December 11, 2016

Search Results for: the government can't create jobs

The Government Can’t Create Jobs (And It Shouldn’t Try To)

As the November elections approach, politicians are doing what politicians do best: making promises. President Obama’s anti-business image, justified or not, will not score points with voters this year as unemployment continues to court 10% on the government’s math and 20% in the real world. With these figures virtually unchanged since he took office, the president has been unable to sell the idea that his economic policies have created any jobs. So, he is doing the best he can with the hand that he has dealt himself and trumpeting the millions of jobs his policies have “created or saved.” In addition, he has rolled out yet another boondoggle from the Keynsian toolbox in the form of a $50 billion infrastructure package designed to stimulate the economy and finally create some actual jobs.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are gearing up for what should amount to shooting fish in a barrel in the coming mid-term elections, getting incredible traction on criticizing Obama policies which largely mirror those of George W. Bush, for which he and the Republicans were tossed out of office just two years ago. They correctly point out that Obama’s policies haven’t created a single job. Americans must put them back into office or face economic Armageddon. Polls show that Americans are largely buying what the Republicans are selling, having apparently forgotten the “jobless recovery” of the early part of the last decade, which occurred while the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

The truth is that neither the Republicans’ “supply-side economics” nor the Democrats “demand-side economics” have ever really created any jobs. Certainly, the housing boom successfully put some people to work in the homebuilding industry for a few years. However, when that bubble popped there was nowhere for those people to go. The Democrats’ success seems to have been limited to the 600,000 or so people that took jobs with the census bureau. Unfortunately, the demand for people counting won’t sustain a census-driven recovery. Obama’s latest act of political desperation isn’t getting much traction with anyone – even liberal talking heads are finding it hard to get behind another supposed “infrastructure” program, especially one that pales in comparison (in terms of dollars) to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was long on investment and short on recovery.

So, if neither supply-side nor demand-side economics work, if neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a program that will actually create jobs that will outlast the average car loan, where else can we look for an answer?

Perhaps we should reconsider exactly what it is that we are asking the government to do. People of all political persuasions talk about “creating jobs” as if there were no question that the government should be trying to create them, the only question being what program will create the most jobs, the highest paying jobs, or the longest lasting jobs. This is just another in an endless series of false dichotomies that accompany every election year, when voters are served up a “debate” that is framed to include two undesirable alternatives, with no acknowledgment that there may be a third. On job creation, that third alternative is this: the government can’t create jobs, regardless of whether conservatives or liberals are at the controls, and moreoever, it shouldn’t try to create jobs.

Amidst the noise surrounding an election year, it is easy to forget the obvious. Before deciding what to do about unemployment, let’s answer a few fundamental questions. The first one is, “What is a job?”

A job is an agreement between a buyer and a seller that involves an exchange of private property. The buyer is the employer, the seller, the employee. The two parties reach an agreement wherein the buyer will purchase a specific service from the seller at a mutually agreed upon price. This simple fact does not change whether the employee is selling his services as a brain surgeon or a custodian. In each case, the buyer has a need for the seller’s services and the seller is willing to sell those services to the buyer if the buyer is offering the market price or better. The most important aspect of this transaction is that it occurs with the mutual, voluntary consent of both buyer and seller. This is the only way in which a job can be created.

When people are perfectly free to dispose of their labor as they see fit, including their unconsumed labor in the past (their savings or capital), there is a natural coordination in the labor and capital markets that results in people and resources being used most efficiently to meet the demand of consumers. People are not employed to produce products that consumers don’t want or can’t afford because employers are risking their own money and livelihoods and therefore must invest their capital (savings) in projects that will be profitable. Neither do most employers prefer to invest in temporary projects that will end in six months or a few years, because they would then have to take the risk of starting a whole new business. Neither employers nor employees are ever 100% correct, but for the most part they make the right choices because they stand to gain or lose personally based upon those choices. These natural market forces regulate the market, based entirely upon the voluntary choices of employers, employees, and the consumers who buy their products.

