The Intellectual Incoherence of Conservatism
Most self-proclaimed contemporary conservatives are concerned, as they should be, about the decay of families, divorce, illegitimacy, loss of authority, multiculturalism, social disintegration, sexual libertinism, and crime. All of these phenomena they regard as anomalies and deviations from the natural order, or what we might call normalcy.
However, most contemporary conservatives (at least most of the spokesmen of the conservative establishment) either do not recognize that their goal of restoring normalcy requires the most drastic, even revolutionary, anti-statist social changes, or (if they know about this) they are engaged in betraying conservatism’s cultural agenda from inside in order to promote an entirely different agenda.
That this is largely true for the so-called neoconservatives does not require further explanation here. Indeed, as far as their leaders are concerned, one suspects that most of them are of the latter kind. They are not truly concerned about cultural matters but recognize that they must play the cultural-conservatism card so as not to lose power and promote their entirely different goal of global social democracy.1 The fundamentally statist character of American neoconservatism is best summarized by a statement of one of its leading intellectual champions Irving Kristol:
[T]he basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money—rather than having it transferred (via taxes to the state)—on the condition that they put it to certain defined uses. (Two Cheers for Capitalism [New York: Basic Books, 1978], p. 119)
This view is essentially identical to that held by modern, post-Marxist European Social-Democrats. Thus, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), for instance, in its Godesberg Program of 1959, adopted as its core motto the slogan “as much market as possible, as much state as necessary.”
A second, somewhat older but nowadays almost indistinguishable branch of contemporary American conservatism is represented by the new (post World War II) conservatism launched and promoted, with the assistance of the CIA, by William Buckley and his National Review. Whereas the old (pre-World War II) American conservatism had been characterized by decidedly anti-interventionist foreign policy views, the trademark of Buckley’s new conservatism has been its rabid militarism and interventionist foreign policy.
In an article, “A Young Republican’s View,” published in Commonweal on January 25, 1952, three years before the launching of his National Review, Buckley thus summarized what would become the new conservative credo: In light of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, “we [new conservatives] have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
Conservatives, Buckley wrote, were duty-bound to promote “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,” as well as the “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.”
Not surprisingly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, essentially nothing in this philosophy has changed. Today, the continuation and preservation of the American welfare-warfare state is simply excused and promoted by new and neo-conservatives alike with reference to other foreign enemies and dangers: China, Islamic fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein, “rogue states,” and the threat of “global terrorism.”
However, it is also true that many conservatives are genuinely concerned about family disintegration or dysfunction and cultural decline. I am thinking here in particular of the conservatism represented by Patrick Buchanan and his movement. Buchanan’s conservatism is by no means as different from that of the conservative Republican party establishment as he and his followers fancy themselves. In one decisive respect their brand of conservatism is in full agreement with that of the conservative establishment: both are statists. They differ over what exactly needs to be done to restore normalcy to the U.S., but they agree that it must be done by the state. There is not a trace of principled anti-statism in either.
Let me illustrate by quoting Samuel Francis, who was one of the leading theoreticians and strategists of the Buchananite movement. After deploring “anti-white” and “anti-Western” propaganda, “militant secularism, acquisitive egoism, economic and political globalism, demographic inundation, and unchecked state centralism,” he expounds on a new spirit of “America First,” which “implies not only putting national interests over those of other nations and abstractions like ‘world leadership,’ ‘global harmony,’ and the ‘New World Order,’ but also giving priority to the nation over the gratification of individual and subnational interests.”
How does he propose to fix the problem of moral degeneration and cultural decline? There is no recognition that the natural order in education means that the state has nothing to do with it. Education is entirely a family matter and ought to be produced and distributed in cooperative arrangements within the framework of the market economy.
