April 10, 2008

When you’re rebuilding something from the rubble, it pays to listen to men who have experience doing just that. Men like Wilhelm Röpke,whose books helped construct a viable centrist Right for post-war Germany, and whose economic advice helped launch its “€œeconomic miracle.”€ The state of conservatism today is nothing like so bright as post war Germany, but the comparison is apt.  Let’s go through it point by point, shall we?

Germany had been steeped for over a decade in violent, jingoistic propaganda that devalued rational thought, by a party that viciously punished dissent. Check.

The ruling party in Germany taught citizens to put blind faith in the personal powers of a single leader to interpret the will of “€œProvidence.”€ Check.

The careful discussion of alternative policies had given way to back-room attempts to curry favor with a single, nearly omnipotent unitary executive, whose decisions were driven not by facts but wishful thinking and utopian fantasies. Check.

The rich intellectual heritage of German political thinking”€”with many strains, derived from diverse religious traditions and many fractious thinkers”€”had been hacked away, to empower a coterie of fanatics. Check.

The Nazi movement had, even before the war, overheated the economy and put the country on a course that was unsustainable in peacetime”€”in the hope of obtaining vital resources for expansion through foreign conquest.  Check.

So maybe Röpke is the man to whom we should look today for answers”€”even though our churches are mercifully unbombed, and the body count racked up by our war of conquest is comparatively low. (I leave aside, of course, the horrors of Nazi genocide because there is mercifully nothing quite like that on our conscience.)

Paul Gottfried, in one of his many thoughtful contributions here, has suggested that any renascent Right in America will likely be libertarian in orientation, rebuilding on the (by now ancient) ruins of the “€œOld Right”€ that fought FDR. In this he is largely right. Given the sheer size, economic and intellectual corruption, and crushing fiscal impact of our federal government”€”in both its militarist and socialist sectors”€”there is no room anymore for airy fantasies about “€œcompassionate conservatism,”€ “€œbig government conservatism,”€ “€œfaith-based initiatives,”€ or (God help us) “€œnational greatness.”€

To test this assertion out, as April 15 rolls around and you see the sheer size of the bite which taxes take from your pay this year, step back to think about what you’ve actually gotten in return for all this money.  Let’s take the first, most sacred duty of a government: Are our borders defended against invasion? Well, no. Inadequate or insincere attempts to control illegal immigration allow over 1 million people to walk into our country every year, to await the day when they will receive amnesty… and immediately become eligible for social welfare programs and affirmative action”€”all at the expense of native born citizens. Meanwhile, our military budgets spin out of control, as we pile up weaponry to re-fight the Cold War against countries that pose no threat to us. (By the way, can anyone give me a reason why we and Russia are still pointing thermonuclear missiles at each other’s cities”€”some 17 years since the fall of Communism? Just asking.) We continue to keep France safe from German invasion, and West Germany safe from an attack by the German Democratic Republic… even as we try to bomb the Arab world into the Space Age. Mission accomplished! Heckuva job!  

In nearly every other sector, federal and state governments continue to foster counter-productive activities that are prone to savage libertarian critique. Here are just a few: Attacks on the rights of home-schoolers in California. Strict regulations that make it impossible for small farmers to make goat cheese in Virginia. Massive federal subsidies to ethanol producers… who grow corn using petrochemical fertilizers made from… guess what”€”oil! How about that proposed state law in New York (I’ve written about this before) which would close down religious hospitals if they refuse to perform or refer for abortions?

The instinct to promote some abstract vision of “€œthe good”€ using coercion and taxation has largely displaced the traditional American instincts toward private charity, self-reliance, and voluntary cooperation. This glorification of the State has been enabled by intellectual laziness on the part of our ethical gate-keepers”€”our churches. Leave aside for a moment the ever-exciting implications of the Reformation. Read the policy papers produced by the leadership of nearly every denomination in America, and you’ll find scarcely a trace of the decentralist and voluntarist impulses of Protestantism, or the “€œsubsidiary”€ principles enshrined in Catholic social teaching. Instead, churches on both sides of the Tiber have learned to act like other lobbies, fighting for their share of the booty collected at gunpoint by the State. All in “€œgood causes,”€ of course. Fighting racism. Defending marriage. Providing health care. Resettling immigrants.

There is ample space for a thriving libertarian movement in America, and a desperate need for one. So why not just throw out the label “€œconservative,”€ tainted as it now is, and line up behind a strict, small government philosophy that mirrors the decentralized Republic of our Founders? Why not call ourselves libertarians and be done with it?