However, when the government attempts to create a job, all of these natural forces are removed. The market has produced no demand for the government-created job. In other words, no buyer has voluntarily agreed to purchase those services, because to do so under current market conditions would be unprofitable. Were it profitable to hire someone to do the government-created job, an employer would have done so voluntarily. So, the government steps in and forces the taxpayer to purchase those services against his will. In additional to violating the taxpayer’s rights, the entire coordination that existed between employer, employee, and consumer is disrupted.

A typical response to this argument from the left would probably revolve around how the profit motive and the greed of employers is what kept the person unemployed. However, this argument begs the question: Why were these greedy employers unable to make a profit from employing this person?

The answer is that the services of the employee were not demanded by employers because the products that would be produced as a result were not demanded by consumers. If consumers were willing and able to buy the products that the employer and employee would have produced together related to this job, then there would be no need for the government to create it. By overriding the choices of consumers and forcing them to purchase those services for the employer, the government not only engages in a theft, but causes vast resources to be devoted to producing products that no one will eventually buy. Thus, when the government “investment” in the job is spent, the job no longer exists. It generates no revenue on its own to allow it continue to exist.

To use one of the favorite buzz words of the progressive left, government-created jobs are unsustainable. They are all doomed to fail by their very nature because they attempt to set aside economic laws that cannot be set aside. Commerce cannot exist without voluntary choice. Government job programs attempt to override the choices of capitalists on what to invest in and the choices of consumers on what to consume. This is what produces millions of empty homes, food shortages born of miracle energy programs, and mass amounts of people unemployed. Worst of all, these programs destroy the capital that otherwise would have created real jobs that were demanded by the market. This is not because private investors are more noble creatures than government bureaucrats, but because their own livelihoods depend upon investing that capital wisely and profitably.

While it is easy to see how this argument applies to the government spending programs that are presently more associated with the Democrats, one should not forget that the Republicans’ ideas are no less wealth redistribution and no less destructive to the economy. Most arguments made by the Republicans involve targeted tax cuts that will either stimulate specific areas of the economy or merely leave more money in the hands of private investors in general. While this sounds like the exact opposite of what the Democrats are proposing, it is really just the same strategy dressed up in “free market clothes.”

In the present paradigm, where the supposedly free market is already distorted by a thousand government interventions and taxes are sky-high for everyone, decreasing taxes for a particular class of people is merely a back-door way to try to override the free choices of investors and consumers. If the cuts are targeted at specific industries, such as the oil industry, then more oil will be produced regardless of the true demand for oil by consumers. If the cuts are general in nature, then whatever that capital is invested in will be investment not by private decision but by government central planning.

One might ask, “How can this be?” Aren’t the investors spending their own money? Not really. The Republican plan never involves a reduction in spending to go along with reductions in taxes for the investor class. In fact, every Republican administration in the past forty years has increased government spending while cutting taxes, leading to large deficits that are funded by debt or inflation. This merely transfers the tax burden of that government spending to other taxpayers.  In other words, the jobs “created” through supply-side economics are really funded by taxpayers – by present taxpayers through the loss of their purchasing power due to inflation or future taxpayers through government debt. This explains why the artificial booms accompanying Republican administrations never last either.

The only real answer to the economic malaise is to stop asking the government to create jobs in the first place. Real jobs can only be created by individuals agreeing to exchange their labor and capital by mutual, voluntary consent. The use of force cannot create a job any more than it can create freedom, either here or anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, it represents violation of the very rights that government exists to protect. Instead of voting for candidates that claim that they can create jobs, Americans should demand that government get completely out of the job-creating business in particular and central planning of the economy in general. Only a massive decrease in government spending, leaving capital in the hands of the people who earned it and allowing employers, employees, and consumers to make their own choices can stimulate true job creation. Anything else is just another government program that is destined to fail.

Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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© Thomas Mullen 2010

Free Excerpt: Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?

