What do conservatives believe in?
Ask a conservative today, and you’ll likely hear words like freedom, faith and family. But usually at the top of the list will be something like “a strong military” or “national defense.” Boiled down to their essence, these terms embody a single idea: war. Conservative believe in war. They regard it highly, not only as a method of defense but also as a tool for molding the world in America’s image. Hence the talk in conservative circles of using force to crush ideologies or to “bring democracy to the world.”
The irony of conservatives’ attitudes toward war is that war is inherently unconservative. Historically, conservatives have understood that war attacks the very principles of conservatism. To the extent that modern conservatives ignore this history, they reject their own intellectual forefathers.
As a result, the conservative case against war is seldom made anymore. Whether because they have bought into the nationalism that accompanies war, or because it is often personally difficult to consider the moral and political implications of war, conservatives today accept war not only as a reality of life, but as a particularly useful one. That war consumes conservative values – including freedom, family and life – is a point lost on many conservatives.
But as the war drums beat ever louder and the ineffectiveness of America’s belligerent foreign policy becomes increasingly clear, there has never been a better time for conservatives to rediscover their natural skepticism about war.
War vs. Economic Freedom
Let’s get the easy objection out of the way first. War, and the industry that grows up around it, is a wasteful drain on the free market.
From an economic standpoint, war is necessarily socialist. It results in rising taxes and inflation while leading to increased government control of the economy. During the Civil War, for instance, the North instituted the first federal income tax while the South nationalized war industries. During World War I, the federal government assumed control of significant parts of the economy and in World War II the government centrally planned prices, production and consumption.
The history of war led conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet to remark that “it is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies.”
Additionally, military spending is as notoriously inefficient as other government programs. Former Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney wrote that the politics surrounding military spending “encourage immoral behavior at all levels within the Defense Department.” Such behavior, Spinney explained, includes exaggerating threats “to justify larger budgets,” using “illegal accounting tricks to hide the true cost of programs,” and awarding defense contracts in a such a way as to make political considerations, not economic or military ones, the determining factors in continuing or canceling projects.
But we will hear none of this from the alleged fiscal conservatives on the air or at the podium. To these self-styled budget hawks, nary a penny of military spending is on the table for cuts – in fact, to them it is crucial that military spending be always on the increase.
A real fiscal conservative might ask when a country that spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined is spending enough. Or he might query if we can close any of the nearly 700 bases in the more than 150 countries where the U.S. currently has troops stationed.
But gone from modern conservatism is the common sense of “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft, who wrote that the government “cannot adopt a foreign policy which gives away all our people’s earning or…threatens liberty at home.” Conservatives today argue instead for never-ending increases in military spending, even as they pontificate on the excesses of liberals.
Ironically, it has been liberals who have been the historical proponents of militarism and war debt. To conservative author Bill Kauffman, modern conservatives who advocate war “parrot the foreign-policy slogans of previous generations of liberal Democrats and are…too cynical to acknowledge the reversal.”
The Un-American Empire
The fiscal realities of America’s military spending reveals a deeper truth: that America is an empire. Despite the soothing lies Americans tell themselves, the U.S. military is not spread around the world in order to fight for our freedom. No, our government spends all that money and has all those bases in all those countries for what conservative historian Andrew Bacevich, a graduate of West Point, has labeled “global power projection” – the capability to exert American influence through force anywhere at any time.
Americans long ago rejected the foreign policy of the founding generation, which was famously articulated by George Washington when he advised his countrymen to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations (and) cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
Speaking a generation later, John Quincy Adams celebrated the country’s adherence to Washington’s principle, stating that America “has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings.”
The foreign policy of the founders – minding our own business and setting a good example – has been left in the dust. Americans have instead applauded as their nation has morphed into a grotesque mutation of what it was intended to be. Conservatives historically stood against this transformation because, as anti-New Deal conservative Garet Garrett said, between “Constitutional, representative, limited government on the one hand, and Empire on the other there is mortal enmity.”
