Conservatism at a Turning Point: Turning Out Old Friends, That Is

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by Gene Callahan

Charles R. Kesler, writing in National Review Online, declares that we are seeing “Conservatism at a turning point.” Although ostensibly the point of the article is to argue that conservatives should continue to fight for limited government, the real thrust, and all of the most dismissive statements, are directed not at “big government conservatives” but at libertarians. That is odd: One would think that in arguing against big government conservatives (BGCs), libertarians would be natural allies. If not seen as allies, then perhaps they wouldn’t even appear in such a piece. But I suspect the real point of Kesler’s article is not to argue against BGCs, but to convince discouraged, small government conservatives to keep away from the libertarians.

Kesler’s article is interesting because it is representative of a spate of recent articles from conservatives sounding similar themes. I’d like to take a detailed look at Kesler’s argument, then a brief one at the more general phenomenon of which it is a part. Since I repeatedly will be quoting Kesler, I won’t keep pointing that out below.

After reviewing some a few quotes from BGCs such as Fukuyama and Will, Kesler begins his argument:

“American conservatism has reached a turning point. For decades, the conservative movement was a coalition of traditionalists, neoconservatives, and libertarians, united by their antipathy to Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism. But as our common enemies have faded, so has our sense of purpose and identity. The brave movement that defined itself largely (though never completely) by what it was against now has to decide what it is for.

“But this great, exhilarating challenge shouldn’t be permitted to subside into a weary endorsement of the status quo. Acquiescing in the present size, scope, and ambition of the federal government would be the worst sort of fatalism masquerading as realism.”

Not a bad start. But, here comes the real point of the article:

“September 11’s attacks settled nothing on this score, except perhaps to discredit the most extreme forms of libertarian anti-statism.”

Interesting. Here is a group of people who have ceaselessly warned against foreign interventionism on the part of the U.S. government. Among other reasons, they said that such interventions were bound to produce “blowback” – a reaction by people who found themselves on the wrong side of some U.S. intervention and were angry about it. Interventionist policies, they warned us, were dangerous to Americans, and the U.S. government would prove as inept at protecting Americans against blowback as it proved at all other tasks.

So when exactly what those people were warning us about occurred, and the U.S. government proved just as inept as they predicted it would be… they are discredited?! Shouldn’t it be the neoconservative and neoliberal interventionists who were discredited?

“Wartime is, so The Federalist argued, always friendly to the national government because it is an occasion that calls for all of constitutional government’s proper energy u2014 especially executive-branch energy.”

The cynical among us might suspect that is exactly why we have so many wars. But cynicism is an ugly thing, isn’t it?

“War also elicits patriotism, which confirms that man is not by nature libertarian.”

And porno flicks elicit turgidity, which confirms that man is not by nature chaste. Or whatever. Kesler’s statement is so confused one hardly knows how to address it. Yes, it’s true that when a group is attacked, that group tends to pull together. And, today, it happens to be the State that provides defense, so much of the rallying happens behind the flag of the State. But how does that show that man’s “nature” is not libertarian?

And isn’t it conservatives who are always saying that culture and morality serve to restrain man’s base nature? If, in fact, libertarianism is just, why would it matter whether or not man is “by nature libertarian”? If it isn’t our nature, but it is just, shouldn’t we strive to improve? If lynch mobs “show” that man is by nature a thuggish herd animal, would Kesler conclude, “Well, so there you have it”?

“Fukuyama and Will are correct that the conservatives’ and especially the Republicans’ fight against Big Government was faltering long before September 11.”

Yep, they sure are. We might say it began “faltering” around 1952, with the nomination of Eisenhower as the Republican presidential candidate. Or perhaps it began “faltering” in 1928, when the socialist planner Hoover was made the Republican standard bearer. Or maybe even in 1860, when Republicans put a man who would expand the powers of the Federal government like no other president in history, Abraham Lincoln, forward as their nominee.

“Nonetheless, this doesn’t prove that conservatives lack a cogent criticism of the modern state…”

No, but it shows that they’re unlikely to ever do anything with it! Again, someone who was a cynic might come to believe that political and media conservatives’ “criticism of the modern state” exists only to co-opt existing libertarian tendencies in the American people. The whole point is to lead them to believe that one party is actually protecting their liberty, even while in practice all it ever does is cooperate in State expansion.

“It proves only that the common libertarian critique, rooted in amoral freedom and the economist’s view of human nature, has run its course.”