Where_Do_Conservativ_Cover_for_Kindle

CONTENTS

Chapter One: Something is Wrong with the World

Chapter Two: Where Do Conservatives Come From?

Chapter Three: Where Do Liberals Come From?

Chapter Four: Where Did the Founding Fathers Come From?

Chapter Five: Defending the Creed The Conservative Tide

Notes

Chapter One:

Something is Wrong with the World

Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”

 – Morpheus to Neo in the motion picture “The Matrix” (1999)[1]

 

Back in 2010, I was invited to speak at a conference sponsored by Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian-leaning organization founded by former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. Arriving at the hotel the night before, I discovered the political conference wasn’t the only convention there. The same hotel was also hosting a huge Star Wars convention.

Everywhere I looked, characters from the hit movie franchise adorned the lobby. I got a picture with Darth Vader. As it was the end of a long day, I headed to the bar for a beer. A man dressed as young Obi-Wan Kenobi sat down next to me.

“How’s the convention going for you?” he asked.

“I just got here,” I replied, “but I’m not here for the same convention you are. I’m here for the Campaign for Liberty event.”

“What’s Campaign for Liberty?” he inquired.

I looked around for a moment and replied, “Well, it’s an organization everyone at your convention should want to join.”

“Why is that?’ he asked.

“Because they want to end the American Empire and restore the Old Republic,” I replied.

The young Obi-Wan looked at me for a moment with an expression that read, “Do I really want to get into this?” Then, as if acquiescing to his own curiosity, he said “Tell me some more.”

I explained the organization as briefly as I could. Occasionally, he would interject, “I actually agree with that.” He seemed to agree with more than he disagreed with. Then, it was his turn.

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal,” he told me.

When I asked him what that meant to him, this was his reply:

“I believe if you can afford a $400,000.00 house, then more power to you. Enjoy it. But what’s wrong with this country is the idea that people feel entitled to houses they can’t afford, vacations they borrow money to take and two or three cars. People need to start living within their means.”

This is what a “dyed-in-the-wool liberal” thinks?

Believe it or not, I hear statements like this from people who self-identify as liberals all the time. Yet, less than a year before my new friend made this statement, President Obama had called for and then signed into law an $800 billion “stimulus package” designed to subsidize people who couldn’t afford to pay their own mortgages. Obi-Wan didn’t seem to notice the irony.

Liberals aren’t the only ones who sometimes fail to see the difference between what they and their representatives believe.

That same year, I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the first time. CPAC is an annual rally held in Washington, D.C. where “anybody who’s anybody” in conservative politics gathers to speak, promote books, launch political campaigns, etc.

In addition to an all-star cast of conservative speakers, the event also features an exhibit hall where mostly grassroots conservative organizations set up booths and ply their wares. I was as interested in what these “regular folks” had to say as in the featured speakers. I asked each of them why they identified as conservative.

Their answers weren’t surprising. I heard a lot of affirmations of the free market, small government, individual liberty and religious freedom. These are the principles nearly every one associates with “conservatism.”

What was surprising was how little these positions resembled those taken by the conference’s speakers. On the big stage, attendees were warned that President Obama’s “socialist” healthcare program, which subsidizes private insurers, threatens Medicare, a healthcare program run completely by the government.

They heard passionate cries that Obama was “gutting the military” by not increasing military spending as fast as they deemed necessary. They heard that Obama was “soft on radical Islam,” and even implications he was a Muslim himself.

They heard little or nothing about rolling back regulations on business or reducing government spending. They heard no criticism of the federal government spying on their phone calls or e-mails. They heard nothing about reducing the size and reach of government at all.

Then, there is what liberal and conservative politicians actually do.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to do one thing: to not be George W. Bush. The electorate voted against Bush’s wars of choice, civil liberties abuses, executive power grabs and government secrecy, all in the name of national security.

Rightly or wrongly, they also blamed Bush for a bad economy. He certainly hadn’t done anything to help.

