Some conservatives are surprised to find people on the left supporting the war in Afghanistan. It's not surprising at all.
War collectivizes society and increases the government's domestic power. There is no mystery here. In war there seems to be one overriding goal for the entire society: Defeat the enemy. Everything else is subordinate. The aspirations of individuals must take a back seat to the war effort. Any resources the government decides it needs, it will have. But government produces no resources, so it must take them from those who do produce them.
The key collectivizing effect is not material but psychological. People are encouraged to think of themselves not as individuals but as cogs in the national crusade. That alone makes war attractive to some people. The American intellectual class from the mid-19th century onward has disliked liberalism (the original version: individualism, private property and limited government) precisely because a liberal society has no overarching goal. Individuals are free to use their freedom and property to pursue their own ends, which usually center on family, work, friends and community. Collectivists and nationalists disdain these concerns as "trivial pursuits," as one editorial writer put it recently.
Champions of the national unity imposed by war grow nostalgic when they look back. A television commercial for recordings of World War II--era music urged viewers to remember when "we all pulled together." That war was monstrous in the number of deaths and amount of destruction, but what is recalled fondly is the submergence of individualism. Some intellectuals have realized that war exacts a high price for unity, so they have longed for what philosopher Williams James called the "moral equivalent of war" -- that is, collectivism without the bloodshed. But nothing seems to work like the real thing. Now we have the real thing, and some left-wing intellectuals are in the ranks of the war boosters. Why not?
Several writers at The Nation, the quintessential leftist magazine, have found this war worthy of support for reasons that go beyond a wish for retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. Its editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in the Los Angeles Times with Professor Joel Rogers, proclaims, apparently without irony, that the war "presents the opportunity of a lifetime." Among other things, "war's mobilization of the populace against a shared threat also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market ... . In brief, Sept. 11 has made the idea of a public sector, and the society that it serves, attractive again."
Vanden Heuvel and Rogers are closer to the truth than the war boosters who claim to value limited government. Unlike the market, the "public sector" is coercive. War intensifies government power, regardless of anyone's wishes; the beast has a logic of its own.
Observe the concentration of power in the executive branch since Sept. 11. Observe the public's unquestioning support for that concentration. In 1917, as Woodrow Wilson prepared to take the United States into the European war, the leading collectivist intellectuals of the day, John Dewey and Herbert Croly of The New Republic, beat the drums for American participation.
Sounding much like vanden Heuvel, Dewey wrote that the progressive opponents of war were blind to the "immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war." He hoped they would work "to form ... the conditions and objects of our entrance." In other words, they should exploit the opportunities for collectivizing America that war bestowed.
Croly was pithier: "The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure." The progressive warriors failed to heed their erstwhile and prophetic colleague, Randolph Bourne, who wrote on the eve of U.S. entry that war is intrinsically illiberal. It is, he said, "the health of the state."
The war indeed set many precedents for government planning, regimentation and suppression of dissent. In the end, the progressives became disillusioned as idealism gave way to realpolitik, the consequences of which plague us even in the current conflict.
The upshot is that even those who feel this war is a just response to the murder of American civilians should temper their enthusiasm with the realization that it will change America for the worse not the better.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at the libertarian think tank Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He is also the author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State and the editor of Ideas on Liberty magazine.