Celebrating Big Government

Another Memorial Day has come and gone, and that means summer has started, and summer ends on Labor Day, as everyone knows. Oh yeah – the first holiday is also set aside to honor those who have fought and died for our country, or have fought for our country and not died but did what few others would do, and the second holiday is to honor workers, those who work for wages and salaries, making things and keeping the country running, as opposed to those who own the means of production and get rich reluctantly paying them to do so, or get rich swapping mysterious securities with other rich folks. That’s clear, but people can forget what the two holidays are about. Two years ago Eric Cantor was glad that on that Labor Day we were once again celebrating those fine Americans who had worked hard, built a business and earned their own success – not the insignificant people they employ of course. They don’t matter. It’s a Republican thing. Organized labor, or even disorganized labor, never votes for them, and they don’t want their votes. They want the votes of real Americans, not the hired help.

It’s the same with Memorial Day. There seems to be a Republican Memorial Day and a Democratic Memorial Day. Everyone honors those who have sacrificed all for the good of us all, and sometimes for the survival of the nation, but Republicans often seem angry that Democrats don’t see the heroic glory of war, and don’t seem to understand we are a nation of warriors – not a nation of diplomats and thinkers – with the finest and far away to most powerful military the world has ever seen, and we are celebrating that. Perhaps that notion can be traced back to the day Ronald Reagan fell in love with the books of Tom Clancy. Andrew Bacevich thinks so:

What Clancy did was seize the role of Reagan’s literary doppelgänger – what the Gipper might have become had he chosen writing instead of politics after ending his acting career. Clancy’s own career took off when President Reagan plugged Red October as “my kind of yarn.” As well he might: Clancy shared Reagan’s worldview. His stories translated that worldview into something that seemed “real” and might actually become real if you believed hard enough. Reagan was famous for transforming the imagined into the actual; despite never having left Hollywood during World War II, he knew, for example, that he had personally witnessed the liberation of Nazi death camps. Similarly, Clancy, who never served in the military, imagined a world of selfless patriots performing feats of derring-do to overcome evil – a world that large numbers of Americans were certain had once existed. More to the point, it was a world they desperately wanted to restore. Clancy, like Reagan, made that restoration seem eminently possible.

Hey, it worked. The books were pretty damned good, and the movies were even better – Harrison Ford saved the world, then Alex Baldwin did, then Ben Affleck did, and now Chris Pine just did. Jack Ryan, and those who worked with him, were selfless patriots performing feats of derring-do to overcome evil. The diplomats and thinkers were always the useless characters, when they weren’t fools, or worse, and forget the career politicians. They caused all the problems in the first place, and that is how many have come to see the world. The military, freed from the fools, saves the world. They always do. No one else can – ask George Bush and Dick Cheney – and this became the “right” way to see Memorial Day, on the right.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t like wars, on principle – we should fight them when we have to, but not when we don’t. Obama, long before he ran for president, famously said he wasn’t opposed to all wars, just dumb wars. He had Iraq in mind, not Afghanistan, but even that was heresy to many, although it later conveniently forced Hillary Clinton to defend her vote for war with Iraq. She stumbled badly, but that may not have been planned, but such thinking reverberates each Memorial Day. Democrats see the sacrifice of our soldiers as worthy of great honor, but often sad. This appalls Republicans. In a nation of warriors the heroic cannot be sad. War makes us who we are, and feats of derring-do to overcome evil are pretty damned cool – and we can’t show weakness. That’s Obama’s problem. Putin has walked all over him. Everyone has walked all over him. McCain would have bombed Iran the day he took office. Mitt Romney would have eliminated capital gains taxes and then bombed Iran the day he took office. Obama is talking to Iran, and it seems they will end their nuclear weapons program, but he’s doing it the wrong way. He should have sent in Jack Ryan, the guy from the Tom Clancy novels, who would have done something subtle and startling to end Iran’s foolishness, or Obama should have bombed them. Our military is awesome, from awesome individuals to our whiz-bang secret gizmos – just like in the Tom Chancy novels. On Memorial Day we thank God for that. Democrats just thank the soldiers. Republicans would say Democrats just don’t get it. They’re not warriors. They’re pathetic.

