James C. Banks

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Elite Culture vs. Military Spending

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2011 at 5:24 am

As conservatives debate how to balance the budget, cuts to defense spending should probably be on the table, but whether or not they will be remains to be seen. It is difficult to ascertain why, specifically, conservatives have always had such an aversion to cuts in the military budget. It is rooted in the 1950’s, with the reaction to the Red Threat. However, since that time it has intensified to the point where it is almost instinctive. More traditional and isolationist conservatives will probably point to neoconservatism as the reason for this, but I am skeptical.

Strong national defense has always been a mainstay of American conservatism. It was, in fact, probably the most important pillar for uniting the post-WWII conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk were both opposed to the New Deal while Peter Viereck and Irving Kristol supported it, but they agreed–and are considered to be part of the same tradition because they believed–that the co-existence of the West and the Iron Curtain was impossible.

But not all conservative support for vigilance abroad can be explained through purely rational or theoretical premises. There is also a populist element to the expansion of defense spending.  Generally, the American public has been reluctant to go to war; but this has not meant that the military has not proved useful during peace-time as well. Since even before the American  Republic was founded, the military has been an institution for upward mobility–many of the revolutionary veterans received colonial property for war payment and, thus, became not only property owners but enfranchized citizens of the new republic.

This upward mobility has expanded over time, with the introduction of the G.I. Bill, the expansion of the ROTC to all but the Ivy League schools, and the development of military postgradute colleges; anyone who attains a high commissioned rank in the military can almost be guaranteed a comfortable livelihood as many in the private industry are eager to hire someone of that discipline and non-commissioned officers are able to do well for themselves also. 

But the military is not really part of “elite culture”–increasingly, as the culture has become more polarized, soldiers have vanished from the halls of academia and politics.  In every presidential election since 1992, a war veteran as failed to be elected or re-elected, and, somewhat humorously, a senior policy advisor to the president can now have so little exposure to military personnel that she might mistake a Lt. General for a waiter. 

Furthermore, the states which often lose the most soldiers (per capita) in foreign wars–states like Idaho and Montana–also tend to be generally conservative states with fewer alternative institutions of upward mobility, such as colleges. Traditionalist culture–which is more easily found in rural towns than urban centers–in areas like these, the young have no need of Harvard, because the military is their Harvard. Military spending is, to conservatives, much as education spending is to progressives.

The military is not as conservative an institution as many on the Left presume, but it is often preception that matters, particularly the perception of those who govern.  And it is for this reason primarily that Republican legislators will be likely to oppose any attempt to cut back on defense spending.

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The Politics of Federalism and Economics of Reproduction

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm

For American conservatives, the right answer to every problem is federalism. Is there a healthcare crisis? Leave it to the states. Is the school system failing America’s children? Leave it to the states. Should same-sex marriage be legal? Some call for a constitutional amendment, but most will probably say leave it to the states.  Though few probably bothered to read the essay in which Fred Thompson called federalism his “lodestar,” many self-described conservatives swooned when he described himself as a federalist. 

95% of the time, I think that conservatives are right to support federalism.  The system in place—which enumerates what the federal government can do and (through the Bill of Rights) what the federal and state governments cannot do—is probably the best guardian of liberty to consist entirely of words.  But this still leaves the 5% of the time when federalism is not the answer.

Two things within a nation’s legal framework that federalism encourages are specificity and complexity.  Though it might be surprising to most people who had never thought of the issue before, murder, in most circumstances, is nowhere forbidden in that centerpiece of American jurisprudence, the Constitution; it is only under rare circumstances that murder is treated as a federal offense—such as when the murder is committed on an airplane. Otherwise, it is the state attorney general’s office that prosecutes the crime. 

This idiosyncrasy of American law is not normally seen as a problem, because everyone takes for granted that state governments will protect—to the best of their ability—the public from murderers and thieves.  No one feels a need for the federal government to pass legislation making murder in all circumstances a federal offense, because no one believes that the state governments will treat murder as anything other than a state offense.

But this framework does not and cannot account for evolution of moral sentiments.  The Founding Fathers could not have foreseen that reproductive rights would become an issue 200 years after their document was crafted. But it has. Federalists in the pro-life camp often claim that their political philosophy is the answer to the controversy: Let Mississippi outlaw abortion, and Massachusetts will keep partial-birth abortion legal. This, to me, is largely wishful thinking.

Under such a system, the number of abortions would be determined less by the states which restricted it than it would by the states which allowed it. While federalism might have saved a fetus in a pre-automobile America, today it is difficult to imagine that anyone who wanted to terminate a pregnancy could not do so because of the inconvenience of travel (for which organizations like Planned Parenthood would probably begin to provide funding). Restrictions would have even less impact in the conservative states in the West—Utah, Idaho, the Dakotas—because of the proximity of Tribal nations.

