Salvo 08.01.2023 8 minutes

Statism and the New Right

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Even the strongest-held principles about big government will not dissolve it.

In addition to being called racists who mindlessly worship Trump, we on the New Right also are accused by the conservative establishment of being statists who oppose free markets and limited government. Jonah Goldberg, one of the leading Never Trump defenders of what Rusty Reno calls “the rotting flesh of Reaganism,” recently attacked the New Right for espousing “big government conservatism.” He doesn’t cite any specifics or offer any examples. He just attacks me for the indictment of Conservatism, Inc. I published in The American Conservative three years ago: “American Conservatism is Fiddling While Rome Burns.”

According to Goldberg, my friends and I on the New Right are following in the footsteps of the Bush-era neocons who also thought they could “adopt liberal (i.e., statist) means for conservative ends.” Compassionate conservatism was a flop and so will be the New Right, because big government conservatism is a contradiction in terms.

I am not a spokesman for the New Right. In fact, the New Right is too amorphous to have a spokesman. But Goldberg’s accusation is sufficiently widespread that it warrants a response.

Goldberg’s starting point is his opposition to the successive waves of progressivism, liberalism, and leftism that have expanded the size and scope of the federal government beyond anything the Founders could have ever imagined. For what it’s worth, I agree. The New Deal and the Great Society were, for the most part, unconstitutional.

My starting point, however, is the utter and complete failure of the conservative movement he represents to scale back the federal Leviathan. It will soon be 70 years since William F. Buckley famously declared the intention of conservatives to “stand athwart History, yelling stop!”

Since then, History has proceeded to dispense upon America the forever metastasizing civil rights regime (“trans rights are the civil rights issue of our day,” to quote the president); Medicaid and Medicare (the entitlement most likely to bankrupt the country); federal regulation over the environment, our schools, and every last corner of the workplace; and untold trillions of dollars wasted in the name of ending poverty and promoting democracy.

While we’re at it, History has also given us the largest wave of foreign migration in recorded history (70 million—I would add “and counting,” but we long ago lost count); gay marriage and sex change operations on children; the feminization of society; and critical race theory’s institutionalization—in the name of antiracism—of antiwhite racism.

The fabled conservative movement defended some of these developments (more immigration and endless wars); sat idly by as others unfolded (the rise of the gynecocracy); or was simply steamrolled in its opposition to the others (the growth of government).

Concerning the size of the federal government, the issue conservatives care about most, not a single department or agency of consequence has ever been abolished. Not even the great Reagan managed to cut government. He merely slowed down its rate of growth. Conservatives, it is true, did succeed in cutting taxes. In other words, they succeeded in getting Americans not to pay for the government services they consume. As a result, we now have the twelfth highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Italy is seventh.

Faced with such a record of failure, any even-remotely competent movement would have long ago revised its strategy. Not Goldberg and his friends. They’re sticking to the stale platitudes of mainstream fusionist conservatism: Freedom good! Big government bad! It hasn’t worked since the New Deal, but it’s bound to start working any time now.

A few weeks ago, in fact, they released a statement of principles that could have been written any time in the past 70 years. Their defense of economic freedom, religious liberty, and limited government is sure to make Boomers giddy and put to sleep any right-winger under the age of 40 who doesn’t wear bowties.

But if principles are timeless, shouldn’t they remain the same from one era to another? As Calvin Coolidge said on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

I agree. I also agree with most of Freedom Conservatism’s statement of principles. And so would the majority of my fellow travelers on the New Right (although, there are some notable exceptions: Sohrab Ahmari, for example, has been known to swoon for the New Deal). The crux of the disagreement instead centers on three points.

First, Goldberg and his friends confuse certain policies for principles. The most obvious example is absolute free trade. Libertarian open borders may be the right policy, at least for the exchange of goods, in certain cases. But it is not a conservative axiom. There is a long tradition of conservative political economy, stretching back to Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, that supports the targeted use of tariffs to promote the development of critical national industries. That tradition also defends property rights and the free enterprise system.

