Philosophy

Right Cross

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Dead Right, by David Frum, New York: Basic Books, 256 pages, $25.00

I hope David Frum's social network isn't linked exclusively with the conservative movement, because if it is, he's going to be a lonely guy. In Dead Right, a crisply written, incisively argued book, the Forbes legal writer, former Wall Street Journal editorialist, and native of Canada skewers American conservatism for straying from its anti-statist roots. Except for a few conceptual problems near the end, this book uses straight talk to tell conservatives why they've failed and how they might make themselves relevant again.

Americans have overwhelmingly rejected the New Deal liberalism that dominated the nation's politics from the 1930s through the 1970s. But, Frum says, conservatives haven't found a coherent agenda to replace statism.

In the '60s and '70s, Ronald Reagan became a conservative icon–and the movement's political star–precisely because he attacked federal programs with the ferocity of Barry Goldwater. Reagan's 1980 presidential victory gave the right, in Frum's view, a chance to engineer a political realignment. Conservative promises to defeat the communists abroad and slash the federal leviathan at home could have routed the bedraggled left.

Yet as the election drew near, says Frum, Reagan transmogrified himself into a sunny supply-sider, promising that the federal government could simultaneously cut tax rates, boost defense spending, maintain welfare payments, and balance the budget. Reagan had made promises that he couldn't keep without alienating a substantial portion of his base.

Frum asserts that conservatives read too much into Reagan's victory. The tax revolt that helped bring Reagan to power was not a call for limited government. After all, Joe and Jane Suburban are perfectly happy with the government subsidies they receive. "Governors and mayors," writes Frum, "face voters who profess to prefer budget cuts to tax increases. But those same voters continue to expect lavishly equipped suburban high schools, subsidized tuition at state colleges, toll-free highways, and environmental improvements at others' expense." Meanwhile, federal programs subsidize retirees, veterans, farmers, mortgage holders, and college students–in other words, most Americans.

The Reaganites faced a choice: Cut the size and scope of government and face unhappy voters accustomed to receiving subsidies, or change the subject. Frum convincingly argues that conservatives chose the latter. "Conservatives have lost their zeal for advocating minimal government," he writes, "not because they have decided big government is desirable, but because they have wearily concluded that trying to reduce it is hopeless, and that even the task of preventing its further growth will probably exceed their strength." Conservatives have become obsessed with short-term results–winning the next election–with the likely consequence, in Frum's view, that they will become peripheral political players.

As the right makes peace with statism, Frum says, the movement is becoming incapable of confronting the problems facing American society, from illegitimate births to raging government debt to the culture of victimhood. He blames the welfare state, in all its forms, for "function[ing] as a political safety belt, reducing the riskiness of all our lives." And reducing that risk undermines the bourgeois virtues that made America great. "The children of a self-made man are different from their father," he writes, "more optimistic, often more generous, more sensitive, and more tolerant, but less careful, less provident, less hard-working, less self-controlled. In the same way, the citizens of a socially insured America will act and think differently from the citizens of self-reliant America."

Frum divides today's conservatives into three camps: optimists (headed by Jack Kemp), moralists (presided over by Bill Bennett), and nationalists (led by Pat Buchanan). "They differ about many things," says Frum, "but all agree that the time has come for conservatives to quit fretting about the power of the central government and to begin using it."

Of the three groups, Frum likes the optimists best. And why not? Who wouldn't be drawn, at least initially, to the sunny, dynamic message of the Kemp Republicans? Kemp "refused to mix his pro-growth capitalist cocktail with the faintest tincture of budget-cutting bitters," says Frum. "This was–it was said by conservatives and nonconservatives alike–conservatism with a human face."

Unfortunately, many of these cheery folks–notably Kemp and (until recently) House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich–profess that a growing economy would let conservatives reform the welfare state without cutting anybody's benefits. The optimists agree with Charles Murray that free housing, food, health care, and welfare's other enticements give unskilled young persons a huge incentive to go on the dole rather than accept low-paying jobs. But they don't take the next logical step and advocate Murray's suggestion to "end welfare as we know it" by ending welfare. Period.