Maybe so, given popular culture, but there’s a problem here. Arguing that “American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all,” Roger Scruton sums up how they’ve been thinking for years now:

In his first inaugural address, President Reagan announced that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and his remark struck a chord in the hearts of his conservative supporters. American conservatives, called upon to define their position, reiterate the message that there is “too much government.” The seemingly unstoppable expansion of regulations; the increasing control over what happens in the workplace, in the public square, and even in the family; the constant manufacturing of new crimes and misdemeanors, aimed at controlling how we associate and with whom; the attempts to limit First and Second Amendment rights – these developments are viewed by many conservatives with alarm. They seem to be taking America in a new direction, away from the free association of self-governing individuals envisaged by the founders, toward a society of obedient dependents, who exchange their freedom and their responsibilities for a perpetual lien on the public purse. And you only have to look at Europe to see the result.

The European countries are governed by a political class that can escape from accountability behind the closed doors of the European institutions. Those institutions deliver an unending flow of laws and regulations covering all aspects of life, from the hours of work to the rights of sexual minorities. Everywhere in the European Union a regime of political correctness makes it difficult either to maintain, or to live by, precepts that violate the state-imposed orthodoxies. Non-discrimination laws force many religious people to go against the teachings of their faith in the matters of homosexuality, public preaching, and the display of religious symbols. Activists in the European Parliament seek to impose on all states of the Union, regardless of culture, faith, or sovereignty, an unqualified right to abortion, together with forms of “sex education” calculated to prepare young people as commodities in the sexual market, rather than as responsible adults seeking commitment and love.

American conservatives know what’s coming next:

Many of those developments are being replicated in America. The welfare state has expanded beyond the limits envisaged in the New Deal, and the Supreme Court is now increasingly used to impose the morality of a liberal elite on the American people, whether they like it or not. These developments add to the sense among conservatives that government is taking over. America, they fear, is rapidly surrendering the rights and freedoms of its citizens in exchange for the false security of an all-controlling state.

Yes, but on Memorial Day they celebrate the biggest part of big government, the military. Go figure. Or consider the analysis of Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarian Republican, or a libertarian who sometimes tolerates Republicans, barely, who also lives out here down in Venice Beach, amongst the geriatric hippies who are still stuck in the sixties for some reason, who also sees a problem here:

Once the Cold War ended it didn’t make much sense for neoconservatives and small-government conservatives to remain in a coalition. But breakups take time, and post-9/11 politics briefly created the illusion that Bill Kristol and George Will belong in the same political party. I am here to tell you that they do not, even if many people who identify as small-government conservatives still don’t realize it.

There are kind, intellectually honest neoconservatives who genuinely believe that their hawkish, imperial approach to foreign policy would bring about a better world. Their notion of the good is still incompatible with small-government conservatism and libertarianism. And the darkest strains in neoconservatism – the zealous defenses of torturing prisoners, for example – are incompatible with the professed beliefs of a lot of social and religious conservatives, too.

The conservatives’ internal contradictions are obvious:

If neoconservatives got their way, as they did during George W. Bush’s first term, the United States would spend more on its military and wage war in more countries. Neoconservatives still believe the Iraq War was a good idea. They’d have preferred to keep our troops in Afghanistan longer. They urged greater American involvement in Egypt and Libya. They wanted President Obama to intervene in Syria.

As they urge actions that would require spending tens of billions of additional dollars in the Middle East and North Africa, they also insist that NATO grant security guarantees to countries like Georgia, as if the sanctity of its borders is worth risking nuclear war. And having urged a geopolitical strategy that stretches America thin across much of the rest of the world, they criticize the Obama Administration for not doing enough to “pivot toward Asia” in the Pacific.

This costs money, lots of it, and that’s the problem:

Many small-government conservatives may be morally comfortable with interventionism. What they must realize is that neo-conservatism’s particular agenda would require dramatic tax increases, or significant borrowing, to carry out; that neoconservative strategists have shown an utter inability to produce competent analysis of how the interventions that they favor will unfold; and that the costs are often borne by the young Americans who are killed or maimed in lost wars.

What are the monetary costs of the neoconservative agenda? Rank-and-file Republicans often underestimate them. If neoconservative publications favor expensive wars but advocate against liberal domestic spending, is that a wash? Hardly – once everything is factored in, the Iraq War alone may cost America $6 trillion. $6 trillion!

