The Sun is Not Setting II: Unfurl the Old Banners …

In this earlier post, I should have linked to this piece by Fareed Zakaria, which is the first chapter of his new book. It is very much worth reading.

I like this Zakaria piece because he seems to be in broad agreement with me. Ha. We all like it when that happens. Also, his little capsule summary of the British Empire as our predecessor is nicely done. However, as I have complained to anyone who will listen, even Zakaria fails to understand how different the British Empire was from all its land-based predecessors. The one current writer to who “gets it” on this issue is Walter Russell Mead. Mead, in his excellent recent book God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World discusses the “maritime order” founded in recent centuries by the Dutch, then handed off to the British, then the Trident was passed to the USA. This is exactly correct.

Incidentally, I am currently reading a truly ancient book An Experiment in World Order, by Paul McGuire, published in 1948. It was referenced by Jerry Pournelle in response to the Zakaria article. It is the best explanation I have yet read of what the British Empire was and how it actually worked. (I notice that Amazon has no used copies anymore. Mr. Pournelle’s post seems to have led to the few copies being snapped-up. There are still some available from Bookfinder.)

My main objection to Zakaria is his conclusion in this chapter. He expresses a wrongheaded belief that the USA’s main problem is its outdated and ramshackle political framework (so he says) which prevents the policy consensus of all the smart people from being expeditiously enacted into law.

The problem today is that the U.S. political system seems to have lost its ability to fix its ailments. …. Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the United States onto a far more stable footing. A set of sensible reforms could be enacted tomorrow to trim wasteful spending and subsidies, increase savings, expand training in science and technology, secure pensions, create a workable immigration process, and achieve significant efficiencies in the use of energy. Policy experts do not have wide disagreements on most of these issues, and none of the proposed measures would require sacrifices reminiscent of wartime hardship, only modest adjustments of existing arrangements. And yet, because of politics, they appear impossible. The U.S. political system has lost the ability to accept some pain now for great gain later on.


As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. What was an antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with (now about 225 years old) has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia — politics as theater — and very little substance, compromise, or action. A can-do country is now saddled with a do-nothing political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.

Progress on any major problem — health care, Social Security, tax reform — will require compromise from both sides. It requires a longer-term perspective. And that has become politically deadly. Those who advocate sensible solutions and compromise legislation find themselves being marginalized by their party’s leadership, losing funds from special-interest groups, and being constantly attacked by their “side” on television and radio. The system provides greater incentives to stand firm and go back and tell your team that you refused to bow to the enemy. It is great for fundraising, but it is terrible for governing.

(Emphasis added.) I disagree utterly.

The words “no f***ing way, Mr. Zakaria” come to mind, or even “where is my musket?”

Absolutely the last thing we need is for all the politicians to get together, come to an agreement, stop fighting and start “governing” in the fashion that “policy experts” have agreed on. This is the kind of the thing the Founders wanted to prevent, and they have had 225 years of pretty good success.

Our 18th century Constitution is not the problem, it is the solution. It is the only thing between us and bureaucratic tyranny, which is what Zakaria is advocating, though he probably does not think he is. Adam Smith said to be wary when two businessmen got together, they are conspiring against the public interest. He was right, too. How much worse when the political parties, that are supposed to be fighting each other, get together and decide they will cooperate in dividing the carcass that used to be known as the free citizenry of the United States. Sorry, no way. I don’t want them all to hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and agree to despoil us all of what little liberty and money we have left.

The thing we need to do to solve our many problems is not to let a bunch of experts tell a bunch of cooperative politicians how to tell the citizens of America, even more than they do now, how to run their affairs. A committee of experts is the last thing that should be running a country. William F. Buckley, God bless him, had it right. Far better to be governed by a random four hundred names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.

The solution to any of our problems is 180 degrees from what Zakaria is suggesting.

The solution is to get the Government the Hell out of the way, get its leprous fingers out of our wallets. The solution is to flail the damnable thing back into the corner where it belongs, make it do the things it is supposed to do and nothing else. National defense, law enforcement and a few other functions are more than it can do well as it is.

The solution is to get Uncle Sam the Hell out of the way, make him puke out the money he currently sucks out of the economy, and stand back and let the Billion-Footed Beast which is the American people get going with millions of work-arounds and clever solutions and nutty schemes which no one can even dream of from a desk in Washington, or Brussels, or Davos, or even Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On the enduring value of our Constitution, and the need to build on it and away from the mess we have created in its place, the only guy who I find myself agreeing with lately is Ron Paul.

