Kearneysville, WV. The health care bill has passed the Senate, but it is yet to be seen if the House and the Senate can agree on a bill to send to the president. During the debate, Republicans have argued that the bills of both houses represent a massive expansion of federal power. Talk radio has been buzzing with angry discussions and denunciations. Rush, Hannity, and the rest have stated in no uncertain terms that Obama is intent refashioning the American political and social scene and the health care initiative represents only the most obvious facet of his plan.

But with all that, there is a curious sort of rhetoric coming from some of the denizens of talk radio and beyond. The argument is simple and goes something like this: Have you ever seen the government do anything right? The resounding reply is “NO”! Then—so goes the argument—why should anyone imagine that the government will do anything but screw up our health care?

The first obvious difficulty is lumping all ‘government’—federal, state, and local—into the same indictment. Generally speaking, though, the target seems to be the feds, who clearly wield the vast majority of power. Yet, this “government can’t do anything right” line is a curious argument for a couple reasons. First, it isn’t obvious that government never gets anything right. One could at least plausibly argue that certain things are, in fact, best handled by the federal government. Highways, perhaps. Or the regulation of certain financial markets. Interstate commerce. Coining money.

To argue that the government ruins everything it touches is to tacitly suggest that it shouldn’t touch anything. This, curiously, is not the view of the American founders (see Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution) or the view expressed by those once identified with conservatism. Instead, if this argument is consistently applied, what we have is libertarianism or even some form of anarchism: let free individuals and the markets act without restraint. Government should stay out of, well, most everything.

Now I’m quite happy to admit that there are plenty of occasions where involvement by the federal government has created more problems than it has solved. Yet, the “government messes things up” position seems to depend primarily on an appeal to experience. That is, there are many examples from the past supporting the claim that government involvement messes things up. But this is at heart an efficiency argument. In theory at least, many inefficiencies could be mitigated through expanded governmental control. Thus, one response would be to increase the size and scope of government rather than reduce it.

Furthermore, government naturally tends to expand. It is omni-confident if not omni-competent. The air of confidence inspires a sense of competence, so without constant resistance from alternative centers of power, state power will move steadily toward consolidation, centralization, and expanded control.

Efficiency arguments are inadequate. What is needed is a principled argument against the consolidation of power in any form. A proper view of human nature will recognize that power is likely to be abused and therefore decentralized power is the best means of limiting the possibility, or it least the scale, of abuse. Thus, even if the consolidation of government power could deliver goods and services with perfect efficiency, such consolidation should be resisted, for a skeptical view of human nature tells us that if goods and services can be delivered efficiently, then so too can control be efficiently imposed.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the “government can’t do anything right” argument is correct. It is here we encounter a curious situation. Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest tend to be aggressively pro-military (try to think of a military venture in the last thirty years—and there have been plenty—that has spawned a peace movement from the right). They have generally supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the much broader, if less defined, war on terror. If enthusiasm has flagged it is due to a commander-in-chief who has not prosecuted the wars as aggressively and effectively as he should. But the military is part of the government. It is certainly not guided by the invisible hand of the market. If the “government can’t do anything right” argument works in the context of the health care debate, why doesn’t it have equal validity in the prosecution of war?

We have here, it seems, a split personality among many who call themselves conservatives. Domestically they are libertarians who are suspicious of the government and concerned about its expansion. Yet in terms of foreign policy, the same people tend to be militaristic, jingoistic, and apparently quite content with massive government action.

Here is the irony: Political thinkers since Plato have known that war is quite simply the most effective means of centralizing state power. James Madison recognized this when he wrote that “of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded.” War tends to strengthen the hand of those leaders who wage it, and power once consolidated is not relinquished easily. Thus, these conservative militants, while attempting to defend limited government on domestic issues, have, by virtue of their enthusiastic support for the military and the wars they wage, unintentionally aided and abetted the consolidation of power.

There are, of course, instances when war may be necessary, but a free people must be wary, even frightened, of the consequences born of the wars they wage. To the extent that conservatives are not duly fearful of this fact, they have facilitated the very outcome they claim to oppose.

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  1. Bravo, Mark, excellent stuff and spot on!
    A further conservative differentiation might be: the Neocons (the so-called managerial elite) support wars for the reasons you gave, while Paleos usually don’t.