That’s roughly $20,000 for every living American.

Celebrating Warrior Day in the Warrior Nation, while sneering at the girly weak Democrats, involves calling for big government to get even bigger, even if you cut off all domestic spending and go back to dirt roads with no running water. There’s no way to cut enough money to make our world a Tom Clancy novel, and it would lead to where they don’t want to go:

Small-government conservatives are also inclined to forget that war is the health of the state. Every significant war that America undertakes significantly increases the power of the federal government, even outside the realm of war, exacting heavy costs in liberty. War can still be necessary. I’d put the Civil War and World War II in that category. Other times, war brings more costs than benefits. But virtually all wars concentrate more power in the state and reduce domestic freedom. America’s war and small-government factions are at cross-purposes.

When one wins the other loses.

And Friedersdorf has chosen sides:

A hyper-interventionist foreign policy is the thing that neoconservatives care about most. It’s the priority that they’ll negotiate for, not a soft preference they’ll negotiate away. That’s why it makes sense for small-government conservatives to do all they can to diminish neoconservative influence within the GOP, just as it makes sense for neoconservatives to do all they can to diminish libertarian influence.

This may become much more clear to Republicans in the next presidential election. The odds of any given matchup coming to fruition are long. But if Election 2016 turns out to pit Rand Paul against Hillary Clinton, lots of neoconservatives will vote for the Democrat, as they should, given their ideological notions of what’s right for the world.

Hillary Clinton has never even once come close to conceding that her vote, long ago, for war with Iraq night have been a mistake. Politicians don’t admit mistakes – when forced by circumstance to change course, they say they’ve “evolved” – but even that is rare. Obama “evolved” on gay marriage only when it was relatively safe to do so, when the only people who would hammer him for that were seen by most everyone as Neanderthals. This isn’t like that, and yes, half of the Republican Party might vote for her, because she’s still a warrior. She still reads those Tom Clancy novels, or at least she has absorbed the world Clancy imagined, as has most of America. Conor Friedersdorf wouldn’t vote for her. No small-or-no government libertarian would. Friedersdorf is one of those. Who knows how he celebrated Memorial Day?

He probably spent the day worrying about America turning into France. That’s what Roger Scruton sees going on here:

The emasculated society of Europe serves, then, as a warning to conservatives, and reinforces their belief that America must reverse the trend of modern politics, which has involved the increasing assumption by the state of powers and responsibilities that belong to civil society. Such has been the call of the Tea Party movement, and it is this same call that animated the Republican caucus in Congress as it prolonged the fight against Obamacare, to the point where, by jeopardizing the fiscal probity of the nation, it antagonized the American people.

That was stupid, but not just as a tactic to get what they thought they wanted:

It is therefore pertinent to consider not only the bad side of government – which Americans can easily recognize- but also the good. For American conservatives are in danger of appearing as though they had no positive idea of government at all, and were in the business simply of opposing all new federal programs, however necessary they may be to the future and security of the nation. Most of all, they seem to be losing sight of the truth that government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment.

Governments will be created, and thrive, because they’re necessary:

The truth is that government – of one kind or another – is manifest in all our attempts to live in peace with our fellows. We have rights that shield us from those who are appointed to rule us – many of them ancient common-law rights, like that defined by habeas corpus. But those rights are real personal possessions only because government is there to enforce them – and if necessary to enforce them against itself. Government is not what so many conservatives believe it to be, and what people on the left always believe it to be when it is in hands other than their own – namely a system of power and domination. Government is a search for order – and for power only insofar as power is required by order. It is present in the family, in the village, in the free associations of neighbors, and in the “little platoons” extolled by Burke and Tocqueville. It is there in the first movement of affection and good will, from which the bonds of society grow, for it is simply the other side of freedom, and the thing that makes freedom possible.

Yeah, but try to tell that to these guys, or use this argument:

Rousseau told us that we are “born free,” arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the ’60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

We are not, in the state of nature, free; still less are we individuals, endowed with rights and duties, and able to take charge of our lives. We are free by nature because we can become free, in the course of our development. And this development depends at every point upon the networks and relations that bind us to the larger social world. Only certain kinds of social networks encourage people to see themselves as individuals, shielded by their rights and bound together by their duties. Only in certain conditions are people united in society not by organic necessity but by free consent. To put it simply, the human individual is a social construct. And the emergence of the individual in the course of history is part of what distinguishes our civilization from so many of the other social ventures of mankind.

