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A Separate Peace?

What's the (New) Deal with some conservatives?

By 6.28.10

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At just the moment when Barack Obama, firmly at the controls of Dodo Bird One, is plummeting towards earth, some conservatives are making a separate peace with the New Deal.

The country seems to be on the cusp of a new beginning. Anti-incumbent fever is running high. Tea Party activists are talking the language of the founding fathers. The incompetence of the president is noted by everyone, including his friends. There's a sense that Americans may, after all, be able to take back their government -- and their destiny -- from the progressive, liberal, big-government, anti-freedom statists.

After more than sixty years of veneration of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal by left-wing academics, books have finally been written that challenge their version of history. In 1948, John T. Flynn wrote The Roosevelt Myth, but it couldn't be a best-seller in those days. So it fell more recently to Amity Shlaes, Burton Folsom Jr., and others to tell the truth about the myth of the Roosevelt years.

How perverse of History, then, to deliver the country at just this moment to a new set of Rooseveltian progressive politicians.

Maybe not. Maybe this time the progressive statists can be defeated for good. Well, never for good, but maybe for a generation.

But to do that, conservatives (the regular militia) and the Tea Party activists (the reserves) need to go back to the conservative movement's roots.

Or perhaps back to its root: William F. Buckley Jr.

Buckley, the young Buckley, the "enfant terrible" Buckley, started National Review (and the conservative movement) with a call to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." But that wasn't all he said.

Steven Hayward has recently questioned (in the Winter issue of the Claremont Review) the reach of Buckley's command. "Neither Chambers nor the conservative movement as shaped by Buckley ever explicitly challenged the Left's idea of progress, or the terms in which the Left understood human advancement.… [R]emember the National Review rallying cry: to stand athwart history yelling 'Stop,' rather than grabbing hold of history and sending it in a different direction."

Hayward strikingly ignores two of the magazine's stated credenda, published in that same first issue in which the line about standing athwart history appeared. One of those was: "The century's most blatant force of satanic utopianism is communism. We consider 'coexistence' with communism neither desirable nor possible, nor honorable; we find ourselves irrevocably at war with communism and shall oppose any substitute for victory."

For 34 years, National Review spent a fortune on paper and ink fighting Communism and opposing any substitute for victory. And when the fighting was over, Communism was gone, and history went off in a different direction. If that isn't grabbing hold, what is?

But Buckley's rallying cry wasn't solely about standing athwart history yelling Stop. He also wrote about those who had not "made their peace with the New Deal." How else to interpret that except as a challenge to the Left's idea of progress?

"Among our convictions," wrote the young Buckley, is that "The growth of government -- the dominant social feature of this century -- must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side." And, he added, "The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order."

Wow! No one's writing like that anymore. Today we're Norma Desmonds. We think it's the pictures that got small. We need to reread, perhaps fortnightly, National Review's opening call, and marvel at its clarity and its courage.

Hayward is correct, however, in part. Too many conservatives have made peace with the Left's idea of progress, which may be why the Tea Party activists have taken up the cause of small government.

Reviewing Lee Edwards's biography of Buckley in National Review, James Person writes: "And lest the reader come away with the understanding that Buckley held to a Pickett's Charge brand of conservatism, it is useful to remember that he believed, as Edwards notes, 'that if conservatives in politics wanted to be successful they had to steer a middle course between the ideal and the prudential.'"

Person writes, "Thus Buckley could on one occasion write, to the dismay of a few on the right, 'What conservatives are going to have to get used to is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost. It is fine, in our little seminars, to make the case against a federal Social Security program, but it pays to remind ourselves that nobody outside the walls of that classroom is going to pay much attention to our Platonic exercises.'"

Ramesh Ponnuru, reviewing William Voegeli's new book, Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State (National Review, May 17, 2010), writes: "Voegeli is oddly emphatic in writing that ending the welfare state should not be even a distant goal of conservatives. They will never undo the election of 1936. He is perfectly aware that almost no Republican politicians and very few conservative voters seek any such goal; that is part of why the goal is too utopian to be maintained. Perhaps a lingering suspicion that conservatives still harbor the goal impedes their political success. But what more would Voegeli have conservatives do to dispel that suspicion?"

But what is prudential in politics changes with time, and people who would be successful in politics must change also.

A question for conservatives today is, Is Buckley going to be remembered for saying that "certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost," or that conservatives should stand athwart history yelling Stop and should make no peace with the New Deal?

Of course, the New Deal was younger in 1955, when National Review was founded, and perhaps seemed more vulnerable. After the Lyndon Johnson years, on the other hand, it may have looked permanent.

Until now.

For the new reality is: Social Security is doomed. And probably other parts of the New Deal along with it. Buckley didn't live to see the new reality, but he had an intuition, back in 1955.

Social Security is doomed for the reason expressed by Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

Modern, enlightened countries, like Chile and New Zealand, have better social-security systems than the U.S. And there isn't any reason the U.S. can't move to a better system too. Indeed it will have to, because the current system cannot go on forever.

So, it turns out that we do not have to make peace with the New Deal. The New Deal was a failure. And it is time to repeal it.

If ever there was a time to stand athwart history yelling Stop, it's now. But that's not all. We must remember that the often-quoted "yelling Stop" is synecdochic for all the other battle cries listed by the young Bill Buckley in the first issue of National Review.

The progressive impulse towards ever bigger government, described by Buckley as "the dominant social feature of this century," will always be with us, because it is rooted in man's desire to control his fellow man. It was the great social conflict of the era of National Review's founding, and it remains so today.

It will always be necessary to stand athwart history. And always necessary to make no peace with -- indeed, to make war on -- social engineering, in whatever guise it manifests itself.

It is fashionable in certain parts to say that it is no longer possible to leave to our children a better world than the one we have lived in. Rubbish! We (and our parents) have lived for the most part in an increasingly socially engineered world, utopia bound, callous towards human freedom at best, more often contemptuous of it.

What we offer our children now is hope, at least, as the social-engineering projects begin their final crumbling, and, if we are successful, a life of freedom.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.