Why should advocates of limited government support a non-interventionist foreign policy?
This web site was founded some 20 years ago by libertarians perplexed and disturbed at the sight of ever-expanding government power over every aspect of our lives. Why, when government expansion has been proved again and again to be detrimental to society, has its growth continued and even escalated?
Indeed, I asked this question in the first sentence of my 1991 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [second edition 2008]: “After a decade in power,” I wrote, as the Reagan era ended, “why has the conservative movement failed to make a dent in the growth of big government?” The revered Reagan, whose sacred memory is ritually invoked by Republicans – even by libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul – actually increased the size and scope of the federal government, and expenditures went through the roof. There was little consolation to be found in the fact that the rate of increase merely slowed.
David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who tried to make some inroads on the Leviathan State, fingered the cause of Reagan’s failure in the cold war ideology that was one of the central props of the Reaganite coalition. In his brilliant book, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, Stockman identified the fly in the conservative ointment:
“Within days of Reagan’s taking office, the White House made a historically devastating mistake by signing over to the Pentagon a blank check known as the ‘7 percent real growth top line.’ This massive injection of fiscal firepower nearly tripled the defense budget from $140 billion to $370 billion within just six years. More importantly, it fueled powerful expansionist impulses throughout the military-industrial complex at exactly the wrong time in history."
This “riotous expansion of the Warfare State,” says Stockman, greatly escalated the hideous deformation of American capitalism, but it didn’t start with Reagan. The process began with World War I and the creation of the Federal Reserve: add to this the New Deal and World War II, followed by the cold war, and the floodgates were opened. The fiscal requirements of a foreign policy of endless conflict stoked the engine of big government and eventually succeeded in displacing the real economy, catapulting the Federal Reserve into its current role as the all-powerful central planner and enabling the establishment of a system of crony (i.e. politicized) capitalism.
In modern times, the “right” side of the political spectrum has stood for smaller government, at least in theory: in practice, however, it is quite a different story. The expansion of government power under Reagan was preceded and made possible by a crucial concession made by conservatives: that the prosecution of the cold war made necessary the indefinite postponement of their small government agenda.
As William F. Buckley, Jr., put it in a 1952 article for Commonweal, just as the cold war was dawning: “[W]e have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” What this meant was that ostensible conservatives were bound to support “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,” as well as “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.”
With the collapse of Communism, and the end of the cold war, the Buckley Doctrine remained in full force. The conservatives’original conception of limited government had, by this time, been thrown overboard and largely forgotten – or, if remembered, was invoked only when it was deemed necessary to cut back on the “social safety net,” so that interest groups more powerful than unwed mothers could retain their government subsidies.
And it wasn’t just a matter of fiscal policy: American culture had been imbued, by this time, with a triumphalist messianic spirit, a vaunted ambition perfectly embodied in Henry Luce’s phrase celebrating the “American Century.” What this meant was that the US would abandon the modest republican virtues of our forefathers and instead pursue the course of the European empires: nothing less than the gaudy mirage of global hegemony. Our victories in two world wars – and, in time, the cold war – inspired our political class to imagine itself the guardian and rightful ruler of all it surveyed. America’s “global leadership” became a political catchphrase right up there with motherhood, apple pie, and the American Dream.
This stale bromide has been used to gin up so many disastrous interventions that the mere mention of it out of a politician’s mouth ought to forever disqualify him or her from holding public office. Yet because it seems vaguely “patriotic” and uplifting, without forthrightly coming out and saying we must wage war unto the end of Time, this kind of rhetoric has become routine in American foreign policy discourse. Both Mitt Romney and now Marco Rubio have invoked the slogan of a “new American century” to explain their foreign policy vision to the electorate – as did the neoconservatives grouped around Bill Kristol, who dubbed their warmongering front group the “Project for a New American Century.”
In an earlier time, such grandiosity would’ve been laughed off the stage: today it is a commonplace. And this has its corollary in domestic policy: the same puffed-up pretentiousness, the same assumption that Washington has the solution to all the world’s problems, permeates our politics on the home front.
It’s interesting to note in this connection that during the 1990s the neoconservatives, in search of a program other than fighting endless wars, came up with the bright idea of “national greatness conservatism,” which involved building huge monuments to our own conceit: vast structures, “public works” akin to the pyramids, that would reflect our majestic narcissism and impart its glory to future generations. Money is no object!
If our goal is nothing less than asserting “world leadership” by establishing a hundred years of US global hegemony, then surely we cannot “starve” our mighty government and its attendant military of the funds and sweeping powers necessary to enforce our will worldwide.
Furthermore, the limits placed on government in our Bill of Rights cannot stand in the face of such militance. If we are to protect ourselves from the wrath of those who don’t want to be “liberated,” then it is necessary to create a worldwide system of surveillance, one that doesn’t spare US citizens in its all-seeing all-knowing intrusiveness. So much for the fourth amendment to the Constitution.
In times of war, surely we cannot allow for “the terrorists” – American citizens included – to enjoy the legal rights due to all under the Constitution: so much for the fifth and sixth amendments.
And of course we can’t have people running around with guns – not when “terrorists” are on the loose – and so the second amendment winds up in the dustbin along with most of the others.
Even the jealously-guarded first amendment, ensuring freedom of speech, isn’t safe: indeed, it has been thrown overboard often enough in wartime.
Private property rights are the first thing to go when “national security” trumps all. Truman took over the steel mills when a strike threatened to erupt during the cold war era, and New York City’s rent control laws were a wartime measure adopted to address the economic disruptions caused by World War II. In order to feed the military machine, national planners headquartered in Washington must direct the economic life of the nation, and free trade is trampled when we blackmail some poor starving Third World country with sanctions for the “crime” of crossing Uncle Sam.
And then there is the cultural conceit that accompanies the rise of Empire: quite apart from the question of whether a mighty global hegemon can exist on a shoestring budget, the real question is: should it? A regime that aspires to “world leadership” can hardly be expected to deny itself the symbols and accouterments of a world-conquering potentate.
Having fallen for the pomp and circumstance of imperial pretensions, the only thing our “conservatives” truly want to conserve is American power. Big government has gotten progressively bigger because its alleged opponents long ago gave up the fight – in the name of ushering in an “American Century.”
So that fight is left for us libertarians to win. Yet we cannot win it if, like Sen. Paul, we call for higher “defense” spending. That money doesn’t go to repulse enemies from our own shores, for the most part, but rather for the defense of the Empire. And that Empire is surely an albatross hung around our necks, dragging us down into an abyss of endless war and inevitable tyranny.