USE FOR HISTORY
column is called The Old Cause because I think of it as a place
to sketch out certain continuities between past and present. William
Appleman Williams once wrote that history is "a way of learning."
From our excursions into the past, "we return with a broader
awareness of the alternatives open to us and armed with a sharper
perceptiveness with which to make our choices." In this light,
history becomes a means of "breaking the chains of the past."
like to claim that all histories are
written for particular hermeneutic communities
and that, therefore, no general history
is possible or, apparently, desirable.
We must have a separate "history"
for every "two-bit gathering regardless
of [its] size" to steal a line
from Trevor Day. At this rate, we should
soon see history dissolve into biography
and there will be several billion histories
under the slogan "Every Sentient
Being Its Own Historian." Is this
the end of history?
HAVING 'ENDED,' IS STILL WITH US
alas, there remain some larger subjects
for the historian: the history of ideas,
political history, and economic history,
to name just the canonical ones. (See
of July 27, 1999.) There are probably
others. These do not go away, even if
they might well be viewed from manifold
points of view as favored by post-mods.
states incorporate numerous ethnic,
religious, and economic groupings, not
to mention the traditional two genders
(some claim there are additional ones),
there is still a role for political
sociology and political history. This
brings me to my topic, which is the
claim widely aired in the present crisis
that the modern, abstract, sovereign
state, having suffered heartbreaking
setbacks over the last three decades,
is suddenly "back," and is,
like the New Nixon, tanned, rested,
ALLEGED 'WITHERING-AWAY' OF THE STATE
two great nonevents of the 20th
century were the laissez faire economic
policy of Republican Presidents in the
1920s and pursuit, by the same men,
of "isolationism" in foreign
affairs. Great and grave consequences
are said to have come from these errors,
and whole readings of 20th-century
US history ride on those sad outcomes.
The main problem is that these events
fiscal policy, mild corporatism, and
other interventions hardly constituted
laissez faire liberalism, even if they
appear as such relative to the runaway
corporatism and bureaucratic state-building
of the New Dealers. In the same way,
the Republicans' unilateral imperialism
in Latin America and their commitment
to the Open
Door in China was hardly a policy
of principled nonintervention. In the
end, Hoover (unlike his successor) chose
to not risk war with Japan over the
may need to add a third legend to our
list: the legend that states withered
away, from about 1979, under regimes
ideologically driven by terrible right-wing
"neo-liberalism," i.e., laissez
faire liberalism. Mrs. Thatcher in Britain,
and Reagan and Bush in America, were
said to have crippled and dismantled
poor old Big Government, which after
all, only wanted to help, and which
had come into being to right the wrongs
of capitalism. The press and academia
thrived on spreading this fable, but
it might be mentioned that the British
Left was far more vicious in making
Thatcher, it is said, broke the power
of trade union syndicalism in the UK
and privatized a few utilities. Reagan
abolished a few microscopic programs,
moved others around, went on a "defense"
spending spree, and fiddled with a few
marginal tax rates. All the while, government
grew and grew and grew. Can anyone name
an important department which was actually
abolished? Can anyone point to any "cut"
in spending under the Reagan Revolution
which was not merely a slight reduction
of a projected increase?
may be said that economies grew faster
than governments in the period in question.
That hardly constitutes a "withering-away"
of states, unless there is some rule
whereby states must always grow proportionately
with, or faster than, the economies
over which they claim sway. I grant
there is a class of people academics,
journalists, special corporate interests
for whom government could never be
big enough. From their standpoint it
might seem that governments have shrunk
dramatically over the past twenty years.
And yet they grew.
friends of statism might be made to
concede that governments held their
own, and indeed grew over the past two
decades, but they will say that states
took a terrible ideological beating.
Laissez faire ideologues and doctrinaires,
aided and abetted by populist demagogues,
thwacked the state so hard with their
right-wing hobbyhorses that the poor
institution got no respect. And that
horrible turn of events might have led
in time to actual, tangible, empirically
demonstrable reductions in state programs,
as against reductions in projected rates
an evil could not be allowed to stand.
Hence the outpouring of state-worshipping
hosannas in the present crisis. Only
the state can protect us from the
terrorists not named in the Congressional
John Doe warrant issued after September
11. Only a further surrender of liberties
and property will make us safe the
previous surrenders having somehow failed
to accomplish that happy outcome. Yet
the state with all its mighty existing
powers, with its legions and galleys
scattered across the globe manifestly
did not protect anyone from the monstrous
crimes that a few handguns in the possession
of airline pilots and crew might have
FAILURE SHOWS NEED FOR MORE STATISM
us survey this new literary form
the "state is back" essay.
