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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Dead Right

David Frum

1 1995
Volume 1, Number 1


The Conscience Of A Canadian

Spring 1995

DEAD RIGHT
David Frum
Basic Books, 1994, x + 230 pgs.

David Frum has identified a central problem affecting much of the American Right. But because he himself supports the Leviathan State to a greater extent than some of those he so readily condemns, he can offer nothing in the way of a solution. For the one group that does offer a way out, Frum has nothing but contempt and calumny.

The difficulty with the Right which Frum has trenchantly identified is this: during the Reagan administration, conservatives reneged on their commitment to scaling-down, if not eliminating altogether, the welfare state. "About morality and nationality, conservatives have a lot to say. But their fervor for eliminating the progressive income tax and the redistribution of wealth via Washington has cooled when it has not disappeared altogether." (p. 2)

Programs such as Social Security and Medicare have behind them powerful constituencies. Much better then, for the politician who wishes to keep office to shift to other issues. For awhile, the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer, Jude Wanniski, and Paul Craig Roberts offered an escape. By reducing federal tax rates, much of the crushing burden imposed by the government would be lifted; but miraculously, revenues would not fall, thus averting the distasteful assault on the welfare state. The plan, which seemed to promise something-for-nothing, had behind it a simple rationale-people able to keep a greater share of their income will be more productive and thus generate increased tax revenue. Frum himself views the supply-side remedy with favor - "If federal spending had risen no faster than inflation between 1979 and 1984, the United States could have spent every dollar it did on defense and enjoyed all the Reagan tax cuts and would have still run a federal budget surplus big enough to pay either for the repeal of the corporate income tax or a one-third cut in everyone's Social Security payroll taxes." (p. 32; see also, pp. 208-209, n=l for supporting data.)

But salvation did not come from this corner Federal spending continued to rise, and the much vaunted Reagan revolution drastically increased the budget deficit. No major conservative group, Frum avers was willing to struggle for the classic rightist program of limited government. (As we shall soon see, it is just here that Frum's analysis starts to misfire.) Absent their traditional program, what were conservative to do? Frum distinguishes three principal factions, each of which he finds unsatisfactory; hence the "dead right" of his title.

The first two groups may be dismissed quickly from consideration. The optimists, epitomized by Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, maintain that the application of a few supposedly market notions, such as enterprise zones and vouchers will cure the major social ills of America Frum treats the optimists' tinkering with commendable skepticism their programs are in point-of-fact inimical to the free market Frum handles the issue of vouches particularly well: "But with school choice. . . . the optimistic conservatives reached the deal end in their ideology. In the modern regulatory state, there is no escape from disagreement over right and wrong by retreating from the public to the private sphere - the exits are all cut off." (p. 93) Murray Rothbard and others among the paleo alliance made this point some time ago, but Frum does not acknowledge them. Nevertheless, he is perfectly on target: schools accepting vouchers would be fully subject to federal regulation.

Frum advances some effective criticism of his second faction, the moralists. The members of this group do not place primary stress on the free market. Instead, they see the loss of virtuous habits of behavior as the main cause of contemporary social problems. They propose a very activist federal government, with the prime mission of moral education of the populace. As Frum notes, the plans for educational reform of Charles Finn, a leading moralist, "would grant the central political authorities unprecedented control over the character formation of the America public," such measures fly in the face anything remotely resembling a right wing policy; besides the recent recipients of office in the federal government hardly seem fitted to be moral exemplars. So far, Frum's argument has seemed convincing but it is just at this point that doubt arises. When Tom Fleming, the editor of Chronicles called Finn's plan "total education for the total state" one would expect Frum's enthusiastic agreement. Instead, he dismisses the remark as "demented" (p. 115) How can he fail to see that Fleming's comment is on precisely the same lines as his own analysis of Finn's scheme?

Frum's comment exposes a serious blind spot in his view of the contemporary Right. A peculiar animus against the paleoconservatives disfigures his treatment of them. His main charge against them is that they too betray the free market and limited government. Pat Buchanan and Sam Francis, for instance, wish to restrict immigration and look upon free trade with less that complete favor. Do not their plans require a powerful state? Further, the nationalism of the paleos is but a variant of the multiculturalism against which they often fulminate. Like their opponents, they take race as primary. "The nationalists may take their descent, as they say, from the oldest strain of American conservatism. At the same time, however, they are truly multiculturalism's children" (p. 158).

