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January 5, 2002

Conserving Nothing


by Joseph Stromberg

To address this question, there is little need to tackle the present "war." The whole thing is a bit of a muddle anyway. War hasn't exactly been "declared" constitutionally, yet the whole thing can be said to rest on a broad-beamed class of 20th-century precedents, from at least 1940 forward. Combined with ad hoc international practices, best thought of as cases of getting away with something, these precedents are now said to constitute US and international "law."

This law, if such it is, rationalizes events of the following form: the President in his capacity as World Overlord spies a threat to our interests, sentimental delusions, or "highest national values." He undertakes to bribe, coerce, or bomb the offending parties – all civilian deaths being self-evidently accidental, of course. Congress "endorses" these measures after the fact. World order is saved and the public goes back to sleep.

What interests me here is the present situation as an occasion which reveals preexisting tendencies within the main body of what is laughingly referred as American conservatism. My implied question arises from the growing body of work which suggests that it is war, and war above all else, that has for more than a century promoted all those tendencies toward irresponsible, all-encompassing centralized statism which conservatives claim to deplore and oppose. Other questions naturally arise: Can't the conservatives spot this simple connection? Are they truly the stupid party? Alternatively, are their occasional allusions to freedom merely an elaborate pretense?


I have already written about some of the literature in question and will not take time on it now. Suffice it to say that, if Randolph Bourne, who famously wrote in World War I that "war is the health of the state," is too radical for conservatives, they can read Bruce Porter, Martin Van Creveld, Charles Tilly, or the two collections edited by John V. Denson.1 They might pause to consider whether Robert Taft, an authentic American conservative, had a point when he repeatedly underlined the connections between intrusive, even totalitarian, government and constant war and preparation for war. They might ask themselves whether Taft was necessarily less informed than, say, Barry Goldwater, for whom "defense" spending could never be too high. They might accidentally chance upon the Old Right thesis that war breeds statism in the works of Robert Nisbet or Richard M. Weaver.

This of course assumes that present-day conservatives actually care about their own supposed tradition and that they actually read. The evidence is somewhat cloudy on these two points. Jonah Goldberg lately alluded, at National Review Online, to the dim and foggy past when "isolationists" debated farseeing Buckleyites for the soul of the Right – back in the mid-1950s, or before the Flood, or whenever. It seems very remote and unreal to him, as well it might, considering that he was only born around 1990.

There is much evidence, as drawn from National Review and its allies and satellites, that conservatives knowingly ignore the linkage between war and runaway government growth. If they understand the connection and still call for war – any war – at the drop of a hat, just how much are their ritualistic protestations against a few of the details of big government worth? Not much, it would seem. If they don't understand the connection, how much faith can one have in their leadership qualities and overall acumen? Again, not much.

I don't believe the desktop field marshals of Official Conservatism are quite that dim. It follows that they do understand that the US Empire is not the old American Republic, that they know that the warfare state promotes the welfare state and that the welfare-warfare state erodes traditional American arrangements like federalism and enumerated powers, not to mention the whole array of traditional American liberties. It is odd, given the conservative movement's claim that it embodies the fight for tradition, that we hear very little from them these days about traditions of any kind, unless of course they are our military traditions of Total War and aerial bombardment. But the Tenth Amendment? You'll never hear about that from these characters.

When Newt strode history's stage a few years back, he spent much time praising FDR and the latter's many accomplishments. This should have been the last wake-up call, if one was still needed, for those who supposed that American conservatism had something to do with rolling back the New Deal. Conservatism suddenly stood revealed as the conservation of whatever the social democrats had put in place twenty or thirty years earlier, combined with even greater military spending than the social democrats might want.

Alas, the conservative movement talked a better game of liberty and tradition out of power than in. Frank Meyer, a gifted juggler of the inherently unstable "fusion" of overseas empire and domestic liberty, never faced the contradictions built into post-Taft conservatism.2 Within a few years of Meyer's death, right-wing Social Democrats traumatized by the New Left invaded the Right, producing a kind of "vital center-right" which must have stunned Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the prophet of the vital center.


Now the Right thronged with people who had never cared much for traditional American practices and ideas, in alliance with some who said they did. Happily, they could all agree on the central importance of an imperial foreign policy – and damn the domestic consequences. In this new atmosphere, a thin mist of idle rhetoric about tradition took the place of any defense of concrete American traditions. Freedom itself underwent redefinition as whatever freedom is actually possible within the framework of world empire. This rhetorical imposture is having a very good run right now. There is little wonder that the atmosphere at the Official Conservative flagship publications seems increasingly Hegelian.


A friend of mine likes to say that Albert Jay Nock combined an aristocratic posture with radical libertarian politics. Nock had two major disciples. One took on the aristocratic pose and discarded the politics over time. The second espoused Nock's politics and did not, or could not, take on the pose. The two disciples are of course William F. Buckley and Frank Chodorov.

This is a nice summary of the permanent split on the American Right. Issues of war and peace do not sum up the differences between the Old and the New Right, but they are at the heart of it. Lately, the masks have been slipping off at Official Conservative HQ. Mr. Michael Ledeen, sounding much like Leon Trotsky, calls on the empire to unleash permanent revolution on the unjust nations. Victor Davis Hanson announces that something like Total War is the central tenet of Western Civilization. Larry Kudlow calls for funny-money inflation to pump up the economy, nicely illustrating the close relationship between militarism and inflation.

One cannot find in the various post-9/11 meditations of the New Colonel Blimps the slightest notion that there may be some useful distinction between the US government and American society and people. No, you're either "for us" (the federal state and world empire) or you're "against us" (sneaking in, here, the American way of life, Blue Ridge Mountains, etc.). Well, I certainly agree. I myself am certainly either for us or against us. I will, however, need some time to work out exactly which "us" is who. Once the proper distinctions are made, instant obedience and Kadavergehorsam become less fetching and the mad impulse to sign up for a new pledge of infinite allegiance to the state passes quickly.

So I ask once again: Do the conservatives conserve anything? The answer is No. The list of things they are not conserving is very long, but we may start with our liberties.


  1. See especially John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War (1999) and Reassessing the Presidency (2001).

  2. See Murray N. Rothbard, "Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian" (Center for Libertarian Studies, n.d.).

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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