During his campaign, former constitutional law professor Barack Obama promised to end the wars, restore constitutional protections of civil liberties, and run a “transparent” administration. He promised to review every one of Bush’s executive orders and overturn any that “trampled on liberty.” He promised to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

For the liberals, he promised to fight against the cozy relationship between multinational corporations and Washington, D.C.

Obama did wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he started several new ones, with results even more disastrous.

Siding with rebels in Libya to overthrow former U.S. adversary-turned-partner Muammar Gadhafi, the Obama administration allowed the country to be taken over by much more radical Islamists. Ditto for Egypt.

Siding with rebels in Syria to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, the administration has inadvertently armed and trained thousands of jihadists who subsequently joined the Islamic State (IS), if there was ever a distinction between the two groups to begin with.

On one occasion alone, over a thousand rebels, carrying U.S.-supplied arms and equipment, defected from the rebellion in Syria and joined IS in Iraq.[2]

Where Bush was accused of misleading Congress to gain its support for the Iraq War, Obama hasn’t asked Congress for authorization at all. So much for the constitutional law professor.

Every dollar borrowed to fund these wars is a dollar that can’t be lent to a business to expand and create new jobs. It’s not just a dollar that is paid to a soldier instead. There’s a lot more waste when the government spends money than when private employers spend it. Since 1996, there has been $8.5 trillion in funds sent to the Pentagon that they can’t account for at all.[3]

At home, Obama hasn’t fared much better at not being Bush. Thanks to Edward Snowden, the American public now knows that government spying goes well beyond what they understood was occurring under Bush. Instead of rolling it back, Obama has expanded it.

He built a massive NSA data center in Utah to store phone, e-mail and other data belonging to American citizens, all obtained without probable cause or warrants. The center inspired so much public outrage that a Utah legislator actually introduced a bill to cut off its water supply.[4]

I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The prison camp at Guantanamo remains open. Despite his frequent condemnations of the use of torture, his administration continues to employ it.[5]

As for transparency, Erica Werner at the Huffington Post notes the irony that Obama accepted an award for transparency “behind closed doors with no media coverage or public access allowed.”[6]

On corporatism, Obama has consistently poured gasoline on the fire. The Dodd-Frank legislation he signed into law allows too-big-to-fail banks to become even bigger and more of a threat if they fail. His forays into “investing into green energy” have been nothing more than typical crony capitalism, ending in disasters like Solyndra.

Then, there’s the Affordable Care Act.

Hardcore liberals wanted a government-run, single payer healthcare system. They wanted “Medicare for everyone.” What they got was another crony capitalist scheme that showered hundreds of billions on corporate health insurers, made healthcare more expensive for everyone, and may not have decreased the net number of uninsured at all.

“Obamacare” was originally the Republican answer to Hillarycare in the 1990s. Republican governor Mitt Romney implemented a version of it in Massachusetts. Whether they’re right or wrong about what they want, Obamacare is nothing like what the hard left elected Obama to give them.

Everyone else likes it even less. 2014 Gallup polls show Americans disapprove of Obamacare by a clear majority.[7]

Heading into the 2014 midterm elections, a majority of Americans, including 59% of those not affiliated with either of the two major parties, disapproved of the job President Obama was doing.[8] Like Bush in 2006, the president was a liability on the campaign trail for his own party, which lost control of the Senate in that election.

Thank goodness the conservatives are different, right? Wrong.

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on the usual Republican platitudes of free markets, smaller government and individual liberty. He even harkened back to Old Right values, including “a humble foreign policy.” He said that it was not America’s job to be the policeman of the world.

How did that work out?

On promoting the free market, Bush and the Republican Congress couldn’t have been worse. They only enacted two significant economic policies: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the TARP Bailout.

One was a massive increase in regulation and the other an equally massive government subsidy to Wall Street.