Ron Paul cannot be the guy who leads into the land of Canaan. He is too idiosyncratic. And his supporters are too hostile to politics. They want a glorious defeat and ideological purity. But I am hoping Ron Paul may be a Barry Goldwater-figure for the growth of a revived small-l libertarian faction within the GOP. I disagree with him on a very important point: I believe in a more expansive use of American military power to preserve the global economic order we rely on for our economic wellbeing. Globalization does not occur spontaneously. It happens when there is a dominant navy, the Royal Navy, the the US Navy. I actually believe my view on this is in line with the Founders intentions more than Mr. Paul’s, but that is an argument for another day.

On most other things he sounds a lot like the Buckley-Goldwater-Kemp-Reagan conservatism I grew up with. We need more of that, and less of the Bush family Yankee patrician noblesse oblige (with or without a Texas accent) which goes in the guise of “compassionate conservatism” and a neo-Wilsonian view of international affairs. Ecrasez l’infame.

Time to reconfigure for Conservatism 2.0. Buckley’s conservatism, founded in 1955, has run its course. It’s peak was Reagan’s 49 state landslide in 1984, and its Indian Summer was the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. It’s greatest achievement was victory in the Cold War. It was a great run.

We will create the new conservatism for the 21st century by realizing and returning to the roots of our success, not by rejecting or cutting them off.

UPDATE: I am struck by the degree of hostility the mere mention of Ron Paul provokes. I have not paid much attention to him until reading his book, which is mostly very sound. So I have missed out on all the ruckus about him until now. I will have to post on the book, if possible. Maybe I will compare it to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 book The Conscience of a Conservative, which is kicking around here somewhere … .

21 thoughts on “The Sun is Not Setting II: Unfurl the Old Banners …”

  1. We will create the new conservatism for the 21st century by realizing and returning to the roots of our success, not by rejecting or cutting them off.

    Sounds great so far, Lex, so the next question would be “how, exactly?” There’s a wee bit of institutional entrenchment to unravel, like half the population receiving some form of government handout.

    It’s a serious question, but I realize not to be answered in a mere comment thread.

  2. Sam, we need to look back at what Buckley did starting in 1955.

    Back to basics.

    How exactly is the first question we need to start to answer.

    Suggestions are welcome.

  3. You are right, it isn’t a bug but a feature that there must be an overwhelming consensus before anything happens in the USA (at least at the Federal level).

    As to building a new movement – isn’t there a blueprint out there on how the original conservative movement was built – by later Justice White I think, when he was at the US Chamber of Commerce. Just remember it is a 50 year project.

  4. Actually there was an interesting article written by the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, on the Straits Times of Singapore last month. Lee speaks quite loudly that the US will still remain the leading force in international/global politics whether you want it or not, and not China.

    It may sound clinched had it not been noted for the significance of who said this. This is from the mouth of the very person who promotes the Asian values that were in vogue just a decade ago, and whose Singapore’s foreign policy has been not openly offending China.

    Apparently Mr Zakaria missed the bus.

  5. Mr. Zakaria seems to suffer from the memory of a golden age that never was in American politics.

    Absolutely the last thing we need is for all the politicians to get together, come to an agreement, stop fighting and start “governing” in the fashion that “policy experts” have agreed on.

    Isn’t this a little like, well, the Common Market EU?

  6. It happens when there is a dominant navy, the Royal Navy, the the US Navy. I actually believe my view on this is in line with the Founders intentions more than Mr. Paul’s, but that is an argument for another day.

    Even Thomas Jefferson called in the Marines to put down the Barbary pirates.. Freedom of the seas is an American national interest that must be maintained, but I’m thinking we need to find a way to get furriners to help pay for it.. Perhaps that’s what devaluing the currency does? Stop buying our dollars and we stop defending your access to the sea lanes…

  7. The point of a new Conservatism is something I have mentioned. The lack of ideas in the Democratic Party is reflected by the yearning for the return of Jack Kennedy and Camelot – to go back to a Golden Age. I have begun to think the same thing has happened to conservatives when I see them yearning for the next Reagan. The desire for the return of a hero, for the Golden Age means that you are running out of ideas for the future, and you better start thinking about where you want to go next; not where you want to get back to.

  8. The Democrats are unlikely to offer much help until they get over their neo-isolationist baggage. Republicans have succumbed to the temptations of incumbancy but got a rude awakening in 2006. We’ll see which party wakes up to the challenge first. Ron Paul was too idiosyncratic to offer much and his flirtations with a few nasties left me unwilling to take him seriously. I had my own thoughts on Zakaria last week.

  9. Oh Please. Why wait until you’re 2/3 through your piece to extol the virtues of Ron Paul. Ron Paul is a raging racist and a xenophobe and a notorious non-lateralist. His solutions are at best simplistic and at worst morally wrong.

