Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fascism cometh

Conservatives have debased themselves so pathetically during the last eight years--and more--that it may be difficult to take them seriously. Recently, the tea parties attempted to draw attention to the egregious deficit spending of the Obama administration, were mocked and maligned by the mainstream media. Whatever the merits of the particular forms the protests took, it is surely laudable to point out that, just as our forebears lamented being taxed without representation, it is similarly unjust to require future generations to pay for the excesses of today. But if Obama deserved scorn for the size of his deficits, conservatives erred grievously in failing to call Bush to task for the very same thing. It is true that Obama's deficits are larger, much larger; nonetheless, the state could never have grown so rapidly had the political right not abdicated so completely in their defense of limited government. I do not doubt that the intentions of the Obama administration would be quite similar, but even supposing that an almost unknown and unproven Senator who leaned so severely leftward could capture the office without Bush's aid, at least conservatives would be able to agitate for limited government without appearing to be the seething hypocrites that they are.

Having dispensed of the Bush conservatives, we may now profitably examine the nature of conservatism itself. Divorced from the political considerations which have arisen recently, conservatism is rooted in a steadfast defense of tradition. It does not simply oppose all change; this would be folly, and would remove all potential for moral progress. Instead, it implores agitated reformers to be patient before attempting to enact massive change. Conservatism knows that change for the sake of change is not only bothersome, it is dangerous, because it undermines the rituals and institutions which are the very marks of civilization. Reformers also tend to overstate the effects of pronouncements from above, and understate the unintended consequences of altering an aspect of any organism so complicated as society, consequences which can be seen very clearly in the excesses of the French Revolution. If an institution is to change to address a particular deficiency, a careful examination must be made of the problem; only when it has been properly studied will it be possible to produce its remedy.

It is unfortunate, then, that conservatives have disgraced themselves, because their admonitions are desperately needed right about now. It would be nice if there existed a real opposition to the all but inevitable growth in government, though right now, simply slowing the growth would be a much welcome change from the roller coaster ride that has been the first one hundred days.

At the risk of being maligned as simply another indignant right-winger, I must insist that several aspects of the current administration make it particularly dangerous. First, the president and his staff have a great deal of naive optimism about their ability to reform the world. As leaders have found out before, there are severe limitations to what men can do to better humanity, about which Obama and his minions seem blissfully unaware. As John Derbyshire points out:

Every age has its characteristic follies, and those follies have their correctives. The folly of the present age in America is a facile, infantile optimism, that recognizes no limits to human abilities or the wonders that can be wrought by politicians, bureaucrats, and generals. The corrective is a firm, measured pessimism.

The danger posed by the Obama administration would still exist even if he proved to be a masterful statesmen. That he has thus far governed with roughly the same incompetency of his predecessor is hardly encouraging. The parallels do not end there, alas. One of the aspects of the Bush presidency which leftists correctly identified as deeply problematic was his inability to change his mind on matters even when facts revealed his position to be tenuous. No matter how poorly the war went, Bush was convinced that we had acted rightly and that history would bear this out in the end. But cannot much of the same be said of Obama? When the stimulus fails, and his ridiculous environmental policies do nothing to alleviate the elusive global climate change; when State run schools are still producing half literate dregs in dilapidated buildings despite exorbitant funding; and when the situation in Afghanistan remains hopeless despite a surge, are we even reasonably confident the president will re-examine his principles. As Charles Murray observed during Obama's State of the Union speech:

It looks very much as if the president is oblivious to everything we've learned about social programs and educational reforms in the last 40 years—and by "we" I include policy analysts on the left as well as right. The guy never indicates that he is aware that we've tried a whole bunch of the same stuff he wants to try and evaluated it repeatedly and—read my lips—it doesn't work.

It is certainly too early to insist that the Obama administration is a failure. On the other hand, despite the rhetoric of change, almost every move the president has made has been in the direction of increasing drastically the power of the government. I know of no historical parallels in which an economy as unhealthy as ours has embarked on a similar course to their edification.

This gets us to the second dangerous aspect of the Obama administration. Like any progressive politician, he favors action over inaction, even when we're not clear about how to act. Speaking of the economic stimulus in the aforementioned speech, Obama said:

I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years.

These are dubious claims. Setting aside my libertarian principles for the sake of the argument, it is possible that certain actions made by the government could have helped the situation. But to insist that any action whatsoever was preferable to doing nothing is absurd. This is when a thoughtful and principled conservative would step in and insist that we first attempt to understand the problem. Then we can go about finding a solution. Simply acting wildly is neither sensible nor responsible.

Later, in the same speech, Obama stated:

I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.