On both occasions, Bush evoked one of the most anti-free market presidents in U.S. history. He called Sarbanes-Oxley ”the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’[9]

On TARP, Bush claimed he “abandoned free market principles to save the free market,” something liberals routinely credit FDR with in making their case for even more regulation.

Bush consistently endorsed the misconception that economic crises are the result of free markets, rather than the government interventions that really caused them. His explanation for the housing crisis was “Wall Street got drunk.”

Before the first vote on TARP Americans of all political persuasions bombarded their representatives with angry phone calls, e-mails and demonstrations. Congressmen were visibly scared. They voted it down the first time.

But they eventually passed it, with Bush, Obama, and Republican nominee John McCain all in support. Bush helped cool grassroots opposition with a passionate speech designed to scare the daylights out of us. Enough people believed him to allow Congress to ram it through.

As for “small government,” Bush and the Republicans increased federal spending 50% over Clinton’s last year in office in just six years. It was $2.7 trillion by 2007. It would top $3 trillion before Bush left office.[10] “Big spending liberal” Bill Clinton only increased it by 25% over all eight years of his presidency.

One might offer 9/11 as an explanation for Bush’s failures either to curb spending or to execute a humble foreign policy. After all, a military response to 9/11 was necessary and wars cost money.

That makes a nice story, but it just doesn’t jibe with the facts. Of that $2.7 trillion spent in 2007, only $70 billion was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.[11] That leaves $800 billion in increases to account for.

Moreover, the majority of that $70 billion was spent in Iraq, a war virtually everyone acknowledges was unnecessary, unrelated to 9/11 and a mistake. The Iraq war and the very un-humble foreign policy it represented was the single biggest reason Republicans lost Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008.

Then, there is individual liberty. Bush broke new ground in trashing the Bill of Rights with his warrantless wiretaps, surveillance of financial data and expansions of executive power. Between the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act of 2006, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments went out the window.

You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to know there’s something very wrong with the government eavesdropping on your phone calls without a warrant and being able to arrest and hold you indefinitely without charges or any appeal to a judge.

Didn’t we used to make fun of the Soviets for this?

The policies enacted by Bush and the Republicans couldn’t contrast more with their rhetoric or the reasons conservative voters say they elect them. It’s insane.

We’ve tried every possible configuration within the two party system. We’ve given the Republicans control of the White House and Congress. Then, we gave Congress back to the Democrats. After that, we gave the Democrats the White House and Congress. Now, we’ve given Congress back to the Republicans.

We’ve tried it all and Washington, D.C. is as broken as ever.

The economy continues to falter. The government tells us unemployment is decreasing, while at the same time acknowledging they don’t count people who’ve given up looking for work.

Does anyone really believe unemployment is really down?

They tell us what they call “inflation” is under control, while at the same time acknowledging they play tricks with those numbers, too.

Does anyone really believe prices haven’t gone up?

There are some things Washington doesn’t even try to deny. The wars go on. The federal debt continues to increase. The unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare continue to explode, unaddressed. Young people know they won’t be getting the benefits. Why should they continue to pay?

Regardless of our politics or what Washington tells us, we all have a sinking feeling that won’t seem to go away. Something is wrong with the world. We just don’t know what it is.

Often, we’re told the representatives we elect aren’t “real liberals” or “real conservatives.” Grassroots conservatives have even come up with a clever acronym for this phenomenon: “RINO.” It stands for “Republican in Name Only.” It’s meant to describe a Republican who campaigns on conservative rhetoric but acts more like a liberal Democrat when in office.

Both liberals and conservatives believe their representatives don’t truly believe in liberal or conservative principles, respectively. If only they could elect genuine liberals or genuine conservatives, the government would get back to representing the people, the economy would revive, and Washington, D.C. would “work.”

This book is going to challenge those assertions.

What if the conservatives in Washington are the real conservatives? What if they actually do what they say they will, if you listen closely enough? What if conservatism isn’t really what most Americans think it is? What if the “RINOs” are the real Republicans?

What if all of the above is true for liberalism as well? What if Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the real liberals?

