Why should advocates of limited government support a non-interventionist foreign policy?
This web site was founded some 20 years ago by libertarians perplexed and disturbed at the sight of ever-expanding government power over every aspect of our lives. Why, when government expansion has been proved again and again to be detrimental to society, has its growth continued and even escalated? Indeed, I asked this question in the first sentence of my 1991 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [second edition 2008]: “After a decade in power,” I wrote, as the Reagan era ended, “why has the conservative movement failed to make a dent in the growth of big government?” The revered Reagan, whose sacred memory is ritually invoked by Republicans – even by libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul – actually increased the size and scope of the federal government, and expenditures went through the roof. There was little consolation to be found in the fact that the rate of increase merely slowed.
David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who tried to make some inroads on the Leviathan State, fingered the cause of Reagan’s failure in the cold war ideology that was one of the central props of the Reaganite coalition. In his brilliant book, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, Stockman identified the fly in the conservative ointment:
“Within days of Reagan’s taking office, the White House made a historically devastating mistake by signing over to the Pentagon a blank check known as the ‘7 percent real growth top line.’ This massive injection of fiscal firepower nearly tripled the defense budget from $140 billion to $370 billion within just six years. More importantly, it fueled powerful expansionist impulses throughout the military-industrial complex at exactly the wrong time in history.”
This “riotous expansion of the Warfare State,” says Stockman, greatly escalated the hideous deformation of American capitalism, but it didn’t start with Reagan. The process began with World War I and the creation of the Federal Reserve: add to this the New Deal and World War II, followed by the cold war, and the floodgates were opened. The fiscal requirements of a foreign policy of endless conflict stoked the engine of big government and eventually succeeded in displacing the real economy, catapulting the Federal Reserve into its current role as the all-powerful central planner and enabling the establishment of a system of crony (i.e. politicized) capitalism.
In modern times, the “right” side of the political spectrum has stood for smaller government, at least in theory: in practice, however, it is quite a different story. The expansion of government power under Reagan was preceded and made possible by a crucial concession made by conservatives: that the prosecution of the cold war made necessary the indefinite postponement of their small government agenda.
As William F. Buckley, Jr., put it in a 1952 article for Commonweal, just as the cold war was dawning: “[W]e have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” What this meant was that ostensible conservatives were bound to support “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,” as well as “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.”
With the collapse of Communism, and the end of the cold war, the Buckley Doctrine remained in full force. The conservatives’original conception of limited government had, by this time, been thrown overboard and largely forgotten – or, if remembered, was invoked only when it was deemed necessary to cut back on the “social safety net,” so that interest groups more powerful than unwed mothers could retain their government subsidies.