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What Would Churchill Do?

Friday, December 21, 2012

November 6 was an electoral setback dealt to those of us who believe in capitalism and limited government. What can we learn from Churchill, who was no stranger to setbacks?

I looked forward to Tuesday, November 6, 2012 with nervous anticipation. That was the publication date for the long-awaited third volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. This final installment, subtitled Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, was written mostly by Paul Reid, as Manchester himself was unable to make much headway prior to his death in 2004.

That day also was notable for an electoral setback dealt to those of us who believe in capitalism and limited government. What can we learn from Churchill, who was no stranger to setbacks?  I suggest four lessons that we can apply today:

1.    Speak up clearly.

2.    Pursue glory.  

3.    Trust that the people are stronger than their leaders. 

4.    Seek opportunities for small victories while waiting for the tide to turn in your favor.

The issue that we need to address clearly, courageously, and consistently is the issue of government spending. We need to offer the American people an adult discussion about the state of the government budget. Like a family that has been spending beyond its means and is now buried in credit card debt, we need to sit down and come up with a plan to mend our ways.

Republican politicians have avoided this conversation. Instead, they have emphasized tax cuts, leading the public to believe that the Republican Party is the mirror image of the Democrats, trying to focus on what the government can give away rather than on where it must cut back. 

Winston Churchill aimed for glory, whether in victory or defeat. Romney's campaign was cautious and uninspired, with no chance of glory in either eventuality.

This year's Republican presidential nominee once again focused on tax cuts while largely evading the spending issue. Moreover, Mitt Romney undermined the case for entitlement reform with the tactic of trying to pin the “Medicare cutbacks” label on President Obama. Regardless of the merits of this charge, and regardless of its usefulness in neutralizing the short-run Democratic political advantage on the Medicare issue, this approach undermined any ability to get across the message that Medicare is unsustainable and in dire need of reform.

Churchill aimed for glory, whether in victory or defeat. Romney's campaign was cautious and uninspired, with no chance of glory in either eventuality. Had he instead said in plain terms that our government is broke and offered specific, bold steps to eliminate activities and reform entitlements, perhaps the result would have been a resounding loss. But it would have been an inspiring defeat, one that would have positioned the Republican Party to gain favor as the United States heads toward fiscal crisis, just as Churchill's long record of warnings about the Nazis positioned him to gain favor when Hitler launched his blitzkrieg.

Many experts thought that the British people would not have the will to resist Nazi aggression. Many within the British elite were weak and fearful. Fortunately for Churchill, the rest of British society was made of sterner stuff. 

Today, faced with a need to cut back government spending, once again experts think that the people cannot handle it. Elites greet the prospect of spending reductions with shrill cries of “austerity” and the fear that this will cause recession and misery for the middle class. I believe that the American people are made of sterner stuff. Unlike the Greeks, they will not riot because the government chooses to live within its means. Nor will the middle class lack the ability to adapt to an economy that relies more on the private sector.

After France fell in June 1940, Churchill's focus had to be on the defense of England, against both the possibility of an infantry invasion from across the English Channel and the reality of a furious assault from the air. Nonetheless, he pursued offensive actions, including naval attacks on the Vichy French and Italian fleets, attacks on Italian positions in North Africa, and sending bombers to hit Germany. As Paul Reid points out, regardless of how trivial these actions were in the face of German hegemony over Western Europe, these gestures served to send a message to the world that the British nation still felt freedom was worth fighting for.

Today, faced with a need to cut back government spending, once again experts think that the people cannot handle it.

How can conservatives earn small victories that send a message that we still believe in capitalism? In Washington, notwithstanding the status quo in the House of Representatives, the Left has hegemony for now. Still, there may be opportunities for small victories against the “soft underbelly” of Obama's spending spree — the “green energy” loan guarantees, for example. 

On the issue of the budget, the Left has used the “fiscal cliff” issue to paint an Orwellian portrait in which more deficit spending is prudent and any move toward fiscal responsibility is irresponsible. Those of us in opposition should be attaching a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget to every piece of fiscal legislation going forward. We need to restore the real meaning of fiscal responsibility to American political culture.

While Washington may be a hopeless case in the short run, there are intriguing opportunities for small victories at the state level. Republicans hold the majority of governorships and have majorities in many state legislatures. They can continue to take on the teachers' unions and broaden access to charter schools. They can take steps to break the Left-dominated cartel in higher education —  Texas Governor Rick Perry's goal of a $10,000 college degree comes to mind. They might set up “health care enterprise zones,” where medical practice restrictions are relaxed and other state regulations are loosened.

By remaining steadfast, Churchill was able to absorb many defeats and still prevail in the long run. Defenders of capitalism should draw inspiration from his example.

Arnold Kling is a member of the Financial Markets Working Group at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. He writes for econlog, part of the Library of Economics and Liberty.

FURTHER READING: Kling also writes “The Risky Mortgage Business: The Problem with the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage,” “Lenders and Spenders: Confronting the Political Reality of Debt,” “Reforming the Housing Transaction,” and “Who Needs Home Ownership?” John Steele Gordon discusses “Churchill and the Power of Words.” Steven F. Hayward asks “Is Newt Like Churchill?

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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