    I wish you had flattered Ron Paul in your first sentence. I then could have saved my self several minutes of contiguous heart beats by hitting the “Back” button.

    Will there never come a day with Libertarians will grow a pair?

  10. The solution to many of our modern dilemmas lies in reform of the tax code. It is the source of the strength of the well-connected rats that subvert our constitution. Read about how to do it in “The Rats are in the Cheese,” or at

  11. “…Ron Paul is a raging racist and a xenophobe…”

    “…His solutions are at best simplistic and at worst morally wrong….”

    How about that.

    I am halfway through his book, and I am not seeing that at all.

    All I know about the guy is what I am reading in this book.

    He is pre-1955 Taft-style small-c conservative, from what I can see. Not a bad starting point.

    I think he is naive about what it would mean to withdraw the US military from the entire rest of the world. That is a major problem.

    But reimposing constitutional limitations on the Federal government is good idea.

  12. Let’s assume your views on every subject are correct. That tells me nothing about how to bring your opponents – who have the power to block your every move – over to your way of thinking. Energizing the base worked several times, but not in 2006. Now the other guy’s base is energized and you’re in a deep hole.

  13. Larry, what in blazes are you talking about?

    I am talking about a 25-50 year project, to build a New Model Conservative Coalition.

    I am not talking about the 2008 election.

    I have said repeatedly on this blog that 2008 is at best damage control. If Sen. McCain wins it will be a miracle. I prefer him to the others, though I do not ardently like him as a politician. But that is never the question. It is always the lesser bad. He is that by miles over either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton.

    Which opponents have what power to block every move in what chess game?

    Clarity, sir. Clarity, please.

    It is far too early to say whose base will be energized in November.

    Events, dear boy, events.

    It is a long way until the election.

  14. Great post. I agree completely with your view of what needs to be done, and your assessment of Ron Paul.

    Although at first glance Ron Paul seems to be a great candidate, he has no awareness of how civilization is actually preserved. The oil market isn’t precisely a free market either. Paul seems utterly ignorant of Islam, nor does he seem to be aware of the place of the United States in Western civilization. An effective military needs to have an active presence worldwide.

    However much I like the romantic image of citizen militias, I think that peculiar American romance is an (understandable) idiosyncracy of being founded by rebels on the outskirts of a large empire of liberty, protected by geography and distance. The world today is very different from the 18th century, and especially in the area of national defense this requires a different policy. What exactly this policy should be I am not sure, but neither McCain’s nor Ron Paul’s approaches seem sustainable. We can easily afford the military we have now. Instead of arguing for trading our guns for more butter at home, as Ron Paul has disingenuously implied during his campaign (not very “libertarian” to me), and constantly sending anti-military messages, a more mature approach is needed that tries to combine the safeguarding of individual liberty at home and a hawkish, vigilant and powerful military at strategic locations throughout the world.

    We don’t face a choice between:

    1) An evil fascist Empire.

    2) The Republic of 1789.

    Neither one of those exists nor can exist at present. Instead, what we face is an untamable big government in possession of an ill-directed large military (comprised of the finest of what the West has to offer), torn between nation building, “democracy” building (who knew we were a democracy?), humanitarian goals, securing oil supplies, eliminating Islamic criminals, and facing large, growing and unpredictable militaries like China’s, with lack of support for the various goals depending on which party happens to be in power every 4 years. Not a very effective way of operating.

    With oil prices at $120, neither the Ummah nor China very friendly inclined towards the United States, a Europe self-destructing faster than during the world wars, socialism, racial and cultural divisions ever-increasing at home, and a conservatism completely lost after the big government, pro-immigration experiments of Bush, the time seems ripe for the galvanization of a new conservative movement.

  15. Thanks for the clarification! The opponents are the Congress, which has stomped on or ignored every move in a conservative direction for years. For all his faults, Bush made lots of good proposals that never got as far as a Congressional hearing.

    My time horizon is definitely less than 50 years. I would hope that the renaissance won’t take quite so long, although it took about that long after the Roosevelt ascension to turn the ship.

    By talking about government as “leprous”, you shut down the communication your long-term project requires. Convincing people requires something very different – you have to find specific things that people care about and show them yours is the better way. Conservatives aren’t doing that well right now. Vouchers keep getting defeated in referenda and in legislatures. HSA’s haven’t really taken off like they should. Social Security reforms can’t even get on the table. Etc. It might even be good for conservatism if liberals take over for awhile and let the country see what that’s like.

