What I Learned From Paleoism

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Ten years ago, Patrick Buchanan threw his hat into the presidential race to challenge George Bush for the Republican nomination. He positioned himself as the true conservative alternative to an establishment phony. Pat had already shown himself a courageous critic of Bush’s tax increase and war on Iraq. It seemed like a good deal: a prominent TV personality fighting the political war against warfare and welfare.

But Pat was more than that. Many saw him as the political embodiment of the growing intellectual movement called paleoism, short for paleoconservatism (known for its alleged isolationism and heartland-style defense of localism) and paleolibertarianism (a term I used to distance Old Right libertarianism from the branch that cared nothing about stopping federal consolidation and US imperialism). The paleo coalition, as it was known, was ideologically united in its opposition to the welfare-warfarism of neoconservatism, and in its immediate goal of preventing another perpetual war for perpetual peace.

At the time, the non-paleo versions of conservatism and libertarianism — that is, the establishment — either cared nothing about this, or celebrated the creation of a post-Cold War crusader state. Whatever was wrong with the paleo coalition, we brought this issue to the forefront of debate.

Two Peas in a Paleo Pod

Yes, there was instability in our ranks. The paleoconservatives were sound on local and states rights, but weren’t too thrilled with the products of commercial society, and tended toward erroneous views on economics. Indeed, many of them cared nothing for systematic thinking on political economy. This was not universally true, of course; it was just a tendency, which also existed among neoconservatives who didn’t like all-out socialism but could only muster two cheers for capitalism. If the paleoconservatives could be accused of Ludditism and agrarianism, the neoconservatives were solidly in the right-social-democrat camp on economic issues. At least the paleos were willing to rethink the merit of government consolidation and US imperialism, while the neos became their principal cheerleaders.

In any case, we paleolibertarians had our failings too: we spoke a lot about the Constitution and the founding fathers, but when it came to history and culture, they could run circles around us (though, of course, no one could match Murray Rothbard on any front). The paleocons helped draw us to thinkers that left-libertarians had tossed out like Robert Nisbet, John Taylor, John Randolph, and all those in the anti-federalist and secessionist traditions. They reminded us that the love of liberty isn’t just an abstract political theory but a real history and tradition rooted in America (this was the essential project of Murray’s four-volume history of Colonial America). Unlike the paleocons, libertarians hadn’t done much work on the immigration issue, even though porous borders in Texas and California were then imposing huge new tax burdens to provide schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. In other words, current US immigration policy was reducing liberty, not increasing it, through a form of publicly subsidized right to trespass.

We hoped we could pool our strengths and make up for each others’ deficiencies, but there was no attempt to homogenize. They would leave the economics to us and we would leave the history and cultural commentary to them (again, always excepting the protean Murray). We would cooperate where we agreed and otherwise agree to disagree. Mostly, we would focus on the issue that had brought us together in the first place: crushing the US domestic and international empire. (Left-libertarian commentators at the time, stupidly, accused us of "sucking up" to the right, even though opposing the official right ranked high on the agenda of the paleo coalition. These are the same people who now beg for column inches on National Review’s website.)

The Real Pat

Was Pat really the embodiment of what we believed? No, but that problem was easy to deal with. Leaders are rarely as ideologically sound as followers. The Nixonians were better than Nixon, and the Taftians were better than Taft. This stands to reason. Private intellectuals have more freedom to speak out; politicians, as a part of their job description, have to seek a broader appeal.

As the Buchanan campaign against Bush got underway, however, odd things began to happen. In speech after speech, Pat began to bring his opposition to free trade and his advocacy of protectionism to the forefront. That was bad enough. In a fitting reminder that all political issues are connected, his deviations began to spill over into other areas: he endorsed protectionism for a greater range of sectors than were already in place (in other words, he proposed expanding taxation and regulation) and, at one stop, he celebrated unemployment relief (thus embracing a pillar of the welfare state).

