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Book Review: Dead Right

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Dead Right
by David Frum (New York: A New Republic Book/Basic Books, 1994); 230 pages; $23.00.

The congressional Republicans are approaching the end of their first one hundred days, during which they promised to implement much of the legislation in their Contract with America, a contract that they said would usher in a “historic change” that would bring about “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public’s money.”

I fear that by the time this review appears, many of those who were anticipating the rebirth of liberty in America will find that the path to its recovery has turned out to be more difficult than November’s post-election rhetoric suggested. Some of the reasons why are explained in David Frum’s Dead Right.

At the heart of Mr. Frum’s argument is the thesis that for thirty years the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been running away from what they ideologically and philosophically stood for in 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran for president. He quotes from Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative:

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. . . . And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

But wasn’t the Reagan victory in 1980 another attempt to attain what Goldwater had called for sixteen years earlier? Alas, no. As Mr. Frum shows in a chapter reviewing the Reagan years, government not only did not contract during this period, it in fact kept getting bigger, with many of the government departments supposedly most anathema to conservatives being the ones that were stuffed with the largest budgets.

The Reagan presidency, therefore, was a failure in terms of a reversal of the continual trend towards big, intrusive government. And the conservatives and Republicans gave up even trying to stop the trend. Why? Because they concluded that big government, paternalistic government, redistributive government is what the American people wanted; and rather than say the unpopular, unelectable thing, it was better to adjust the Republican and conservative message to what people wanted to hear.

As a result, Mr. Frum argues, there have emerged three strands in the conservative movement in the first half of the 1990s. They are the optimists, the moralists, and the nationalists. The optimists are represented by leading Republican figures like Jack Kemp, who is quoted as saying:

My feeling is that if you have a contest between Scrooge — pure budget-cutting — versus Santa Claus, which is what the Left offers, Scrooge loses. My view is that growth is the only political model that can compete with the Santa Claus of the Left.

This is the political strategy behind “supply-side economics,” in which government lowers tax rates so people will produce more, save, and invest, resulting in the national economic pie getting larger. A miracle of economic gain — an expanding private sector economy — with no political pain, i.e., having to convince the voters to accept any real absolute cuts in government spending.

Combined with this supply-side wizardry, the conservative optimists say that poor people can be raised out of economic and cultural poverty by government’s manipulating the tax and market incentive structures to generate the behavior modifications deemed desirable. As Mr. Frum puts it:

Too many of the optimists have ceased to understand “the market” as the behavior that naturally occurs when the state respects contracts and property rights; they have come instead to see markets as devices — “mechanisms,” as a revealing figure of speech puts it — for eliciting whatever behavior the authorities of the moment happen to think desirable.

In Europe, socialists have been more honest than these conservatives — they call this policy tool “indicative planning.”

The second group — the conservative moralists — are represented by people like William Bennett and Irving Kristol. They believe that America is suffering from cultural decay and decline, and while government welfare-statist policies may have been primary ingredients in causing it, just eliminating these policies will not reverse the process. Instead, in the words of Kristol, the state must take “a degree of responsibility for helping to shape the preferences that the people exercise in a free market — to ‘elevate’ them, if you will.” They have no interest or confidence in the privatization of education, for example; to the contrary, they believe that it is the state’s duty to mold a national curriculum for the creation of virtuous, similar, and good citizens.

“Rather than liberate the innate virtues of the common man with libertarian public policy,” says Mr. Frum, “Bennett thinks that conservative politicians and any future conservative government must exhort them to improve their standard of conduct.” Mr. Frum wonders, however:

Isn’t it weird that conservatives who have worked so hard to destroy the public’s faith in the wisdom and goodness of government, could now talk about government exhorting people to virtue?. . . If it is true that America’s problems are predominantly cultural [as William Bennett says] then what is politics for? People who want to improve their country would then be well advised to write novels or enter the priesthood, not run for Congress or staff the executive branch.

Finally, there are the conservative nationalists, who insist that America’s core problems can be blamed on the recent waves of legal and illegal Asian and Latin American immigrants who have flooded the United States and who have “diluted” the true American character of its European heritage. The leading proponents of this branch of the conservative movement is Pat Buchanan and others, like columnist Samuel Francis and the editors of Chronicles magazine. In the pages of Chronicles , there have appeared declarations such as the following: “[T]he concept of ‘America First’ implies a nationalist ethic that transcends the preferences and interests of the individual or the interest group and may often require government action.” And under this banner, Buchanan has advocated, besides immigration barriers, trade barriers to “protect” and “preserve” American jobs and industries.

Says Mr. Frum:

Most conservative protectionists simply refuse to think about the consequences of their America First principles. . . . As every country that has dabbled in protectionism, including the United States, has learned, in practice a protectionist government finds itself drawn into the minutest questions of business life. . . . To libertarian-minded conservatives, the free movement of people is the natural corollary to the free movement of goods and capital.

What, then is the conservative movement and the Republican Party to do, in Mr. Frum’s view? It must return to the type of political and ideological heritage that it represented when Goldwater ran for president, when the state and its intrusive controls and welfare-statist redistributions were seen as the problem and when individual liberty was seen as the solution. He calls for conservatives to abandon their support for Social Security, Medicare, public schooling, the welfare state, and all forms of government regulation and intervention. All of the social and cultural decline and political problems that optimist, moralist, and nationalist conservatives bemoan have been caused by the paternalist state, and they will have no cure until that paternalist state is abolished.

“Is there a way out? Only one.” Mr. Frum ends his book saying:

Conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price.

It remains to be seen if the Republican conservatives in this new Congress are willing to make the honest, principled fight for liberty and pay the full price.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).