    The reality is that there really is very few people criticizing the consolidation of the central gummint, thus the recent political expression, “We are all socialists now!”

    All libruls worship the central state. Voegelin called it the “egophanic revolt,” or at least one expression of it.

  2. And then there are the non-schizophrenic conservatives who think the government isn’t doing a good job in coining money, maintaining the highways (and the current bills meant to provide jobs for every American by working on highways…) or the regulation of financial markets (we’ve seen how well that worked this year, right?) Perhaps you approve of the 12 trillion dollar debt? I don’t know much about interstate commerce, so I can’t comment on that other than I expect my family is the only one who sends in the sales tax due to our state for products purchased in other states, since it isn’t regulated or enforced.

    Perhaps it would be better to say that there are conservatives who believe your above points, and then there are conservatives who think the “conservatives” have become big spenders/big government and are practically indistinguishable from the “liberals”.

  3. Yup. The Feds do many things well. Medicare is one of those things, as witness the often-heard and perfectly illogical protest: “Keep your filthy government hands off my Medicare!”

    Dams and power systems are another big example: TVA and Bonneville have been providing cheap power efficiently for 70 years.

    The whole concept of Efficiency doesn’t belong anywhere near the military. Efficiency in a corporate sense means that your costs are kept low in comparison to output. But defense should operate the other way around. If a nation spends lots of money on impressive fortifications and powerful weapons, it will rarely have to use those weapons. Thus the best defense setup is *perfectly inefficient*. High cost, zero output.

    If you have to consume your weapons and soldiers often, you may be efficient in terms of inventory management, but you’re not doing the proper job of defense. I think Rumsfeld is the culprit here: he brought the mindset of a corporate bean-counter to defense, resulting in a weak Army that gets consumed all the time.

  4. While you’re at it, I’d love to hear a rip on Liberals, Trotskyites, Whigs, Tories, Jacobites, Cathars and Monophysites, too.

    Back in ’08 a great way to get someone to open your little package of ideas was to wrap it up in some shiny new “conservatives suck” wrapping paper, but these days you may find no one bothers peaking under that cover. Soon you may even spot your ideas poking out of the top of the “too conservative” circular file – regifted as exhibit A in some liberal’s cause celebre.

    As a marketing approach, “I am not a conservative idea” is going to prove as effective as “I am not a crook”. You can do better than this.

    • Peter,
      This isn’t a “I am not conservative” piece. It is an appeal for conservatives to be conservative. An important aspect of conservatism, as I see it, is resisting the consolidation of power. I’m concerned that an enthusiasm for the military has created a blind spot for some conservatives. But I said that in the piece, so I’m repeating myself.

  5. Quite right. “War is the health of the state” as the fellow once said. If you say you want to “starve the beast”, you just can’t also say that “defense is not a budget item”. Of course, given the government’s borrowing from abroad in recent years, even cutting taxes doesn’t seem to starve the beast so much as stiff someone else when the bill comes.

  6. Right, I don’t understand the starve the beast except defense. I’m happy to include that on the list. I agree that having less money requires harder work to figure out the priorities of where money should go. And yes, I don’t think any politician in recent years can talk about anything like “starving” with our huge debt.

  7. Just a thought, but it seems that too often conservatives are lumped in one broad category (as suggested by John Daly) – Limbaugh, Hannity, etc. represent one strand of conservatism. They might be the most vocal, but I would argue that they tend to be among the least thoughtful and are ahistorical when it comes to anything before Ronald Reagan. I think the schizophrenia comes from this ahistorical, fairly anti-intellectual strand of ‘conservative’ thought.

    I do not even know if ‘conservative’ is a historically correct moniker for these individuals, perhaps they are ‘preservative,’ wanting to preserve a particular well-defined although not always honestly reported Regan legacy – I find a lot of good in Regan,but do not allow myself to be defined by any one politician. Politicians, regardless of stripes, are not individuals I value highly. Perhaps Cicero was mistaken in thinking that the philosopher/politician was the end all.

    Unfortunately, this Limbaugh strand of conservatism has a stranglehold on the republican party and few other ‘legitimate’ outlets exist for conservative expression.

