The sexual shenanigans of Mark Foley and their cover-up are less indicative of the collapse of conservatism in the Republican establishment than is the Iraq misadventure.
True, if establishment Republicans had the faintest affinity for conservatism, they’d have rid themselves of a member more at home in the Man/Boy Love Association. But more significantly, they’d quit pouring American blood and treasure down the Iraqi drain.
To follow the dictionary, a conservative is someone who seeks to preserve existing institutions, or to restore traditional ones. It is not that he disdains constructive change; rather, he wants it to grow organically from its cultural and political soil. A real conservative would therefore never graft democratic institutions onto a society in which adversaries have always assassinated—not outpolled—one another.
A naïve conservative might entertain the notion that all people want the same things. But only a radical, oblivious to reality, would conclude that, because all people seek safety and sustenance for themselves, they’ll allow those they dislike to peacefully pursue the same.
If anything, to an authentic conservative, the commonalities in human nature ought not to serve as lodestars for legislation. Consider acquisitiveness—it’s a fine feature of humanity. Sadly, even more universally human is the taste for free stuff. The welfare state is a monument to this appetite. In fact, the more the Transfer State has reinforced and rewarded this aspect of humanity, the more ingrained it has become.
By extension, conservatives once understood that if you subsidize individuals because they are poor, you’ll get more poverty; subsidize them because they are unemployed, and you’ll get more unemployment; siphon taxes to support single mothers, and you’ll get more single motherhood, illegitimacy and divorce; subsidize the old by taking from the young, and the institution of the family—the intergenerational bonds between parents, grandparents, and children—is systematically weakened. In short: the erosion of civilization itself.
It’s a big if, but if indeed we’ve subsidized “freedom” for Iraqis and fought their battles—then we’ve also increased their impotence and diminished their initiative. (Who can deny that Iraqi demands from the U.S. indicate they consider themselves wards of the American state. And who can blame them?)
Smart and principled conservatives understand, moreover, that top-down central planning—economic or political—is always doomed to fail. The inverted, perverse incentive structure that invariably characterizes such endeavors guarantees failure. To wit, as a government project, the multi-billion enterprise in Iraq is bankrolled indefinitely by taxpayers and shielded in perpetuity from bankruptcy. Wrongdoing and incompetence in government are rarely punished, but are, rather, rewarded with budgetary increases. Government departments and fiefdoms accrete through inefficiency. Failure translates into ever-growing budgets, powers and perks—for the top dogs, not for the grunts on the ground.
At bottom, “philanthropic” wars and nation-building are transfer programs—the quintessential big-government projects. Government’s duties, however, are to protect freedoms, not to plan projects. In a free society, the vision thing is left to private individuals; civil servants are kept on a tight leash, because free people understand that a “visionary” bureaucrat is a voracious one, and that the grander the government, the poorer and less free the people. The warfare state, like the welfare state, is thus inimical to small-government conservatism.
Now, what of the Iraqi people, don’t they have a right to life, liberty, and property? Sure they do. However, distinguish we must between their right to be free and our obligation to free them. We have a solemn duty not to violate the rights of foreigners everywhere to life, liberty, and property. But we have no duty to uphold their rights. Why? Because, even if we could—and we can’t, as I’ve explained, and as the conservatively minded will comprehend—upholding the rights of the world’s citizens involves compromising the inalienable rights of Americans, their lives, liberties, and livelihoods. A constitutional government’s duty is to its own citizens.
Finally, there’s the matter of persisting in what is impossible to accomplish. In the words of philosopher David Conway, “People can have no duty severally or collectively to do what is impossible for them to do.” Faction fighting in Iraq is as old as the sand dunes, and tyrants as ubiquitous as the Tigris. The acid observations of Ibn Saud, Sultan of Najd, come to mind:
“It may be accepted as an incontrovertible fact that it will be impossible to manage the people of Iraq except by strong means and military force.”
In Ibn Saud’s day (1876-1953), it was Tony Blair’s philosophical forerunner, Gertrude Bell, who defied reality. In our times, it is George Bush and his accomplices (Democrats included) who ignore the broad sweep of history, because they are 1) ignorant of it, and 2) unacquainted with the conservative creed.
©2006 By Ilana Mercer