Big Government Conservatism?

Big Government Conservatism? November 3, 2022

Yesterday we blogged about John David Davidson’s article We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives, which maintains that the conservative movement in America, with its advocacy of small government and free markets, has failed to “conserve” our civilization and its institutions, such as the family and the church.  He calls for a new movement–with a government big enough “to rebuild and in a sense re-found” the nation, rein in big corporations, and put the brakes on the sexual revolution.  Those who take up this task should call themselves not conservatives but “radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.”

His article has sparked controversy and criticism, to say the least, in “conservative” circles.  He answers his critics in another article entitled The Performative Outrage Of ‘Conservatives’ Is Further Evidence Of Their Failure with the deck, “Unable to cope with the failure of the conservative movement, its erstwhile champions resort to calling their critics fascist.”

Let’s think through “big government conservatism.”  It sounds contradictory to American ears, but it is highly descriptive of European conservatism.  If conservatives are those who want to conserve their historical institutions, in Europe that would mean conserving the monarchy, the state church, and the laws and customs that go with them.

Before the Enlightenment, such traits were just the way things were.  But when “liberalism”emerged in the 1700s, so did conservatism, as a movement to counter and oppose the “liberal” alternatives.  Back then, though, in Europe, liberalism was not about supporting New Deal or Great Society social programs, as the term came to mean in the U.S.  In fact, such programs would probably have been associated with the paternalism of a generous king or aristocrat and be considered “conservative.”  The word “liberal” came from the Latin word for freedom, and it denoted a program of individual freedom, personal rights, democracy, limited government, and free market capitalism.  Sort of like what American conservatives believe.

When the United States of America was born at the height of the Enlightenment, our founders set up a “liberal” state.  This is what our “conservatives” want to conserve.  In the meantime, here in the states, “liberal” became associated with those opposed to those traditions, as new “progressive” ideologies, such as the various kinds of socialism, came to the fore.  Socialism, of course, whether the relatively mild version of FDR, the Marxist version, or the Fascist version, all required a “big government,” with some ideologies advocating a “totalitarian” government, which would use “scientific” principles to control the economy and every facet of citizens’ lives.

So the terminology is confusing.  A good way to assess a conservative is to ask, “what do you want to conserve?”  If the goal is to “make American great again,” I would think that would involve conserving of our Constitutional order.   Many conservative intellectuals, such as Davidson, have discovered the European conservative tradition.  They have gotten some good ideas from it, but European conservatives tend to blame all our woe on “liberalism” in old sense, whose emphasis on freedom has led to disasters such as the sexual revolution and thus the breakdown in the family, whose individualism has destroyed the sense of community, whose emphasis on democracy has led to mob rule, whose emphasis on capitalism has led to greed, materialism, and the exploitation of workers, whose emphasis on religious freedom has led to secularism, etc., etc.

The Leftist “progressives,” do not like old-fashioned “liberalism” either.  In fact, when the “New Right” advocates big government, criticizes capitalism, champions the working class, and seeks to “refound” the country, they can sound much like the “New Left.”  And when Davidson calls for revolution and “radicalism,” the resemblance is even greater.  As is the memory of how many European conservatives did support the revolutionary, national socialist, collectivist program known as Fascism.

So let’s look at the record of big governments.  Have they ever restored or refounded a nation?  I suppose one could cite the Roman Empire, but surely that was a falling away from the virtues of the Roman Republic, with its representative and elected government.  The Empire was the result of war, conquest, and the divinization of emperors.

If we had a big enough government to rebuild or refound our nation, what would give the government its direction and values, in the absence of “liberal” democracy?  And are our problems really due to too much freedom?

I would argue that a government that can, overnight, change the definition of marriage followed by all cultures for all of human history, is too big and too powerful.  The same holds true of governments that presume to legalize the killing of unborn children.  Or that will punish citizens who do not go along with the ideology of transgenderism.  Or that presumes to raise and indoctrinate its citizens’ children through the public schools.

The good kings of yore were those who respected the authority of other institutions:  the nobility, yes, but also the self-governing free cities, the churches, and the family.  It was the bad kings–the tyrants–that undermined these competing authorities and centralized state power in himself.

Some on the New Right, such as the Catholic integralists whom we have blogged about and whom Davidson mentions favorably, are calling for the return of a state church, which could ensure the government ruled in a morally wholesome way.  But, historically, having a state church did not mean that the church ruled the state.  Rather, the state ruled the church.

We conservative Lutherans know all about that, since Frederick Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia, got it into his mind to merge Lutherans and Calvinists into one state church, with each tradition having to surrender its theologies in the name of church union.  This usurpation of the King over the church provoked the Lutheran migrations to America, Australia, and other parts of the world, and to the eventual formation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and other confessional church bodies.

And if today the state were to impose a religion of some kind over its citizens, that religion would almost certainly be leftwing, secularized, and unorthodox.  As today’s state churches are.  Yes, Catholicism may have been an exception, since it did claim authority over the state, something Catholic integralists would love to see come back.  But that temporal authority still led to the secularism of the church, with the army of the Pope battling the army of the Emperor, and a vast amount of materialistic corruption.  The financial, moral, and political corruption of the Roman church provoked the Reformation, which, in turn, influenced  the emergence of a “liberal” society.

I don’t think American institutions are as “dead” as Davidson fears.  The overreaching of Progressives has sparked a backlash.  There is an election next Tuesday.  Roe vs. Wade is overturned.  The rest of the world is turning against transgenderism, and surely America will soon follow.  #MeToo challenges the sexual revolution.  All sides are turning against the tech moguls.  False ideologies are coming apart of their own internal contradictions.  Despite all of the assaults from without and the even worse assaults from within, the church of Christ remains.

Davidson says he is neither a fascist nor a Catholic theocrat, and I believe him.  He says that he will be proposing policies in the days ahead, and I look forward to reading about them.  I may well support them.  He can call himself what he wants, but I think I’ll still call myself a conservative.  A small-government conservative.

UPDATE:  See also the reply to Davidson’s article by another Federalist writer,  Nathanael Blake.


Illustration:  Friederich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia, by unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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