I interrupt briefly to remind him that members of AIG took bonuses after this speech. And although it has not received as much attention, much of this money was used by the company to shore up debts to foreign banks. It's unclear how this benefits the American economy. On the other hand, it illustrates the point that acting before thinking is bound to produce unintended, and unpleasant, consequences.

Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government –- and yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade.

Here we have another senseless defense of action over inaction, always and everywhere. I hesitate to bring up the next point, because it is liable to be misinterpreted as hyperbole. The tendency to see the State as an all encompassing entity and the cult of action are signs that Barack Obama is yet another American fascist president. Let me attempt to make my case.

First, Benito Mussolini's dictum of "nothing outside the state" is in full accordance with not only Obama's positions, but with most of those of the ruling elite. We take it for granted that Il Duce knew a thing or two about fascism. Even Republicans tend to conceive of very little outside of the state, whatever their rhetoric might say. For instance, support of "school choice" might seem like a good way to reform the broken educational system, but it still concedes the point that we should all pay money to the State with which it will then educate our children. Home-schooling is more drastic, and explicitly anti-Fascist, because it insists that some things should be done by entities without any relation to the State. On a similar note, social security reform would maintain the fiction that it is the role of the State to care for its subjects when they enter retirement.

Second, the tendency to act without a plan, merely in the hope that trying things is preferabble to leaving them alone is further evidence of fascism. As Jonah Goldberg puts it in Liberal Fascism:

Mussolini's main governing themes were expediency and opportunism... Mussolini zigzagged every which way, from free trade and low taxes to a totalitarian state apparatus. Even before he attained power, his stock response when asked to outline his program was to say he had none. "Our program is to govern" the fascists liked to say. (p.48,130)

Similarly, Obama has a vague end for which he has acted in his attempts to save the economy. But nowhere is there any evidence of a plan; in fact, no one even seems to know where all of the bailout money went. We should see further evidence of this when the bailouts fail, necessitating more action by President Obama. But we can perhaps see better evidence of American fascism in action by looking to President FDR, whose New Deal, after all, was the inspiration for the latest round of government expansion. Again, from Goldberg:

Today many liberals subscribe to the myth that the New Deal was a coherent, enlightened, unified endeavor encapsulated in the largely meaningless phrase “the Roosevelt legacy.” This is poppycock. “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of the New Deal, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” When Alvin Hansen, an influential economic adviser to the president, was asked — in 1940! — whether “the basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” he responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.” (p.130)

Given how little time Obama has had to govern, my conclusion may seem a bit forced. But I wanted to get it out here now because if I had to give a prediction, I would say that as things progress during this administration, we're more and more likely to descend toward totalitarianism--which is a term Mussolini used to describe, quite positively, his own system of government. Now, this doesn't mean that Obama is going to line up the right-wingers to be shot; nor will he necessarily begin to jail dissidents in large numbers--though his idealogical predecessors, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR all did this.

What it does mean is that government control will become pervasive. Price controls may be instituted; rationing may return. Behavior will be closely watched, and seemingly innocuous activitied will be curtailed. Freedom will fade even further. Look for Alexis de Tocqueville's portrait of a despotic democracy to become all too real:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd...

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.


troutsky said...

Is "Outside the state" civil society? Because that is the one thing conservatives are most set on destroying.

And again I must belabour the point,yours is a political critique only, we are dealing with a political economy. The "call for action" is something you will have to eventually have to concede because the clearest fact is the entire global economy was on a precipice of a disaster you cannot fathom.Yet. I personally, as a libertarian socialist, would have preferred they did exactly what you prescribe, prevaricate, and let the whole mess fall into ruin but alas.They appear to have actually saved your precious capitalism so that it can destroy yet more lives.

conservatism, if it is to survive as an oppositional force, will need honest critics such as yourself but do not fetishize "tradition" and be careful with rhetoric and Jonah Goldberg.If conservatism is inaction you might want to apply that principle to rushed cultural critique.All this change may frighten or offend your sensibilities but the prime directive of capitalism is "creative destruction". Is that conservative?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

They appear to have actually saved your precious capitalism so that it can destroy yet more lives.They've done no such thing! Capitalism is crippled with every intervention because the number of actual producers--on whom all depends--shrinks with each intervention, while malinvestment continues apace.

All this change may frighten or offend your sensibilities but the prime directive of capitalism is "creative destruction". Is that conservative?Good question. My short answer is, no. But it should be pointed out that if the market is free of intervention, the amount of creative destruction will be slight. If a small business fails, it's sad, perhaps, but it's an invariable outcome of economic freedom. When a large bank is prevented from failing by the government which props it up, and drags down the economy with it, we have much more creative destruction.

And you realize that even socialism will involve destruction if products are designed for which no demand exists.