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Nov. 24 2009 - 1:48 pm | 326 views | 2 recommendations | 19 comments

How Glenn Beck Can Save the Right

“The Democrats felt we needed to empire build with one giant global government … The Republicans took it as, we’re going to lead the world and we’ll be the leader of it … I don’t think we should be either of those. I think we need to mind our own business and protect our own people. When somebody hits us, hit back hard, then come home.” ~ Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck appears at a rally in Huntington, WV in May 2003 (Shaun Heasley/Getty)

Glenn Beck appears at a rally in Huntington, WV in May 2003 (Shaun Heasley/Getty)

As the Obama administration pushes its expensive healthcare reform agenda, tackles global warming head-on (sort of), and moves forward with its various stimulus projects and bailouts, the president also took the time to sign into law the most expensive defense budget since World War II.

By itself, the defense budget totals $680 billion dollars for the fiscal year 2010. But veterans affairs, military construction and other military-related agencies will get an additional $133 billion dollars, and the Department of Homeland Security will get $42.8 billion.

All told, that’s $855.8 billion dollars – approximately $8 billion more than the Senate healthcare bill would cost Americans in ten years. And this is the defense budget for fiscal year 2010 alone. If we only pay this much for the next ten years, Americans will have spent nearly $9 trillion on defense in a decade – or just over $8 trillion dollars more than we’ll spend if we pass healthcare reform.

This is a symptom of empire-building. America is not imperial in the traditional sense, of course. We are not colonists. We have little interest in actually conquering territory. But we do have an overabundance of faith in the ability of our military to insure our security and our economic interests across the globe. Our military foots the bill for the defense of Europe and our Asian allies, allowing those countries to spend their own tax revenues on lavish safety nets and top-notch education programs. Meanwhile, Americans pay for Leviathan. Or at least the Leviathan with the guns.

Without serious cuts in our defense budget, it becomes almost certain that we’ll be unable to afford programs like those the Europeans have, or to even maximize the potential of our private-sector economy and innovation. One trillion dollars a year is a lot of money that could have gone to innovation in the markets. We can’t have it both ways, of course, even though everyone in Washington will tell you that we can. Indeed, it is the European governments which are freed from this military spending which are spending the most on butter, while Americans find themselves more and more mired in debt. You can have guns or you can have butter, but you can’t have both.

Ironically, it is the conservatives who comprise the vanguard of this big-government spending crusade. Leading the charge are the neoconservatives, who were never really conservative to begin with but rather savvy liberal internationalists with a dubious talent for revving up faux-patriotic nationalism and channeling it for their own foreign policy agenda. (See America circa 2003.)

Leaving aside the inconsistency of proponents of limited government advocating near-trillion-dollar defense bills (and then castigating the commander-in-chief for any and all other government spending) we need to realize that the defense lobby is very wide-spread. The defense industry spans many states. Army bases, contractors, military service providers, and many others make up the constituencies of a wide selection of both Democratic and Republican legislators. It’s not at all hard for the defense lobby to pluck up enough congressmen to protect its interests.

Nineteenth-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, warned of this sort of thing long before trillion dollar defense budgets were even something remotely comprehensible. Bastiat knew that the first argument against cutting defense spending would revolve around jobs. If we cut spending, where will all those military jobs go? What about all the economy that existed in providing services to soldiers? What about all those gun and canon manufacturers and the ship builders and the seamstresses employed to sew uniforms?

Bastiat framed his approach to economics as what is seen vs. what is not seen. “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one,” Bastiat wrote over one hundred and fifty years ago. “The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

This informs much of Bastiat’s work on free trade, and the same principles apply to demobilization of military forces. In the following passage the stage has been set: there has been a call to demobilize one hundred thousand troops and save the taxpayers some money since there is no longer any need for that many troops in the French military. Imagine a congressman calling for the halving of the defense budget and you get a sense of what we’re dealing with here. The arguments for and against are the same. The argument against drawing down these troops is the same we hear today: that suddenly one hundred thousand men previously employed would now flood the labor market, driving up unemployment and driving down wages. The effects to the economy, it is argued, would be crippling.

Bastiat disagreed:

Now comes demobilization. You point out to me a surplus of a hundred thousand workers, intensified competition and the pressure that it exerts on wage rates. That is what you see.