Because libertarianism (or “€œliberalism,”€ in the European term Röpke used) is not enough. Indeed, it never was. While we have every reason to strive against the presumptions of big, intrusive government”€”particularly in its most distant and bureaucratic form, the federal government”€”there are both philosophical and practical problems with down-the-line libertarian ideology, some of which helped topple the “€œliberal”€ regimes of Europe in the early 20th century, others which are only obvious today. I’ll enumerate them in a minute.

But first, let’s look at the most fundamental objection to unalloyed libertarianism: It has no vision of the Good. The absence of coercion, the removal of burdensome taxes and intrusive regulation, the repeal of meddling laws”€”all of this is critically important. It’s a vision which can take you part of the way, politically. We can and should build a coalition based on what we don’t want the government to do, or force us to do. However, people crave more than that. They expect of a political philosophy some positive vision of how men should be living their lives. “€œDon’t tread on me… keep the gummint outa my bizness”€ is fine as far as it goes, but what about the day after that happens? What shape do you want society to take? What moral codes should govern people’s private, uncoerced choices? How should they spend that money which the feds are no longer stealing from them? Answers to all these questions ought to be implicit”€”and probably explicit”€”in the essays and books that emerge as part of a rejuvenated conservative movement. I know that the “€œpaleolibertarians,”€ particularly those with solid Christian convictions, sometimes address these questions”€”albeit in an often unsatisfying way. They are hobbled in part by their dogmatic devotion to thinkers whose explorations of moral questions were rather… unsatisfying. For instance, (the mostly brilliant) Murray Rothbard, whose vision of “€œfreedom”€ was so extreme that it included the “€œright”€ of a woman to abort her child for any reason, since it constituted an “€œintruder”€ in her body”€”akin to a trespasser who can justly be shot. According to John Walker of Libertarians for Life, Rothbard also held that parents had no moral obligation to raise their own children”€”and could abandon them if they wished. It’s hard to imagine many Christians lining up behind such a vision of liberty. For most Christians, the family”€”and not the individual”€”is the basic unit of society.  If libertarians want our votes, they’re going to have to come up with a more wholesome theory of family life than that. 

On other issues with moral implications, it’s essential that any attack on burdensome bureaucracy be accompanied by a strong commitment to offering private sector solutions”€”or else partisans of liberty will rightly be seen as callous and amoral. Poverty programs, for instance, and racial discrimination. If you’re going to make the entirely reasonable case that the State should not maintain a massive, coercive bureaucracy to prevent people exercising their freedom of contract and association in ways that harm minorities, you’d damn well better accompany that argument with another solution. Such as boycotts. “€œLet some dumbass company refuse to hire qualified Catholics if they like,”€ would run such an argument. “€œAnd Catholics won’t buy their products. Neither will other fair-minded people. Instead of federal bureaucrats enforcing laws against that kind of behavior, let Internet site police which companies act unfairly. Those companies will pay the price.”€ And so on.

There are also practical issues which libertarians do a poor job of addressing”€”such as pollution. As fervent as I have been in my support for Ron Paul, and as much as I admire that good and courageous man, I couldn’t help being simply embarrassed by his position on ecology. As a solidly orthodox libertarian, he advocated dealing with pollution, global warming, and every other “€œexternality”€ which one individual imposes through his activities on innocent third parties through… tort law. That’s right, law suits. Just what Americans instinctively know they need”€”an explosion of litigation. If there’s one group of people who are rightly less beloved than federal bureaucrats, it is plaintiff lawyers. What is more, how exactly would it work? If it is true that all of us through our use of fossil fuels are gradually raising the global temperature and making large parts of the earth uninhabitable or vastly poorer, whom exactly are we going to sue? Ourselves? Or should the populations of regions badly effected by climate change sue everyone who drives a car?  If there’s any issue other than protecting the border that seems to scream for a solution by sane and prudent government, it’s this one. How do libertarians typically address this issue? The same way Creationists deal with fossils, as Russell Seitz rightly points out. In doing so, they squander their credibility on a wide range of other issues about which they are 100% correct.

Here is where Röpke comes in. Throughout his major works, he explores the many social and economic “€œexternalities”€ generated by the free exercise of a market economy”€”ranging from the corrosive effects of competition to the centralization of economic power and the disappearance of family farms and small businesses. Instead of trying to explain these problems away, he addresses them honestly”€”and tries to offer solutions that entail the minimal use of coercive force by the State. A firm defender of the classical liberal tradition, and its vision of free men in a free society, he enriches his discussion of politics and culture with the insights of conservatives such as Burke and Christians like Chesterton. Röpke’s work was deeply infused by the Christian vision of man as noble but fallen, neither a god nor a beast, a creature as much of the family and of history as of individual initiative. An altogether more attractive and realistic picture than the monsters who populate the novels of Ayn Rand”€”and one that can form the basis of a serious, lasting political movement.


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