A Letter to a Friend- A Vindication of Big Government and Big Foreign Policy
O my Comrade! I do not note this gleefully and callously, aiming to throw an egg in the faces of Libertarians! I simply call this general trend in order to expose what appears to be one of the unalterable realities of history- that big nations possess big governments and big foreign policies, and cannot easily be rid of them.
A quick survey of all the dynasties of China and Russia, and the Caliphates and the Sultanates, and the Mongol Khanates, the modernizing states of Europe and the globe-girdling empires they grew into, seems to suggest that large nations have big governments and big foreign policies not due to any ideological or ethical choice but simply due to the pragmatism of a thousand subsequent moments mushed together to make a general trend. Isolationism and internal retreat seem to have generally been periodic phenomena at best, and always either the result of a blessedly peaceful era or a poor policy choice which led to greater upheavals. Big governments to manage big territories, and big foreign policies to manage the foreign interests of those governments, seem to have been a natural state of things, and as the world grew more competitive and more interconnected, only became more vital.
I do not mean to suggest that this is an ethical reality. Most political affairs are anyway by their nature unethical, and the manipulations of power politics which accompany big foreign policies and big governments are no exception, save in the minds of the neoconservatives. But the fact remains that big governments and big foreign policies are, in big nations, unlikely to go away simply because the people wish it to be so. What might have been a potentiality in a state embracing a single bay and a few hundred square miles of territory is in no way possible for an empire whose territory extends beyond a mighty continent, whose power reaches to the farthest reaches of the globe.
And therefore it is not the STRUCTURE or PURPOSE of the government which is in our hands, but the PRUDENCE by which the structure is tended to and the purpose carried out. You are absolutely correct- it is not the size of government that is important, but how it is used. And therefore it is imperative that our statesmen accept the realities of power without sacrificing the principles which define our country in order to guide the ship of state through the turbulent waters of domestic and international politics. Because there are certain realities which will not change no matter how much we would like them to, and because those realities in fact are critical to our core interests as a nation, it is critical that they be maintained for the moment and adjusted as is necessary- and should they prove untenable, altered as profoundly as is necessary. But it is my opinion that the institutions of big government and big foreign policy, while nebulous, are too fundamental to our present national situation that while they must be prudently managed, they cannot be done away with.
I am of the opinion that Libertarians and those who agree with them on foreign policy and government issues, while of purest intention, are blinded by the beauty of a government constrained by laws alone. Such a government has never existed sovereignly in the history of this Earth, and is unlikely to exist in the future by devout emulation of governments which supposedly, but did not actually, fit this model. If the ultimate goal of government is a small government constrained by law, how are the statesmen at its helm to deal with the crises which invariably beset their polity, whose necessary responses exceed the meager means available to them by law? Certainly some might be properly dealt with, but constraints upon political creativity will ultimately prove cumbersome to the national interest, and be thrown away by those rising who are better capable of defending those to whom their charge is trusted.
Of course, this demeanor poses threats both to the sovereignty of other states and to the liberty of the citizens of the state- but is that not the drama of politics, the lifeblood of the literature of this Earth? And is it not, to a degree, a rather utopian prospect to dream that all problems of power politics might be solved by a just constraint of government by laws alone? Even our Framers, it seems, did not submit to this folly, as the Constitution they agreed upon (much to the irk of strict-constructionists) kept government civil not primarily by ultimate legal consequences, but by a fractious balance of power- the only institution which has ever proved to adequately maintain stability since Mankind’s first institutions were established.
Now the Libertarians, I think, are more ideologically pure than any other group which espouses what is in effect an ideology. And the Classical Liberal tradition they draw from is the greatest our Western Civilization has ever spawned, worthy of study and emulation by all statesmen and scholars. And Liberty is indeed among the sweetest fruits available to Man on Earth, a just cause of government and a happy attainment for individuals.
But I cannot accept an ideology that elevates it to the ultimate good, or a political philosophy that crowns it above all else. The Libertarians, I think, tend to see things as they ought to be rather than as they are. And the most successful enterprises in governance are not those which attempt to change the nature of men and polities, but those which strive to use both their natural attributes and defects while tempering their worst effects. I cannot see Libertarianism as anything more than a dreamy longing. A beautiful one, perhaps, but one still dreamy.
Now I qualify, that Libertarianism indeed possesses as part of its ideology a great many practical tenets which, in practice in the United States and other countries, have proved to be blessings in their situations. These include but are not limited to localized independent governance (what is there not to love about small towns?) small-business capitalist culture, non-aligned foreign policies, an emphasis on private business efforts over government interventions to solve social problems (though cooperation between the two has typically proven more efficacious than either) and a federalist respect of state sovereignty by national governments. While these successes are undoubtedly partly due to the geographic, demographic, and historic situation of the United States, their success cannot be doubted and must be factored into an understanding of our political reality.
Lastly, I must clarify that I am no fan of big government or big foreign policy for their own sake. Those who would suggest that the United States ought to attack autocracies to spread democracy or intervene to stop genocides and protect human rights, or that government ought to enforce strict moral norms within the country or institute programs to re-constitute equitably our society, I view as dangerous to the principles of liberty and order. I will argue out against any form of utopian governance and will fight for a balance of forces as is necessary to perpetuate the happiness of the American people.
But I will not do it as a Libertarian. Though invariably I might often be aligned alongside them, I will never fight for them.