The New Clarion

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The Thinnest Thread

September 19th, 2010 by Jim May · 2 Comments · Politics

I spend a lot of time attacking conservatism on this blog, and for good reason; conservatives claim to be the defenders of America against the Left, and this claim is ultimately untenable and fraudulent for many reasons.  It is, however, very plausible for various reasons, primarily the conservatives’ professed opposition to the Left, and to the consequent migration of pro-Americans to the side they have been led to believe is theirs — and so exposing conservatisms’ anti-American essence is much more urgent.

What often gets lost in all this, largely due to the utter implausibility thereof,  is that the Left in America also makes these claims on occasion.  Since their followers have been almost completely weaned away from the knowledge of what Americanism actually is, it is usually not necessary for them to do so.  Such efforts are without exception laughably weak, plainly meant for internal consumption as a means for modern “liberals” to reassure themselves and each other that they are still, somehow, “liberals” in the grand American meaning of the term.  That these efforts are so fleeting illustrates how insubstantial are the last remaining links of the modern American Left to its victim, the hollowed-out shell of what was once liberalism.

I offer as a case in point, the following article by Michael Lind, which attempts to deflect the ever-accurate charge that American “liberalism” has been on an anti-American road since FDR by the incredibly thin means of attacking the charge as “Straussian”.  Below is the fisking I posted in his comments. Passages in italics are Lind’s, and items in [] are corrections I added here that are not in the original comment, with the exception of the “[citation needed]” references to Wikipedia.

Will and Voegeli repeat two now-familiar claims of Straussian propaganda.

[citation needed]

The idea that this idea of modern liberalism repudiating Americanism originates with Leo Strauss destroys your credibility completely, right off the bat.

Strauss, as an admirer of Carl Schmitt, was one of the anti-liberal reactionaries of the Weimar Republic that attacked liberal American principles for, among other things, resulting in a materialistic society of “entertainers” (see C. Bradley Thompson, “Neoconservatism” An Obituary for an Idea” for a detailed study of Strauss and his influence on the neoconservative school).

The rest [of Lind’s article] is just the usual menu of careful assembly of lookalike concretes and connections drawn in crayon, for the benefit of that shrinking audience of Leftists who still insist on an increasingly untenable claim of fealty to Americanism. I’ll shred a scattershot few right here:

Will and Voegeli repeat two now-familiar claims of Straussian propaganda. First, FDR, LBJ and modern liberals have rejected the idea of “pre-existing and timeless natural rights.” Second, they have favored putting as many people as possible on the dole. The historical record makes it clear that both accusations are libels.

The fact that you are evading is that what they *intended* and *where they are going* are two different things. The logic of the welfare state idea contains no limits. Moreover, it does contain the inevitable driver of expansion, to wit: there are always going to be wounds for altruists to lay their hands on. And, in light of the lack of any constraints on what constitutes “wounds”, the inevitable result of *that* is that any inequality — if this guy has a buck more than that one — must eventually become a fresh “wound” that the welfare state must address.

Of course, [many of] the fathers of the American welfare state didn’t mean for it to grow as it has (though the case can be made that Bismarck, the political forerunner of Hitler who invented the welfare state, knew full well what he was doing.). It would be a fair cop to say that even FDR would be aghast at how large it has grown.

That’s what establishes my point and disproves yours, here: it doesn’t matter what you intend, it matters what you actually do. Ideas have a logic of their own, and so long as you accept certain ideas, you are committed to arriving at their logical end-of-road — no matter where you insist you “meant” to go — and you are morally responsible for knowing where that road ends.

And when you get there and start screaming “but I didn’t mean THIS!” you will not be absolved.

Was Roosevelt repudiating the American Founding when he told Democrats in Philadelphia in 1936: “This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 — an American way of life.”

There’s so little meaning in those words, it would be hard to say he was repudiating anything — but even so, he was wrong: by no rational measure did he “restore to the people a wider freedom”. See above; what he said pales compared to what he actually did.