This does not mean that local and state restrictions would have no impact on the number of abortions that occurred.  Those seeking an abortion in conservative states would, if nothing else, give it heavier thought if they knew that this procedure had been outlawed in their own communities, but it is not the silver bullet that many conservatives claim that it is.

One of two things would have to occur for abortion to be banned altogether, the first is undesirable, the second unlikely:

The Supreme Court could rule the practice unconstitutional.  It is difficult to imagine how this could be done, without resorting to blatant judicial activism. There is nothing in the text of the Constitution that indicates the framers intended to outlaw the practice at the federal level.

Congress could pass an amendment attesting a right to life and defining it as beginning at the moment of conception.  This is highly unlikely, given that a slight majority of Congress has supported the legality of some abortions since the 1970s.  It would be the most constitutional means for a total ban, but also the least possible. That being said, were the issue to be returned to the states, the Congress could invoke the Commerce to prevent individuals from crossing state lines for an abortion.

The issue is messy, and it is difficult to conceptualize the course conservatives who ground their beliefs in natural law should take.  But one thing is for sure—in relation to reproductive rights, federalism is not a solution, but a compromise.

Sufficient to Stand

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2011 at 4:53 am

“Why should any young man want to be a conservative, on a globe where so much needs changing?” asked Peter Viereck rhetorically in one of the founding essays of the post-war Conservative Movement.  That was 1940.  Today, the question might be rephrased as “Why should anyone want to be called conservative, on a globe he so much wants to change?”  Half-a-century ago, calling someone a conservative might ignite a libel suit, but today it might win him an election.  Back then, conservatism was defined by nothing but the generally negative disposal of public opinion toward it.  Today, far more Americans identify as “conservative” rather than “liberal” or “moderate”, but, as with other modes and formulas for political identification (“pro-life” “libertarian”), little consensus exists as to what a “conservative” is.

While the Conservative Movement benefits from a highly dynamic and engaging blogosphere (represented by websites like ””Postmodern Conservative,” “Front Porch Republic” and “The Corner“), it has been in media like radio and (with the advent of the News Corporation) television and newspapers that “conservatism” has become the new mainstream.  No abstract definition can be invoked, indeed conservatism is largely a reaction to abstraction, but the culture has developed a broad opinion as to what constitutes “some sort of conservative.”  This broad opinion could be summarized in bullet points: limited government, free enterprise, generally pro-life politics, and formidable defense exercised in the national interest form the backbone of the current establishment which describes itself as “conservative”.

These ideas and the policies they generate may connect at a level of first principle, but it is often difficult for any conservative to articulate why this is the case.  It is for this reason that conservatives need new forums to discuss and debate not only principles but also prejudices and the line between the two necessary modes of judgment, especially as these pertain to the triumvirate of civic life—politics, religion and culture.  To do this takes more than a set of first principles oriented toward political action (or inaction in many cases).  It takes a broad understanding of the limits, capabilities and nature of humanity.  No conservative is a humanist (at least as that phrase has been used in the modern era), but every conservative has a love of humanity.

In acknowledgment of this point, the blog takes Jonathan Swift’s work for its namesake.  Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, is paradoxically highly celebrated without ever having been claimed by conservatives, even while conservatives have welcomed men of the Left such as Huxley or Mill into their pantheon.  Swift foresaw that extremist attempts of the “enlightened” lead to the guillotine (in the 18th century) or the gas chamber (in the 20th) before even a single pamphlet had been circulated or a word had been spoken of the Volk, and, as much as he disdained humanity’s shortcomings, he saw the alternative as leading only to fantasy and despair.  Gulliver’s Dispatch continues a legacy that began more than 250 years ago, asking of its authors and commentators neither consensus nor dogma, but only appropriate respect for the pillars of civic life.  

Because conservatism does not embrace revolution, new conservative associations will often justify themselves by claiming that the movement needs to return to its prelapsarian state; that, somewhere along the line, the movement fell from grace and was cast out of its Eden—perhaps when riots broke out in Baghdad, or Newt Gingrich surrendered the Speaker’s gavel or George H. W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge.  But this sort of language—“We came to change Washington, instead Washington changed us”—is more Rousseau-ian than conservative, and it is for this reason that this blog does not have as its stated purpose the goal of “getting back to the basics.”  The fault lies not in our institutions, but in ourselves.  For this reason, we prefer to serve as a voice for the conservative core that has always existed, to one degree or another, as part of American discourse.  No set policy agenda falls from conservative thought—and, as such, policy will not be our emphasis—but, as conservatives, we maintain our respect for human nature as it is, but also our skepticism of its ability to overcome its contradictions and conflicts.  This is an appropriate disposition for conservatism and, though these instincts may occasionally lead conservatives to the wrong conclusion, it is sufficient to stand in a fallen world.