All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution

Cato Institute • 2007 • 299 pages • $22.95

During the first six years of the George W. Bush administration, government domestic spending has increased by 27 percent in real terms. Domestic discretionary (non-entitlement) spending has grown at an real annual rate of 4.5 percent over these six years, compared to 2.1 percent per year under Bill Clinton. Indeed, President Bush has been the biggest big spender since Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society policies of the 1960s.

Furthermore, government’s intrusiveness in the social and economic life of the country has also gone up dramatically. Bush and a Republican Congress enacted the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the largest new entitlement program since President Johnson signed the Medicare bill four decades ago. Bush also expanded the tentacles of federal control over education by pushing No Child Left Behind, which promises more and more regulation and national standards imposed by Washington. Federal spending on education has increased by more than 50 percent; the Department of Education budget has gone up from $33.6 billion in 2001 to $51.1 billion today.

A Republican Congress happily passed bill after bill that increased the spending on a pork barrel full of programs to benefit every conceivable special-interest group. The most notorious are “earmarks,” which target money for particular states and designated constituents. The corruption scandals of the last few years have merely been the tip of the iceberg of a Republican congressional mentality that nothing was more important than reelection and power.

In his new book, Leviathan on the Right, Cato Institute policy analyst Michael D. Tanner details the degree to which the Republicans in charge of Congress from 1995 through 2006 were drawn into the vortex of political plunder and abuse. That politicians, regardless of their ideological labels, take advantage of political office is nothing new. Eighty years ago, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out that “Even [classical] liberal politicians, on gaining power, have usually relegated their liberal principles more or less to the background. The tendency . . . to abuse political power . . . is too deeply ingrained in the mentality of those who control the government apparatus of compulsion and coercion for them ever to be able to resist it voluntarily.”

What Tanner tries to explain is why the American political party that claimed to defend individual freedom and limited government over the last 70 years has seemingly turned its back on those ideas. The essence of this story is the transformation of American conservatism into what has become known as neoconservatism. Tanner points out that before World War II American conservatism was really classical liberalism. But after the war, the anti-statist movement was made up of two distinct strands of thought: libertarianism, which continued to uphold the classical-liberal banner, and a reconstructed conservatism that emphasized tradition, was suspicious of policy based on reason alone, and adhered to a religious foundation for liberty.

At the same time, however, there was slowly emerging a different brand of political thought that now bears the label “neoconservative.” Its founders included Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Daniel Bell. They had been Trotskyite Marxists who opposed Stalinism in the 1930s and 1940s. In the postwar period they concluded that Stalinism was an inescapable part of Marxism and became vocal anticommunists.

Another group, including Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Harry Jaffa, Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, and Robert Kagan, were all influenced by classical philosopher Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago. Strauss believed that rationalism and liberalism had undermined the foundations of traditional Western civilization and had opened the floodgates to the barbarism of Nazism and communism. Strauss rejected classical liberalism and free-market capitalism because they supposedly fostered a rootless individualism and pandered to the baser material desires of man. Civilization required a renewal of the classical Greek ideals of virtue, the heroic, and the notion of a higher collective calling. The means for restoring the virtuous society was a strong government that inculcated the appropriate values among the citizenry.

Religion was essential, too, because it gave man a sense of a divine meaning to life and provided the Archimedean point to justify the belief in universal truths. But what if “God is dead”? Still, the masses must be made to believe God exists, otherwise chaos and destruction will be man’s fate. If Marx had considered religion to be a harmful “opiate of the masses,” the Straussians considered it a useful and necessary narcotic.

Furthermore, these two strands of modern neoconservatism were not, in principle, against the welfare state. True to their earlier socialist roots, many of them considered it the duty and responsibility of the government to provide essential “social safety nets” since these could not and should not be left to the uncertainties and amorality of blind market forces. The neoconservative critique of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, was based on the idea that in its current form political paternalism undermined the ethics of family, work, and personal responsibility that are essential to social stability. What was needed was reform of the welfare state but not its repeal. The state should be used to create the “right” incentives to get people to develop the “correct” behavioral characteristics.

For these reasons, Tanner argues that modern American liberalism and neoconservatism are both ideologies of state manipulation of human conduct. Their differences merely concern a vision of the good society that activist government policy should try to create, and the regulatory and interventionist means to bring it about.

Another element of neoconservatism, represented by William Kristol and David Brooks, is what Tanner calls “national-greatness conservatives.” They reject the notion that in the free society each individual should find his own purpose and meaning to life and that those who share beliefs should associate and advance their private visions through the voluntary institutions of civil society. These neoconservatives believe that Americans must be made to share and work for common national objectives to give them a sense of united community through government projects and propaganda—at taxpayers’ expense, of course.

Tanner also explains how the neoconservatives have come to make common cause with the religious right in America. Even though many neoconservatives are non-Christians, indeed sometimes agnostics or atheists, they have aligned themselves with a variety of conservative Christian policies that require government restriction on free-market activities. Here we see the Straussian emphasis on the need to inculcate religious ideas, even if those who do the inculcating do not personally believe in them.

For Tanner it is not surprising that the last six years have seen such an explosion in government spending and power. Not only was this nearly inevitable when one party came to control both the executive and legislative branches of government, but it was also reinforced and indeed fostered by a neoconservative ideology that has turned its back on the traditional American conservative ideals of limited government and individual freedom. The task in the years ahead, Tanner says, is to return conservatism to its original roots and away from this neoconservative mutation.

  • The Foundation for Economic Education, founded 1946, works for a free and prosperous world.