There are a few basic principles that virtually all Americans still claim to believe in. They are summarized in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

There are few, if any, Americans who would disavow that short passage. It is so universally accepted that we’ll call it the American Creed.

Jefferson had a gift for conveying enormous ideas in very few words. This was one of his finest moments. In those one hundred thirty-four words, he captured all of the elements of the political treatises of his time. It’s worthwhile to take a moment and break it down.

First, the Creed talks about what philosophers back then called “the state of nature.” The state of nature is the condition man would find himself in if there were no government. Critics sometimes mistake this to mean some ancient time when we all wore fig leaves and ate only what we could find on the ground or club over the head. They misunderstand the term “state of nature” to mean a time before government ever existed anywhere on earth. That’s not correct.

The state of nature can occur anywhere and anytime, wherever and whenever there is no effective government to enforce law and order. Think “Lord of the Flies.” But it doesn’t have to be on a desert island, either. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke observed that all princes existed in a state of nature relative to each other, because there was no government over them.

The Creed says that in the state of nature we are all equal and have certain rights. These rights come from our Creator and are inherent. They aren’t granted to us by any government. These rights are also “unalienable,” meaning they cannot be taken away. Neither can we surrender them ourselves. Unalienable rights are as much a part of us as our own skins.

The Creed then tells us the purpose of government: to secure these unalienable rights. That’s a very limited purpose that necessarily precludes other things some people believe governments are supposed to do. But the Creed is unambiguous. Government’s purpose is to secure these rights, period.

The Creed concludes by reminding us that whenever the government becomes “destructive of these ends,” meaning it fails to protect or itself violates our unalienable rights, we have the right to alter or abolish the government and construct a new one.

Both liberals and conservatives claim their philosophies are the true basis for the American Creed. In the chapters ahead, we’re going to examine the foundational conservative and liberal philosophers to try to confirm or deny those claims.

Along the way, we’re going to meet some interesting people, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. But don’t worry. We’re not going to spend hours analyzing the categorical imperative or rubbing our chins and asking “Why am I here?”

We are going to revisit what these writers and thinkers said about the nature of man, the purpose of government, and the extent of the government’s power and compare their ideas to the American Creed.

In other words, we’re not just going to rehash what conservative and liberal politicians have said and done. We’re going to try to figure out why they said and did those things. We’re going to try to figure out how they think.

The results are going to surprise you.

 

Chapter Two:

Where Do Conservatives Come From?

This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!””

–          Attributed to Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt[xii]

 

Conservatives get their name from their desire to “conserve” the socio-political structure as it is. If change must occur, it should be gradual and as undisruptive as possible. Rather than “liberal,” the true opposite of conservative is really “radical,” as in “radical change.” That more than any specific policy is what the conservative fears most.

American conservatives are divided into two groups, as were their British forebears. They generally agree on most things. They share the same vision of the nature of man, the purpose of government, and the extent of the power invested in government. They disagree on the form of government or how that power should be distributed.

We’ll call the first group “centralizers,” because they seek to centralize government power, both in a national government and in the executive branch. That’s something liberals accused George Bush of trying to do with executive orders, signing statements, and other “unilateral” executive policies.

We’ll call the second group “constitutionalists,” because they seek to divide power between national, state and local governments and between separate branches within those governments. These would be more like “Old Right” conservatives Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater. A resurgence of Old Right conservatism is emerging today out of the Tea Party movement, with its emphasis on constitutional checks and balances.

While these two groups of conservatives have fought some epic internal battles over the course of American history, they have also worked together just as often. As they agree on most things, they tend to close ranks to resist perceived threats to their shared principles.

The literary traditions of British and American conservatism are rich. One could name hundreds of works as important in understanding conservatism. However, there are two men who are very much foundational: Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke.

Hobbes plays the larger role in developing the philosophy of conservatism. Living a century before Burke, he develops the tenets of conservatism from “the ground up,” articulating conservative ideas that Burke would echo later. Their chief differences are on the form of government. Hobbes was a centralizer and Burke a constitutionalist.