Moreover, there is no recognition that moral degeneracy and cultural decline have deeper causes and cannot simply be cured by state-imposed curriculum changes or exhortations and declamations. To the contrary, Francis proposes that the cultural turn-around—the restoration of normalcy—can be achieved without a fundamental change in the structure of the modern welfare state. Indeed, Buchanan and his ideologues explicitly defend the three core institutions of the welfare state: social security, medicare, and unemployment subsidies. They even want to expand the “social” responsibilities of the state by assigning to it the task of “protecting,” by means of national import and export restrictions, American jobs, especially in industries of national concern, and “insulate the wages of U.S. workers from foreign laborers who must work for $1 an hour or less.”
In fact, Buchananites freely admit that they are statists. They detest and ridicule capitalism, laissez-faire, free markets and trade, wealth, elites, and nobility; and they advocate a new populist—indeed proletarian—conservatism which amalgamates social and cultural conservatism and socialist economics. Thus, continues Francis,
while the left could win Middle Americans through its economic measures, it lost them through its social and cultural radicalism, and while the right could attract Middle Americans through appeals to law and order and defense of sexual normality, conventional morals and religion, traditional social institutions and invocations of nationalism and patriotism, it lost Middle Americans when it rehearsed its old bourgeois economic formulas.
Hence, it is necessary to combine the economic policies of the left and the nationalism and cultural conservatism of the right, to create “a new identity synthesizing both the economic interests and cultural-national loyalties of the proletarianized middle class in a separate and unified political movement.”2 For obvious reasons this doctrine is not so named, but there is a term for this type of conservatism: It is called social nationalism or national socialism.
(As for most of the leaders of the so-called Christian Right and the “moral majority,” they simply desire the replacement of the current, left-liberal elite in charge of national education by another one, i.e., themselves. “From Burke on,” Robert Nisbet has criticized this posture, “it has been a conservative precept and a sociological principle since Auguste Comte that the surest way of weakening the family, or any vital social group, is for the government to assume, and then monopolize, the family’s historic functions.” In contrast, much of the contemporary American Right “is less interested in Burkean immunities from government power than it is in putting a maximum of governmental power in the hands of those who can be trusted. It is control of power, not diminution of power, that ranks high.”)
I will not concern myself here with the question of whether or not Buchanan’s conservatism has mass appeal and whether or not its diagnosis of American politics is sociologically correct. I doubt that this is the case, and certainly Buchanan’s fate during the 1995 and 2000 Republican presidential primaries does not indicate otherwise. Rather, I want to address the more fundamental questions: Assuming that it does have such appeal; that is, assuming that cultural conservatism and socialist economics can be psychologically combined (that is, that people can hold both of these views simultaneously without cognitive dissonance), can they also be effectively and practically (economically and praxeologically) combined? Is it possible to maintain the current level of economic socialism (social security, etc.) and reach the goal of restoring cultural normalcy (natural families and normal rules of conduct)?
Buchanan and his theoreticians do not feel the need to raise this question, because they believe politics to be solely a matter of will and power. They do not believe in such things as economic laws. If people want something enough, and they are given the power to implement their will, everything can be achieved. The “dead Austrian economist” Ludwig von Mises, to whom Buchanan referred contemptuously during his presidential campaigns, characterized this belief as “historicism,” the intellectual posture of the German Kathedersozialisten, the academic Socialists of the Chair, who justified any and all statist measures.
But historicist contempt and ignorance of economics does not alter the fact that inexorable economic laws exist. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, for instance. Or what you consume now cannot be consumed again in the future. Or producing more of one good requires producing less of another. No wishful thinking can make such laws go away. To believe otherwise can only result in practical failure. “In fact,” noted Mises, “economic history is a long record of government policies that failed because they were designed with a bold disregard for the laws of economics.”3
In light of elementary and immutable economic laws, the Buchananite program of social nationalism is just another bold but impossible dream. No wishful thinking can alter the fact that maintaining the core institutions of the present welfare state and wanting to return to traditional families, norms, conduct, and culture are incompatible goals. You can have one—socialism (welfare)—or the other—traditional morals—but you cannot have both, for social nationalist economics, the pillar of the current welfare state system Buchanan wants to leave untouched, is the very cause of cultural and social anomalies.
