Small Government Dogma Is the Problem
Unlike the smug guardians of the ever diminishing bastions of conservative ‘thought,’ the Journal of American Greatness welcomes attacks and thoughtful criticism. In that spirit, I am pleased to respond to a recent critique authored by Richard Reinsch at the Library of Law and Liberty.
While I appreciate his engagement with my work “Notes on the Origins and Future of Trumpism,” Mr. Reinsch misunderstands its main purposes. He rather glibly discards much of the text, and after positing his own ends out of thin air, then faults the essay for failing to provide adequate means to achieve these–his own–goals.
Unfortunately, I suspect that a clarification of the original essay will only reveal that our disagreements are broader and deeper than he originally supposed and that they pertain to ends as well as to means. However, if we are going to attack each other, let us do so honestly and openly. After all, Hillary Clinton’s motto “What difference, at this point, does it make?” is the defining political question of our time, and it’s not as if there is a politically viable conservative coalition to preserve anyway.
Reinsch opens with the well-worn complaint that I am “more intent on making Trump to be the candidate he wants, as opposed to the vulgar brute that he is.” To which we say, yet again, that is exactly what we are doing and thanks for noticing. We are far more interested in understanding Trump as the phenomenon that has exposed the destitution of Reaganite conservatism rather than boosting or opposing his or anyone else’s actual campaign. Likewise, we are far more interested in understanding his policy impulses better than he understands them himself, which means situating them within deeper historical and theoretical contexts, even those of which he never speaks and probably is not aware.
Reinsch’s understanding of the essay as a practical polemic on behalf of Trump and conservatism as it currently understands itself, however, leads to further errors in interpretation. Most glaringly, he thinks that the goal of the revived nationalism I discuss is to return power “to the states, counties, towns, villages, and hamlets of America.” Where he came up with this I have no clue, but he certainly did not find it in the text of the essay. He then argues that the push for tax cuts and deregulation were sound, if failed, attempts to “starve the beast” of the administrative state and that a “recovery of Congressional muscle” offers a better course to reviving small government (which may well be true, if that is the goal, but it is not mine, at least not primarily).
I would rather assert, and the essay plainly asserts, that returning power to states or municipalities is an utterly futile endeavor, and Constitutionalism is an empty concept, in a culture dominated and defined by the (Burnham’s term) managerial elite. Moreover, any viable American resistance to such an elite will require a new nationalist philosophy, which is my primary concern rather than any particular partisan tactic. There is no effective resistance without creating a new elite to replace the existing managerial class, and there can be no new elite without a philosophic principle that motivates both that elite and sufficient numbers of the public.
A revived nationalism is primary to anything like small government, “Constitutionalism,” and so on because a healthy limited government or Constitutionalism simply cannot exist or justify itself in today’s prevailing cultural or intellectual condition. By way of example, the “starve the beast” strategy–which arose more as a post hoc rationalization of Republicans’ failure to curtail government spending than as a conscious strategy–was perhaps the stupidest and least effective political tactic ever attempted (the latter of which Reinsch admits). And it failed because conservatives fundamentally could not offer anything other than managerialism and the administrative state, simply under a different guise and with new managers.
Conservatives offered the thinly veiled Keynesianism of supply side economics rather than direct Keynesianism of stimulus spending. They offered global democracy promotion rather than the liberal interventionism through multilateral institutions. But at bottom they fought for the same ends as liberals–sometimes more, sometimes less effectively–yet always, if at times unwittingly, in the service of global managerialism. Indeed, today’s conservatives–perhaps more than liberals–view the world as composed of undifferentiated economic units in need of being sufficiently democratized for global capitalism to flourish, and nothing more. Until this basic philosophy is changed, not only is limited government impossible, but it will achieve nothing even if it could be implemented.
Congressional power has waned and federalism has been eroded as the administrative state has grown. One can point to many reasons for this, but the most fundamental one is that the managerial or administrative class simply does not need or desire institutions like Congress or local governments, which represent sectional interests and are inevitably composed of less technically qualified people. In a managerial environment in which Congress exists only as a stepping stone to an executive office in the global administrative apparatus, restoring its statutory power will achieve little in the way of effective power (though I suspect nothing would better motivate Congressional and local jealousy of their prerogatives than a Trump presidency…).
Unless one can offer a philosophically and culturally convincing purpose for Congressional or local government beyond competent managerialism or a better administration of the macaroni ration (i.e. many laboratories to test economic theorems), along with the cultural strength to uphold it, limited government dedicated to its original republican purpose cannot be revived. Congressional power for what? Local government for what? Without a philosophic/cultural rationale other than managerialism, these local governments and Congressmen (and the public), if given the liberty to choose again, would make the same choices to submit to global managerialism in exchange for Facebook, federal grants, and all the other risk-managed material comforts and distractions of late, corporatist capitalism.