Only in the frenzied Manichean imagination of libertarians, and the conservatives who mindlessly defer to them on economic questions, can Hamilton and Clay be described as anti-capitalists. Today, organizations like American Compass (on whose board I have the pleasure of serving) are engaged in the critical work of redeveloping an authentically conservative approach to economics that balances a commitment to markets with a concern for the well-being of workers and families.

Mainstream conservatives make the same mistake when it comes to immigration and foreign policy. More immigration and democracy promotion may be the right policy in some cases. But they are only unmovable principles for fanatical neocons. Conservatives may well opt for less (or no) immigration and a less interventionist foreign policy without compromising their principled commitment to the national interest. The Founders, for example, restricted immigration to “free white persons” and sat out the French Revolution.

Second, Goldberg and his friends never seem to muster the courage to state certain core conservative principles that America is most in need of hearing today, like the fundamental natural difference between the sexes for example. As Harry Jaffa once observed: “In nature, the distinction between male and female is the most fundamental of all distinctions. It is more fundamental than the distinction between man and beast, more fundamental even than the distinction between man and God.” Conservatives will nod along but when asked to explain where this distinction matters, they will be hard pressed to say anything beyond women’s sports and women in combat. In all other realms, they treat men and women as interchangeable and thus end up affirming the core principle of our feminized regime.

Mainstream conservatives almost always stick to the “safe” principles: free markets, limited government, religious liberty. They generally don’t want to defend the controversial principles like sexual differences or sexual complementarity. Goldberg’s statement, for example, defends the family but cannot muster the courage to call out feminism and LGBTQism, two of the ideologies that have done the most damage to it. The conservatism they end up defending is abstract, largely unmoored from the great questions confronting the country, and thus tolerated by the ruling class and the Left. It is, at its core, unthreatening, as evidenced by its distinguished record of failure.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Old and the New Right disagree on how to apply some of the principles we both agree upon. Consider the most hallowed principle in the American tradition: natural human equality. In the nineteenth century, defending equality meant opposing slavery. Today, it means opposing the civil rights regime.

That means mustering the courage to call it what it is: anti-white. At root, that is all that diversity means. But it also means taking a firm stand against affirmative action, disparate impact, and all policies that benefit blacks at the expense of whites in the mad quest to equalize life outcomes between the two. In other words, the defense of equality today requires a defense of inequality—not of unequal rights, but of unequal abilities and cultures that produce unequal life outcomes.

Here, Goldberg falls short. In his last book, The Suicide of the West, he kneels before the altar of Anti-Racism:

the early affirmative action programs targeted specifically to blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Acts have intellectual and moral merit. Of course, notions of merit and color-blindness can serve to mask conscious or unconscious biases on the part of employers, managers, and others. There are indeed structural problems in American law and culture that are worth addressing or discussing. The embryonic left-right consensus on criminal justice reform has a lot of promise, for example.

Goldberg defends pro-black racial preferences, nods in the direction of structural racism, and accepts the totalitarian woke doctrine of unconscious bias which in effect grants the state jurisdiction over the minds of citizens. But worry not, he stands for limited government.

As does the New Right, for that matter. We are not calling for massive new entitlements nor are we repeating the Bush follies of subsidizing mortgages for people who can’t afford a home. We simply accept that big government is here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. And so we want to learn to use it instead of simply calling for it to be abolished while watching it continue to grow. As I explained in the essay that provoked Goldberg: “The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power. And it should emulate the Left in using them to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).”

That simply means defunding and humiliating the institutional centers of power of the Left (which will inevitably entail cutting government); redirecting money and honor to the handful of institutions that remain solidly pro-American; and not signaling to our base that we want to abolish the parts of big government they have come to rely on and like.

Governing is not embracing statism. Rather, it is the essence of statesmanship. The administrative and welfare states have been erected. No one has figured out how to get rid of them. Until we do, we should learn to use them to our advantage.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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