well, let’s look at a few.
Eliminate the progressive income tax? Yes, of course. Why penalize success and discourage enterprise?
End the tax on inheritance (the aptly named death tax)? Yes, of course. Why rob the dead?
Reduce the federal workforce by 20%? Fine, for a start.
Eliminate the Federal Department of Education? Again, fine, for a start.
Fight all efforts to nationalize health care? By all means. Is there any basis for believing that socialized medicine is more effective than a free market in medicine?
I suspect that Edmund Burke would admire such a “conservative” program. In 1775, urging conciliation with the American revolutionaries, he said that in their character he discerned “a love of freedom . . . the predominating feature that marks and distinguishes the whole.” Forgive me, but in light of this saying, Sam Tanenhaus and his hero, Barack Obama, are not Burkeans. They’re merely New York Timeseans.