Capitol Ideas

My Country Right or Left

One problem with liberals is that they have no appreciation of the normal.

By From the April 2010 issue

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Years ago, I asked Michael Kinsley, then the editor of Harper's, if liberals ever think the state has grown large enough. This was in the early 1980s, so a vast government expansion -- Great Society, EPA, Department of Energy, and others -- had already happened. Kinsley and I had been at the Washington Monthly together. I should add that he was then and remains to this day a liberal to the core, and an excellent editor despite that.

"Maybe government should be cut back a bit, just this once," I suggested. When he looked uncertain I asked him how he would know if still more was needed.

In his answer, he used the metaphor of adding salt (more government) to tasteless food (the American way of life). Salt is added, and see? The food tastes better already. Now comes more salt. How does that taste? He sips from an imaginary pot. Better, but we're still not there yet. More salt definitely needed. Out comes the Morton's one more time. His message was that government is never quite big enough.

One problem with liberals is that they have no appreciation of the normal. They lack the taste buds that tell normal people when enough is enough. You never, ever hear liberals debating whether we have too much government. "More!" is their sole prescription. Right now, billions more dollars have been put at the disposal of the Department of Education. It will be spent foolishly, on progressive education. But for liberals it is an article of faith that more government money improves not just education but everything it is spent on.

Too much salt is dangerous, of course, and it can kill. But liberals never think of more government that way. Their plans for the improvement of mankind -- always involving greater control over our lives -- take precedence over practical considerations. In the Soviet Union the government swallowed up everything, and that proved fatal to it. No matter. Liberals are ruled by their driving obsession: Life is unfair, inequality must be corrected, the government must step in and do something right away. Basically, the liberal mind is possessed by a revolutionary spirit.

They think of government as teleocratic, to use Michael Oakeshott's word. It aims to bring about particular ends. It turns laws into missions. To conservatives (exemplified by the Founding Fathers) government is nomocratic, or rule-based. It no more seeks a particular outcome than the rules of baseball decree that either side shall win. Since the liberal goal -- eliminating inequality -- is an unattainable fantasy, life will always be unsatisfactory for liberals.

Don't they know that governments amassed power in country after country throughout the 20th century, that the United States mostly escaped that, and was also the most successful country in that time -- and for precisely that reason? They are not interested. With good liberals in charge, good things will happen. And if they don't, well, that will be the fault of bad people -- greedy people, most likely. New laws can be fashioned to stamp out greed. And so it goes.

When Obama said he'd rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer, he tacitly acknowledged that his bigger-government plan might not be appreciated by the voters even though it would be good for them. A premise of liberalism is that Americans, like children, often don't know what's good for them.

Over the years, some on the left saw the utopian and destructive nature of liberalism, and broke with it. The most influential of them became known as neoconservatives. They still supported parts of the liberal agenda -- big government with a mission -- but they abandoned the mission itself -- equality. Theirs would be quite different.

They called themselves "big government conservatives" and George W. Bush became their prime pupil. He "tolerated a surge in federal spending, downplayed swollen deficits, failed to use his veto, created a vast Department of Homeland Security, and fashioned an alliance of sorts with Teddy Kennedy on education and Medicare," as Fred Barnes wrote in 2003.

But the key neoconservative goal was "regime change." Folks, there are bad people out there, so let's get them before they get us. The 9/11 attacks gave Bush and his team a war-making rationale. We invaded a supposedly nuclear-armed Iraq in 2003 and duly changed its regime. Afghanistan had already been attacked in 2001.

Traditional conservatives have no such agenda. They aspire to constitutional government and equality before the law. The people should be responsible for their own health, education, and welfare, as they were in the 19th century. Taxes should be low and trade free. Prepare to defend the country but don't go around looking for trouble. Tyrannical regimes have long been the norm and they tend to self-destruct. Lead by example, and others will follow. Lead by force, and others will back away.

Now we are stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. An election looms in Iraq, and the Afghanistan conflict could continue indefinitely. Clearly it was our involvement in these unwinnable wars that undermined the GOP in 2006-08. Now they are becoming a liability for Obama. In 2009 he signaled that he would like to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan but he also feared looking like a peacenik president, so he ordered a troop expansion.

We have seen the difficulties that the left creates -- they generate permanent high blood pressure, to extend Kinsley's salt metaphor. Now let's look at the very different problem that arises on the right. Patriotism is a virtue, but it comes so readily to conservative hearts and minds that it can be enlisted inappropriately.

Because they find contentment in private life, conservatives are often temperamentally unsuited to leadership and susceptible to guidance by neoconservatives. Ronald Reagan was the rare case of a successful conservative leader who steered clear of wars. After the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983 he extricated the U.S. from the region in preference to war.

Conservatives, who often ignore foreign policy, are disposed to acquiesce when neocons warn of grave dangers abroad. Patriotism also disposes Americans to believe that if we are in a war there has to be a good reason. The default conservative position, then, is that if Americans are in a war we also have to be in the right. Even if political machinations got us into it, that's all water under the bridge. We have no choice but to support it -- "my country right or wrong."

It's easy to go with that patriotic flow and equally easy to accuse anyone who doesn't go along of being unpatriotic. Questioning whether we should ever have become involved in a war in the first place is not so easy. After all, errors in that respect cannot be reversed. Better to remain silent than to raise possibly unpatriotic doubts.

The situation has arisen anew because Daniel Pipes, a leading neoconservative with expert knowledge of the Islamic world, wrote in February that Obama could "save his tottering administration" by ordering "the U.S. military to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons capacity." Such an attack would dispatch his "feckless first year down the memory hole," Pipes wrote. He had polling numbers to show that such an act of war would be popular nationwide. "Conservatives" would "swoon," presumably with pleasure.

My own feeling is that Pipes was conflating conservatives and neoconservatives and that to launch a third war in the region would be highly unpopular with liberals and conservatives alike. Once conned, twice shy, and conservatives just might resist this time.

What lies ahead? The Tea Party movement is interesting because it looks very much like a conservative movement that for the moment is free of neoconservative leadership. How long that will last I don't know. Neocons tend to act as the officer class while conservatives play a subordinate role. But one might say that with liberals or neoconservatives running things, hypertension is our fate.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).