    One thing (the only thing, really) that I like about your favorite Congressman is that he’s willing to think big about the future. Most politicians have no thoughts past the next election.

  16. I was with you until you started extolling the wisdom of Ron Paul. Any politician who walks around with a literal copy of the Constitution in his pocket is a showboating jackass, and I don’t need to read his sodding book to know any more about his gold-standard-promoting reactionism. You’re reading his book? Well horay for you. Why is it that so many autodidacts are cranks? Because they find it easy to confuse reading with understanding, and books with wisdom.

    Put down the book and go for a walk, Lex. Then go looking for a politician who’s more of a workhorse and less of a aspirational showpony.

    And if you still have time to read didactic campaign tracts, come on up here to Pennsylvania where our highways are still littered with Ron Paul signs.

  17. As a Ron Paul for President donor and voter … in 1988, I really like his mostly L-libertarina positions. But I agree that, in today’s world, the USA needs to shoulder the burden of defending the Free World. Because we can, and we’re willing to. But we should be reducing our military in Germany & Europe, and laughing at their impotence. They couldn’t even stop the Srbrenica massacre.

    Vouchers are crucial — which means a LOT more focus on local school boards and mayor races. Why isn’t that happening? Not glamorous enough. Just as Keynes vs. Mises in the 30s had Keynes winning because of an “active gov’t”, to solve problems, small-gov’t folk need to be solving problems outside of the gov’t.

    Like: 50% tax credits (not deductions) for NGOs — and supporting those NGOs in providing social services.

    Perhaps a more honest “gov’t as insurance” social contract, with explicit costs and benefits per year. I just got my Social Security info for this year, discussing how benefits have been changed by Congress and can change again. While this is good, it’s also motivating folks to make sure SS doesn’t give less benefits, altho it states that by 2041 the tax collected will only be 75% of benefits paid out.

    The rational voters understand that they’re not going to change the system — so they try to game it to give themselves more benefits. How to allow voters to get more benefits with less gov’t, and have those policies get the credit for more benefits, is the tough issue.

    Better media, printed. Why aren’t there new pro-conservative newspapers trying to compete with the liberal-big gov’t biased money losers of today?

    Changing the idea of gov’t. And the 1776 great idea, shouldn’t be used to stop experimentation with other bold changes (like Tax Loans — the gov’t gives you money today for education, which you repay with taxes plus a surtax) that increase the important free market principle: the user who benefits, pays (or at least pays more than the non-users).

    Libs like to say “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” — but everybody has been to a lunch they didn’t have to pay for. Which counts as free to me.

    Libs need to convince Christians to be more anti-gov’t, while still being supportive of the poor.

  18. “… a politician who’s more of a workhorse and less of a aspirational showpony.”

    Show him to me and I’ll vote for him.

  19. From “The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism”:

    As the United States advances toward socialism by a series of gradual, halting steps, it is not the liberals or the socialists but rather the conservatives who bear the greatest guilt for dragging America down the road to statism. When they are out of power, conservatives often claim to stand for private property, limited government, and capitalism (thereby serving as a brake against the ambitions of the Left), but when they are in power they have a proven record of hastening our descent into socialism (which is fueled by the mutual desires of the Left). Conservatives may posture as supporters of individual rights, limited government, and capitalism; but, in reality, they are morally opposed to these values, and their history is one of actively betraying them.

  20. And one more:

    Every time Democrats and liberals launch a moral counterattack against the “mean-spiritedness” of even the most modest conservative reforms, Republicans cower, turn, then flee and surrender the moral high ground. When faced with the charge repeated time and again that they represent big business, the rich, and the “greedy”—and that their “cold-hearted” policies hurt poor women, children, and the elderly—Republican resolve collapses.

    The process typically works like this. Day one: Republicans denounce, with nervous indignation, the growth of welfare and regulations. Day two: They concede that people in need have a right to government assistance. Day three: They propose to save particular welfare programs through pragmatic reform. Day four: They shake hands with their Democratic partners and declare that a new era of bipartisanship and consensus has finally arrived.

    What the mandarins of the conservative establishment do not and cannot understand, given their philosophy, is that conservatives—to the extent that they ever had any interest in defending individual rights and limited government—lost the fight because they never engaged the enemy with the only kind of weapon that could win: a moral argument against the claim that those in “need” have a moral claim on one’s life, liberty, and property. More importantly, mainstream conservatives have never made a philosophic argument for individual rights, limited government, and capitalism on explicitly moral grounds. Ultimately, they are embarrassed by, and have always worked very hard to hide, the fact that capitalism can only be justified if each and every man has a moral right to live and work for his own sake and not as a sacrificial beast of burden to the “needs” of society.

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