Wanderer Logo

Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Ever-Vaster Reservoir

(Reprinted from the issue of November 20, 2003)

Capitol BldgTo some people, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott memorably observed, government appears as a “vast reservoir of power,” which inspires them to imagine the uses it might be put to. They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the good of mankind, and they view politics as the art of capturing this source of power and putting it to work.

The conservative vision, Oakeshott explained, sees government, by contrast, as a “specific and limited activity,” that of an umpire, not a player. The conservative wants government to remain aloof from the very passions that drive liberals. He resists concentrations of power and opposes the use of power for visionary projects. “The conjunction of ruling and dreaming,” Oakeshott wrote, “generates tyranny.”

The problem, of course, is that liberals and similar visionaries don’t think of their dreams as tyrannical. Thus the liberal columnist David Broder, on Veterans Day, called for mandatory “national service” for all young men and women, because it would create a “sense of community” if they were required to perform “tasks assigned by their country.” Like the young soldiers drafted between 1940 and 1970, they would be “offered” the “experience” of mixing with others of various races, religions, and backgrounds. Diversity, you know.

It didn’t occur to Broder that he was proposing what the U.S. Constitution calls “involuntary servitude.” In his bland fashion, he was arguing for what my friend Ronald Neff calls “soft totalitarianism.” To Broder it must have seemed no more than a reasonable extension of the kind of government we already have, a government that knows few limits on its power and assumes the authority to decide our destinies for us.

The disturbing thing is that he isn’t far wrong. Both major parties already take for granted government power of a scope, scale, and nature that would have horrified our ancestors. The idea that the state should be confined to the limited role of an impartial umpire is passé.

As C.S. Lewis observed, we no longer speak of our rulers as “rulers”; in a deeply significant shift of terminology, we now call them “leaders.” Of a ruler one expects the virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom, restraint; of a leader one expects energy, initiative, magnetism, “charisma.” A leader is a take-charge guy who isn’t shy about imposing his purposes on society. He wants control of that “vast reservoir of power.” He has no other conception of government. He sees his duty not as one of keeping peace, but of making excitement, even war, if only metaphorical wars on poverty, prejudice, and the like. He despises a more limited style of rule as “do-nothing” government.

We are so inured to this activist style of rule that we hardly notice what a radical change from an older tradition it represents. It’s no longer a liberal monopoly; alleged “conservatives” have adopted it too. President Bush has announced his own vast project: promoting “freedom” and “democracy” (he uses the terms interchangeably) all over the world. In contrast to John Quincy Adams, who said the United States wouldn’t roam abroad seeking monsters to destroy, Bush wants to do exactly that. And the supply of monsters is apparently inexhaustible.
No Interest in Limited Government

This has brought the Bush administration into alignment with the neoconservatives, who share the vision of the U.S. as the international crusader for “democracy.” It’s important to realize that “neoconservatism” has nothing to do with conservatism as Oakeshott described it and as conservatives themselves have traditionally understood it.

In fact it is akin to modern liberalism in seeing government as a “vast reservoir of power” available for huge projects. And there can hardly be a bigger project than world conquest, even if it is called promoting freedom and democracy.

The “neocons” aren’t interested in limited government. The November 17 issue of Newsweek features a cover story on how Vice President Dick Cheney and his neoconservative brain trust helped maneuver the U.S. into war with Iraq, selectively “cherry-picking” intelligence reports to portray Saddam Hussein as a global menace who was amassing weapons of mass destruction and abetting terrorists around the world.

These highly touted reasons for the war have been discredited, but they achieved their purpose. Bush hardly mentioned them in his recent crusade-for-democracy speech, which moved to a new level of militant grandiloquence, almost forgetting even the “axis of evil” he cited last year as a compelling reason for war.

As Cheney once put it in a puzzling epigram, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
What Are They Conserving?

The real purpose of these ambitious projects is simply to increase the vast reservoir of power. The reasons given for them hardly matter once that purpose is achieved. The War on Poverty was driven by propaganda about the prevalence of “hunger” and even “invisible poverty” in America, which turned out to be largely mythical; but federal programs and federal power grew explosively, and have never receded.

The War on Terror has resulted in a great expansion of the executive branch, including the Department of Homeland Security; so that Bush can announce “a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” on his own initiative, without consulting Congress or the public, not to mention the U.S. Constitution. The neoconservative press has hailed his “leadership.”

When Bush took office, he appeared to be a rather conventional “conservative” Republican, using the standard rhetoric of lower taxes, limited government, and strict construction of the Constitution. Nobody expected him to bring dizzying changes. If anything, we expected relief from the phantasmagoria of the Clinton years.

But since 9/11, the Clinton years have come to seem, at least in retrospect, an era of relative calm and clarity. Even the debate over Clinton’s proposed national health care scheme was more or less comprehensible; it might even have cost less than the constantly morphing War on Whatever we have been engaged in for the last two years.

Just what are these conservatives — and neoconservatives — conserving? The federal government is more enormous, and less federal, than ever. Federal spending and deficits are smashing all records. Federal power defies definition. The powers now claimed by this government are virtually infinite, risibly disproportionate to the few powers assigned to it by its own Constitution.

Philosophy weeps. The idea of government as a “specific and limited activity” seems too quaint for words. As one wag has put it, the U.S. Constitution bears about as much relation to the U.S. government as the Book of Revelation bears to the Unitarian Church. It appears that the Bush legacy will be, in Milton’s immortal phrase, “confusion worse confounded.”

A new biography portrays the 17th Earl of Oxford as an “atheist,” “sodomite,” “thug,” “libeler,” “traitor,” and lousy poet. Could such a scoundrel have written the Shakespeare works? My own reply will appear soon in SOBRANS, my little monthly. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe, or renew your subscription, to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

Washington Watch
Archive Table of Contents

Return to the SOBRANS home page
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer


The Wanderer is available by subscription. Write for details.

SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 

This page is copyright © 2003 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.