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A Conservative Viewpoint with historical antecedents



by Joseph Sobran



My arrival (very recently) at philosophical anarchism has disturbed some of my conservative and Christian friends. In fact, it surprises me, going as it does against my own inclinations.

As a child I acquired a deep respect for authority and a horror of chaos. In my case the two things were blended by the uncertainty of my existence after my parents divorced and I bounced from one home to another for several years, often living with strangers. A stable authority was something I yearned for.

Meanwhile, my public-school education imbued me with the sort of patriotism encouraged in all children in those days. I grew up feeling that if there was one thing I could trust and rely on, it was my government. I knew it was strong and benign, even if I didn't know much else about it. The idea that some people – Communists, for example – might want to overthrow the government filled me with horror.

G.K. Chesterton, with his usual gentle audacity, once criticized Rudyard Kipling for his "lack of patriotism." Since Kipling was renowned for glorifying the British Empire, this might have seemed one of Chesterton's "paradoxes"; but it was no such thing, except in the sense that it denied what most readers thought was obvious and incontrovertible.

Chesterton, himself a "Little Englander" and opponent of empire, explained what was wrong with Kipling's view: "He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reason. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English." Which implies there would be nothing to love her for if she were weak.

Of course Chesterton was right. You love your country as you love your mother – simply because it is yours, not because of its superiority to others, particularly superiority of power.

This seems axiomatic to me now, but it startled me when I first read it. After all, I was an American, and American patriotism typically expresses itself in superlatives. America is the freest, the mightiest, the richest, in short the greatest country in the world, with the greatest form of government – the most democratic. Maybe the poor Finns or Peruvians love their countries too, but heaven knows why – they have so little to be proud of, so few "reasons." America is also the most envied country in the world. Don't all people secretly wish they were Americans?

That was the kind of patriotism instilled in me as a boy, and I was quite typical in this respect. It was the patriotism of supremacy. For one thing, America had never lost a war – I was even proud that America had created the atomic bomb (providentially, it seemed, just in time to crush the Japs) – and this is why the Vietnam war was so bitterly frustrating. Not the dead, but the defeat! The end of history's great winning streak!

As I grew up, my patriotism began to take another form, which it took me a long time to realize was in tension with the patriotism of power. I became a philosophical conservative, with a strong libertarian streak. I believed in government, but it had to be "limited" government – confined to a few legitimate purposes, such as defense abroad and policing at home. These functions, and hardly any others, I accepted, under the influence of writers like Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt, whose books I read in my college years.

Though I disliked Rand's atheism (at the time, I was irreligious, but not anti-religious), she had an odd appeal to my residual Catholicism. I had read enough Aquinas to respond to her Aristotelian mantras. Everything had to have its own nature and limitations, including the state; the idea of a state continually growing, knowing no boundaries, forever increasing its claims on the citizen, offended and frightened me. It could only end in tyranny.

I was also powerfully drawn to Bill Buckley, an explicit Catholic, who struck the same Aristotelian note. During his 1965 race for mayor of New York, he made a sublime promise to the voter: he offered "the internal composure that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics." This may have been the most futile campaign promise of all time, but it would have won my vote!

It was really this Aristotelian sense of "rational limits," rather than any particular doctrine, that made me a conservative. I rejoiced to find it in certain English writers who were remote from American conservatism – Chesterton, of course, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Michael Oakeshott.

In fact I much preferred a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was preoccupied with immediate political issues. During the Reagan years, which I expected to find exciting, I found myself bored to death by supply-side economics, enterprise zones, "privatizing" welfare programs, and similar principle-dodging gimmickry. I failed to see that "movement" conservatives were less interested in principles than in Republican victories. To the extent that I did see it, I failed to grasp what it meant.

Still, the last thing I expected to become was an anarchist. For many years I didn't even know that serious philosophical anarchists existed. I'd never heard of Lysander Spooner or Murray Rothbard. How could society survive at all without a state?

Now I began to be critical of the US Government, though not very. I saw that the welfare state, chiefly the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, violated the principles of limited government and would eventually have to go. But I agreed with other conservatives that in the meantime the urgent global threat of Communism had to be stopped. Since I viewed "defense" as one of the proper tasks of government, I thought of the Cold War as a necessity, the overhead, so to speak, of freedom. If the Soviet threat ever ceased (the prospect seemed remote), we could afford to slash the military budget and get back to the job of dismantling the welfare state.

Somewhere, at the rainbow's end, America would return to her founding principles. The Federal Government would be shrunk, laws would be few, taxes minimal. That was what I thought. Hoped, anyway.

