I want to follow-up on some comments to my last article, both on this site, and on the Houston Chronicle’s website after David re-posted the article there because of the implications for the Republican Party. Then, I want to offer some personal thoughts about the 100th Anniversary this month of the start of the “Great War”—World War I—and how its consequences relate to the ideas I presented in my last post, and to what is going on in the world today.
Before I address these topics, though, I want to provide you with four quotes, which I have used in prior posts on this website, and which will give some context for my discussion in this post:
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!
St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, around 54 or 55 A.D. (the New King James Version)
… it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June, 1776
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State government are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.
James Madison, The Federalist Papers, Federalist No. 45
Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man’s material well-being. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place—that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role.
The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, and economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand—in the name of a concern for “human beings”—regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society. They are, moreover, in a hurry. So that their characteristic approach is to harness the society’s political and economic forces into a collective effort to compel “progress.” In this approach, I believe they fight against Nature.
Surely the first obligation of a political thinker is to understand the nature of man
Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative
With these quotes fresh in your mind, I want to first address one of the comments on the Chronicle’s website that is typical of the type of response conservatives normally receive when they try to discuss changing and reducing the current role of the national government in domestic affairs: the straw-man argument that conservatives really want no government at all. That simply is false. Actually, we believe that government that is closest to the people—in our system, that is the local and state governments—are, consistent with the original constitutional design, best capable of marshalling the public and private resources of communities and using them most efficiently (and cost-effectively) to address our domestic needs. Moreover, keeping these programs local provides more avenues for neighbors to re-engage with each other to help each other and their communities—to build and maintain the relationships that form the foundation of a society of free people. And those relationships, in the end, are what make us whole men and women and make life worth living.
Second, charity is different from mercy. The caring love that the Parable of the Good Samaritan describes as mercy is different from charity, though our Founders told us it was our duty to practice both love and charity. Although, I believe charity is most effectively accomplished privately, forms of charity can be provided publicly—but it still should be coordinated and implemented locally, by neighbors helping neighbors through their local organizations (including local governments). One-size-fits-all programs (other than simple transfer payments, like Social Security) simply don’t provide the effective help to our neighbors (both to the recipient and the giver) that charity should provide.
Third, the national European model of social democracy is more consistent with the model Madison describes in Federalist No. 45 for state and local governments, than it is to the current centralization advocated by American Progressives. Most European nations are no bigger than our largest states, most have more homogeneous populations than our diverse national population, and most had operational national systems before they democratized their politics; and those factors have allowed for a level of public acceptance of, and involvement with, their national governments that is more difficult to achieve and implement in the more diverse United States. European nations states are more analogous to our state governments, and our federal system allows our state governments the flexibility to provide for the public/private relationships and programs more common to Europe, which American Progressives seem to want—which is why a state-run health care system might be acceptable for France or Massachusetts, but is ill-suited for the United States at the national level.
By trying to do what the private sector and state and local governments should do, we have stretched the constitutional competence of federal government to its breaking point. And this gets me to my final reflection on the lessons from the “Great War”.
As Madison observes in Federalist No. 45, the constitutional powers delegated to the federal government “will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce ….” In the exercise of that power since our engagement in World War II, both political parties made promises to the rest of the world that we would never again allow it to descend into a spiral of madness and instability toward totalitarianism and away from democracy. Twice in my lifetime, our confidence in our ability to meet these promises was shaken by arguable mistakes and misadventures—in Vietnam and Iraq. The generation that fought World War II helped us dig ourselves out of the hole of self-doubt and desire to retreat from the Cold War after Vietnam; we now must similarly dig ourselves out of the hole created by the Iraq experience—we must not repeat the mistake of the “lost generation” after World War I.
It is hard to fathom now the depth of vain miscalculation that led to the catastrophe of World War I, which wiped away much of a generation of men from several European countries—wiping away the families they never had, the wealth they never created, and the stable politics they were capable of supporting. In that vacuum, totalitarianism and eugenics were embraced by articulate imbeciles, who, for a time, mesmerized a wounded continent. Guilt over the mistake of the war, enforced shame on one country for the cause of the war, and a shared grief from the losses of the war, averted people’s eyes away from what was happening to their neighbors and the descent of their societies into the madness of Hitler’s Nazism, Stalin’s Communism, and the fascism of Mussolini and Franco, and gave them the excuse to embrace appeasement to these deadly forces. Because two wrongs never make a right, the consequence of this blind appeasement was more catastrophic than the first mistake of the “Great War” and rippled on for decades through the Cold War.
Now, it seems we have leaders in both parties reflecting a public mood that again wants to turn its back on the promises we made to never again allow the world to descend into such darkness. There is still time to wake ourselves out of this stupor in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and Asia, and to implement policies that will shape events properly without committing soldiers to a ground war—but the time for such action is growing shorter.
What is needed immediately is a leadership that recognizes that the proper role of the federal government at home is limited, and that promotes a renaissance of civic activity at the state and local level; while it recognizes and accepts the proper responsibility and mission of our federal government bequeathed to us by both the Founders and the “Greatest Generation”. Not just the fate of our political principles and civil society is at stake—the fate of our children’s world is at stake, too.