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The danger to the state

Commentary | The fourth column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

Conservatives have long understood the danger of the state, the danger that an overly powerful government will destroy liberty. But the next conservatism must also face a different problem: the danger to the state. If the 21st century develops the way some thoughtful people believe it will, it will see the decline and, in some cases, the disappearance of the state itself.

Some conservatives, or more precisely some libertarians, might respond, "Hurray." I have to disagree. So long as the state is limited in its power (more limited than our federal government is now, but not more than the Founding Fathers intended it to be), it is a good thing. Before the state arose in the 15th century, life was, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short. The state arose to bring basic order and safety of persons and property. As a conservative, I think those are good things.

Perhaps the most perceptive writer about the state is the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld. In his book The Rise and Decline of the State, he argues that the state has gone through three historical stages. It arose to bring order, which it did. But beginning with the French Revolution and the development of abstract nationalism, the state tried to become a god, to which citizens owed and should sacrifice everything. That false god died in World War I, in the mud of Flanders. Then, the state became the alma mater, the welfare state that would take good care of all its citizens' needs. That also failed, in the failure of socialism and of social welfare programs in non-socialist states including the United States. The state found that it could redistribute wealth but it could not create wealth.

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So where is the state now? In my own view, the state is facing a growing crisis of legitimacy. The bureaucratic state begot the "New Class," made of the kind of people who run Washington regardless of which party is in power. The New Class has three basic characteristics: it can't make things work (look at America's public schools), it uses its own power and wealth to exempt itself from the consequences of things not working (its kids go to private schools), and it really cares about only one thing: remaining the New Class.

As more and more people around the world, including Americans, came to realize that the state had become a big racket run for the benefit for the New Class, they have responded by transferring their primary loyalty away from the state. They have transferred it not only to many different things, but to many different kinds of things: to religions, to ideologies, to causes like environmentalism or animal rights, to races and ethnic groups, to gangs and business enterprises, to anything you can think of. Often, people who will not fight for the state will fight for their new loyalty; the environmentalist who buries a saw blade in a tree, hoping to kill a logger, is committing an act of war, not just a crime.

As a conservative, I do not like where this is going. I do not want America, or any other country, to break up in a vast, many-sided, "multi-cultural" civil war, like we saw in Yugoslavia only worse. Can it happen here? Yes, I am afraid it can.

Just as the next conservatism must address the danger of the state, it must also offer some answers to the danger to the state. Let me quickly add that the answer is not to give the state more power, to create the national security state all conservatives should fear. On the contrary, that will only make the state weaker in the long run. The crisis is not one of state power, but of the legitimacy of the state. Giving the American state more powers, powers that override our Constitutional liberties, will further undermine its legitimacy.

Restoring the state's legitimacy, in contrast, means taking away the federal government's usual powers and giving them back to the individual states and the American people. It also means political reforms that break the monopoly the New Class has on political power. In a future column, I will share some ideas about reforms to the political process the next conservatism might propose.

Conservatives may find it paradoxical that the next conservatism needs to defend the state at the same time that it defends against the state. But it is new challenges like this that lead me to think that we need a "next conservatism."

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