You have to feel sympathy for Richard A. Viguerie. He is a conservative who believes “The GOP Must Reject Big Government.” He notes a rising trend among conservatives to accept big government.
Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, complained in May to the Huffington Post that the greatest threat to the GOP is “this new brand of libertarianism” that says “look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government.” That, Huckabee said, is “not an American message. It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people.”
And former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, in a May column in the Washington Post, attacked small-government conservatives for believing that “no social priority is … more urgent than balancing the budget” or that “the state’s only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty.” He argued that small-government conservatism in that form cannot succeed politically or as policy; that it would be relegated to “the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored.”
In the wake of the 2008 election debacle, the attack has continued.
In a column this month in the New York Times, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard — one of the nation’s top conservative publications — called on conservatives to come to grips with the reality of Big Government. Big Government is inevitable, Kristol suggested; we should accept it and move on. After all, he wrote, “talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.”
Viguerie goes on to make an excellent point:
If, for conservatives, accepting the inevitability of Big Government constitutes pragmatism, it’s an oxymoronic form of pragmatism — one that doesn’t work.
But why, in spite of all the evidence that big government does not work, do so many conservatives endorse it? Why is Reagan the only Republican president in our lifetime to accept free market principles even partially? Why did Nixon freeze wages and prices, found the EPA, DEA and OSHA, and detach the dollar from gold? Why did George H.W. Bush raise taxes and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act? Why did George W. Bush pass the prescription drug bill, let Kennedy write the education bill, send spending through the roof and start the bailouts of big business that Obama will continue?
The answer to all these questions is: the power of philosophy. A person’s political ideas are determined by his more fundamental philosophical premises. For instance, if one accepts modern philosophy’s metaphysical premise that there are no absolutes, then one would be likely to accept the ethical premise of moral relativism. And if one accepts moral relativism, then one would be likely to advocate lenient punishment of criminals and redistribution of wealth. One would likely be a liberal.
In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff explains Ayn Rand’s philosophy in heirarchical order, from the most fundamental metaphysical premises on to epistemology and then ethics. He does not get to politics until page 350. When he does finally write about politics, it is a simple matter of applying the more fundamental ideas to society and culture.
Both libertarians and conservatives err in believing they can start on page 350 and establish a politics of freedom without checking their more fundamental premises. For conservatives this means a futile attempt to uphold both religion and capitalism — to hold both the morality of altruism and a political system based on individual self-interest. The more seriously religious a conservative is, the less able he is to justify capitalism’s selfish pursuit of profit. (See Governor Huckabee above.)
The original conservatives in the 18th century were consistent with their religious beliefs, upholding traditional morality and staunchly supporting God and king. These conservatives were the first opponents of capitalism. They wanted a return to feudalism. Hillaire Belloc, Richard Weaver and J.R.R. Tolkien were late examples of this type of conservatism. (In Lord of the Rings the Shire is a pre-capitalist English village; the evil Mordor has factories that belch smoke into the air.)
In the 20th century, with the left now Marxist, the conservatives became supporters of capitalism. Religion was at a low point in the first half of the century and was not taken seriously by most people. In the universities religion was dead. Intellectuals and academics were often atheist or agnostic, as many on the left still are to this day.
William F. Buckley made religion and capitalism an explicit package deal in the 1950’s, a time when right-wingers denounced “Godless communism.” The end of the modern conservative movement was written in its beginning.
With the prevalence of pragmatism in America, it is hard to persuade people that they can’t compartmentalize religion and conservatism and have the best of both worlds. They end up making specious arguments, such as, “Capitalism serves religion. It allows people to be altruistic with their money more efficiently than government.”
But premises do not work like that. If one is serious about his morality, he will want to see it in his politics. What dominated the discussion in the latest crisis on Wall Street? Relatively minor issues such as golden parachutes, executive bonuses and private aircraft. People could not turn their attention from the greed of the CEO’s; they were certain that selfishness was at the root of the crisis. And what is the answer to selfishness among CEO’s? More intrusive regulation by the state. The few conservatives who muttered in vain against government intervention were undermined by their altruist morality. In a crisis people look to their more fundamental ideas.
Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Richard Viguerie are fighting a rearguard action in hoping to return the Republican Party to something of a small government party. Religion has been on the rise in America for decades as people turn away from the black hole of nihilist postmodern philosophy. People need values in order to live fulfilled lives; they are mistakenly turning to religion for those values.
We stand at a dangerous moment in American history. Barack Obama, though he has been a pragmatic Democrat so far, is likely to fight for sweeping new interventions in the economy once he sees the ideological disarray of the Republicans. He seems to be a careful man who fights for what he thinks he can get away with. He might go for a massive national service program; if he gives it a patina of religion, the conservatives will accede. John McCain will argue that we need to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. National service is just one of many nightmares we could see in the years ahead. Environmentalist regulations against CO2, inflation and the de facto nationalization of big business could be in store. The conservatives will be rendered helpless by their philosophic premises.