The Magazine

The Myth of the Old Right


Robert A. Taft is generally seen by the Old and Alternative Rights as the last major national political figure, narrowly defined, that shared many of our principles. Evidence of the Senator's popularity can be seen in the existence of The Robert A. Taft Club and the fact that The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft by Russell Kirk, first published in 1967, has been re-released in 2010. Going back and reading the work, however, makes me wonder whether we're not seeing Taft and the Old Right through nostalgia colored glasses.

Robert A. Taft didn't enter national politics until his 50s. His father, former president William Howard Taft, implied on more than one occasion that he wished his son had more ambition. It wasn't until 1938 that Taft the son, motivated by the desire to make sure Roosevelt's New Deal didn't destroy the American way of life, left the politics of his native Ohio and joined the U.S. Senate. He would remain there until his death in 1953. Principles was Russell Kirk's interpretation of the Senator's political philosophy based on the latter's public statements, articles and one book, the A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951).

In his 13 years in the US Senate, Taft earned the nickname "Mr. Republican" for being the party's most prominent public figure during much of its time as the opposition to the FDR and Truman regimes. Taft's intelligence and work ethic impressed his colleagues so much that in 1946 he was voted by Congress its ablest member, despite a Democratic majority at the time. One historian marvels that Taft seemed to read and form an opinion on every major domestic bill that came up for debate in the Senate.

While nobody would ever reverse the New Deal or keep America out of World War II, Kirk credits Taft for making sure that Roosevelt's policies didn't become revolutionary. The Senator was an early advocate of what we now call "accountable government." Just shortly after arriving in the Senate, Taft defeated Roosevelt's "spending-lending" bill, which he argued would put the government permanently in charge of American finance and industry.

When only a senator for two months, Taft began a series of radio debates with Professor T.V. Smith, a pro-New Deal Congressmen from Illinois. When the series was over, two-thirds of those that listened told Gallup that they thought that Taft had the better argument, and even The Nation admitted that the conservative "had whipped a prime New Deal intellectual." The debates were published in a book entitled Foundations of Democracy. Taft argued that the American way of life guarantees equality of opportunity, but not "equality in mental power or in character or in energy." (Such a statement implies IQ realism, and it's doubtful that it would be made by any politician today.) He came out against political centralization and made the point that a government far removed from its people often isn't responsive to it. Taft compared the New Dealers to Marx and Lenin and wasn't afraid to refer to their policies as "socialism." In addition to taking away individual freedoms, collectivist economic policies were inflationary and put the nation in debt.

Taft was an opponent of arbitrary power, which he saw in any scheme for universal military training. He opposed the Select Service Act of 1940 and helped defeat the Austin-Wadsworth "work or fight" bill of 1943. In March of 1948 President Truman went before Congress and told them that UMT would be needed to deal with emergencies at home or abroad. Taft made himself a personal enemy of the president's goal. Congress would yield to the leader of the Republicans, whom future generations of American men would have to thank for making sure they wouldn't spend years of their youths as government slaves.

Before Pearl Harbor, Mr. Republican argued for strict neutrality. When the war did commence, he made sure that the state did not seize absolute power in the name of dealing with an emergency. As Taft was running for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination he wrote A Foreign Policy for Americans. In private conversation, he admitted that he hadn't ever thought much about international issues before running for president in the early days of the Cold War forced him to.

Contrary to his pacifist reputation, Taft was arguably more hawkish on the Korean War than the Truman administration and supported General MacArthur. His difference with the establishment wasn't over whether to oppose armed Communism, but over where much of the battlefield should be. Taft thought it should be in East Asia and chided the Truman government for losing China. A Foreign Policy takes the State Department to task for having encouraged the Chinese Nationalists to take Communists into their government. The author advocated creating a powerful army and supporting foreign governments that were struggling against the ideological scourge of the day. Although he didn't live long enough to have an opinion on Vietnam, one could almost imagine Taft having supported it, while perhaps quibbling that the war's budget was too high.