But here is what you do not see. You do not see that to send home a hundred thousand soldiers is not to do away with a hundred million francs, but to return that money to the taxpayers. You do not see that to throw a hundred thousand workers on the market in this way is to throw in at the same time the hundred million francs destined to pay for their labor; that, as a consequence, the same measure that increases the supply of workers also increases the demand; from which it follows that your lowering of wages is illusory. You do not see that before, as well as after, the demobilization there are a hundred million francs corresponding to the hundred thousand men; that the whole difference consists in this: that before, the country gives the hundred million francs to the hundred thousand men for doing nothing; afterwards, it gives them the money for working. Finally, you do not see that when a taxpayer gives his money, whether to a soldier in exchange for nothing or to a worker in exchange for something, all the more remote consequences of the circulation of this money are the same in both cases: only, in the second case the taxpayer receives something; in the first he receives nothing. Result: a dead loss for the nation.

This is a pretty solid refutation of the idea that slashing defense spending will result in economic crisis. If anything, slashing defense spending could have a stimulative effect. But it appears unlikely that the Democrats – at least under the current administration – will do anything substantive to tackle this elephant in the room. Politically it’s very risky for Democrats, who are often painted as weak on defense, to do anything to upset the defense status quo. Then there are the Republicans who, besides Ron Paul and perhaps Jeff Flake, remain in the grips of a neoconservative vision of a new American century led by military might and American triumphalism.

Enter Glenn Beck.

Now, nobody could say with a straight face that Glenn Beck is a serious political thinker, or the sort of man who would likely spearhead a movement toward a more temperate conservatism. But could he move us in the direction of a less arrogant foreign policy? Glenn Beck possesses that same uncanny capacity to harness the energy of the conservative base that the neoconservatives have used time and again to rile up the population in support of some war or another, as they did in 2003 in the blind charge into Iraq. Indeed, Glenn Beck was one of them at the time, and remained a fairly staunch supporter of the neoconservative line for most of George W. Bush’s presidency.

However, Glenn Beck seems to be shifting course, and shifting in a way that few – if any – mainstream right-wing pundits would ever dare: that is, to critique American foreign policy and even utter the words “empire” and “American” in conjunction with one another. In an interview with Katie Couric, Beck said:

I am becoming more and more libertarian every day, I guess the scales are falling off of my eyes, as I’m doing more and more research into history and learning real history. Back at the turn of the century in 1900, with Teddy Roosevelt—a Republican—we started this, “we’re going to tell the rest of the world,” “we’re going to spread democracy,” and we really became, down in Latin America, we really became thuggish and brutish. It only got worse with the next progressive that came into office—Teddy Roosevelt, Republican progressive—the next one was a Democratic progressive, Woodrow Wilson, and we did … we empire built.

As Jack Hunter points out, this has led to other pundits like the neoconservative Mark Levin, to start attacking Beck, attempting to marginilize him. It’s hardly the maudlin, weeping Beck that troubles Levin or Limbaugh or Bill Kristol. Rather, it’s this new display of distrust toward the military-industrial complex, coupled with Beck’s huge audience, which is leading them to slowly distance themselves from his positions and from the man himself.

Of course it’s possible that Beck is just an opportunist – a showman. He’s certainly an entertainer first, and a political thinker second, though his earnestness lately seems to be at least partly sincere (all melodrama aside). The important thing, however, is that he reaches the conservative base in this country, and that a new message of anti-imperialism, of non-interventionism and humility in foreign affairs is exactly what conservatism needs, and it needs it from the grassroots on up.

It needs more than that, obviously. The right has long since abandoned any serious attempts to tackle the problems facing this country domestically – but this is largely because Republicans have preferred to play it safe by stoking nationalist impulses and beating on the defense drum. Armed with an increasingly powerful executive and an increasingly influential neoconservative wing, this has been the perfect recipe for an ineffectual, ultimately disastrous trajectory for the GOP.

What conservatives need is someone with a high pulpit to tell them that this all-powerful executive branch and its corresponding militarism is wrong, is the antipathy of limited government, and is leading us far quicker toward bankruptcy than healthcare spending. Ron Paul started that ball rolling in the 2008 election. Perhaps Glenn Beck will be the one to pick it up and run with it. Perhaps he can be a sort of gateway drug to a more level-headed foreign policy, however crazy that sounds.

For now, all we know is that Glenn Beck has a plan. The details are, of course, forthcoming.

