Limiting While Rome Burns; First In a Series!

The 12th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.


Conservative intellectuals have a shaky—at best—grasp of history and political theory, something that becomes more evident with every word they write.  We couldn’t possibly keep track of every example.  That would be more than a full-time job, and no doubt boring to our readers.  But we think it’s useful to point out the faults of representative examples.

Rich Lowry repeats the conservative refrain for “limited government,” plus all the usual business about entitlements, the welfare state and so on.  Trump, he insists, will finally give the liberals and Democrats what they’ve always wanted: bipartisan acceptance of the permanence of the New Deal.

As “history,” it’s hard to call this anything other than surprisingly ignorant.  Eisenhower already “ratified” the New Deal.  The debate between the Taftites and the moderates definitively ended more than 60 years ago and the anti-New Dealers lost in a rout.  Lowry wasn’t around for that, but hasn’t he read about it?  He has, at any rate, helmed NR for nearly 20 years.  Hasn’t he noticed that there is virtually no Republican appetite for repealing or rolling back the welfare state?  The most radical plans yet proffered—George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security reform and Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms—all claim to aim at “saving” these plans “for the middle class.”

Trump’s refusal to attack entitlements is just a re-ratification of what the Party itself (to say nothing of its voters) has already decided. Lowry, with the rest of the pundit class, is right that eventually these programs will have to be reformed if they are to survive.  But he is quite out-of-touch in his insistence that such reform ought to be centerpiece of the 2016 campaign.  The country has more pressing problems just now.  Entitlements can wait.  Plus, the more the Davoisie agenda undermines Americans’ economic security, the more voters tend to see entitlements as essential lifelines.  Coupling that agenda with strident calls for slashing the safety net may as well become the new textbook definition of “tone deaf.”

Lowry’s comments on theory make even less sense.  We went into some detail below on the limitations of conservative paeans to “limited government.”  But certain points bear repeating.  “Limited government” is a species of the genus republic, one that requires a certain type or character of people to establish and maintain.  Right now the most urgent threat to limited government is not Trump or entitlements but the mass immigration of non-republican peoples.  To the extent that Trump opposes and will take action against that corrosive trend, he is a far greater defender of “limited government” than all the conservative pundits who rotely sing its praises put together.

(It’s also worth noting that the mass importation of net tax-eaters and welfare consumers makes the entitlement problem worse, not better.  Trump is, in that sense at least, also “better on entitlements!” than “conservative” hero Paul Ryan, whose open borders mania would bankrupt the nation is short order if given the chance.)

Finally, some unsolicited advice.  Stop throwing down “American exceptionalism” as the intellectual ace of spades.  For one thing, when people who aren’t already on your side—and who are inclined to support Trump—hear it, their instinctive response is to shield their wallets with one hand and reach for their guns with the other.  “American exceptionalism” has become not merely trite but a blunt instrument for imposing the donor-class agenda.  You must accept mass immigration and pointless foreign wars because “American exceptionalism”!

More fundamentally, Lowry and the rest of the pundit class apparently don’t know what it means.  Here is Lowry:

Of course, mainstream European political parties tend not to be nationalist or anti-immigration. Here, Trump bears a closer resemblance to Europe’s outsider parties on the right. He is less the candidate of American exceptionalism—which has a keen appreciation of our national creed as enunciated in the Declaration and the limits on government power set down by the Constitution—than a robust nationalism of a blood-and-soil variety found nearly everywhere else in the world.

“American exceptionalism” in no way denies or laments that America is a nation with a people (blood) and a country (soil).  It refers instead to America’s status as the first nation whose government was founded on the basis of a full understanding of the true principles of political legitimacy in the modern era.  Second, and related, America is exceptional in having been blessed with circumstances that allowed a people, for the first time in history, to “establish … good government from reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force” (Federalist 1).  Only (distantly) third does American exceptionalism mean that, because of the partially creedal nature of American citizenship and our protections and respect for religious liberty, America is better able than other nations to absorb and assimilate newcomers—but even then only those demonstrating a willingness to embrace our political system and accept our religious liberty.

The latter caveat is decisive, and precisely the one Lowry and his ilk are prone not merely to deny, but not even to entertain.

—Decius

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