    Peace and Grace,

  8. It is interesting that Reagan wanted to shrink the gov’t and expand the military, but actually ended up doing the opposite: the gov’t grew while the military shrank. The military budget grew, but the actual ability to fight wars, to project power, shrank. We now have a rather small army (42 or 44 brigades, I think)but an outsized Air Force and Navy; the later are big ticket items, capable of the kind of spending that would warm any congressman’s heart when it occurs in his district.

    What should the gov’t do? I think you have captured the correct answer, which is really another question, “At what level should it do it?” The lower the level, the less the damage. It would be hard to find an organization more intrusive than the average homeowners association, yet they do very little damage and the remedy, if one is necessary, is easy to find.

  9. In very basic terms, it seems that whereas both libertarians and conservatives (not to be confused with ‘Enlightenment liberals’) believe in civil society, the first see such society as resting solely on good will, the second as involving inter-generational relationships.

    So, while libertarians will argue that most (if not all) government action is coercive since one cannot ‘opt out’, conservatives can make the case that some State action is obligatory, having its source in a societal imperative. Or, as Aristotle observed, it is in man’s nature to be a social animal; a nature, incidentally, that transcends politics, since its origins lie in the natural law.

    The simple, uncomplicated individualism espoused by libertarianism, therefore, becomes more complex–or relational–by conservative standards.

    And it is this relational quality that imposes the checks and balances upon the State (and, inevitably, upon individualism) that Professor Mitchell advocates.

  10. The economist Joseph Schumpter once described a key aspect of capitalism as being its creative destruction. Clearly no one other than a sociopath would describe the latest Wall Street financial crash as being creatively beneficial with the millions of people who’ve been made unemployed and thousands who’ve lost homes. But here’s the rub, right-wing libertarians and conservatives are in denial that capitalism can be sociopathic and therefore needs “managing” for the common good. This really is the core of the debate that occupies hundreds of web pages on internet blogs like FPR as well as articles and books in conventional hard copy. It is the motivating force lying behind the development of the ideologies of Karl Marx and Alasdair MacIntyre to name but a few principal thinkers who’ve attempted to take the sociopathic out of capitalism by suggesting “managing” techniques. Curiously you could say that the Vampire Squids of Wall Street who “shorted capitalism” so recently in the name of greed are being opposed by the “managing” ideologues who also want to “short capitalism” but in the name of virtue. Warren Buffet has argued that in the world of finance “shorting” financial instruments plays a useful role in pricking bubbles. I hardly think that any one in the light of the Financial Crash would argue that it has worked very effectively as a process other than to line the pockets of those who are more cunning than most.

    At a wider take and in line with Mark Mitchell’s pitch we can see the level of denial with regard to the sociopathy of imperial adventurism. Here is the first article I came across when typing in the phrase “creative destruction is sociopathic” into Google. It is a 2003 article charting some of the history of this sociopathy with regard to the United States:-


    After reading the article it’s hard not to think that the task for the human race is “Shorting the Sociopathic.” Indeed it’s difficult not to see this as the point of FPR, or at least its pithy mission statement.

  11. PostScript. Michael Ledeen mentioned in the Dissident Voice website link I provided is also the person mentioned in Wikipedia as being accused of forging the Nigerian uranium yellow-cake memo that led to the whole WMD justification for invading Iraq.

  12. Schizophrenia well describes the state of the current Republican party and its many splintered nuts. It also describes the Democrat party and JP’s questioning of Cicero’s fondness for the “Philosopher-Politician , when coupled with the prevailing anti-intellectualism of the times is as good a place to start a criticism as anywhere. Conservatives once sprung from the Augustan well of Burke, Swift , Johnson, Pope and Gibbon….among others. These philosophers recognized the competing instincts of a social urge and the depravity of man and hence, intellectual vigor and historical perspective were essential to make a right order of our political and social structures. This philosophy was an immediate concern of the Framers and the checks and balances of their great work sprung directly from the Augustan Tradition. It worked for some time but, falling for the clap-trap of the “indispensable nation”, we have decided that we are beyond the confines of historical precedent and into a Brave New World of Everything Going Our Way. Anyone who dares to voice any skepticism of the current Drag Parade is pant-hooted by the gate-keepers of historical amnesia and accused of not properly saluting all those wonderful things within….hilariously, our history. Schizophrenia at its best.