We need government:

Government is wrapped into the very fibers of our social being. We emerge as individuals because our social life is shaped that way. When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a “calling to account,” and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable. If this relation of accountability fails to emerge, then what might have been friendship becomes, instead, a form of exploitation.

Yes, some prefer exploitation – an every-man-for-himself world of Makers and Takers where the Takers are systematically eliminated, where winners emerge and the losers are exploited, or to put it politely, simply die. Ayn Rand imagined such a world. Paul Ryan says he got into politics because of her, and he’s not alone – and there’s “Rand” Paul. But that ignores how people actually interact with each other out of necessity, at least as Scruton sees it:

In other words, in our tradition, government and freedom have a single source, which is the human disposition to hold each other to account for what we do. No free society can come into being without the exercise of this disposition, and the freedom that Americans rightly cherish in their heritage is simply the other side of the American habit of recognizing their accountability toward others. Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbors to address it, while Europeans sit around helplessly until the servants of the state arrive. That is the kind of thing we have in mind when we describe this country as the “land of the free.” We don’t mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government – the kind that springs up spontaneously between individuals who feel accountable to each other.

Such a government is not imposed from outside: It grows from within the community as an expression of the affections and interests that unite it. It does not necessarily put every matter to the vote; but it respects the individual participant and acknowledges that, in the last analysis, the authority of the leader derives from the people’s consent to be led by him. Thus it was that the pioneering communities of this country very quickly made laws for themselves, formed clubs, schools, rescue squads, and committees in order to deal with the needs that they could not address alone, but for which they depended on the cooperation of their neighbors. … It was an instinctive move toward government, in which a shared order would contain and amplify the responsibilities of the citizens.

There’s much more. These are just highlights, but this is interesting:

This cause has been damaged by the failure of many conservatives to understand the true meaning of the welfare state. During the twentieth century it became clear that many matters not previously considered by the political process had arrived on the public agenda. Politicians began to recognize that if government is to enjoy the consent of those who gain no comparative advantage from their social membership, it must offer some kind of quid pro quo. This became apparent in the two world wars, when people from all classes of society were required to fight and if necessary to die. Why should they do this, if membership in the society for which they risked their lives had brought them no evident advantages? The fundamental principle was therefore widely accepted that the state has a responsibility for the welfare of its more needy citizens. This principle is merely the full-scale version of the belief adhered to by all small societies, that people should be cared for by the community when they are unable to care for themselves.

Accept that premise, or don’t, but Scruton argues that if you don’t, you’d better find a better premise, other than “no government” if at all possible – because that’s not possible. You’ll get one whether you want one or not. They form naturally, and inevitably. And that doesn’t even address the question of Memorial Day, which conservatives claim to own. That’s all about big government, writ even larger and looking good. Tom Clancy wasn’t Rousseau. And our warriors, who we honor, weren’t freelancing. There’s a lot to work out here.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Celebrating Big Government

  1. Rick says:

    Odd that conservatives, so many of them Southern and white, would think they own Memorial Day, a holiday “the first widely publicized observance” after the Civil War of which was celebrated by black residents of Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after Lincoln’s murder, to salute the sacrifices of the northern soldiers who had been buried in a local race course. (Those conservatives might be confusing it with Veterans Day, a holiday that began by honoring WWI soldiers, many of whom looked more like them.)

    And it’s also odd that so many conservatives imagine man in a “state of nature” in which there was no government, when in fact, go back far enough in the history of the human animal and you will never find a time when he lived alone, like certain other animals, before deciding, for one reason or other, to join a herd.

    And herds, of course, have a ruling hierarchy that functions as a means of keeping the herd together — not only keeping it safe from the threats from outside but also for, at the very least, rudimentarily coordinating the daily life of the group.

    And so, just as a herd itself occurs “naturally” in that “state of nature”, so does its hierarchy, which can easily be understood to be the herd’s government.

    In other words, get used to it. Government is here to stay.


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