Instead, the optimists want to reconfigure existing programs so that the incentives change. By embracing the "empowerment" agenda, the optimists don't want to eliminate transfer programs; they want to make welfare efficient and entrepreneurial. But the empowerment agenda, by itself, will always have trouble delivering meaningful results. As Frum notes, enterprise zones won't draw large infusions of capital as long as relatively crime-free, low-tax, deregulated suburbs exist nearby. Similarly, tenants may run public housing projects better than bureaucrats, but experiments with tenant management have resulted in paltry savings for taxpayers.

As "big government conservatives," optimists face opposition from limited-government advocates. So to win elections, optimists must reach out to moderates who believe it's mean to cut welfare. Kemp told Frum that, at the polls, budget-cutting "Scrooges" will always lose to the "Santa Clauses" of the left. "My view," Kemp said, "is that growth is the only political model that can compete with the Santa Claus of the Left." The pro-growth message may help candidates win elections near-term, but unless policy makers boldly cut programs, debt and overregulation will continue, and the problems of the underclass will remain intractable.

Moralists such as William Bennett, Irving Kristol, and education reformer Chester Finn also reject the Charles Murray solution to welfare dependency, but for different reasons. First, eliminating welfare "requires conservatives once again to embark on the hopeless struggle to get rid of a federal program (actually a slew of programs) that will be defended unto death by powerful constituencies [in Congress] and that influence noisy voices in the media," writes Frum. Not an easy way to win elections.

And, says Frum, the moralists believe Murray is too optimistic. Murray argues that removing subsidies for food, medical care, and housing when a woman bears a child out of wedlock would drastically reduce illegitimacy among the underclass. The moralists disagree. "Once welfare has brought a class of dependent mothers and violent sons into existence [the moralists argue], the abolition of welfare may well serve merely to push them deeper into violence and squalor."

Bennett and his allies, Frum says, blame the moral relativism encouraged by popular culture–which is controlled by liberal elites–for the pathologies of the underclass. "In a curious way," he writes, "moralist conservatives agree with their liberal opposite numbers that the poor are victims."

Consequently, the moralists have begun "to dismiss the elimination of welfare and to ponder instead greater interventions into the lives of the poorest of the poor." All for the poor's benefit, of course. Isn't it weird, asks Frum, "that conservatives, who have worked so hard to destroy the public's faith in the wisdom and goodness of government, could now talk about government exhorting people to virtue?"

Among conservatives, optimism appeals to would-be policy makers, moralism to intellectuals. But most conservatives are neither. Enter Pat Buchanan and the nationalists who cater to "America's nationalist hard core, people who felt aggrieved and abused not so much by foreigners as by alien elements within their own country." Unlike the moralists, who are obsessed with the relativism practiced and preached by left-wing elites, nationalists believe that America's enemies live in the ghettoes and barrios. By 1992, nationalists believed America had become, Frum says, "two nations–European America and Third World America. One was Buchanan's America; the other was a constant menace to it." Frum has already skewered Buchanan in Commentary; Dead Right gives Frum the opportunity to go after the idea men behind Buchanan, led by Thomas Fleming, Samuel Francis, and the other writers at the paleoconservative monthly Chronicles.

It appears that nationalists want to turn back the clock to the '50s–whether they prefer the 1950s to the 1850s is unclear–those days when America was 85 percent white and people with dark skins or non-European backgrounds couldn't encroach upon "mainstream" American society. Writing about then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Ludwig von Mises Institute President Llewellyn Rockwell suggests he prefers the Jim Crow South to contemporary America: "Thomas calls the segregation of the Old South, where he grew up, `totalitarian.' But that's liberal nonsense. Whatever its faults, and it certainly had them, that system was far more localized, decent, and humane than the really totalitarian social engineering now wrecking the country."

Whatever notoriety the nationalists have mustered has resulted from their opposition to immigration. Immigrants, the nationalists allege, are destroying American culture. Washington Times columnist Sam Francis, says Frum, "believed that the authentic America was in danger from almost any infusion of new ethnic types, white or nonwhite: `As for immigrants from less backward countries [Francis wrote], we should balance considerations of whatever gains they might bring to our economy with at least equal consideration of their long-term impact on our cultural identity (including our economic and scientific culture).'"

Nationalism, argues Frum, "simply imports left-wing identity politics into a new context. If the rights of blacks, gays, and Hispanics were to be asserted, why not those of middle-aged Irish Catholics or white Southerners?" He concludes that nationalists "are truly multiculturalism's children."