    If one wants a superb and mystical summary of the trajectory, one need only to watch Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre , Wrath of God” where the daft and sublime Kinski ably plays the part of the Empire Builder, on a mission of conquest where the more sordid realms of the quixotic emerge triumphant. In the last scene, Aguirre and his few near-dead followers are afloat on the Amazon, the deck of their raft littered with scrambling monkeys and Aguirre is babbling away with dreams of conquest (as only Kinski could babble). He looks around his shoulder but refuses to see what his existence has devolved into and exclaims: “Who’s with me”. The monkeys don’t seem to care.

    The reason those who harbor an elevated distemper about the current circumstances are so dismissive of government in its entirety is because there are so many who seem to champion a relentless surrender to Bureaucratic Logic, stem to stern. One tends to go “all-in” under such a state, even though with poker face, you know that there are many elements of government which have been and are beneficial. The stakes are high and prognosis not good so Hail-Mary ploys arrive by default, further obscuring a positive outcome.

    Historicism is not sentimentalism, it is self-preservation and a demonstration of the chastening effects of humility , an essential bulwark against our depravity.

  13. Mark, forgive me, as you’ve written many fine things here at FPR, BUT…this essay is quite thin. Wars require big govt., and so conservatives not against every non-desperate-straights war (i.e. WWII) in advance of knowing about it are in self-contradiction?! Who’d a thunk it? What an astoundingly original idea! I don’t think I’ve ever read that anywhere!
    And the episodic “what-does-government-do-well?” rhetoric is supposed to define conservatism today? I’d again recommend that chapter against Dahl in James Ceaser’s Liberal Democracy and Political Science as evidence of real conservative thought. There’s a thinker who refuses to deny that overseas military commitments and the world’s largest military have a definite cost, and are not good things in and of themselves for the U.S. or its democracy, but are necessary given the alternatives.

    And so, admit it, Mr. Nelson more or less has you pegged. The “idea” here of “conservative schizophrenia” is intellectual wrapping paper.

    And also, for all Porcher-contributors, IMO this essay is evidence that fewer FPR posts will wind up being more, and will spare us all a surfeit of repetition. You know Berry would agree.

    • Carl,
      Since you asked, sure, I’ll forgive you. What you didn’t seem to notice is that I am not accusing all conservatives of being schizophrenic. Of course, not all conservatives use the “government can’t do anything right” rhetoric. I never suggested such a thing. But most conservatives don’t read James Ceaser. In fact, most have never heard of him (I guess that makes you an elitist to imply that he’s representative of conservatism). Twice I mentioned Rush and Hannity. Step away from the blogs sometime and listen in. Or just spend some time chatting with folks who do listen to them. There is an obvious contradiction there that needs pointing out, and that despite the exclamation points sprinkled throughout your comment (I forgive you for that, too).

  14. “Schizophrenia as intellectual wrapping paper”? Mr. Scott, thanks for a fine picturesque description of a velvet print pig-in-a-poke gift wrapping encasing the schizophrenic temper of our Babylon on the Potomac.

    Split personalities abound on both sides of our siamese twin political sideshow as evidenced by a little statistic regarding civilians employed for annual salaries greater than $150,000 in the Defense Department. They have apparently increased from 1,868 in 12/07 to an astounding 10,100 in 6/09 (the most recent published statistic). Why no news of this wonderful “stimulus”? Admittedly this sum is but a paltry trifle when compared against the rest of the military budget but it signifies a trend to be sure. Northrup, after years in L.A. is moving their HQ to Foggy Bottom so that they will be where the business is. What, one asks, took them so long?

    The greatest “surfeit of repetition” is that of the Sunbeams For Security, hatching dirty little schemes to protect the Dictator of the Moment for years, then cashing in on the back end as the Dictator requires military assistance against terrorism, which in turn fertilizes said terrorism, virtually eliminating “non-desperate” wars as an option. Everything automatically becomes desperate. The Kookyburras of our Cheney Security State Brigades have an easy task in front of them, endlessly squawking about the President for not being tough enough on security and military efforts while he cannot cite his administration’s increases to these diminishing returns because he campaigned on a platform of reducing them. Bait and Switch….Schizophrenia….which shall it be? Perhaps we can dispense with the formalities this coming State of the Union and simply erect a cardboard box so the Chief Executive can present the nation with a little nationally televised Five Card Monty.