For him, "America First," that grand old slogan of the anti-New Deal right, amounted to embracing the economic agenda of organized labor! His opposition to Bush’s taxes and war began to fade into the background. The worst part was the trendline. Eventually, of course, he dropped out of the race and ended up endorsing Bush. At the 1992 convention, he declared the Buchanan Brigades to be "fully enlisted" in the Bush effort and made no mention of taxes or his opposition to the war. Indeed, after heralding Reagan’s foreign policy and ridiculing Clinton for his lack of interest in the issue, he told the American people that their vote should be determined by the question: "Which of these two men has won the moral authority to call on Americans to put their lives at risk?"

Thankfully the campaign ended. But bolstered by his new credibility, Pat began to wield enormous influence on the right. This took one main form: turning people who should have known better against free markets, capitalism, and free trade. He went from being a candidate libertarians might support to becoming the anti-libertarian. He was forging, he said, a new ideology of "American nationalism," the first plank of which was "economic nationalism," plus downplaying the problem of big government. Many of us were ready to throw in the towel on him, or had already.

The Fight Over Regional Mercantilism

However, two big fights were on the horizon: Nafta and Gatt (the WTO). As later history would prove, these two trade treaties did nothing for free trade and much to undermine it, which is exactly what we would expect from measures that consolidate government power in the name of freedom. They were both species of the growing US empire, which any freedom lover must oppose. Just as the paleos fought them, the sellout libertarians and the neoconservatives were all for them. The battle lines were drawn, and the paleo coalition seemed to enjoy a second spring.

Now, it’s true that Pat and his followers were against Nafta and Gatt for many wrong reasons. Like the Nadarites, they tended to actually accept the line from the top that these treaties were about free trade. At the same time, their intuitions were correct: these were corrupt, insider deals. In any case, their errors of interpretation were nothing as compared to the amazing lies told by the proponents of Nafta and Gatt. They claimed that these treaties were the embodiment of Hayek’s rule of law, and the spirit of Cobden and Bright.

We were in a desperate struggle to oppose Nafta and Gatt, along with US military hegemony, even as we emphasized the need to defend free trade and commercial relations with the world, and repeal existing protectionism. But in those days, hardly anyone had the patience for serious theoretical argumentation. The ranks of the right were splitting two ways: neocons and left-libertarians in favor of empire and Nafta-Gatt, and paleos, who were against both but were, despite our efforts, often hardening into a consistent anti-capitalism. (A third branch, later to become very important, was a growing secession movement focusing on Southern issues and Lincoln revisionism.) On the one hand, this was understandable since the corporate money was all on the side of the bad guys, and these were people who had no patience for high theory that might have revealed the difference between genuine free markets and state capitalism.

As we neared the 1994 elections, it became clear that anti-government feeling (not a coherent theory but a healthy tendency) was working its way toward electoral reality, as an entire generation of Republicans became hardened against the Clinton administration. The 104th Congress put into power a group of freshmen legislators who won on platforms that looked like they were written by the Old Right. They were skeptical of war, opposed to taxes, bitter about regulations, and not very friendly to imperial, trade-diverting treaties like Nafta and Gatt. Even before the 104th Congress met in official session, however, hope was lost when old-timers like Newt Gingrich subverted the revolution, consolidating power and persuading the radicals that it was their civic duty to betray every election promise they had made.

Where was Buchanan during this time? He was gearing up for a run at the presidency in 1996, emphasizing his worst themes of protectionism and nationalism, and burying the material that had brought him to political relevance to begin with (opposition to welfare-warfare). Murray Rothbard saw this happening some years earlier, but even then, Pat’s main virtue was the enemies he had made: it seemed unseemly to attack him for selling out on taxes and trade when the neocons were incorrectly accusing him of wanting to repeal a century of government intervention!

By 1995, however, Murray had had enough, and issued a warning that Pat’s commitment to protectionism was mutating into an all-round faith in economic planning and the nation state. In other words, in the age-old battle between power and market, Pat was increasingly on the side of power (as most of his later writings have shown). We had come a long way from 1992. It was time to move on.