The uselessness of “local government” doctrine today is demonstrated by its powerlessness on the social issues conservative politicians pretend to care about so much. Georgia’s governor caved to corporate demands on a transgender bathroom law, as did North Carolina’s under business community pressure. Even if social conservatives someday succeed in harpooning their great white whales of Roe and Obergefell, merely changing laws would accomplish absolutely nothing in the present cultural climate. So much for limited government and federalism.
Too many conservatives have convinced themselves that their enemy is always and everywhere the state, but their greatest enemy is a hostile culture. And they have believed that big business would always be their ally, but big business will much more rapidly submit to the court of popular opinion than any court of actual law. Oswald Spengler wrote that Constitutional protections mean everything with money and nothing without it. I would revise it to say that Constitutionalism and limited government mean everything with the right culture and nothing without it (without completely gainsaying the importance of money).
Thus the primary question concerns the purpose of American government and the purpose of American life, which must be answered before any questions about the meaning or practicality of limited government can have any relevance. Today those answers are provided by the managerial elite, and whether nationalism even offers a viable challenge to this elite is not clear (hence the speculative title of my essay and the ending rhetorical; more here). But to the extent any coherent idea can be discerned in Trump’s stream of consciousness, it is nationalism, and he has had some degree of success with it, which a better statesman may be able to more effectively channel.
On this point, Mr. Reinsch further criticizes me for ignoring “how thoroughly the classes of folks that Plautus points to as willing participants in such a contest are themselves dependent on the government. They aren’t likely to be the Schmittians some conservative theorists have been waiting for.” Once again, his critique would have been better if he had read the essay (or Schmitt) with more care. For not only do I (paraphrasing Burnham and Sam Francis) devote an entire paragraph to the difficulty presented by the fact that most Americans have little interest in nationalism or resisting the managerial class more generally, but I never once appeal to or even mention Schmitt or his writings (and, for what it’s worth, Schmittian doctrines of political conflict are not contradicted by citizens being dependent on their own government). Instead of inventing arguments that were not made, Mr. Reinsch may be better served by investigating whether those citizens dependent on government will look favorably on his own limited government catechism. Certainly, it seems, the current ‘conservatarian’ apostles of limited government look with disdain upon those people.
Mr. Reinsch seems to me lost in what he sees as a dispute between Jeffersonian states’ rights and Hamiltonian nationalism. But this debate was settled after the Civil War, or certainly the New Deal. Jeffersonian republicanism today has neither meaning nor relevance, and in my opinion it never offered much even in its own time. The real question is whether there is a (Hamiltonian) nationalism distinct from manageralism, and, if so, whether it might be reinvigorated to challenge the global managerial class.
Fundamentally, I oppose global managerialism not because it is powerful or even global, strictly speaking, but because it is disgusting in its rejection of all things spiritual or metaphysical and in its reduction of human greatness to the fulfillment of materialistic desires. I am willing to admit that republican limited government has historically served some purpose in securing human dignity, but only an instrumental one. And perhaps the simulacrum of it even now could encourage a healthier attachment to human communities along with personal and political virtue, but the success of such political institutions must be judged on those cultural grounds, and ultimately is impossible without a cultural transformation.
These disagreements aside, Mr. Reinsch and I are, I think, in broad sympathy when he goes on to summarize his work on Orestes Brownson. I will confess a lack of familiarity with this character and cannot comment on his work. But to comment on Mr. Reinsch’s summary, I see much to admire in his attempt to locate constitutional order in social, cultural, and historical traditions rather than abstract propositions alone. But I would ask Mr. Reinsch two questions: (1) how the modern ‘starving the beast’ ideology furthers Brownson’s communitarian constitutionalism (pardon the flawed shorthand)? and (2) whether Brownson’s conservatism admits of any philosophic principles to justify its historical community? For as flawed as contemporary abstract nationalism is, I am equally skeptical as to whether a nationalism (or any politics) merely of nostalgia can be either politically appealing or intellectually compelling.
Returning to Trump, who despite–or perhaps because of–his buffoonery, deserves credit for opening this dialogue, readers may recall that he was recently criticized for unwittingly re-tweeting a quotation of Mussolini. He unfortunately chose something rather banal about lions and sheep. But Mussolini said two things worth applying to conservatism in the present moment: First that “socialism exists only as a grudge,” and, second, that “it is not impossible to govern Italians, only useless.”
In this vein I would state that contemporary conservatism, both in its managerial and antiquarian forms, exists today only as a grudge, and that returning to the limited government institutions of the Founding, absent the overcoming of today’s managerial culture, is both impossible and useless.