It is tragic that the modern conservative mainstream has rejected this anti-imperialist tradition. But, as Kauffman has said, “Just because Bush, Rush, and Fox are ignorant of history doesn’t mean authentic conservatives have to swallow the profoundly un-American American Empire.”
War vs. The Family
Given the movement’s current state, it may not be immediately apparent why war and empire are incompatible with conservatism. The reason is that the Empire and its wars destroy not only liberty, but all the other things that conservatives say they value most. Chief among these is the family.
War’s anti-family nature should be obvious, for nothing compares with war’s ability to disrupt family life. But conservatives, who value dual-parent households, seem to ignore that war wrests fathers and mothers from children, and from each other, and sends them out of the home for extended periods of time.
It’s no surprise, then, that war’s impact on the family is negative. For marriages, military deployment leads to higher rates of divorce. Between the beginning and the end of World War II, the divorce rate in the U.S. more than doubled. More recently, a 2013 study found that long-term military deployment resulted in a 28 percent higher likelihood of divorce among recently-married couples.
War’s impact on children is similarly negative. Social workers during World War II noted an increase in juvenile delinquency, with one worker citing the war as the cause “because children’s fathers go off to war and their mothers go to work, and thus the interest of parents is diverted from the home and children.”
War’s negative impact on children remains evident today in the dozens of videos that show kids running, with tears cascading down their faces, into the arms of a military parent who has returned home. But rather than recognize the pain caused by an absent parent, conservatives interpret these videos not as evidence of an ongoing blight on the family, but as some kind of beautiful scene to be replayed over and over.
Even in the absence of marriage and children, war harms the family and substitutes the state in its place. Russell Kirk, widely considered the most important post-World War II conservative, wrote that “In military life, distant from home and most of the forces of social opinion, there is every inducement for an average young man to sink into indolence and indulgence and every reason for him to rely increasingly upon the state for his very existence.”
Family, and the values it instills, is a casualty of war. From family comes instruction in morals and virtue. Most importantly, from family comes love, membership and purpose. Conservatives know this, and yet they still stand and cheer the wars that undermine it all.
Kauffman believes conservatives need a shift in their priorities. “To strengthen the American family,” he says, “we must shrink the armed services. Discharge fathers and mothers to their homier, infinitely more important duties. For the standing army is a ruthless manufactory of familial maladjustment. …the only foreign policy compatible with healthy family life is one of peace and nonintervention.”
War vs. Life
War destroys life. This undeniable truth should be the first and most obvious objection that conservatives, with their dedicated belief in the sanctity of life, should raise against war.
This point, however, is usually swept out of sight by modern conservatives. They may pay occasional lip service to the regrettable “collateral damage” that war brings upon civilian populations, but such opinions are not usually more than footnotes to calls for more war. Rarely, if ever, do conservatives consider whether or not there is anything inherently immoral about war, or if there are moral restrictions those who wage it.
To understand the moral limits of war, we can observe what restrictions there are on the behavior of individuals. Clearly there are moral (and legal) prohibitions on killing other people, except in self defense. But even in self defense, there are restrictions on our actions.
If I am attacked by someone, I am morally permitted to use force against him. I am not, however, permitted to use force against him and anyone else who happens to be in his general vicinity. Should an attacker run into a crowd, I have no moral justification to fire wildly into it, risking the lives of people who have not attacked me in the hope of hitting someone who has.
Understanding this, we must ask if governments operate outside of the moral boundaries that hem in individuals. The answer, of course, is no. A government, a mere collection of individuals, has no greater authority to kill innocent people than an individual does. This is true even when the government says it is acting in the interest of “national defense.”
Libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard summarized this point when he wrote “it is legitimate to use violence against criminals in defense of one’s rights of person and property; it is completely impermissible to violate the rights of other innocent people.”