I avidly read conservative and free-market literature during those years with the sense that I was, as a sort of late convert, catching up with the conservative movement. I took it for granted that other conservatives had already read the same books and had taken them to heart. Surely we all wanted the same things! At bottom, the knowledge that there were rational limits to politics. Good old Aristotle. At the time, it seemed a short hop from Aristotle to Barry Goldwater.

As is fairly well known by now, I went to work as a young man for Buckley at National Review and later became a syndicated columnist. I found my niche in conservative journalism as a critic of liberal distortions of the US Constitution, particularly in the Supreme Court's rulings on abortion, pornography, and "freedom of expression."

Gradually I came to see that the conservative challenge to liberalism's jurisprudence of "loose construction" was far too narrow. Nearly everything liberals wanted the Federal Government to do was unconstitutional. The key to it all, I thought, was the Tenth Amendment, which forbids the Federal Government to exercise any powers not specifically assigned to it in the Constitution. But the Tenth Amendment had been comatose since the New Deal, when Roosevelt's Court virtually excised it.

This meant that nearly all Federal legislation from the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond had been unconstitutional. Instead of fighting liberal programs piecemeal, conservatives could undermine the whole lot of them by reviving the true (and, really, obvious) meaning of the Constitution. Liberalism depended on a long series of usurpations of power.

Around the time of Judge Robert Bork's bitterly contested (and defeated) nomination to the US Supreme Court, conservatives spent a lot of energy arguing that the "original intent" of the Constitution must be conclusive. But they applied this principle only to a few ambiguous phrases and passages that bore on specific hot issues of the day – the death penalty, for instance. About the general meaning of the Constitution there could, I thought, be no doubt at all. The ruling principle is that whatever the Federal Government isn't authorized to do, it's forbidden to do.

That alone would invalidate the Federal welfare state and, in fact, nearly all liberal legislation. But I found it hard to persuade most conservatives of this. Bork himself took the view that the Tenth Amendment was unenforceable. If he was right, then the whole Constitution was in vain from the start.

I never thought a constitutional renaissance would be easy, but I did think it could play an indispensable role in subverting the legitimacy of liberalism. Movement conservatives listened politely to my arguments, but without much enthusiasm. They regarded appeals to the Constitution as rather pedantic and, as a practical matter, futile – not much help in the political struggle. Most Americans no longer even remembered what "usurpation" meant. Conservatives themselves hardly knew.

Of course they were right, in an obvious sense. Even conservative courts (if they could be captured) wouldn't be bold enough to throw out the entire liberal legacy at once. But I remained convinced that the conservative movement had to attack liberalism at its constitutional root.

In a way I had transferred my patriotism from America as it then was to America as it had been when it still honored the Constitution. And when had it crossed the line? At first I thought the great corruption had occurred when Franklin Roosevelt subverted the Federal judiciary; later I came to see that the decisive event had been the Civil War, which had effectively destroyed the right of the states to secede from the Union. But this was a very much a minority view among conservatives, particularly at National Review, where I was the only one who held it.

I've written more than enough about my career at the magazine, so I'll confine myself to saying that it was only toward the end of more than two happy decades there that I began to realize that we didn't all want the same things after all. When it happened, it was like learning, after a long and placid marriage, that your spouse is in love with someone else, and has been all along.

Not that I was betrayed. I was merely blind. I have no one to blame but myself. The Buckley crowd, and the conservative movement in general, no more tried to deceive me than I tried to deceive them. We all assumed we were on the same side, when we weren't. If there is any fault for this misunderstanding, it is my own.

In the late 1980s I began mixing with Rothbardian libertarians – they called themselves by the unprepossessing label "anarcho-capitalists" – and even met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt – in National Review!

I can only say of Murray what so many others have said: never in my life have I encountered such an original and vigorous mind. A short, stocky New York Jew with an explosive cackling laugh, he was always exciting and cheerful company. Pouring out dozens of big books and hundreds of articles, he also found time, heaven knows how, to write (on the old electric typewriter he used to the end) countless long, single-spaced, closely reasoned letters to all sorts of people.

Murray's view of politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe in constitutional government.

Murray would have none of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a "coup d'état," centralizing power and destroying the far more tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct denial of everything I'd been taught. I'd never heard anyone suggest that the Articles had been preferable to the Constitution! But Murray didn't care what anyone thought – or what everyone thought. (He'd been too radical for Ayn Rand.)

Murray and I shared a love of gangster films, and he once argued to me that the Mafia was preferable to the state, because it survived by providing services people actually wanted. I countered that the Mafia behaved like the state, extorting its own "taxes" in protection rackets directed at shopkeepers; its market was far from "free." He admitted I had a point. I was proud to have won a concession from him.

Murray died a few years ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution "meant," steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.