(Image via Daylife)


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Kain,

    The problem with Mr. Beck and all of his “conservative” friends in the Republican Party is that they talk a great talk but do not walk a great walk. If you will recall it was none other than George W. Bush (and Dick Chenney & every other Republican) who criticized Bill Clinton for his “nation building” hubris is the former Yugoslavia.Mr. Bush campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy and being a “uniter, not a divider”. Conservatives have been talking for 30 or more about the wild spending of the “tax and spend” Democrats but we saw Mr. Bush outspend them handily and all on borrowed money (those “borrow and spend” Republicans!). We heard the endless chatter about “individual responsibility” and ending the “sense of entitlement” to government hand outs but when Wall Street went up in flames, who was right there with their hands out for those nasty entitlement dollars? Did any of them take any responsibility for running the companies that they had been entrusted with into the ground? No, they just gave themselves big old bonuses for their great work.

    Glen Beck and his talk are cheap. He can keep his details.

  2. collapse expand

    I’ve been thinking much the same way of late. Beck is crazy, a brazen self-promoter, and a perpetual salesman. He’s also intellectually coherent (perhaps unintentionally) in a way that most conservative pundits are not – though I don’t hesitate to add that two years ago, he did not fit that description. There is a very real way in which he could, ironically, play a key role in bringing the Right back to sanity precisely by continuing to be completely insane.

  3. collapse expand

    I would hope conservatives could find a better front man than Glenn, but I think you are spot on in your assessment of what the GOP needs to do to right their ship.

  4. collapse expand

    What does Glenn Beck have that Ron Paul doesn’t? After all, RP has been stating the anti-imperialist position consistently and eloquently while Glenn Beck was cheerleading for George Bush. You could say that RP was a little too close to the looney bin, but you can’t really say that Glenn Beck is any farther from it.
    Maybe Ron needs to get a TV show and an acting coach.
    BTW, on this point, If I were Obama, I’d be embarrassed that Glenn Beck was making more sense than he is.

  5. collapse expand

    Very nicely put.
    As for Beck, even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this instance, he has the right idea.
    But it takes an enormously long time to get a society to understand that its empire days have come to an end. In the case of Great Britain, it took both the first and second world wars before they could understand that the world had changed and they could not longer afford to maintain their empire. It took Charles De Gaulle, the French hero of WWII, the make his country understand that empire building was destroying his country as he made the unpopular choice to leave Algeria.
    I think the US is starting to get it, but it will take awhile. Disingenuous politicians will not help us get there. Worse still, many of our national leaders are not capable of understanding what is going on around us. At least Beck gets it. Wow.. Let the record show that I actually had something good to say about Glenn Beck today.

  6. collapse expand

    I think the US would be well advised to slash defense spending, and the amount of money we spend moving aircraft carriers around in the Indian Ocean and firing 10-million-dollar missiles at villages full of people who earn $200 a year is crazy.

    However, I don’t think it’s wise to give Glenn Beck any respect or bolster his credentials in any way. He’s a Father Coughlin figure. No doubt Father Coughlin occasionally said something correct too, but you don’t want people like this to gain any credibility among serious people. If we want intelligent Republicans running the GOP, we should be praising…intelligent Republicans, not Glenn Beck.

    • collapse expand

      It’s not really “praising” Beck so much as pointing out that he could inadvertently be a good influence on the conservative base…just sayin’…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I hope you’re right, Erik. I personally can’t stand Beck and his pomposity and fake(?) tears about how much he loves this country. (I think he loves Glenn Beck a whole lot more!)

        Even if we give Beck the benefit of the doubt that he’s in the midst of an evolution toward a more libertarian outlook, which includes a much humbler foreign policy. What about the Fox network and Rupert Murdoch? It has been my belief that Murdoch and Fox are firmly in the neocon camp. Are they going to allow Beck to drift out of the neocon orbit?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    “it is the conservatives who comprise the vanguard of this big-government spending crusade. Leading the charge are the neoconservatives, who were never really conservative to begin with but rather savvy liberal internationalists with a dubious talent for revving up faux-patriotic nationalism and channeling it for their own foreign policy agenda.”
    I’ve been waiting a long time to hear someone say this. Although I would disagree with the term “liberal internationalists”. Liberal imperialists would be more appropriate. The modern day imperialists have no need for nation building, they’ve learned they can resource other nations labor pools without a lot of capital expenditure (nation building) and if you’re a country with a resource that is truly valuable (oil) we declare war on you in the name of national security. War and imperial ambitions are the most liberal of ideas known to man.

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