Friday, 10 May 2013

A salute to Barry Goldwater: the Hero of the Right who made Reagan's presidency possible

I suspect that when young(ish) British conservatives hear Barry Goldwater's name, they experience a frisson of distaste. Here, the mainstream MSM invariably portrays him as a dangerous right-wing nut-job who – had he won the 1964 presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson - would have dragged the world into nuclear war, reintroduced slavery, and destroyed the American economy with his extreme fiscal conservatism.

As it was, American voters – still in shock following the assassination of President Kennedy, and terrified by the prospect of being annihilated by the Soviet Union - overwhelmingly plumped for LBJ. Among other things, that gave America the super-liberal Great Society programme (essentially a reductio ad absurdum of the New Deal) which turned blacks into the slaves of the welfare state; ensured that the Vietnam War would end in disaster for the US; meant that American cities and campuses being torn apart by riots in the late 1960s; and resulted in a near-fatal weakening of the mighty American economy.

Mind you, Goldwater’s heavy defeat had seismic long-term positive effects: it produced
the rise of American Conservatism in the 1970s and the eventual triumph of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and also galvanised the Libertarian movement. Where he took issue with the rejuvenated Republican Party was with the influence of the Religious Right: as a true libertarian, he was appalled by the idea of governments seeking to impose moral choices on issues such as abortion and sexuality (he was pro-choice and pro-gay rights).

I’ve just got round to reading Goldwater’s hugely influential Conscience of a Conservative (1960), which contains about as clear a statement of right-wing political, social and economic principles as it would be possible to imagine. It’s short, pithy, correct about everything, and extraordinarily relevant to America and Britain today.

Goldwater’s main concern (apart from adhering to the Constitution) was to destroy the cosy post-New Deal liberal consensus that had made the Democratic and Republican parties virtually indistinguishable. Similarly, in Britain at that time, we had Butskellism – a term signifying the grey, sludgy, big-state, high-tax, soft-left, economy-destroying “centre ground” which the Conservative and Labour parties had both occupied. Apart from a hiatus in the 1980s both here and in the US when many Goldwatery policies were implemented by Thatcher and Reagan with enormous success, that lazy consensus has held firm – shockingly, the early ‘70s saw both Ted Heath and Richard Nixon introduce prices and incomes policies, and today the choice in the US and here seems to be between a party that has no intention of getting spending under control and a party that wants to spend a smidgin less than the other one. The result of this is the emergence of Goldwater-style populist movements fed up with a lack of political choice: i.e. UKIP and the Tea Party.

Goldwater may not have had the affability or the willingness to bend with the political
wind necessary to become president – but I doubt that the 20th Century produced another American politician who had as great an effect on his country’s history (and , by extension, world history) without ever becoming president.

Every page of the short (144 pages), enormously clear-headed and incredibly cheap (the Kindle edition  - available here - costs a mere 67p!) Conscience of a Conservative brims with political insights, but I’ve chosen some quotations from it that seem particularly relevant to the left-of-centre sludgists currently mis-leading America and Britain:
I find that America is fundamentally a Conservative nation. The preponderant judgment of the American people, especially of the young people, is that the radical, or Liberal, approach has not worked and is not working. They yearn for a return to Conservative principles… the question arises: Why have American people been unable to translate their views into appropriate political action? Why should the nation's underlying allegiance to Conservative principles have failed to produce corresponding deeds in Washington? …. I do not blame my brethren in government, all of whom work hard and conscientiously at their jobs. I blame Conservatives – ourselves --myself.
The root evil is that the government is engaged in activities in which it has no legitimate business. As long as the federal government acknowledges responsibility in a given social or economic field, its spending in that field cannot be substantially reduced. As long as the federal government acknowledges responsibilty for education, for example, the amount of federal aid is bound to increase, at the very least, in direct proportion to the cost of supporting the nation's schools. The only way to curtail spending substantially, is to eliminate the programs on which excess spending is consumed.
Though we Conservatives are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing, and know that Conservatism holds the key to national salvation--and feel sure the country agrees with us--we seem unable to demonstrate the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day. We sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not the real problems facing the country, while the government attempts to assuage imagined concerns and ignores the real concerns and real needs of the people.
(Gay marriage vs. paying off the national debt?)
The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax. Its effect, and to a large extent its aim, is to bring down all men to a common level. Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation's wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society--an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected if we would restore that charter and honor those laws.
The need for "economic growth" that we hear so much about these days will be achieved, not by the government harnessing the nation's economic forces, but by emancipating them. By reducing taxes and spending we will not only return to the individual the means with which he can assert his freedom and dignity, but also guarantee to the nation the economic strength that will always be its ultimate defense against foreign foes.
The currently favored instrument of collectivization is the Welfare State. The collectivists have not abandoned their ultimate goal--to subordinate the individual to the State--but their strategy has changed. They have learned that Socialism can be achieved through Welfarism quite as well as through Nationalization. They understand that private property can be confiscated as effectively by taxation as by expropriating it. They understand that the individual can be put at the mercy of the State--not only by making the State his employer--but by divesting him of the means to provide for his personal needs and by giving the State the responsibility of caring for those needs from cradle to grave.
A man may not immediately, or ever, comprehend the harm thus done to his character. Indeed, this is one of the great evils of Welfarism--that it transforms the individual from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it. There is no avoiding this damage to character under the Welfare State. Welfare programs cannot help but promote the idea that the government owes the benefits it confers on the individual.
In all of our dealings with foreign nations, we must behave like a great power. Our national posture must reflect strength and confidence and purpose, as well as good will. We need not be bellicose, but neither should we encourage others to believe that American rights can be violated with impunity. We must protect American nationals and American property and American honor--everywhere. We may not make foreign peoples love us--no nation has ever succeeded in that--but we can make them respect us. And respect is the stuff of which enduring friendships and firm alliances are made. (Benghazi?)

I’ll finish with a Goldwater quote that isn’t from the book, but which perfectly summed up the madness of trying to impose racial equality:
Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society as such. It is to preserve a free society.... One thing that will surely poison and embitter our relations with each other is the idea that some predetermined bureaucratic schedule of equality--and, worst of all, a schedule based on the concept of race--must be imposed.

A great man.


  1. Very informative post. Apart from his obvious political virtues I find it odd that you did not allude to his distinguished military service in the USAAF during WWII [ditto George Bush Senior]. He continued to fly in the Air Force Reserve and retired as a Major General. He is one of the architects of the modern American Airforce [together with Curtis LeMay - another staunch Republican]. There are several photographs of him as an elderly gent clambering into cockpits of modern military jets which I thought might have struck a chord with you.

    1. I feel it's necessary to draw a line between someone's military record and their political insights. After all, Dennis Healey and Paddy Ashdown were both soldiers but I won't be writing encomiums to them on this site! And George Bush Senior - despite his excellent war record - turned out to be a milquetoast president who needed an Englishwoman to stiffen his spine.

  2. Ok, I give you Generals US Grant and Ariel Sharon [Healey and Ashdown were pretty low ranking]. Both of these gentlemen were superb fighting generals and very decent leaders of their respective countries [drawing a quiet veil over Sabra and Shatilla in Sharon's case]. Enoch Powell was both an excellent Brigadier General [Intelligence, but who tried desperately to become a Chindit] and a sincere and highly prescient senior politician. Michael Heseltine spent 5-minutes in the Welsh Guards and has sported the tie ever since.

    1. Five minutes in the Welsh Guard's what? The dirty devil!