Unfortunately, Kirk makes clear that Taft was not consistently opposed to all forms of state coercion. He considered government's role in banking and finance as settled. To the economists of the Austrian School, if money is subject to state planning by the Federal Reserve System, then in no sense can a society say it has a "free market." Although it seems as if Taft and Kirk both detested ideology, without a coherent one, a person is prone to take the liberalism of the last generation as a given. Those that supported the free market at the turn of the century rallied against central banking, but their loss made sure that those of Taft's generation, who eschewed ideology, would take its existence for granted.

Senator Taft was also in favor of government intrusion into education, health care and housing. On the big issues, Taft disagreed with liberals only on the details. He rightly warned that a complete federal takeover of education would lead to indoctrination, but thought that funds should be redistributed from rich states to poor states to bring the latter's schooling up to par. It's only a short step from that view to the achievement-gap-closing mania that we see today. Taft was extremely naive to believe that the federal government would only distribute funds for teaching the young, while remaining indifferent to what they were taught.

Another thing that many conservatives may not know is that the supposed patriarch of the Old Right was an early advocate of affordable government-subsidized housing, the results of which are such American gems as inner city Chicago and Detroit. Taft proposed in his housing bill of 1945 that ten percent of the nation's construction of housing over the next ten years be subsidized by the federal government, which would also provide more funds for loans to those who had trouble buying their own homes. But as we learned from the recent Diversity Recession, if some people can't get approval for home loans, there's usually a good reason for it: the market has decided that they're probably not going to be able to pay them back. The reasons that such government schemes weren't as noticeably disastrous in the 1950s as they are now are our comparatively larger number of low IQ non-Asian Minorities (NAMs) and our poisonous coupling of affirmative action with socialist planning.

Taft wasn't simply a passive supporter of the creation of American ghettos and setting one of the precedents that led to our recent real estate collapse. Like George W. Bush, he was passionately attached to the idea the state should provide homes or at least loans to buy homes for those that can't afford them. In 1948 his third attempt to get a bill passed on the issue was defeated in Congress. Taft took the issue to the public. In 1949 he gave a speech in New York where he claimed that providing low-income housing wasn't only desirable from a humanitarian perspective, but would stimulate the economies in nearby areas.

Said Taft,

I have seen public housing projects in Cleveland, and elsewhere, which have changed the whole character of the neighborhood. Private owners have come in and improved all the homes in the neighboring section, new stores have been built and a standard established extending far beyond the number of homes covered by public housing.

Kirk writes, "The more well-housed and contented families there are, Taft remarked on several occasions, the more enduring will be the American political structure." What a very Rovian argument. Not only are the current inhabitants of the American projects not "well-housed and contented," but thanks to misguided compassion, the poorest people no longer even exist in units known as "families." You know someone made a bad prediction when not only are the adjectives used to describe the future off, but the nouns, too!

Taft finally got his wish with The Housing Act of 1949. According to Kirk, the bill wouldn't have passed without Taft's support, despite the fact that Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House.

In 1949, Taft complained that government at all levels was spending 30 percent of the country's money. If we want to continue under a free-market system, he asserted, then the state shouldn't be allowed to spend any more than a grand total of 25 percent of what the people make! Even in the 1940s, there was really only one political party at the national level. While Taft argued for government intervention in the economy because a Christian nation couldn't allow extreme deprivation, the fact that he didn't believe that private charity could feed and clothe people in a nation as rich as ours shows he wasn't as confident of our Christian character as he claimed to be.

Despite being a hero to many on the Alternative Right, Taft thought that the four issues mentioned above, currency regulation, health care, education and housing, were too important to be left to the market. But he never explained why capitalism was the best system for the distribution of steel or televisions but not education or medical care. Much of the Old Right seems to have gotten it backwards. They were fine with the market on most issues, but the more vital to a society's health or well-being something was the more they were willing to tolerate or actively encourage government intervention. Trying to provide for the poorest of the poor is what created the NAM ghettos that have destroyed our major cities. Government sponsorship of education has turned our youths into mindless multicultural zombies and made us unwilling patrons of anti-white brainwashing orientations and "Queer Studies" departments across the nation. And centralized banking not only continues to rob anybody who makes an honest living, but makes all the other crimes of government possible.

If there's a lesson to be learned from recent decades, it's that the more important an issue is to a nation's well-being, the less accepting we should be of government meddling, not the other way around. Anyone who agrees with that and is looking for a hero can do much better than Robert A. Taft, or for that matter, Russell Kirk.