According to Robert L. Bartley, writing
in the War, sorry, Wall Street
Journal of September 24, "isolationism"
is dead, dead, dead. After a cook's
tour of Pearl Harbor, World War II,
and a few asides regarding the poor
fools who doubted the rightness of World
War I, Bartley leads us through the
vale of tears of the 1970s, when moral
doubt set in and Congress, unaccountably,
sought to interfere with Presidents'
prerogatives in foreign affairs. A sad
time it was, when Congress caused
the Iran-Contra scandal.
now, sadder but wiser like chastened
former "isolationists" on
December 8, 1941, we may all grasp the
need for a new foreign policy, which,
oddly, is just like the one we already
had, except that there will be even
more of it. Or as Bartley puts it, "Have
the events of the last 10 days ended
a running debate, and crystallized a
new consensus about America and its
role in the world?" One doesn't
know, of course, but the events do seem
to have emboldened those who never liked
having a debate in the first place.
the Washington Post of September
26, Jim Hoagland writes of "Government's
Comeback." He paints a particularly
vivid picture of anti-political Americans
on a state-wrecking spree. Misled by
market ideologues and rising prosperity,
Americans ceased to put the poor old
state in its proper sovereign place.
such foolishness ended on September
11. Now, like frightened children we
shall turn to our great Protector and,
I suppose, be protected. Will we be
allowed to debate our bedtime?
we shall "have to return government
to the center of American life, not
whittle away further at its powers and
funding." Practical questions alone
remain. Will Tom Ridge be as all-seeing
and all-knowing as the situation demands?
Will the state rise to the heights it
scaled in World War II? Or to put it
in Hoagland's words, will we "accept
a rebirth of some aspects of the national
When the Hell was it ever gone?
the same theme, Tony Blankley, writing
in The Washington Times on September
26, wants us to "Trade
Civil Liberties for Better Security."
This seems very unappealing. Give up
freedoms? We already gave at the office
we gave some up last year, the year
before that, and during the whole mind-numbing
forty odd years of the overblown Cold
War. "We're fresh out, old chap,"
we say, slamming the door in the impertinent
will never do. In the new situation,
says Blankley, "every congressman,
senator and citizen must discard everything
they thought they believed about civil
liberties. We all have a moral obligation
to think for ourselves and act for the
common good." Well, this may not
be a big change for Congress; I don't
know how much they were thinking about
civil liberties anyway. As for the people,
we Americans are famous for reinventing
ourselves, so I'm sure we can reprogram
our thinking about such minor affairs
as the first ten amendments to the....
whatever it was.
the by now predictable appeal from bad
precedent to bad proposal, Blankley
recounts how poor Abe Lincoln took up
suspending habeas corpus to save the
union. This can be done again, he says,
but with a sort of modern-day sunset
provision. Congress should enact a one-year
suspension, renewable, of course, and
with it a law which would "construe
the Fourth Amendment protection from
unreasonable searches and seizures to
mean that any search or seizure is reasonable
in our government's efforts to prevent
so, though I hate to see Congress get
into the construing business,
when the Courts have already made such
a hash of it. If Congress can
pass such a law, why bother having a
written Constitution to start with?
It's decorative, I suppose, but other
than that.... Such measures are reasonable,
though, for Mr. Blankley, since "We
are currently trusting Mr. Bush with
our collective lives. I, for one, readily
trust him with my liberty also."
Well, I think Mr. Bush isn't such a
bad fellow, but an epidemic of trust
is not the proper foundation for republican
forms of government. If that is taken
to be an argument against republican
government in favor of what, empire?
then perhaps we do need to reopen
that "debate" about foreign
policy to which Mr. Bartley just barred
the door. Republic or Empire? It has
a real ring to it.
Mr. Blankley inquires further into these
things, he might discover that many
people in the 1860s and even today
have found in Mr. Lincoln's union-saving
methods an indictment of Lincoln, rather
than heroic precedent to which to appeal.
As for the new cabinet-level Office
of Sicherheit, that was in the
works some time back (see the article
by Jeff Greenspan, "What
Is Homeland Security,").
It will be time enough to think about
"giving up" some freedoms,
temporarily or not, once we have conducted
a thorough study of how many we actually
have remaining to us after the awful
20th century, and what the
exact content of those may be.
COALITION TO END COALITIONS
ended on September 11. It is World War
II. It is 1861. Go thou and do likewise.
Such is the accumulated wisdom of the
relative Left (Washington Post),
Center (Wall Street Journal),
and Right (Washington Times).
One begins to wonder if we need more
protection from the press than from
the terrorists. As for the notion that
governments are successful protectors
of first or last resort, readers might
look at Hans-Hermann
Hoppe's new book, Democracy:
The God That Failed.