Friday, February 29, 2008

American Conservatism, RIP?

On the occasion of the recent death of William F. Buckley, libertarian David Boaz, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, wondered if Conservatism itself has died:

In the 1994 Contract with America, conservatives declared that they would deliver "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." Then in 2000, for the first time Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the White House. At last, conservatives believed, they would be able to deliver on the agenda they had been advancing for decades.

What happened? Republicans increased federal spending by a trillion dollars in six years. They passed the biggest expansion of entitlements since the LBJ years. They federalized education. They gave unprecedented power to the executive. They launched a massive nation-building project thousands of miles from home, to do in Iraq what conservatives would never expect government to do in the United States.

Even worse, the conservative intellectual movement abandoned its limited-government roots. The neoconservatives, who drifted over from the radical left, brought their commitment to an expansive government intimately involved in shaping the social and economic life of the nation. They transformed conservatism from rugged individualism to "national greatness." The religious right demanded that government impose their social values on the whole country.

I just ran into a sort microcosm of this phenomenon. I happen to be co-director of something called the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, the organization that sponsored the Wendy McElroy-Harry Brighouse event the other day. Someone I know, a conservative activist prominent in the area of academic issues, called me to ask me to write a letter in support of a bill now passing through a committee in the US Senate. I had to warn him that I am not a political conservative; I'm basically an anarchist. With that understood, go ahead and make your pitch. I figured I would interrupt him if I realized that he was wasting his time on me. The bill, it turned out, would make public funds available to centers like ours. The idea seemed to be: ones that are doing things that conservatives can support. He was telling running through the names of some good people from my own state who are behind the bill when I interrupted him. I'm sorry, that's not the sort of thing I can support. "May I ask why," he said politely. Well, I'm against governments giving tax money to things like this (for several reasons, but I didn't go into that), and I'm also against the Feds getting any further into education than they already are (notice the tactful understatement!). I admitted that if such a program already existed, I might apply for funds, but that's only because, having been subjected to the injustice of being forced to pay for such things, I would want some of my money back... He interrupted me. I think he could remember hearing this line of thinking somewhere before.

After we hung up, I realized what was so odd about this: a conservative promoting what basically amounts to a welfare scheme.

Back in 1959, when Buckley wrote Up from Liberalism, American conservatism was lean and scrappy. They had some good ideas -- less government, with constitutional limits on state activity and more individual initiative -- and they took a lot of abuse for it. It was the heroic age of their movement. Over the years they forgot about self-reliance and the constitution, and morphed into one more gimmie-group, another piglet sucking at the teats of the welfare state. What the hell happened to them?

They came to power, of course. Acton, as everyone knows, said that power corrupts. I'm starting to see why it does so. It's not just because power is power. It's also because with power comes loot, and loot corrupts.

States are giant extraction devices. They enable one to consume the products of human effort without producing anything oneself, and without winning the voluntary consent of the producers. Once you start living this way, it is very hard to stop. State power is one of the most highly addictive substances known.

After 14 years with its snout in the public trough, the American conservative movement stands, hideously bloated, sadly no longer what it once was. They say that Buckley died after a long illness. Maybe it was a broken heart.
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