Anti-Government vs. Constitutionalism

Paul Weyrich labored many years in the vineyards of the conservative movement, and however one judges the success of the harvest, he must be given his just portion of the credit for it. We count ourselves among his frequent admirers. But sometimes Weyrich strains the admiration of his friends, as he did earlier this week.

In an article published in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, Weyrich offers a confusing — and confused — argument about the lasting damage Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh inflicted upon conservativism. If we understand Weyrich correctly, he seems to equate the anti-government terrorism of McVeigh with the limited-government conservatism of, say, Rep. Dick Armey, or the constitutionalism that we advocate here at the Claremont Institute.

What other conclusion could we possibly reach? Weyrich writes: "Beyond the horror and carnage inflicted on Oklahoma City, McVeigh did great damage to the movement he professed to be a part of." And what movement would that be? Was McVeigh a member of Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation? Did he receive Heritage Foundation policy briefings? Weyrich doesn't say exactly, but he does go on: "The anti-government mood was really gaining strength in the country. The 1994 elections swept into office some of the most determined reformers ever in modern times."

Let us be clear: McVeigh was a low-down murderer who struck at the heart of the republic. He was not a patriot in any sense of the word. What he did was not a political act. It was a crime. He did not make arguments to reform the government. He made bombs to destroy it.

McVeigh was not part of any movement of which the Claremont Institute is a part. If we stand for anything, it is the right of every human being to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," all of which the terrorist McVeigh took from 168 innocent people in Oklahoma City.

Says Weyrich: "That bombing completely tore the heart out of the anti-government movement in the country . . . It put the forces of less government completely on the defensive, lest somehow they be linked to Oklahoma City." Certainly we did not go on the defensive. We continued saying the day after the bombing exactly what we had been saying the day before: that the federal government has burst the constitutional bonds placed upon it by our Founding Fathers and is over-taxing its citizens, over-spending their money, and over-regulating their lives.

By linking McVeigh to any political movement that seeks to reduce the size of government by constitutional means, Weyrich is guilty of employing the same rhetoric used by Bill Clinton. Remember that Clinton used the bombing to discredit the agenda of the newly elected Republican Congress. The liberal media eagerly parroted this line on the evening news and in print.

No doubt Weyrich would deny that his argument is no different in principle from the demagoguery deployed by the ex-president. Yet he uses the terms "anti-government" and "less government" interchangeably. They are clearly not the same thing. But does Weyrich know it?

After the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994, conservatives failed to achieve clear and permanent victories. But this could be expected in any case. The enormous power and reach of the federal bureaucracies was not going to be reined in overnight. Nevertheless, it led Weyrich to effectively withdraw from the cause.

Recall his famous 1999 open letter to conservatives, written in the wake of impeachment, which urged true believers to give up the "culture war" as lost and to quarantine themselves from American society and its "alien ideology" of moral relativism.

After Weyrich published the letter, we wrote to Precepts readers that his idea was "based upon a bad premise [and] even if the premise were true, the strategy would fail."

What Weyrich failed to understand, we argued, was that "to a wide extent, the deterioration in the culture turns out to be a political phenomenon. To abandon politics is to abandon one's fellow citizens — and of course ultimately oneself and ones own family — to the ravages of bad law."

That certainly remains true today, even with a Republican president in the White House and a nominally Republican- controlled House of Representatives. Anti-government rhetoric is no more principled than the blindly pro-government rhetoric of welfare-state liberalism and its successors.

The problem with many conservatives — and Beltway conservatives in particular — is that they do not properly understand the meaning of constitutionalism. Government is necessary. We must have it. The reason is because we are human beings. After all, James Madison wrote, "what is government itself but the profoundest reflection on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

We cannot live among ourselves without any rules because we have faults. We get to choose what the rules are, but they must apply to everyone equally. Of course, all of our faults are possessed by the people who run the government. Madison goes on to tell us that, "If Angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls upon the government would be necessary."

When we give someone the force of law, we give that person power. That someone is human, so there must be checks on that power. Those checks are provided by the Constitution. One such check is the election. In the words of Lincoln, "ballots, not bullets."

Weyrich writes that "the anti-government forces have never regained the momentum they had before the bombing occurred. Only God knows how far things might have gone had this man-made act of vengeance not interfered with the political forces that had been building for years." The only anti-government forces that lost momentum in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing were such groups as the Michigan Militia — groups that set themselves outside of politics and, to the extent they had any influence at all, were part of the problem.

Evidently, Weyrich cannot make simple distinctions between those who wish to defend the Republic and those who would destroy it. Perhaps it is time for him to give it up, and let the rest of us continue to do the work necessary to save America from all her enemies, foreign and domestic.