Like his mentor Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, who headed the National Youth Administration work program in Texas in the 1930s, supported workfare, not welfare, for the able-bodied poor.

“Workfare” is welfare with a pretense of work. That you think there’s a moral difference is laughable. That’s like saying that if I force a homeowner at gunpoint to let me paint his house and then pay me $100 for the job, it’s somehow morally different from simple robbery.

Hint: it’s not the money. It’s the principle. You know, that one called “consent”.

And no, the vote is not a consent.

Roosevelt argued that small-government Jeffersonianism made sense in a society of farmers:

Yup. And aren’t we lucky that he didn’t attempt to argue that the First Amendment only made sense in a society of movable lead type, quills and parchment scrolls, too.

The clue you are missing here: individual rights are not contingent upon time or technology. The rights to life, liberty, and property do not come with a “Best by” date.

The goal of the New Deal was, among other things, to save the relatively recent innovation of large-scale corporate capitalism, which was unknown to the Founders:

The Internet was also unknown to the Founders. See above.

Contra the spectre of popular fascism (i.e. of a government takeover of everything) often invoked by fearful New Dealers, the government takeover of some things is not an antidote thereof.

Besides, the Founders were much more epistemologically advanced than you give them credit for. They knew that they could not possibly imagine all the things that human beings may yet do; that’s why they included a “catch-all” provision in the Constitution, in the form of the Ninth And Tenth Amendments. These were specifically intended to ensure that the scope of individual liberty was to be understood as open-ended — that the default for anything they didn’t address, was: government can’t touch it.

Unfortunately, that’s one key point where Leftists and conservatives are united in their opposition to the Founders.

The Straussian claim that American liberals since the New Deal have repudiated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, then, is nothing more than a smear, like calling Barack Obama a socialist or fascist.

[citation needed]

Until you supply one, *this* is the smear — and an ironic one, as you ascribe to Strauss a viewpoint that should properly be credited to Ayn Rand.

What accounts for the infatuation of conservatives like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray with giving cash to the poor instead of providing them with public works jobs like the WPA job that rescued Reagan’s father from unemployment in the Great Depression?

The fact that conservatives and Leftists are not as opposite as they insist they are.

…announced by FDR in 1933: “No business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Ah, so FDR said that any business that does not conform to his idea of “a living wage” does not have the right to exist in America?

There’s your repudiation by FDR of the founding American principles right there. The Founders would be aghast at a President dictating terms to free men, let alone enforcing it against them.

America does not need to choose between James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. But it does need to choose between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover

And that’s your cashing in… to push the debate back into your little box of false alternatives, one where actual “Americanism” is not represented and does not exist.

You are wrong, sir. The alternative remains: the morally sovereign individual versus the authoritarian collective — or the Founders on one hand, versus FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk and ultimately yourself, on the other.

2 Comments so far ↓

  • c andrew

    “But it does need to choose between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.”

    That really is a historical irony. As Al Smith pointed out in a speech he gave in 1936 about “The Betrayal of the Democratic Party” Roosevelt ran on the platform of reducing the overweening government of the Hoover administration and then proceeded to Out-Hoover Hoover Himself.

    First Democratic plank: “We advocate immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 per cent in the cost of the federal government.”

    The American Thinker has an interesting blog post on this at

    I was rather surprised to find such a timely treatment of the issue. My father gave me a hardcopy of that speech back in the late 70’s when we were talking about how neither party was actually in favor of liberty. I had not found Ayn Rand, and wouldn’t for another 15 years but we did subscribe to the Freeman from the Foundation for Economic Education and we were well aware that both Pubs and Dems were anti-freedom. I had to rebut, in a high school history class, that FDR represented a sea change from the unlimited laissez faire capitalism of the Herbert Hoover era. Thus, the speech.

    And they are still cashing in on it. Bush, our modern Hoover, is still called laissez faire by Obama, our FDR with a will to power to dwarf all previous incarnations. And the public is still buying it.

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