    And I do like your magnanimous citation of the chap who does not “deny” that the worlds largest military and its global commitments have their costs but , oh well, its “necessary”. How big and sporting, so very white of him. A little hair of the dog that bites you never does any harm. Bottoms up, drinks are on Northrup when they open their new HQ.

    Anyone who has not detected at least a little schizophrenia afoot in our current politics has either been off into a little Rip Van Winkle Time of their own or are , simply put, crackpot. You can do a little better Mr. Scott. You know Burke would agree and virtually anyone else who understands how Republics descend into befuddled destruction when they decide military adventurism is a “necessary” path. The Republican Party is a mess because it cannot keep its various personalities in order and the only reason it has any hope in the Mid terms is not because it has rediscovered its bearing s but that its opponent, the Democrat is lost in an extended psychosis of its own.

    It is theatrical though, I’ll grant you that.

  15. Great article; thank you. A distinction must be made between neo-conservatives like Hannity/O’Reilly/Bill Kristol and traditional conservatives like Ron Paul/Pat Buchanan/Wm. F. Buckley. The author is correct when he says, “We have here, it seems, a split personality among many who call themselves conservatives.”

    People like Hannity and O’Reilly are not genuine conservatives. Why? They advocate more government intervention in various sectors of the economy (in true neo-con fashion) because they believe that certain people — and government — are best equipped to solve our problems.

    Libertarian (small “l”) Republicans advocate consistently limited government, which includes opposition to all undeclared, unnecessary foreign interventions.

  16. Mark,

    Great article. You almost make me sound like a non Schizo except I am a Democrat with conservative values. I also appreciate the comments by D.W. and John M. as they added further insight.

  17. It is incoherent to be pro-military and anti-government. The military is simply government’s armed wing. It is government’s muscle. The overwhelming majority of anti-government, anti-state “conservatives” exhibit the following tendencies:

    * endless quasi-religious worship of the state’s military power

    * endless demands that more and more wealth (and therefore power) be confiscated from American workers and redistributed to the state’s military machine

    * blind and passionate advocacy for any and every costly, state-expanding, state-empowering scheme the egghead bureaucrats in Washington cook up – as long as it involves using the state’s military machine

    * abiding faith and devotion to the idea that (whenever the government exercises or proposes to exercise its truly awesome and terrible military might) government is noble and beneficent, that it is efficient, that it is peopled with wise men, and that it should be further empowered with confiscated tax money so it can be used as an engine to effect social change all over the world

    There is no such thing as a “small government” that can lead, rule over and police the entire world.

  18. Mark,

    I do think you have once again pointed out the cultural contradictions of the American Right. I’ve been asking my students for several decades now, if you are progressive (there are no liberals now, and haven’t been for a couple of generations; there are just libertarian ideologues), to what do you want to progress? If you are conservative, what do you wish to conserve? The answers in either case are not easy, nor are they susceptible to programs or platforms. Conservatives in the political arena are now identified pretty much with, as you correctly say, people who are rather libertarian when it comes to domestic policy and rather socialist when it comes to foreign policy–and that is, indeed, a divided mind.

    But to clarify, I hope, let’s go to your example of highways. Governments must have a role in the building of highways, just as it had to play a part in the creation of “utilities.” There are just too many properties to cross. What would be a “conservative” approach to highways? Ike’s National Highway Act was probably a very progressive measure, and involved one of the truly massive transfers of real political authority to Washington–maybe bigger than anything the New Deal had actually accomplished. I don’t think one conservative opposed it. It was a “defense” measure, and we all like to get on the road and go. Had we thought about it, it killed villages and cities and built others (mostly on grounds of political maneuvering) and in general paved over farmland for the benefit if city folks. We were in the ecstacy of defense-minded and material-minded euphoria at the time, and didn’t have a good, prudential debate. If those who wanted to preserve farmland or local control had insisted that we be prudent, we might have better highways and less government–or maybe not.

    But the point is this: The opposite of conservative is not liberal, it is progressive, or, another way to put it, ideology.

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