The bits about “amoral freedom” and “economist’s view of human nature” are such old canards that one suspects even Kesler knows they don’t lay a glove on his opponent. Libertarianism is first and foremost a moral doctrine. Although it’s been said in a variety of ways, I’ll state the basic libertarian premise as follows: the same rules apply to everyone. If you can’t steal, I can’t steal, even if I have an IRS badge. If you can’t kill innocent people, I can’t, even if I have a military uniform. If I can’t interfere with your freedom unless you are aggressing against me, then you can’t interfere with mine, even if you don’t like what I smoke.

Is libertarianism rooted in “the economist’s view of human nature”? Well, there isn’t any such single view! If Kesler means the mainstream, neoclassical economists’ view, then someone should let him know that many of the staunchest libertarians, among them Austrian economists such as Murray Rothbard, have explicitly rejected that view, while, on the other hand, many who hold that view are not libertarians.

And what the heck does the “run its course” mean? There was a time when amoral views were the proper ones to hold, but no longer? Or the amoral libertarians were helpful back when the Federal government really was large, but now that we’ve gotten its size under control, they can be jettisoned? But the Federal government just keeps getting bigger, growing faster under Bush than it has since Johnson! That the “libertarian critique” has “run its course” is just high-falutin’ babble.

“Libertarianism of this sort may continue to offer conservatives useful arguments but can no longer set the tone and agenda for our criticism of the modern state.”

Libertarians are put on warning: You will be divided into two groups. One will be satisfied to offer conservatives a few “useful arguments.” Those who choose that route can be expected to garner a post or two in a Republican administration, to be invited to a few Washington power lunches, to be granted a “voice.” But the libertarians who continue to take libertarianism seriously are beyond the pale. So, libertarians, accept your place at the foot of the table or leave the banquet hall.

“When conservatism was a beleaguered coalition, it was natural for libertarians to take the lead on this front, even as traditionalists tended to provide the arguments against the new morality (i.e., the old immorality) and its angels and archangels on the federal courts. But if conservatism is to remain vital, it must do better. The old libertarian bumper sticker captures the problem nicely: ‘There’s no government like no government.'”

That’s a problem?

“Americans are not anarchists, and reject even anarchism’s romance.”

I thought I was an American, and I am an anarchist. I had thought Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Murray Rothbard were all Americans, as well. We live and learn.

But, of course, Mr. Kesler probably means that most Americans are not anarchists. Well, most Americans are not conservatives, either. Most Americans were not anti-slavery, at least in the sense of being abolitionists, in 1840. Most of the population of the Roman Empire was not Christian in 40 A.D. Is Mr. Kesler indicating that any group finding itself in the minority should just give up? Or is it only libertarians who should go away?

“So did the Founders, who stood for moral freedom and thus for limited, republican government.”

The “thus” in the above sentence implies a logical connection where there isn’t one. And as far as the Founders go, Adam Smith had them nailed in 1776, in The Wealth of Nations: For most of the leaders of the American Revolution, the motivation to rebel arose from the desire for power in the American government that would follow a successful war for independence. Smith contended that if Britain had merely given the colonies seats in Parliament, and held out the possibility that an American could become Prime Minister, the elite’s support for the Revolution would have evaporated. Given how quickly those leaders expanded the “Constitutionally limited” U.S. state, I’d say history proved Smith correct.

“Big Government is bad not so much because it is big and costly but because it is disordered and, in principle, unlimited.”

And Small Government, as Butler Shaffer brilliantly points out, is bad for exactly the same reasons. So we welcome you to market anarchism, Mr. Kesler!

In any case, the fact that such rejections of libertarianism are appearing so frequently these days means only one thing. You don’t see columns and speeches repeatedly pointing out that Communism has been discredited by 9/11. That’s because Communism is dead, and everyone realizes it. But libertarianism is alive and kicking, and that’s why we’re targeted. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, in fact, symptomatic of the defects in the conservative worldview. What’s more, underneath all of the bluster, conservatives know it. And they know that libertarians have been predicting the problems and offering the solutions for decades. That’s why conservatives are now desperate that no one pays any attention to serious libertarians: if they do, there goes that nice, fat book contract and that cushy Congressional staff job! It explains the smears (‘amoral’) and the dismissal (‘run its course,’ ‘discredited’).

Folks, we’re winning, and it’s driving them nuts.

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, due out in a few weeks from the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2002, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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