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."
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.
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.
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?
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
Van Creveld, Charles
Tilly, or the two collections edited by John
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
TALE OF TWO NOCKIANS
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
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
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.
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.
especially John V. Denson, ed., The
Costs of War (1999) and Reassessing
the Presidency (2001).
See Murray N. Rothbard, "Frank
S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian" (Center
for Libertarian Studies, n.d.).