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Wednesday, November 1, 1995

Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn

Does America Thrive on War and Taxes?

Greg Pavlik has done a true service by anthologizing and commenting on the essays of John T. Flynn (1882-1964). It is remarkable that a journalist and legal scholar with Flynn’s views became a regular contributor to Collier’s and Harper’s and a featured columnist of The New Republic. Despite his unfashionable stands as a critic of the New Deal and of American military involvement, Flynn remained a celebrated journalist into the post-World War II era. Major commercial presses brought out his books, and as a child, I recall hearing his feisty commentaries on the radio. Until a few years ago, when I began writing my history of American conservatism, I had not heard of Flynn since the 1960s. And then as a card-carrying adherent of National Review, which turned down his submissions, I had thought of Flynn as either a Communist or a Nazi. What else could this self-described isolationist have been?

As someone also consigned by the respectable conservative movement to the outer edges of perdition, I believe that the condemnations hurled at Flynn should be seen as a badge of honor. He did not compromise his classical liberal convictions; nor did he rise to the bait and accept William Buckley’s price for American participation in the Cold War, “a totalitarian state on our shores for the duration.”

As a historian and political theorist, I must disagree with some isolated points in his brief. I do not believe that all acts of military mobilization by the major powers in this century, and certainly not by the United States, have been deliberate maneuvers to increase the power of the welfare state or even attempts to stave off economic depression. In some cases, American and European governments have reacted to real geopolitical threats, while arousing and yielding to popular hysteria, as our own country did in the forties and fifties. In other situations, as when the Wilson administration pushed us into the Great War, cultural bias seems to have played as much of a role as material interests: the Northeastern elites were deeply pro-British and therefore anti-German.

The point that should be made is that the welfare state has benefited from all crusades for democracy. Such fits of frenzy allow public administrators and thought police to run riot, to erase any meaningful distinction between the public and private, and to widen the scope of the welfare-warfare state which Flynn described primarily in its economic dimension at mid-century.

Among his prescient observations, the most impressive are those dealing with the role of the military and technicians in the modern welfare state. Again it is important to recognize that Flynn was writing at a point in time when his perceptions were not yet fully confirmed, but he did intuit the political future from trends that were present fifty years ago. Flynn has been proven right in his view of the military in the modern welfare state, as a microcosm of social experimentation. Revenues raised for conscripted armies have been used throughout the century to support and render dependent on government much of the young male population; the military has also been a laboratory for creating a population subservient to public administration, which has made itself into a new voice of authority.

Flynn rightly notes that military expansion in Imperial Germany was favored not by the Prussian aristocracy, but by the advocates of a powerful modernized German state, including socialists. While the Junkers feared the loss of their social and professional positions in a more dynamic welfare-warfare state, the rising classes, such as workers and various dependents of the new regime, embraced a larger military budget and Weltpolitik. In the United States today, which has a much bigger public sector, the military establishment survives even in the absence of any danger that would require its present size. And like Scandinavia far more than Imperial Germany, it is used to carry out programs of social and cultural change put forth by feminists and other governmentally designated victims.

Until recently, journalists and academia persisted in presenting the welfare state as an achievement in scientific planning. In the 1920s Ludwig von Mises had already given the lie to this pretension and showed how thoroughly flawed were the scientific predictions made by socialist planners. But the claim to scientific accuracy among administrative technicians, as Flynn suggests, typically went beyond economic analysis to the reconstruction of society itself. In what might be described as an understatement about an emerging political reality, Flynn predicted that Americans may soon be restricted in their electoral choices to candidates who are certified public administrators. In point of fact, we do not have even that much choice. Unelected administrators and judicial social engineers arrange our social and political life without having to worry about electoral hurdles. Rotating parties organize the elections while making only minimal efforts to take charge of the government.

There are two strong impressions which the anthology made on me, that did not come from Flynn’s own words. One is the account given by his son in the preface about his father celebrating the end of the First World War. Then an editor of the New Haven Register (which I grew up reading), the senior Flynn flew a plane over New Haven in November 1918 and marveled at the happy relief of his countrymen below. At that time he hoped that a victorious America would turn its energies inward and presumably restore the freedoms that President Wilson had torn from his fellow-citizens in “making the world safe for democracy.”

The second impression to be noted comes from the understandably gloomy views expressed by Greg Pavlik in his introduction to Flynn’s essays. Mr. Pavlik, who wrote the most comprehensive and most illuminating review of my work on American conservatism, evokes an American regime that thrives on war and taxes. He depicts Flynn as a voice in the wilderness crying out against what may be irreversible evils. The young John Flynn and the young Greg Pavlik both speak for the foundational beliefs of the American constitutional order: dual federalism, accountable administration, and the sanctity of property. Those are principles which would not have divided even the two polar figures in the American founding, Hamilton and Jefferson. It tells volumes about our own age that the editor of Flynn’s essays has such deep and justified doubts about the prospects for liberty in contemporary America. Perhaps, as Flynn feared, we have moved too far into that totalitarian future produced by public administrators to entertain any reasonable hope that the present mockery of the old order can or will reverse itself. []

Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Conservative Movement.

  • Mr. Pavlik was director of The Freeman Op-Ed Program at The Foundation for Economic Education. He was editor of Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, to be published by FEE next month.