Dear Conservatives: Giving the State Even More Power Won't Solve Our Problems
Conservative media has been in an uproar recently stemming from heated disagreement over political strategy. While the debate has been simmering for quite some time now, it has now taken center stage thanks to an essay in First Things by Sohrab Ahmari entitled “ Against David French-ism.” In this rather polemical work, Ahmari attacks National Review writer David French as basically an avatar for everything that right-wing thinkers have done incorrectly and for all intents and purposes declares that America will be taken over by the left and Christianity purged from the nation if French and his ilk get to steer the right-wing ship.
What is French’s great strategic blunder? According to Ahmari, French is for one thing too nice and respectful to the hated left, and secondly, his embrace of classical liberal values such as tolerance are being used by the left to crush conservatives and Christians and will soon culminate in their ultimate defeat and oppression. For Ahmari “progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”
In other words, Ahmari is calling for a total war and in total war there is no room for liberal pluralism or tolerance. Note that he does not call for merely re-securing rights, or limiting the power of the state so that everyone can have the breathing room to do as they please. No, for Ahmari the final objective is the imposition of his vision of the proper ordering of society upon everyone else. People being able to do as they please is specifically the problem that got us here in the first place, according to him.
Obviously, Ahmari’s highly religiously-influenced manifesto is likely of little interest to libertarians, but at the same time, there is something seductively attractive about the underlying logic he bases it on. When libertarians look around at the broader society things often do look bleak. Socialism is once again on the march, with Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and their legions of acolytes calling for social engineering schemes that would make a Soviet economist blush. Numerous libertarians fear being deplatformed from social media, de-personed on Google search listings, or blacklisted from employment itself by angry social media mobs. The federal government continues careening towards bankruptcy and the unimaginable economic and social disruptions such an event would have. Some libertarians no doubt find themselves wondering whether or not desperate times call for desperate measures.
Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures, but they do not call for any measure, simply because it is desperate. More than ever, desperate times call for careful calculation and foresight into what effects, intended and otherwise, a chosen course of action will have.
Human Events publisher William Chamberlain provides an example of such short-sighted bravado. In an essay entitled “Against Peacetime Conservatism” Chamberlain argues that conservatives should not fear to use the power of the state to achieve their goals and that “the first rule of wartime conservatism: principles that prevent you from winning are probably bad principles.”
Here Chamberlain is actually correct. Principles should not be separated from their practical effects in reality. In the words of the political theorist Eric Voegelin, “the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact.” In context, Voegelin was arguing that people should not let what he called gnostic movements (groups such as Marxists or Nazis that have revolutionary plans for transforming society to usher in their conception of heaven on earth) use legal channels with the express purpose of taking over and imposing their revolutionary restructuring of society upon everyone else. Mises takes a similar view when he argues in Liberalism that “human actions become good or bad only through the end that they serve and the consequences they entail.”
However, recognizing that actions can’t be separated from their results does not automatically mean that “temporarily” lifting the rule of law, abandoning property rights, seizing the assets of institutions you do not like, and basically adopting “temporary” authoritarianism, as Chamberlain suggests, are the correct actions to take. In fact, when considering the results they seem like the worst options one could choose.
The most glaring problem with this plan (if it can be called that) to adopt “temporary” authoritarianism to “save” the country is the lack of any way for conservatives (and libertarians who have allied themselves with them) to actually do that. Even if they managed to somehow secure a supermajority of legislative power in addition to the presidency (which is basically an electoral impossibility), the state apparatus is filled from top to bottom with largely leftist bureaucrats who would obviously resist such efforts. The same conservative crowd that is fantasizing about total power also constantly complains about the machinations of the deep state stymieing Trump’s agenda.
Beyond the plan’s impossibility, the “let’s crush our enemies” strategy fails to understand the root of the current social conflict stems not from an overabundance of liberalism, but rather from its absence and corruption as power has been centralized into the state and away from other institutions that these so-called conservatives claim to value, such as family and church.
As I have written about previously, due to the state centralizing as much power as possible, other more-dispersed sources of power that are more local and accountable to individual people, such as family and civil society, have withered. If the only way to have enough power to be secure is to control the state then it is unsurprising that increasingly more and more groups have come to believe that their group controlling the state apparatus is an existential matter of life and death. This is the tactic that Ahmari et al. have opted to go with, even though as pointed out above they have no hope of winning that fight.
Instead of launching a suicidal civil war, both conservatives and libertarians, of whatever stripe, should instead seek to restore the balance of power in society. This concept, coined by mid-century sociologist Frank Taunnenbaum, argues that every society is comprised of certain institutions that are indispensable to the human experience. According to Taunnenbaum, the family, the church, the state, and the economy are separate institutions that make separate claims upon the individuals that make them up. Tannenbaum goes on to argue that the internal logic of each institution is totalizing, in that if left to its own devices each institution would dominate the others. This can be seen throughout history when extended familial clans dominated society, the medieval Catholic Church exercised great power over temporal affairs, and our contemporary situation where the state has come to dominate society.
The state can only centralize power by taking it away from other institutions. Hence we see the contemporary state interfering in every aspect of life, including those areas that have traditionally been under the purview of the church, family, or market. Tannnenbaum also argues that when one institution comes to dominate the others society becomes infected with a totalizing logic of destruction. If power is concentrated in the state, then the various groups must control the state, or risk being destroyed. Compromise is not possible. Only total victory or total defeat are possible. This is clearly the underlying logic animating the Ahmari crowd. It is either “us” or “them.”
Ahmari fails to understand that society does not have to be a life-and-death struggle for dominance and submission. On the contrary, Tannenbaum argues that while society is never in a state of rest or free of conflict, it is possible for this conflict to be of rather low intensity. Afterall, few people are ever entirely siloed into one aspect of life. People work, have families, participate in religion, and are also citizens. When society is balanced each institution works to keep the others in check and as a result there is peace, rather than existential struggle.
As Dr. Salerno points out in his discussion of Mises’ view of nationalism, and Rothbard discusses in his essay "Nations By Consent," true liberalism recognizes this inherent balancing act of different interests in society and therefore promotes decentralization in order to lower the stakes in the political conflict.
The self-same liberalism that Ahmari decries as having surrendered society to the left is in fact the very way to restore balance to society. Ahmari decries tolerance and even civility itself as being weaknesses, but as Mises reminds us in Liberalism “only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.”
Lovers of freedom have many reasons to be worried. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but it is important to remember that while Ahmari and his ilk are singing a siren song that may be alluring, its end result will only be the further destruction of the social order. Only the tolerance and decentralization inherent in the liberal tradition is capable of reducing the power of the state and restoring the balance of power in society. The only other alternative to advancing the liberal vision of a free society is interminable conflict and strife.