Garet Garrett: Intellectual Ancestor to Postwar Conservatives
Along with figures such as Albert Jay Nock, Irving Babbitt, and the Southern Agrarians, Garet Garrett (1878–1954) is a member of what is known as the pre-War Right. These editors, critics, and essayists, now largely forgotten, inhabited an America so different in its concerns, interests, and values from the one in which we live today as to be almost incomprehensible. Their America, for all its obvious faults, still consciously placed itself within the political traditions of its Founding and the larger Christian heritage of the West, which stressed the importance of traditional values, limited government, and a suspicion of power, especially power asserted without legal boundaries for supposed common goods.
In contrast, as the supposed beneficiaries of the New Deal, the Great Society, the New Frontier, and countless other government programs over the last half-century, notions of self-government have almost disappeared from national discourse. We have come to rely on government (especially the federal government) assistance almost reflexively. Any truly contentious issue is passed on to what Russell Kirk called the “archonocracy,” in particular the Supreme Court, for authoritative rulings. And as the recent Lawrence decision shows, laws based on traditional morals are considered immediately suspect by the elites. Even purportedly conservative politicians now praise “democracy” rather than the republic writers like Garrett defended. Given these massive changes, Garrett seems like he comes from another planet. Is there even a reason any longer to care about what such antediluvian figures have to say?
This new two-volume collection of Garrett’s essays and editorials offers an affirmative answer to that question. For the questions that concerned him are those that should be at the center of any organized political society. How do we guarantee freedom? What is the place of government power in preserving liberty? When should a nation go to war, and for what cause? As Bruce Ramsay explains in his introduction, Garrett was a libertarian at home but a nationalist abroad; that is, he did not see any objection to tariffs on foreign trade or other protective measures in light of the enormous internal market for goods and services, which he felt should be kept as free as possible from government interference. This would have the added benefit of preventing American reliance on other countries for essential goods. He therefore did not accept the rhetoric of what we now would call the “global marketplace” in pursuing American interests.
Born in a small Illinois town, Edward Peter Garrett (he did not change his name to Garet until his early twenties; curiously, at least to me, Ramsay does not explain the reason for the change) lived much of his early life on a farm in Iowa. He experienced first hand as a boy the depression of the 1890s. By 1932, after some years moving around, he had been a newspaper manager and for the last decade the lead economics writer for the influential Saturday Evening Post. He was the author of several books, the most famous of which are perhaps his novel The Blue Wound (1921) and his collection, The People’s Pottage (1953). He watched the deepening economic crisis of the 1930s with dismay, but not (at first) with excessive alarm. It was not as bad, after all, as the depression he had lived through in his youth. Eventually, however, Garrett realized that the nation had reached a political turning point.
It is difficult now even to remember the looming political and economic crises of the early 1930s. In 1932, the aristocratic former New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had swept into power promising in his inaugural address to ask Congress for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” In 1933, Congress granted him those extraordinary powers, and the fateful analogy between social policy and warfare had begun. One by one, Garrett attacked each piece of FDR’s proposed solution: the National Recovery Administration and its collectivist “blue eagle,” the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the devaluation of the currency, Lend Lease, and almost ever other Roosevelt initiative. He saw in them not the “simple intention” of solving the crisis, but a “complex intention, not restoration, not prosperity as it had been before, but a complete new order, scientifically planned and managed, the individual profit motive tamed by government wisdom, human happiness ascendant on a plotted curve.” In these “emergency measures” Garrett anticipated the rise of government by experts and the welfare state. These actions also produced a sea-change in the way people thought of their government: they came to accept the loosening of any restrictions on its unilateral action, as Garrett argues in a brilliant essay included here on the elimination of the gold standard, “A Particular Kind of Money.”
The example of FDR presents a challenge to conservative principles: It cannot be denied, for example, that it was due largely to American arms that a great evil was stopped. The United States was correct to be allied with the free traditions of the West against the Nazi horrors. In retrospect, it seems, the arguments of the prewar isolationists were misplaced. And, of course, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor threw most criticisms of the country’s drift toward war into irrelevancy. Some have interpreted these facts to mean that the actions Roosevelt took prior to entry into the Second World War were justified because the outcome was successful and the cause was just. But this variant of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy should not distract us from legitimate criticisms of the Roosevelt administrations.
Garrett denounced the actions Roosevelt took in 1940 that moved the United States away from neutrality to quietly siding with the Allies. Although Garrett thought the country should stay out of the conflict entirely, he in particular condemned the President’s duplicity in failing to acknowledge to the American people that the country had in fact taken sides. In an editorial dated October 19, 1940, Garrett criticized Roosevelt’s pledge to take “measures short of war” to protect America, even as he was quietly allowing the sale of armaments to France and Britain:
It is notorious, nevertheless, that the American government is not neutral. The people are bound by the Neutrality Law, but the Government itself has systematically violated it by acts of intervention hat were, in fact, acts of war. Then why has the law not been repealed? Because, from the point of view of the executive will, that was not expedient. The executive will was resolved to intervene. The people were not. The people believed what the Government said, that was keeping them out of war by measures short of war, and when measures short of war had led to acts of war they could sooner be persuaded to condone a policy of subterfuge and degradation of law than to accept all at once the status of belligerency.
In that paragraph lay a critique not only of Roosevelt’s actions, but for many foreign policy actions in the subsequent six decades. Garrett’s opposition to such secretive policies was based in a belief in honest government and the protection of freedom. If the country were to go to war, so be it; but it must know why it is doing so, and how it arrived at the decision. Indeed, once the country had entered the war, Garrett resigned from his position at the Post and volunteered (at age 64) for service. He was no pacifist, but he did have a clear eye for the threat war presented to freedom.
For contemporary conservatives, Garrett cannot be easily categorized. His distaste for international efforts would not sit well with today’s conservative establishment, but he is not a traditionalist either. As Ramsay notes, Garrett “honored the strong,” a libertarian position that does not accord with the strong communitarian strains in American life. One need not embrace the welfare state to believe that unbridled capitalism is not a recipe for freedom. As he wrote in an essay on the Seattle labor leader Henry Beck, one man can have the force of government. Garrett’s libertarian beliefs caused him to side with the Henry Fords of the world rather than the Becks, but either could be a threat to freedom through manipulation of the economic or political process.
In the Western tradition, freedom has objects that transcend merely unlimited freedom, and the project of civilization is to help individuals realize those objects. This element of the Western tradition is largely absent from these selections, so we do not know how Garrett’s views of the economic crisis fit within his larger understanding of freedom. To be fair, Garrett was a newspaperman, and these essays by their nature are devoted to the pressing practical issues of his day. Ramsay’s introduction and notes, while helpful, nevertheless leave some remaining gaps. For example, it would have been helpful to flesh out further the distinction between free trade nationally and national interest internationally, which places Garrett as an intellectual ancestor to figures such as Patrick J. Buchanan and Gore Vidal. Nevertheless, these two volumes fill an important gap in conservative writing.
Gerald J. Russello is the editor of the University Bookman and lives in Brooklyn.
Posted: March 21, 2007