Error Spreads

Meanwhile, we were faced with a mess in libertarian circles. Those who hadn’t signed onto the establishment agenda of DC sellouts and trade imperialism were rethinking the very merit of capitalism itself under Pat’s influence. Murray died in 1995, leaving us with no major voice to counter this false choice. Fortunately, Hans-Hermann Hoppe swung into action with a series of brilliant papers explaining what was wrong with both left-libertarianism and paleoconservatism (which were reworked into chapters in his Democracy: The God that Failed). Without going into detail here, Hans’s constant theme was the moral urgency to keep focused on the real enemy, which is the state and nothing else, and to remember that the forces of good are inseparable from the right of private property.

Soon after, the anti-government movement, both within the world of ideas and within the Republican Party, was all but smashed by the Oklahoma bombing, which Clinton and the media very effectively turned against the anti-government right. Meanwhile, the paleo movement had been devastated through a combination of political seduction, ideological confusion, and personal bitterness. In the years that followed, some paleocons took up their old habits of denouncing chain stores, TV dinners, and dead Austrian economists. Others have gone on to productive scholarly work and serious engagement of neoconservative tendencies. Still others have specialized in Civil War studies. Paleolibs, now the only real libertarians, regrouped and refocused their energies on education, writing, and research, and, with the growth of the web and the expansion of the Mises Institute, systematically rebuilt and revivified the ranks of serious libertarians. The edifice is stronger now — far stronger — than it was when we first began to confront the ideological demands of the post-Cold War world. And thank goodness, for never has the principled voice for liberty been more needed.

In international politics, the Buchananite tendency is resurgent. George Bush has abandoned free trade in everything but rhetoric. Bush uses the warfare state for different purposes than Pat would (Pat hates China and the developing world, while Bush hates the Muslim world), but, regardless, the warfare state in the name of the national interest is on the march. In Europe, Buchanan-like figures are making headlines with their offer of a populist-protectionist-nationalist alternative to leftist egalitarianism. To what extent it really is an alternative differs from country to country. Where are the voices for peace and free trade, for global commerce but against global war, for property rights and against consolidated government? They are all-but absent among viable political figures.

New War, New Times

As for domestic politics, the dividing lines have never been clearer. The friends of liberty on the left and right have decried this war on terror from the day it began, on grounds that it has given the state a blank check to crush civil liberty, permanently harm the prospects for international peace, and smash every good American tradition. The friends of despotism on the left and right — naively, knowingly, cynically, or just opportunistically — are positively in love with this war because their hearts are ultimately with the state and its power. Watching the ideological antics of the official right and its abiding affection for weapons of mass destruction raises questions about whether they have any classical liberal impulses remaining at all.

Let me draw some general lessons from this experience, with ten years of hindsight.

  1. Never trust a politician to represent, much less speak for, an intellectual movement. The likes of Ron Paul come along once a century or so. As a corollary, do not place your hopes in politics as an instrument of social change. After all, libertarians believe in a completely depoliticized society.

  2. Never underestimate people’s tendency toward ideological drift. The intellectual foundations of liberty are never so strong that the basics can be taken for granted. Strategic thinking is essential, but no matter what the political moment seems to demand, libertarians must never be drawn away from the first principles of liberty and private property. Never permit yourself the slightest compromise with those two principles, and check every political position you hold against them. Better to get out of ideological activism altogether than to drag others into error.

  3. Never underestimate the power of bad ideas. They must be refuted again and again. What sounds obviously ridiculous to you ("Americans should produce for America") is right now drawing someone into intractable fallacy. Error must be confronted head on, even when advanced by erstwhile allies. To believe in freedom, and to apply the principle consistently, means more than merely having a bias. It requires hard intellectual work, enormous amounts of reading, and systematic training. There are no short cuts.

  4. The primary goal of intellectual outreach to other camps cannot be to convince others (to be convinced of another point of view is a trait of the young, not established writers and scholars), but rather to learn from others and improve your own understanding. The movement grows not by leaps-and-bounds, but step-by-step.

  5. Always focus on the long-term, while doing what’s right day-to-day. Someday you will see, and maybe sooner than we think, that all your efforts on behalf of liberty have helped reap huge rewards for civilization. When that day comes, however, you will not receive any credit, and that is fine because the point is not institutional or personal aggrandizement. Others will jump in to grab the spotlight and attempt to subvert the movement, and our job will begin all over again.

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

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