What if the Federal Government grossly violated the Constitution? Could states withdraw from the Union? Lincoln said no. The Union was "indissoluble" unless all the states agreed to dissolve it. As a practical matter, the Civil War settled that. The United States, plural, were really a single enormous state, as witness the new habit of speaking of "it" rather than "them."

So the people are bound to obey the government even when the rulers betray their oath to uphold the Constitution. The door to escape is barred. Lincoln in effect claimed that it is not our rights but the state that is "unalienable." And he made it stick by force of arms. No transgression of the Constitution can impair the Union's inherited legitimacy. Once established on specific and limited terms, the US Government is forever, even if it refuses to abide by those terms.

As Hoppe argues, this is the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way street. Notionally, "We the People" create a government and specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.

Yet even after the Civil War, certain scruples survived for a while. Americans still agreed in principle that the Federal Government could acquire new powers only by constitutional amendment. Hence the postwar amendments included the words "Congress shall have power to" enact such and such legislation.

But by the time of the New Deal, such scruples were all but defunct. Franklin Roosevelt and his Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause so broadly as to authorize virtually any Federal claim, and the Tenth Amendment so narrowly as to deprive it of any inhibiting force. Today these heresies are so firmly entrenched that Congress rarely even asks itself whether a proposed law is authorized or forbidden by the Constitution.

In short, the US Constitution is a dead letter. It was mortally wounded in 1865. The corpse can't be revived. This remained hard for me to admit, and even now it pains me to say it.

Other things have helped change my mind. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii calculates that in the twentieth century alone, states murdered about 162,000,000 of their own subjects. This figure doesn't include the tens of millions of foreigners they killed in war. How, then, can we speak of states "protecting" their people? No amount of private crime could have claimed such a toll. As for warfare, Paul Fussell's book Wartime portrays battle with such horrifying vividness that, although this wasn't its intention, I came to doubt whether any war could be justified.

My fellow Christians have argued that the state's authority is divinely given. They cite Christ's injunction "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" and St. Paul's words "The powers that be are ordained of God." But Christ didn't say which things – if any – belong to Caesar; his ambiguous words are far from a command to give Caesar whatever he claims. And it's notable that Christ never told his disciples either to establish a state or to engage in politics. They were to preach the Gospel and, if rejected, to move on. He seems never to have imagined the state as something they could or should enlist on their side.

At first sight, St. Paul seems to be more positive in affirming the authority of the state. But he himself, like the other martyrs, died for defying the state, and we honor him for it; to which we may add that he was on one occasion a jailbreaker as well. Evidently the passage in Romans has been misread. It was probably written during the reign of Nero, not the most edifying of rulers; but then Paul also counseled slaves to obey their masters, and nobody construes this as an endorsement of slavery. He may have meant that the state and slavery were here for the foreseeable future, and that Christians must abide them for the sake of peace. Never does he say that either is here forever.

St. Augustine took a dim view of the state, as a punishment for sin. He said that a state without justice is nothing but a gang of robbers writ large, while leaving doubt that any state could ever be otherwise. St. Thomas Aquinas took a more benign view, arguing that the state would be necessary even if man had never fallen from grace; but he agreed with Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all, a doctrine that would severely diminish any known state.

The essence of the state is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as "that which turns a person into a thing – either corpse or slave." It may sometimes be a necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it.

It's entirely possible that states – organized force – will always rule this world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is good.

For most people, "anarchy" is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence, antinomianism – things they hope the state can control or prevent. The term "state," despite its bloody history, doesn't disturb them. Yet it's the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can't assert a plausible right to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda apparatus, can do that. This is what "legitimacy" means. Anarchists obviously need a more seductive label.

"But what would you replace the state with?" The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be "replaced."

Christians, and especially Americans, have long been misled about all this by their good fortune. Since the conversion of Rome, most Western rulers have been more or less inhibited by Christian morality (though, often enough, not so's you'd notice), and even warfare became somewhat civilized for centuries; and this has bred the assumption that the state isn't necessarily an evil at all. But as that morality loses its cultural grip, as it is rapidly doing, this confusion will dissipate. More and more we can expect the state to show its nature nakedly.

For me this is anything but a happy conclusion. I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But, as St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things.

Joseph Sobran is an author, syndicated columnist, and editor of a monthly newsletter, SOBRAN'S. See www.sobran.com; for more information or call 800-513-5053.

This article is reprinted with permission from the December 2002 SOBRAN'S newsletter. See the article at http://www.sobran.com/reluctant.shtml. Those wishing to publish or post this column must obtain permission from griffin@sobran.com.

Copyright (c) 2002 by The Vere Company, All rights reserved.

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