The Paleo Question

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This article originally appeared on December 2, 2000.

The Paleo Movement, written about by James P. Lubinskas on Frontpagemag.com, was born in the latter days of the Cold War. It combined traditionalist and libertarian factions with the negative goal of opposing Republican moderates, neoconservatives, libertarian sellouts, and compromises on welfare and warfare, and the positive goal of embracing a bourgeois-based free-market radicalism rooted in American history and mainstream American culture (which was and is under assault by the State). Its public face, for good and ill, was that of Pat Buchanan.

Now, in the wake of the pathetic Buchanan showing in 2000, Lubinskas has proclaimed the movement’s death. He is half right: Buchananism, having abandoned the fight against the Leviathan State and embraced the American mercantilist tradition, has been intellectually bankrupt for at least five years, and politically dead for four years. But Lubinskas is also half wrong: the original paleo spirit of a middle-class revolution against centralized political elites is in full swing despite every attempt to kill it. His mistake consists in conflating the two.

The paleo movement was an important one in the history of political ideas because it helped drag the American conservative and libertarian movements into post-Cold War political realities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, even after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it was not uncommon for libertarian and neoconservative writers to call for global military interventions, and to display a continued commitment to the Garrison State. Paleos demanded a peace dividend: an end to warmongering and a return to normalcy.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the old spirit of Chodorov and the anti-New Deal libertarians, along with the vibrant intellectual tradition that backed them, had long been jettisoned in favor of a reconstructed right-tinged social democracy that heralded FDR and Martin Luther King. The paleo movement, inspired and guided in part by the libertarian radicalism of Murray N. Rothbard, was about restoring principled antistatist thinking to its rightful place in American political culture.

Ten years ago the paleos anticipated what is now a fact: 1980s-style social-democratic thinking is out of fashion, while radicalization among the grass roots is in. In fact, welfare-warfare statism on the Right is not practiced today without reprisal from readers and donors. Another crucial concern was political decentralism, federalism, and secessionism. These ideas were nowhere to be seen outside paleo ranks in the early 1990s. Now they are so mainstream that the New York Times runs pieces suggesting it is the only way out of the present political crisis.

The American Right has come a very long way in a very short time, with the Republican rank-and-file expressing views toward war that recall the New Left antics of the 1960s, and proclaiming the freedom of association as the key civil-rights goal. The paleos led the way in this dramatic change. There is a direct line between the bourgeois radicalism now on display across the country, and the meetings of dissidents at the John Randolph Club in the early 1990s.

The fallacy on display in Lubinskas’s article is the identification of Buchanan’s politics, with its vituperative anti-capitalism and belligerent nationalism, with the original goals behind the movement he regrettably came to represent. Recall that Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to George Bush was based on opposing Bush’s tax increases and Bush’s Gulf War. Buchanan’s break with neoconservative orthodoxy was an encouraging sign, and we rooted for him as he told the truth about the evil of both actions, and endured an incredible barrage of smears.

But recall too that late in the 1992 campaign, like a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, another side of Pat began to emerge. He proclaimed himself a “conservative of the heart” who had come to believe in massive unemployment payments. This was a huge concession, because it implied continued federal management of wage and employment contracts. The deviations escalated. In time, he made clear that he was the candidate who would protect and expand the middle-class welfare state, which included a call for all-round protectionism to shore up domestic manufacturing interests against foreign competition.

Something had gone haywire, but, to be fair, it took several years for this latent statism to fully reveal itself. In the intervening period, he was correct to oppose Nafta and the WTO (though he was never entirely correct on the reasons they should be opposed). By Buchanan’s 1996 run for president, many paleos had indeed hooked their wagons to him, which was a huge error aggressively opposed by many of us (as Lubinskas observes). It was especially ironic, since the original charter of the Randolph Club barred politicians and other government agents from membership or even speaking.

The libertarian faction of the movement saw that far too many compromises were being made to accommodate Buchanan’s increasingly idiosyncratic and statist political views. His anti-free market, pro-trade union bias was now out of the bag; indeed, it became a central theme of his campaign. The idea behind the paleo turn was to decry ideological sellout, not follow some ambitious politician down the same road! Rothbard sent up a warning about this in 1993 and, again, in 1995, in a missive that caused wailing and gnashing of teeth inside Pat’s organization.

Eventually, of course, exactly as Rothbard had predicted, Buchanan went one way and the spirit of what we might call paleo-paleoism went another. Today, Buchanan is finished, like many a protectionist-nationalist office seeker before him. Meanwhile, the radical spirit of bourgeois opposition to the US State and all its works is everywhere on display. Indeed, the attempt by Gore to seize power contrary to the Constitution has emboldened the movement like never before.

Opinion Journal, the website of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, endorsed the Lubinskas view, spinning it as a victory for neocons who believe in mass immigration and an “interventionist foreign policy.” But Bush’s public statements have been less imperialist than Gore, a fact which has been variously decried in what remains of the old-fashioned neocon press. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s habitual call for the elimination of all border controls has less resonance than ever: every Republican knows that without the votes of uninvited immigrants — while invited immigrants continue to be refused even the right to work — W. would have won in a walk.

In fact, the bourgeois revolution has been joined by such prominent neocon institutions as National Review, the Weekly Standard, and, indeed, Frontpagemag.com, which today sound the same political rhetoric available only in the paleo publications of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. And consider the Freepers, who are enjoying fame for having launched the biggest bourgeois protest movement of our time: is theirs the spirit of Podhoretz or Rothbard?

The greatest hope for liberty in our time is precisely the middle-class revolt Rothbard pushed for his entire life. This is not the death of paleoism, much less paleolibertarianism, but the crackup of the old neoconservative consensus and the mainstreaming of political revolt. That Buchanan is not this movement’s leader is a sign that its radicalism is so deep that it neither needs nor desires the guidance of anyone in DC.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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