Frum's bitter indictment has little substance. Why does control of immigration require a powerful state? Adequately patrolled borders seem enough. To see Buchanan's vigorous patriotism as part of the "necessary connection between nationalism and statism" (p. 141) strikes one as overdrawn, all the more so as Frum himself acknowledges the increasingly heavy costs of welfare programs for immigrants (p. 144) Much of paleoconservative opposition to free trade consists of criticism of measures such as NAFTA and GATT, attempts to bring the United States' economy under the control of foreign powers.

In his attempt to smear the paleos as statists, he ignores a glaringly obvious point. The Chronicles group, and Pat Buchanan as well, have in recent years been heavily influenced by the free market beliefs of Murray Rothbard. Frum ranges far afield in coming up with odd parallels with the paleos, including Leopold Maxse and Charles Maurras, but he does not think worthy of mention that his alleged "statists" were close allies of the foremost American advocate of individual liberty.

Frum has no discussion of Rothbard's views at all he is merely dismissed for "extreme 1; bartarianism and vilified for a critical remark about Martin Luther King (p. 148). Do we not have here an odd circumstance? Frum lambastes the entire American Right for abandoning the free market but studiously avoids discussion of a key rightist whose devotion to the free market far surpassed Frum's. Our author appears uninterested in evidence that contravenes his thesis.

Equally questionable is Frum's strange assimilation of the paleos and multiculturalists. He states "Buchanan, Fleming, Francis, Rockwell, Rothbard and their circle believe: what Donna Shalala and David Dinkins and Henry Louis Gates believe - that America. . . .is - or is coming to be characterized by a `diversity' that cannot be reduced to a common Americanism of recognizably English origin." (p. 148)

Taken just as it stand Frum's statement is trivial. Presumably any sane person, not just the eight mentioned by Frum, will recognize that America is now ethnically diverse: who would deny it? But the paleos and multiculturalists hardly adopt the same attitude to this diversity. By similar reasoning, one could "argue" that supporters of capitalism and socialism really hold identical beliefs, since both share an interest in the economy.

Perhaps what Frum his in mind is that the paleos, like their multiculturalist opponents, elevate race to greater importance than he considers acceptable. But it hardly follows that the paleos have taken over their emphasis on race from their opponents. Frum's claim begs the question against them; paleos such as Francis maintain that their concern with ethnic heritage is true to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. And even if the paleos' views did mirror those of the multiculturalists, this would not show them mistaken.

In his zeal to condemn the hated paleos, Frum leaves himself open to attack. He has condemned nearly every major figure on the Right as an advocate of big government. But Frum himself ardently supports a militaristic and warmongering state. Although he recognizes that many neoconservatives engaged in "excessive rhetoric about Third World Democracy" (p. 152), he mocks opposition to the 1990 Gulf War. The unwillingness of paleos to endorse a war that, in the event, achieved nothing at all puts Frum in mind of the "reckless folly of America First" in the years before World War II (p. 154)

Here we have a striking paradox. Frum poses as the great champion of the free market and a limited state. Yet he enthusiastically supports the war that led to an unprecedented expansion of the state. The arguments of the America First movement against intervention receive no consideration: how much easier to condemn its members as lunatics! And Frum's statism is by no means confined to the foreign policy front. Do not civil rights laws require close monitoring of virtually all business transactions and private affairs by a powerful state? Frum shows himself well aware that civil rights laws represent "an enormous expansion of the coercive power of the state," (p. 63) but he does not condemn them. Their intrusiveness it appears, must be balanced against the perils of "majoritarian morality." The professed anti-statist Frum appears anxious to call in the Thought Police to deal with those insufficiently enamored of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frum laces his book with a wide array of scholarly allusion, but his comments do not always inspire confidence. He rightly notes that John Stuart Mill wished to protect individuals from both intrusive government and social conformity. But he thinks that to do this poses a dilemma that Mill, among others, found unsolvable; "he ended his days a socialist" (p. 162). But Mill did not regard protecting people from both as a dilemma; on the contrary, he thought that the task could be achieved though the principles he advanced in On Liberty (1859). These he never abandoned; his cooperative brand of socialism most certainty did not mean that Mill thought big government necessary to cope with social tyranny. Frum, in his bizarre comparison of Pat Buchanan with Charles Maurras, introduces the latter as a "nineteenth-century authoritarian" (p. 151). Maurras was principally a twentieth- century figure; but I suppose it would be too much to expect precision in a book of this sort.


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