Republican members of Congress—nigh lockstep supporters of the Wall Street bailout, the Iraq War, and the PATRIOT Act when their party controlled the executive branch—profess to have rediscovered the Constitution during the first two years of the Age of Obama. Those of us who were not swept away by the Francophobia of 2003 might say we are experiencing déjà vu. For the first Clinton administration provoked a similar fit of GOP “constitutionalism,” which peaked—or reached its nadir—when, in 1996, future Viagra spokesman and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole took to carrying in his (shirt!) pocket a copy of the Tenth Amendment, that paper guarantor of the rights of the states. (No one ever bothered to ask Senator Dole what he thought of his wife’s leadership, as secretary of transportation under Ronald Reagan, in forcing the 50 states to adopt a uniform minimum drinking age of 21.)
I am a notoriously poor forecaster—every year I pick the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl—but I can with unshakable confidence predict that Republican invocations of constitutional limits on the powers of the national government will cease as soon as another Republican wins the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
(Allow me to raise, and then drop, a possible problem with these “constitutionalists” that is far more fundamental, even intractable, than my somewhat hackneyed charge of hypocrisy. That is, what if the Anti-Federalists, those often prescient opponents of the new Constitution in 1787–88, were correct in asserting that the Constitution would lead, inexorably, to a centralized national government that would levy extortionate taxes, wage shameful wars, and usurp the powers of state and local governments? Was disregarding George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Luther Martin, and scrapping the Articles of Confederation, a fatal mistake?)
Let us, for the sake of this short essay, assume the possibility of a limited government that stays within constitutional bounds. A decent respect for Senator Dole’s Tenth Amendment would deprive the federal government of its current role in education, for instance, as well as the provision of health care. But no single act would have a more profound and far-reaching effect than reorienting U.S. foreign policy along the lines of the advice given in George Washington’s Farewell Address: to reject “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues”(goodbye, NATO); to avoid “excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another” (goodbye, Middle East); and to beware “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty”(goodbye, military-industrial complex).
With a handful of noble exceptions—I think of Representatives Ron Paul (Texas), John Duncan Jr. (Tenn.), and Walter Jones (N.C.)—Republicans have placed the $700 billion “defense” budget off-limits. I put defense within quotes because relatively little of this money is spent on the defense of the North American continent. In fact, an artless Republican congressman once described the abominable Department of Homeland Security as a “Defense Department for the United States”—which makes one wonder what the job of the actual Defense Department might be.
The baneful ramifications of an overgrown military establishment and promiscuous intervention in faraway lands go well beyond the budgetary. Edwin Starr once asked: “War—what is it good for?” And the answers should please no one who values liberty, small-scale community, republican governance, and a culture of life. War centralizes culture, displaces young adults, and tramples domestic liberties. (In time of war “the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me,” John J. McCloy, FDR’s designated jailer of Japanese-Americans, once observed.)
In my book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (2008), I included what some reviewers thought to be an anomalous chapter detailing, in typically discursive form, the many pernicious by-products of the warfare state and that military-industrial complex against which President Eisenhower so eloquently and ineffectively warned. I didn’t cite Tang, but I did write about government-sponsored day care (the “Total Army Family,” in Pentagon 1984-speak), the Interstate Highway System, school consolidation, Daylight Saving Time, and even the wretched metric system.
Rootlessness, divorce, children being raised by strangers: the military has contributed more than its share to social maladies that once troubled conservatives—and that, in ways direct and indirect, nurture the growth of the central state. The return of American soldiers to their homes and their families would be the most pro-family policy a family-values conservative could propose—and it would please fiscal conservatives too, as deep and healthy cuts in the war budget would return American tax dollars to those who earned them.
John Randolph, the Virginia statesman and subject of Russell Kirk’s magnificent biography, explained, “The Government of the United States was not calculated to wage offensive foreign war—it was instituted for the common defence and general welfare; and whosoever should embark it in a war of offence, would put it to a test which it was by no means calculated to endure.” Isn’t it time we started tending to our own backyards? We might begin to restore the health of our families, our local communities, our economy, and our Constitution—things worth conserving.
This article originally appeared on the Web site of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.