In their current position on war, conservatives face a wide chasm between their policies and their principles. The innocent man, woman or child in a foreign country has exactly the same right to life as the unborn American baby. The killing of an innocent person “over there” is as great a moral abomination as is an abortion here. The defender of the government’s killing of innocent foreigners, then, is on the same moral plane as the pro-choice activist.
To deny this is to deny that individuals are created equal. For Christians, it is to deny that all people are God’s creation and bear his image. Defending the killing of innocent people requires conservatives to abandon their principled high ground on the sanctity of life.
In war, the rationalization away of principle becomes all too easy. Rothbard observed that in war, “Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest.”
Conservatives should ardently seek to avoid war, not only because it destroys innocent life but because it also causes pro-lifers to sell out their principles and compromise their morality.
War vs. Civilization
For the above reasons, traditional conservatives have effectively been antiwar. In its post-World War II renaissance, a central theme of conservatism was how war endangers civilization. As those conservatives saw it, a military victory was worthless if it violated the principles that it was fought for.
For conservative scholar Richard Weaver, World War II, which saw widespread Allied bombing of civilian populations, was an example of this kind of pyrrhic victory. Such behavior, Weaver observed, rejected the Western tradition of appropriate conduct between belligerents. Weaver wrote,
“…even the institution of war up to recent times had to make appropriate discriminations. There were those who were qualified to fight and those who were not; there were those who were liable to its dangers and losses and those who were exempt; there were things which men engaged in fighting might do and things they were forbidden to do.”
In Weaver’s eyes, the making of war on civilians was “so inimical to the foundations on which civilization is built that they cast into doubt the very possibility of recovery.” He found it “more than disturbing to think that the restraints which had been formed through religion and humanitarian liberalism proved too weak to stay the tide anywhere.”
The risk of obliterating humanity and morality led Russell Kirk to state that “there are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.”
In rejecting tradition and morality, Weaver warned that modern society was gambling with the future of Western Civilization, remarking, “A nation stooping to wage (total) war…abandons those discriminations and restraints which civilization slowly and painfully creates through patient example and exhortation. These creations are fragile under the best conditions. It is difficult to bring them into being, easy to shatter them, and they are not readily put back together again.”
To Weaver, “(War) has become a fire so hot that no container will hold it; it will melt anything, and the walls of no furnace are able to keep it within bound of any utility.”
Ultimately, conservatives believed that the way war is waged is at least as important as its outcome. Weaver wrote, “Even in warfare, and whether you get the best or the worst of it, you conduct yourself in such a way that civilization can go on. The real, the absolute prohibition, is against shattering the mold of civilization, which includes both you and your foe.”
Modern conservatives, with their unrestrained belligerence towards entire people groups, combatants and civilians alike, are very close to shattering the mold of civilization. And yet they still dare to sit in judgment on the violence of other cultures, completely oblivious to the inhumanity of their own.
The opinions of the post-war conservatives, whose conservatism was richer and more principled than whatever is masquerading under that moniker today, are hard medicine for modern conservatives, particularly those who incessantly warn that immigrants and foreign radicals want to destroy Western Civilization. Perhaps they do, but imagine their disappointment when they get here and realize that the task is already accomplished.
Ironically, it was a job Americans were willing to do.
Bacevich has written of previous generations that “…in those days there existed…a lively awareness that war is inherently poisonous, giving rise to all sorts of problematic consequences…” But he correctly observes that, for the modern American right, this awareness has evaporated.
And tragically so, for as Kauffman has said, “War effaces and perverts everything that traditionalist conservatives profess. Every (single) thing, from motherhood to the country church. And yet (modern) conservatives…revere war above all other values. It trumps the First Amendment; it razes the home; it decks the decalogue. And they don’t care.”
Well, it’s time conservatives care again. The knee jerk rejections of non-interventionism need to stop. The ugliness of war needs to be recognized. Failure to do so not only rejects traditional conservatism, it threatens to destroy it completely. And if tradition isn’t a strong enough inducement to reconsider their opinions on war, then today’s conservatives are entirely undeserving of the label.
Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click herefor the full list of articles.