On Conservative Radicalism
“What will he do, now that the war is won?” King George III asked the American painter Benjamin West.
“Oh,” West replied, “they say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” the king said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Of course, the British sovereign spoke of George Washington and, as historian H.W. Crocker III reminds us in Don’t Tread on Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, From Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting, returning to his farm is “precisely what Washington did.”
The crux of the king’s comment is that it would take extraordinary restraint to choose an ordinary life when the seeds of power had just begun germinating in America, and he alone stood most capable of guiding the direction of the sprouting shoots. He could be anointed King of the Americas, forge his own empire, and shape that empire and the men within it for the rest of his life and beyond.
Mankind has few innate desires that it longs to satiate more than the lust for such power, and pursuing any contrary path, as the king inferred, would truly make Washington a “radical” among our species.
And when the time came, he gave his executive power away willingly. In his farewell speech in 1796, Washington humbly addressed the American people by saying, “I had constantly hoped, that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with my motives… to return to that retirement, from which I had been reluctantly drawn.” He went on, “I rejoice… whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that… you will not disapprove of my determination to retire.”
This was a crucial moment in our nation’s history. Washington’s early act of abdication embodied the principle which was to guarantee our liberty -- that is, decentralized power. Power is, by our Founders’ design, largely limited to citizens and their representatives, not monarchical rulers or an authoritarian state apparatus. This power is leased from citizen to municipality, municipality to state government, state government to federal government -- and not the other way around.
However,the mechanisms inscribed in the Constitution which safeguard those righteous principles have not been safe from attack by power-hungry elements which persistently seek to reconstruct the federal government as an omnipresent central authority.
The impetus of such nefarious men and factions (and incidentally, the reason for their success) is rooted in mankind’s frailty. Liberty, as Lord Acton describes it, “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” “In every age,” he goes on, “its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power and the poor man’s craving for food.” This dichotomy that he describes creates a natural order where “the perpetual struggle for existence, deprivingmen of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned.”
As such, to buck this natural inclination among men to seize power at any cost or to give their liberty away willingly for pottage (or food stamps, to use a modern example) is indeed radical. It is for this reason that Acton noted, over a century ago: “At all times, sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities.”
This creates an interesting question as to the modern understanding of two specific words routinely bandied about by our political elite and the media.
“Radical” is a word that is often regarded with a negative connotation when used, without consideration to the values that the word might represent in individual circumstances. But again, our Founders’ efforts to decentralize power rather than consolidate it was clearly “radical”in historical context. As King George recognized, the great majority of men would do other than what Washington did. This seems to contradict the popular understanding of the word “democracy,” however. “Democratic” and“democracy” are words with infinitely positive currency, used as a suggestion that a majority consensus automatically confers merit,alsooften without consideration to the values represented in individual circumstances.
The point is, if we take King George’s and Lord Acton’s comments at face value, and assume that repressing a lust to consolidate power is a radical act which has been historically undertaken only by bold “minorities,” then we can safely conclude that a pure democracy can often be at irreconcilable odds with the radical idea of liberty -- because the majority of men have throughout history opted for either power or the security offered by a powerful benefactor, not the risks and possibilities that come with liberty.
This is not to suggest that the majority is always wrong, or that the minority is always right. Rather, it simply asserts why we, as human beings, would do well to look beyond such base considerations in efforts to discern what is right, and more importantly, what is dangerous and wrong. We should be capable of operating beyond our programming which causes us to recoil at what is deemed “radical” or causes us to simply accept the will of a majority “consensus.” And we should know well that such descriptions as “radical” and “consensus” are often employed as canned propaganda efforts by the hucksters peddling pottage in hopes that we relinquish our treasured liberty.
Democrats, particularly but not singularly, have adopted a political platform comprised of nothing more than this manipulative historical formula. Conservatives are branded as “radicals” for dissenting against a status quo which demands the acceptance of the federal government monolith that has been ever-expanding since at least the early part of the twentieth century. And they fall ever desperately back into the bastion of “consensus,” trumpeting that the majority of Americans favor the continued expansion of federal authority in the energy, transportation, finance, and healthcare industries, to name just a few.
This should illuminate the truth of our current circumstances. Americans who espouse individual liberty and states’ right to self-determination are indeed radicals, in the truest definition we can apply. And we, like our historical forebears, are besetby natural enemies -- ignorance and superstition (particularly about the “necessity” of centralized planning), lust for conquest and the love of ease, the strong man’s craving for power and the poor man’s craving for food. The executive and judicial bodies currently act as instruments which thwart freedom, as both issue edicts outside of their jurisdictions prescribed by the Constitution. And worst of all, the legislature, the body which is truly tasked with lawmaking, is comprised not of citizen representatives in a classical sense, but of career politicians cut from the same cloth of power-mongers.
So to see the likes of conservative and/or libertarian upstarts Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Mike Lee being attacked by the Democratic and Republican establishments alike for an agenda which would decentralize power, and thereby return power to states and the individual as our Founders intended, should not be surprising. The decentralization of power facilitates the reduction in absolute power “exercised by man over man,” as Hayek notes in The Road to Serfdom. “There is,” he writes, “in a competitive society, nobody who can exercise even a fraction of the power which a socialist planning board will possess.” And we have seen what such bureaucratic planning agencies have wrought. The squandering of our private wealth, the coercion of behavior and habits, the management of the food our children eat, the diminution of our general rights to privacy, and even the systemic punishment of political opponents by the government enforcement arm we call the IRS.
These are egregious affronts to liberty. Whether a majority would favor any of that is irrelevant, as is the consideration of whether opposition to any of that is “radical.”
So do not be disheartened when our would-be rulers and their media lapdogs label you a “radical conservative,” as they will do repeatedly in the coming months, for demanding a balanced budget, or the repeal of ObamaCare, or the observance of our constitutional rights to free speech, worship, privacy, and self-preservation via firearms.
Indeed, we are clearly the radicals among our peers, as Washington was a radical among his. That is not something of which we should be ashamed, but something of which we should be proud.