The Paleo-Conservatism of Robert F. Kennedy

by | Jan 13, 2007 | Stress Blog | 9 comments

Awhile back, I mentioned that Bobby Kennedy was so conservative that he compared well with Pat Buchanan; Tim asked me to elaborate at some point. Here, therefore, is the follow-up. There are two main RFK biographies. The long, exhaustive “Robert Kennedy and His Times” by court historian Arthur Schlesinger lionizes Kennedy, who was certainly no saint. RFK himself would have approved of the book, but Bobby was impossibly intolerant of even the slightest negative remark about any of his family members. The more concise, balanced work is “Robert Kennedy: His Life” by Evan Thomas. That’s the book I’m going to quote. Thomas is honest in his appraisal of Kennedy’s ideological leanings, describing him as “more conservative than his supporters wanted to admit”.
On page 318, Thomas writes:

…Kennedy was more publicly explicit than most Democrats and moderate Republicans in his acknowledgment that welfare might actually be doing more harm than good. In February [1966], in a speech to some editors in New York, he noted that conservatives had long derided welfare for destroying self-respect and lower incentive. Then he confessed:

“Most of us deprecated and disregarded these criticisms. People were in need; obviously, we felt, to help people in trouble was the right thing to do. But in our urge to help, we also disregarded elementary fact. For the criticisms of welfare do have a center of truth, and they are confirmed by the evidence. Recent studies have shown, for example, that higher welfare payments often encourage students to drop out of school, that they encourage families to disintegrate, and that they often lead to lifelong dependency….”

With his suspicion of bureaucracies, Kennedy also attacked Big Government as the solution. In a reflexive dig at LBJ’s Great Society, he said, “There is not a problem for which there is not a program. There is not a problem for which dozens or hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats are not earnestly at work. But does this represent a solution to our problems? Manifestly it does not.”

Not to say that RFK was perfect. He planned what would have been a disastrous national health-care program that likely wouldn’t have succeeded anyway (just like Nixon’s “guaranteed income” idea failed), as well as a massive jobs bill. However, these were strange times. Many nutty ideas emerged that have since been well-forgotten.
Keep in mind also that beginning with speeches in 1967 Kennedy was vehemently against the war of extermination in South-East Asia (the event that’s typically referred to as the “Vietnam War” or “The defense of South Vietnam”). What other US politician at the time was both economically conservative, and adamantly anti-interventionist?

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