Conservatives on the nature of man

All conservatives agree on man’s nature. In a word, we’re bad. Very bad. So bad that life without government is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[xiii]

Hobbes lays out this view in his massive work, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, generally referred to simply as Leviathan.

First, he discusses man’s condition in the state of nature:

“Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”[xiv]

That sentence was written over three hundred years ago. We’re going to be looking at passages like this from time to time to demonstrate just how long some of these ideas have been around. Don’t let the “haths” and “thereupons” throw you. We’ll provide translations in 21st century English wherever necessary.

In this passage, Hobbes is just saying “all men are created equal,” just like in the American Creed. But then he says this:

“From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies, and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.”[xv]

Where the American Creed says that man’s natural equality is the source of our rights, Hobbes says it is the source of all human conflict. Talk about a glass half empty kind of guy! It gets worse:

“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.”[xvi]

Hobbes actually believes that man’s natural state – meaning his condition in the absence of any government (whether twenty thousand years ago or tomorrow) – is a state of war. That’s pretty grim, but it is the basis for all conservative thinking. Not only does man need a government, but one powerful enough to “keep him in awe.” Otherwise, he is in a de facto state of war with every other man.

This isn’t just a 17th century idea. If you’ve seen the movie Apocalypse Now, it conveys the same message. It was based on a book called Heart of Darkness by lifelong conservative Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s novel was set in colonial Africa, while Francis Ford Coppola resets the story in the Viet Nam War, but the message of both is identical. As the main character, Marlowe, travels farther up the river and into the unsettled interior, he gets farther from the confines of society and government. The farther from these confines he gets, the more savage and insane the people become. The journey ends with Kurtz, who embodies man’s true nature when unrestrained by government. Man literally has a “heart of darkness.”

Whether you agree or not, both the movie and the book convey the idea brilliantly. Coppola also weaves in the insanity of war as a theme, without losing Conrad’s original message.

Burke and the constitutionalists are in lockstep with Hobbes on the nature of man. Russell Kirk, the 20th century intellectual leader of Burkean conservatism, says this in his own introduction to Leviathan:

“What must strike the reader with especial force, in this cold and relentless book, is the almost diabolical truth in Hobbes’ interpretation of human nature.”[xvii]

He also presents Burke’s view of man’s nature as indistinguishable from Hobbes’:

“Burke knew that just under the skin of modern man stirs the savage, the brute, the demon. Millennia of bitter experience have taught man how to hold his wilder nature in a precarious restraint; that dread knowledge is expressed in myth, ritual, usage, instinct, prejudice.”[xviii]

Now that you’re really feeling good about yourself, let’s go a bit further. We’ve established that man is bad and that it’s unfortunate that we are all created equal, because it brings out even more badness in us. What about those “inalienable rights?” Are we endowed by our Creator with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Not quite.

“And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone (in which case everyone is governed by his own reason and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies), it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.”[xix]

Hobbes takes a completely different approach to the concept of rights than does the American Creed. Where the Creed describes rights as moral principles, Hobbes is more mechanistic. Forget “what ought to be,” Hobbes is only concerned with what goes down when the rubber hits the road. And what really goes down is killing, looting, pillaging, cars turned over and burning…You get the picture.

Again, Burke agrees here with Hobbes. He quotes Hobbes directly in Reflections on the Revolution in France,

“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.”[xx]

The idea that man has “a right to everything” in the state of nature completely contradicts the American Creed. The Creed assumes rights are negative. They describe what other people should not do to you.

For example, the right to life is not the positive right to live under any circumstances. When someone is killed in an earthquake, we feel bad about it, but we do not say his right to life was violated. The right to life is specifically the right not to be killed by another human being.

Similarly, the right to liberty is the right not to have someone forcibly interfere with your peaceful actions. You might want to fly. That you can’t does not violate your right to liberty. Only violent interference by other people constitutes a violation of your right to liberty.