Despite the nationalists' antipathy for federal regulations and D.C. bureaucrats, nationalism, too, is not a philosophy of limited government. During his 1992 presidential campaign, says Frum, Buchanan pushed only three budget cuts: He would cut the 1990 congressional pay raise in half, eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, and end foreign aid. Savings to taxpayers: $13 billion, or less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

What's a conservative to do? Frum advocates slashing subsidies and abolishing agencies. Unfortunately, as he tries to make the case for a Coolidge-sized federal government, Frum can't help taking a gratuitous shot at libertarians, his natural allies.

Associating himself with English political theorist Edmund Burke, he writes, "It is not to maximize liberty as an end in itself that conservatives have advocated minimal government. They have advocated it because they admired a certain type of character–self-reliant, competent, canny, and uncomplaining–and minimal government was the system of government under which the character they admired flourished best."

Many libertarians are equally concerned with maintaining the character of a free people, of course. In part, Frum's problem seems to be discomfort with the somewhat anarchic American tradition of natural liberty–the notion that, as P.J. O'Rourke has put it, "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." Frum the self-styled Burkean omits O'Rourke's second sentence. And Frum the Canadian may simply be suffering mild culture shock. His native country's motto is, after all, "peace, order, and good government," a far cry from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Frum worries about the use of state power to undermine "community" values. In a chapter that (correctly, for the most part) discounts the power of the religious right, Frum argues that "`don't tread on me' libertarianism" is "intellectually contradictory and therefore difficult to translate into public policy." He then holds up Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as an example of a "libertarian" politician who has foundered because of the "contradictions" within his philosophy.

Weld harbors contradictions, all right, but they result from his inconsistent application of libertarianism. Weld initially described himself as a "filthy supply-sider," and cut both taxes and spending in his first budget. But he also promotes environmental regulations that impose huge costs on consumers and property owners. And Weld's "civil libertarian" side is, in fact, thoroughly statist.

He backs anti-discrimination laws permitting broad state intrusions into the private affairs of citizens. He also opposes any government restrictions on abortions, even those in the third trimester. Frum cites Weld's left-leaning social policies to assert that any libertarian politician who wants to restrain "majoritarian morality" must become a statist.

Sorry. Civil-rights laws are reflections of "majoritarian morality," at least as far as they are passed by legislatures rather than enacted by judicial fiat. A libertarian vision of civil-rights laws might prohibit discrimination at government facilities but would stay away from actions that take place among consenting parties on private property. Similarly, libertarians have differing views on the morality of abortion but universally oppose using tax dollars to subsidize abortions. Both policy prescriptions limit government and keep "majoritarian morality" at bay.

You get the impression that, like the moralists, Frum believes that government must affirmatively encourage or prohibit every type of social interaction. Frum's view seems to be that "there ought to be a law" defining everything from friendships to commerce to living quarters to conjugal relations. His nascent communitarian vision is hardly consistent with his campaign for limited government.

In contrast with the communitarian conservative view that private, consensual conduct is subject to public scrutiny, libertarians promote a "civil society" outside the public sphere, in which individuals voluntarily form communities and make rules which are subject to the consent of the community's members. And unlike the communitarian vision, in which communities are monolithic organisms whose members live zombie-like and in lockstep, a libertarian vision recognizes that individuals in fact join many communities–a person can simultaneously be a Presbyterian, a softball player, a parent, a weekend auto mechanic, and a mystery reader–and that divergent communities may at times exist peacefully side by side. For the most part, the state shouldn't interfere with those communities.

The bourgeois virtues Frum praises–diligence, prudence, thrift, willingness to take risks–are indeed essential for the development of civil society. If conservatives wish to promote those values, they must decide which model of governance they prefer: Burke's demand for order, or the Founders' insistence upon individual rights.

Despite this confusion, Frum recognizes that the burdens of the welfare state will someday result in a fiscal crisis and a further disintegration of civil society. His advice to conservative intellectuals like Bill Kristol: Discard "all consideration of what the public wants to hear, and tell…the public what it needs to know when the crisis does arrive." Conservative intellectuals, he concludes, "should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party…and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: Practice honesty, and pay the price."

Rick Henderson is Washington editor of REASON.