Why Did American Conservatism Become Statist?

By Cruz Marquis

Sometimes bad things happen to good ideas, such is the story of American conservatism, which got all wrapped up in statism as a result of a quirk of history which was never fixed. This quirk must be fixed, and conservatism reimagined as a fundamentally different idea committed to tradition and liberty, not to the state.

Flashback to 1955 for a moment: The Second World War is a decade in the past and Europe is rebuilding under the aegis of the US Army and nuclear armed Air Force. American factories and offices are the envy of the world and living standards at home have never been this good. On the opposite side of the globe, our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, is on the march and the forces of international communism threaten to return Europe to war and undermine all the progress made at home.

Enter Yale graduate and Catholic intellectual, Bill Buckley, the not-yet-patron-saint of conservatism. In 1955, he founded the National Review, to propagate a new branch of the movement, which proved to be a turning point. He took advantage of a vacuum; the Old Right, those opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal, who were dying out or leaving politics. Albert Jay Nock died in 1945, HL Mencken died in 1956, and John T. Flynn would also perish by 1964. The principle that animated those former standard bearers was an opposition to centralized government, and without them, the ship of conservatism was just waiting for someone new to take the helm and steer it in a new direction.

Bill Buckley did just that, and soon conservatism was synonymous with anti-communism. Obviously, every conservative must be an opponent of communism and every scheme like it on the grounds that it destroys religion, home, hearth, prosperity, and in their place, erects a titanic pauperizing bureaucracy for the benefit of the planners, clerks, and debauched economists. No one contending any allegiance between the two ideas should get a second of attention.

That being said, an ideology can hardly stand on its feet if it relies only on opposing another thing. Buckley’s conservatism did just that, and in doing so, sealed an alliance between the movement and the military industrial complex. In order to fight communism, one needs an army, and equipping a state-of-the-art one to take on the Soviet Union and its proxies and sustain it indefinitely requires a massive commitment. Undertaking such a commitment changes the character of the state itself, and Buckley deemed this an acceptable trade. Rothbard commented on Buckley’s statism:

“He admits that his opposition to Statism, eloquently expressed at the beginning, is merely romantic academicism. For Buckley favors ‘the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,’ and by implication supports ECA aid and 50-billion dollar ‘defense’ budgets. He declares that the ‘thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security,’ and that therefore ‘we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.’ Therefore, he concludes, we must all support ‘large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington — even with Truman at the reins of it all.’”

–Murray Rothbard on Bill Buckley

Conceding to the state the military industrial complex, conservatism drifted gradually into accepting more and more statists’ usurpations over the years. What begins with funding armies to fight communism ends today with social security being sacrosanct, grants to multi-billion-dollar corporations encouraged, and not a word spoken, outside a few trite comments in the primaries, about shrinking the state. Mission creep is a pernicious dynamic indeed.

Why is the raising and keeping of militaries specifically so dangerous to liberty, as opposed to different breeds of redistribution, regulation, or welfare? Simply put, the preparation for and waging of war is the most injurious development to liberty possible, for it threatens conscription into the apparatus of killing, curtails civil liberties such as speech and the press at home, necessitates desolation on a wide scale, even if not to the homeland, and presupposes massive taxation and confiscation to fund the whole thing. Any other intervention into the comings and goings of society is a net negative, but not on the scope of war and militarism. Like one of the seven deadly sins, the danger of garrison states is that numerous other depredations logically flow from it.

Thus, if a citizenry is beguiled into accepting a permanent garrison state, not only can they be beguiled into anything, but they will also end up with a number of consequent usurpations as a direct result of the militarization. If one admits the state powerful enough to raise regiments and divisions of tanks and soldiers and station them wherever it pleases, from Afghanistan to the Fulda Gap, and onto one’s very hometown, he can scarcely deny the state the power to levy somewhat higher taxes, regulate commerce, or prohibit certain behavior.

If Bill Buckley’s assent to patron saint of conservatism started the militarization of the right, the Vietnam War solidified it even unto the present. Since it required a new and great investment into the military industrial complex, the state had to ratchet up its power (the implications of the phrase “ratchet up” are explored more here), thus broadening the horizons of potential control. At the same time, the activists of the left polarized the issue by ever so slowly turning the Democratic Party into the “anti-war party” in popular imagination, if not reality, despite the fact that even if the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden still today are war hawks.

Conservatism embraced the polarization and took a stand for the war in Southeast Asia, and took the “support the troops” line, which it never abandoned. (The left never realized it was perfectly possible to respect the soldiery on the one hand, and oppose the matrix of military, foreign policy elite, research science, and industrial interests which promote the warfare state, and therefore continued with the toxic tactic of belittling, and disrespecting traumatized war veterans, an utterly deplorable thing). Conservatism, thus, became the party emotionally connected to the military and gave it a nationalistic, pro-family, Christian remodel, which covers up the harsh interworking of bureaucracy, massive taxation, and the looming threat of conscription which accompany all standing armies, regardless of their ostensible purpose.

The subject of the Republican Party’s remodel of the military and how to at once respect the soldiery (of which I once belonged), and also oppose, on pragmatic and theoretical grounds, the matrix of anti-social interests and institutions which promote war, tending towards the personal suffering of the warrior class,  collective impoverishment, and loss of liberty for everyone else, is one so complex that the space usually afforded to these articles does not admit for a discussion of it here.

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