In order to clarify this, it is only necessary to recall one of the most fundamental laws of economics which says that all compulsory wealth or income redistribution, regardless of the criteria on which it is based, involves taking from some—the havers of something—and giving it to others—the non-havers of something. Accordingly, the incentive to be a haver is reduced, and the incentive to be a non-haver increased. What the haver has is characteristically something considered “good,” and what the non-haver does not have is something “bad” or a deficiency. Indeed, this is the very idea underlying any redistribution: some have too much good stuff and others not enough. The result of every redistribution is that one will thereby produce less good and increasingly more bad, less perfection and more deficiencies. By subsidizing with tax funds (with funds taken from others) people who are poor, more poverty (bad) will be created. By subsidizing people because they are unemployed, more unemployment (bad) will be created. By subsidizing unwed mothers, there will be more unwed mothers and more illegitimate births (bad), etc.
Obviously, this basic insight applies to the entire system of so-called social security that has been implemented in Western Europe (from the 1880s onward) and the U.S. (since the 1930s): of compulsory government “insurance” against old age, illness, occupational injury, unemployment, indigence, etc. In conjunction with the even older compulsory system of public education, these institutions and practices amount to a massive attack on the institution of the family and personal responsibility.
By relieving individuals of the obligation to provide for their own income, health, safety, old age, and children’s education, the range and temporal horizon of private provision is reduced, and the value of marriage, family, children, and kinship relations is lowered. Irresponsibility, shortsightedness, negligence, illness and even destructionism (bads) are promoted, and responsibility, farsightedness, diligence, health and conservatism (goods) are punished.
The compulsory old age insurance system in particular, by which retirees (the old) are subsidized from taxes imposed on current income earners (the young), has systematically weakened the natural intergenerational bond between parents, grandparents, and children. The old need no longer rely on the assistance of their children if they have made no provision for their own old age; and the young (with typically less accumulated wealth) must support the old (with typically more accumulated wealth) rather than the other way around, as is typical within families.
Consequently, not only do people want to have fewer children—and indeed, birthrates have fallen in half since the onset of modern social security (welfare) policies—but also the respect which the young traditionally accorded to their elders is diminished, and all indicators of family disintegration and malfunctioning, such as rates of divorce, illegitimacy, child abuse, parent abuse, spouse abuse, single parenting, singledom, alternative lifestyles, and abortion, have increased.
Moreover, with the socialization of the health care system through institutions such as Medicaid and Medicare and the regulation of the insurance industry (by restricting an insurer’s right of refusal: to exclude any individual risk as uninsurable, and discriminate freely, according to actuarial methods, between different group risks) a monstrous machinery of wealth and income redistribution at the expense of responsible individuals and low-risk groups in favor of irresponsible actors and high-risk groups has been put in motion. Subsidies for the ill, unhealthy and disabled breed illness, disease, and disability and weaken the desire to work for a living and to lead healthy lives. One can do no better than quote the “dead Austrian economist” Ludwig von Mises once more:
being ill is not a phenomenon independent of conscious will…. A man’s efficiency is not merely a result of his physical condition; it depends largely on his mind and will…. The destructionist aspect of accident and health insurance lies above all in the fact that such institutions promote accident and illness, hinder recovery, and very often create, or at any rate intensify and lengthen, the functional disorders which follow illness or accident…. To feel healthy is quite different from being healthy in the medical sense…. By weakening or completely destroying the will to be well and able to work, social insurance creates illness and inability to work; it produces the habit of complaining—which is in itself a neurosis—and neuroses of other kinds…. As a social institution it makes a people sick bodily and mentally or at least helps to multiply, lengthen, and intensify disease…. Social insurance has thus made the neurosis of the insured a dangerous public disease. Should the institution be extended and developed the disease will spread. No reform can be of any assistance. We cannot weaken or destroy the will to health without producing illness.4
I do not wish to explain here the economic nonsense of Buchanan’s and his theoreticians’ even further-reaching idea of protectionist policies (of protecting American wages). If they were right, their argument in favor of economic protection would amount to an indictment of all trade and a defense of the thesis that each family would be better off if it never traded with anyone else. Certainly, in this case no one could ever lose his job, and unemployment due to “unfair” competition would be reduced to zero.
