SOME CONSERVATIVES are surprised to find people on the left supporting the war in Afghanistan. It’s not surprising at all.
War collectivizes society (the euphemism is “unites”) and increases the government’s domestic power. There is no mystery here. In war there seems to be one overriding goal for the entire society: defeat the enemy. Everything else is subordinate. The aspirations of individuals must take a back seat to the war effort. Any resources the government decides it needs, it will get. But government produces no resources. So it must take them from those who do produce them.
The term “resources” may be defined rather broadly by the state. Hence, conscription. If a state declines to conscript during a given war, it is not likely to be out of any scruple concerning the principle of individual self-ownership. More likely, the state fears a backlash from the citizenry or, in our time, the high-tech nature of warfare makes masses of manpower unnecessary.
The key collectivizing effect of war is not material but psychological. People are encouraged to think of themselves not as individuals but as foot soldiers in the great national crusade. That in itself makes war attractive to some people. The libertarian essayist Albert Jay Nock counseled his anti-war colleagues that it is a mistake to preach that war is bad because it eradicates individuality and assigns a role to each citizen. Most people want their roles assigned by a higher authority, he said. So how can that be an argument against war? Nock thought this applied as much in the land of the free as anywhere else.
The American intellectual class from the mid 19th century onward has disliked liberalism (which originally referred to individualism, private property, and limits on power) precisely because the liberal society has no overarching goal. This, as F.A. Hayek long pointed out, is the defining character of a liberal order. Individuals are free to use their freedom and property to pursue ends of their own choosing, which usually center on family, work, friends, and community. Nationalists and other collectivists disdain these concerns as “trivial pursuits,” as one editorial writer put it recently.
Champions of the national unity imposed by war grow nostalgic when they look back on past conflicts. Even a television commercial for recordings of World War II-era music urged viewers to remember when “we all pulled together.” That war was monstrous in terms of the number of people killed and the massive destruction, but what is recalled fondly is the submergence of individualism.
Some intellectuals have been more sensitive to the high price war exacts for that unity. So they have longed for what philosopher Williams James called the “moral equivalent of war,” that is, collectivism without the bloodshed. Proposals built on this principle usually include conscription — for national service rather than military service, of course. In past decades we’ve suffered through wars on energy dependence, poverty, and drugs. The government didn’t accomplish its stated aims, but it did grow. And liberty shrank.
Left-wing support of the war
Despite the search for the moral equivalent of war, nothing seems to work like the real thing. Now we have the real thing, and more than a few left-wing intellectuals are in the ranks of the war boosters. Why not? Several writers at The Nation, the quintessential leftist magazine, have found this war worthy of support for reasons that go beyond a wish for retaliation for the 9/11 attacks or defense against future assaults. Its editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in the Los Angeles Times,November 25, with Prof. Joel Rogers, proclaims, apparently without irony, that the war “presents the opportunity of a lifetime.” Among other things,
War’s mobilization of the populace against a shared threat also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market….
All this shifts the playing field of political debate away from those who counsel, “Let’s leave it to the market or the military!” as the answer to all human concerns. Far from seeming hard-nosed and realistic, they suddenly appear beside the point, if not immoral. Those who believe in social justice and shared democratic effort in problem solving, by contrast, seem on to something important and even admirable.
In brief, the 9/11 attacks have made the idea of a public sector, and the society that it is supposed to serve, attractive again.
It would be tragic, they say, if the advocates of comprehensive government were to blow this chance to realize their dreams:
The real question today is whether progressives have the wit and collective will to accept that invitation. Doing so will require us to affirm our values in ways understood and respected by ordinary Americans, to present a concise and clear agenda for advancing those values and to enter and compete for support in electoral arenas.
Conservatives, war, and big government
Vanden Heuvel and Rogers are closer to the truth than the war boosters who claim to value limited government. It is hard for the government to prosecute a war and not expand. See Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan. Unlike the market, the “public sector” is coercive. War intensifies government power, regardless of anyone’s wishes; the beast has a logic of its own. Observe the concentration of power in the executive branch since September 11. Observe the public’s unquestioning support for that concentration.
Conservatives may think they can support war and oppose the expansion of the state, but that is like trying to square the circle. What makes them think they can contain the expansion? Have they noticed that the gun controllers have been emboldened since September 11 after suffering serious setbacks? The collectivists definitely have the better internal logic.
In 1917, as Woodrow Wilson prepared to take the United States into the European war, the leading collectivist intellectuals of the day, John Dewey and Herbert Croly of The New Republic, beat the drums for American participation. Sounding much like vanden Heuvel, Dewey wrote that the progressive opponents of war were blind to the “immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war.” He hoped they would work “to form … the conditions and objects of our entrance.” In other words, they should exploit the opportunities war bestowed for collectivizing America. Croly was pithier: “The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure.”
The progressive warriors failed to heed their erstwhile and prophetic colleague, Randolph Bourne, who wrote on the eve of U.S. entry that war is intrinsically illiberal. It is, he said, “the health of the state.”
In a penetrating essay published in June 1917, “The War and the Intellectuals,” Bourne wrote,
The results of war on the intellectual class are already apparent. Their thought becomes little more than a description and justification of what is going on. They turn upon any rash one who continues idly to speculate. Once the war is on, the conviction spreads that individual thought is helpless, that the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel. There is no good holding back. We are told to dry our unnoticed and ineffective tears and plunge into the great work.
Bourne heard the pro-war intellectuals say that they were the realists and the opponents were impractical. He’d have none of that. Opponents of war were indeed chastised for not facing facts, he wrote,
But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or criticize facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground…. The American intellectuals, in their preoccupation with reality, seem to have forgotten that the real enemy is Waar rather than imperial Germany.
World War I indeed set many precedents for government planning, regimentation, and suppression of dissent. In the end the progressives became disillusioned, as idealism gave way to realpolitik, the consequences of which plague us even in the current conflict.
The upshot is that even those who feel this war is a just response to the murder of American civilians should temper their enthusiasm with the realization that it will change America for the worse not the better.