Implicit in the American Creed is the existence of these rights in the state of nature. They are not endowed by government, but by our Creator. That governments are created “to secure these rights” confirms that they must exist before government.

But conservatives don’t believe that. They believe that man has a right to everything in the state of nature, even to one another’s bodies, meaning there can be no rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness in this state. Since these rights do not exist without government, then the purpose of government must be something other than what the Creed says it is.

Hobbes goes on to say that none of the benefits of civil society are possible in this state, because man’s entire life is dominated by the constant fear of violent death. Without a government “to keep them in awe,” men cannot acquire property or benefit from the division of labor, because other men will immediately attack them and steal whatever they produce.

He goes so far as to say that death of natural causes is rare in the state of nature. Yikes!

So, as far as the state of nature goes, both Hobbes and Burke reject the tenets of the American Creed, as do the schools of thought they founded within conservatism. Russell Kirk sums up the conservative position on the Creed when discussing John Randolph:

“John Randolph of Roanoke wholly repudiated the common interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, denounced Jefferson as a Pied Piper, and turned his back upon political abstractions to seek security in prescription and in an unbroken vigilance over personal and local rights.”[xxi]

Conservatives on the purpose of government

Burke summed up well what conservatives see as the purpose of government. Government exists to “thwart” man’s natural inclinations and to take him out of the state of war and into a state of relative peace.

Burke gets this idea from Hobbes as well, who said that men form government for the purpose of “getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shown [ch.xiii]) to the natural passion of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters.”[xxii]

This idea that only the awesome power of government can keep our dark nature at bay explains quite a bit about the way conservatives react to the world today. While non-conservatives have a natural instinct to resist what they think is a bad law, even to practice civil disobedience, this scares the living daylights out of conservatives. They believe it’s better to follow a bad law until it is changed than to undermine the authority of the government in any way. Once the idea of resisting a law is introduced, we’re on our way back to the state of nature, which is a state of war.

It also explains why conservatives generally support law enforcement officers no matter what the circumstances. Rarely will you see conservatives side with an alleged victim of police brutality. Their first instinct is always to side with the police officer. That’s because they see the “thin blue line” as more than just functionaries who enforce the law. To conservatives, they are literally all that stands between civilization and the inherent state of war that exists wherever there is an absence of government force.

End of Excerpt

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Notes

Chapter One Something is Wrong with the World

[1] The Matrix (1999) Warner Bros. Pictures

[3] Paltrow, Scott J. “Unaccountable: The high cost of the Pentagon’s bad bookkeeping” Reuters November 18, 2013 http://www.reuters.com/investigates/pentagon/#article/part2

[6] Werner, Erica Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/31/obama-accepts-transparenc_n_843195.html

[9] “CORPORATE CONDUCT: THE PRESIDENT; Bush Signs Bill Aimed at Fraud In Corporations” by Elizabeth Bumiller New York Times July 31, 2002 http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/31/business/corporate-conduct-the-president-bush-signs-bill-aimed-at-fraud-in-corporations.html.

[10] http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/displayafact.cfm?Docid=200 Note: The U.S. government fiscal year runs October 1 – Sept. 30, meaning that outgoing presidents actually propose the budget their successors will operate under during their first nine months in office.

[xii] Bolt, Robert A Man for All Seasons

[xiii] Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil Hackett Publishing Company Indianapolis, IN 1994 pg. 76

[xiv] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 74

[xv] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 75

[xvi] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 76

[xvii] Kirk, Leviathan, I, pg. 5

[xviii] Kirk, Russell The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot Regnery Publishing; Seventh Edition (November 30, 1953) Kindle Edition Location 707 of 6718

[xix] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 80

[xx] Burke, Edmund Reflections on the Revolution in France Second Edition London Printed for J. Dodsley, in Pall-Mall 1790 pgs.88-89

[xxi] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 2144-2148

[xxii] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 106