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The Crisis in Conservatism

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The end of the Cold War has brought a deep crisis to the conservative movement in America. For over four decades, the communist threat was the glue that bound conservatives together. However, now that communism no longer poses a direct threat to the United States, deep cracks have appeared in the conservative movement.

Why? The reason is that conservatives have abandoned the moral and philosophical principles that once undergirded the conservative philosophy. For example, consider the political battle over immigration and trade policies that took place between Patrick Buchanan and George Bush. For many decades, Buchanan had railed against the Soviet communists for building the Berlin Wall and raising the Iron Curtain. People have a right to travel and trade, Buchanan had repeatedly told the Soviets. It is evil and immoral to wall them in.

But the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Iron Curtain caught Buchanan off guard. For while people were now free to leave the “evil empire,” Buchanan did not want them entering the United States. Thus, in order to keep immigrants out of our country, Buchanan advocated the building of American governmental walls higher and more formidable than the Soviets had constructed to keep them in.

Buchanan had also long extolled the virtues of private property: he who produces goods and services has the right to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Yet, by advocating protectionism, Buchanan was saying that American politicians and bureaucrats ahould exercise more control over how and where Americans spend and invest their own money. And, although he has repeatedly condemned the failed liberal, welfare programs of the past, by trying to protect American business people from overseas competition, Buchanan was, in effect, advocating welfare and governmental dependency for them.

Bush responded that Buchanan’s immigration and trade positions violated traditional principles of conservatism. And he was right! — free immigration and free trade were once hallmarks of the conservative philosophy. Unfortunately, however, despite his rhetoric, Bush’s own beliefs on these two issues are a mirror image of Buchanan’s. For example, Bush used his political powers over trade to impose a massive embargo on Haiti, which caused untold suffering among the Haitian people. Then, when the Haitians tried to flee their country, Bush used immigration powers to incarcerate them and then force them back to the starvation and misery which awaited them in Haiti. Furthermore, throughout his presidency, Bush has never once advocated the unilateral elimination of the thousands of tariffs, quotas, and trade restrictions that pervade America’s economic system; instead, he has spent most of his time trying “to manage” international trade.

There are other areas where conservatives have abandoned their own principles of liberty. When the 16th Amendment was adopted in 1913, conservatives condemned the tax as evil and immoral as well as a violation of the principles of individual freedom and limited government on which our nation was founded. The ugly nature of income taxation was perhaps best summarized by the great conservative Frank Chodorov in his book The Income Tax: Root of all Evil, published in 1954.

And when Franklin D. Roosevelt foisted his New Deal onto the American people in the 1930s, the conservatives hit him hard with their principled moral and philosophical arguments. When government uses its taxing power to take from some to give to others, no matter how worthy the cause, it engages in evil and immoral conduct. For stealing is wrong, the conservatives argued, even when it is legalized. Conservatives called for the repeal, not the reform, of all laws that took money from one person and gave it to another.

Moreover, conservatives believed that the force of law could not make a person good or moral. Frank S. Meyer set forth the following argument in his book The Conservative Mainstream: To develop a high sense of morality and consciousness, the individual must have the widest ambit of freedom of choice. This natural process — constantly having to choose between right and wrong — enables a person to develop best a sense of “doing the right thing.” And the free-market, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich A. Hayek amplified this principle by showing that while freedom could not guarantee a moral and virtuous society, freedom was the only chance there was to achieve such a society.

What about modern-day conservatives? Today, one rarely, if ever, finds a conservative advocating the dismantling and end of America’s welfare state. Unfortunately, conservatives now take the “practical” position that the welfare state is here to stay. Therefore, rather than trying to end the liberal programs, they devote themselves to getting conservatives in public office to run them.

Thus, we have the disgraceful spectacle of conservatives like Jack Kemp who preach the virtues and benefits of private property and free markets while presiding over governmental agencies that constitute the socialism of America’s welfare state. Has Kemp, for example, even once called for the dismantling — the end — of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (as Ronald Reagan, at least, advocated for the Department of Education)? Of course not. That position could result in the loss of political support. Moreover, Kemp apparently thinks that his private-property, free-market perspective will make the socialism of the HUD programs work well and efficiently. He ignores what his conservative forbearers knew: that good fruit can never come from an evil tree, even when conservatives are watering it.

Another example: Social Security. Conservatives once believed that it was the duty of people to save for their old age and that it was the moral duty of the young to care for the elderly. They knew that their American ancestors had rightfully rejected for 150 years the coercive socialism of Social Security. Thus, when Social Security was enacted in the 1930s, conservatives leveled their principled moral and philosophical salvos against this new liberal program: Older generations should not use the force of law to loot younger generations; and children must decide for themselves whether to care for their aging parents.

But today, while conservatives occasionally make suggestions for “reform,” one never finds their advocating the repeal of Social Security. They are much too afraid of losing their “popularity and respectability” to call for an end to this evil and immoral law. Unfortunately, conservatives no longer take seriously the immortal words of Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

And what about the principled arguments that conservatives used to make against income taxation? No longer are they heard. Conservatives now talk like liberals: “We must ‘reform’ the tax code and ‘reign in’ the Internal Revenue Service, but income taxation is here to stay.”

In his recent book Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke implied that God is a conservative. But that is impossible. Because God engages neither in theft nor in hypocrisy. And, unfortunately, theft and hypocrisy now characterize the conservative movement. Conservatives like Dan Quayle talk about moral values — and yet remain actively involved in the massive theft that undergirds the entire welfare state. And while conservatives like Ed Meese and Bill Bennett preach moral values, they wage their governmental wars on pornography and drugs wars which interfere with the natural, God-given process of voluntary and peaceful human choice, a process which, as Meyer and Hayek argued, is the only way to create a climate of morality and victim in society.

The end of the Cold War has exposed the great sin which conservatives have committed for the past several decades: while fighting communism overseas, conservatives accepted socialism at home. Today, without the glue of anticommunism to hold them together, the abandonment of traditional conservative principles — private property, unhampered markets, unlimited accumulation of wealth, free immigration, free trade, freedom of choice, and limited government — threatens to tear asunder the conservative movement.

Can conservatism be saved? Yes — but only by conservatives abandoning the liberal road on which they have traveled for so many years. Conservatism — and America — can be saved only through the recapturing of the moral and philosophical principles that once made conservatism the guiding light for this nation.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.