Yet such a full-employment society would not be prosperous and strong; it would be composed of people (families) who, despite working from dawn to dusk, would be condemned to poverty and starvation. Buchanan’s international protectionism, while less destructive than a policy of interpersonal or interregional protectionism, would result in precisely the same effect. This is not conservatism (conservatives want families to be prosperous and strong). This is economic destructionism.
In any case, what should be clear by now is that most if not all of the moral degeneration and cultural decline—the signs of decivilization—all around us are the inescapable and unavoidable results of the welfare state and its core institutions. Classical, old-style conservatives knew this, and they vigorously opposed public education and social security. They knew that states everywhere were intent upon breaking down and ultimately destroying families and the institutions and layers and hierarchies of authority that are the natural outgrowth of family based communities in order to increase and strengthen their own power. They knew that in order to do so states would have to take advantage of the natural rebellion of the adolescent (juvenile) against parental authority. And they knew that socialized education and socialized responsibility were the means of bringing about this goal.
Social education and social security provide an opening for the rebellious youth to escape parental authority (to get away with continuous misbehavior). Old conservatives knew that these policies would emancipate the individual from the discipline imposed by family and community life only to subject him instead to the direct and immediate control of the state.
Furthermore, they knew, or at least had a hunch, that this would lead to a systematic infantilization of society—a regression, emotionally and mentally, from adulthood to adolescence or childhood.
In contrast, Buchanan’s populist-proletarian conservatism—social nationalism—shows complete ignorance of all of this. Combining cultural conservatism and welfare-statism is impossible, and hence, economic nonsense. Welfare-statism—social security in any way, shape or form—breeds moral and cultural decline and degeneration. Thus, if one is indeed concerned about America’s moral decay and wants to restore normalcy to society and culture, one must oppose all aspects of the modern social-welfare state. A return to normalcy requires no less than the complete elimination of the present social security system: of unemployment insurance, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, etc.—and thus the near complete dissolution and deconstruction of the current state apparatus and government power. If one is ever to restore normalcy, government funds and power must dwindle to or even fall below their nineteenth century levels. Hence, true conservatives must be hard-line libertarians (anti-statists). Buchanan’s conservatism is false: it wants a return to traditional morality but at the same time advocates keeping the very institutions in place that are responsible for the destruction of traditional morals.
Most contemporary conservatives, then, especially among the media darlings, are not conservatives but socialists—either of the internationalist sort (the new and neoconservative welfare-warfare statists and global social democrats) or of the nationalist variety (the Buchananite populists). Genuine conservatives must be opposed to both. In order to restore social and cultural norms, true conservatives can only be radical libertarians, and they must demand the demolition—as a moral and economic distortion—of the entire structure of the interventionist state.
Originally published March 2005.
- 1. On contemporary American conservatism see in particular Paul Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, rev. ed. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993); George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Burlingame, Calif.: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993); see further also chap. 11.
- 2. Samuel T. Francis, “From Household to Nation: The Middle American populism of Pat Buchanan,” Chronicles (March 1996): 12–16; see also idem, Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993); idem, Revolution from the Middle (Raleigh, N.C.: Middle American Press, 1997).
- 3. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Scholar’s Edition (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), p. 67. “Princes and democratic majorities,” writes Mises, “are drunk with power. They must reluctantly admit that they are subject to the laws of nature. But they reject the very notion of economic law. Are they not the supreme legislators? Don’t they have the power to crush every opponent? No war lord is prone to acknowledge any limits other than those imposed on him by a superior armed force. Servile scribblers are always ready to foster such complacency by expounding the appropriate doctrines. They call their garbled presumptions “historical economics.”
- 4. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 43, 1–32.