Explaining the Paleocons

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Review by Ryan McMaken

Thomas Fleming once noted that he was struck, while reading about the American right prior to the Cold War, that there was a certain "admirable diversity and freedom of discussion" (to use Murray Rothbard’s words) on the American right, and that there was no person or publication demanding adherence to a party line or "excommunicating" heretics who failed to live up to the demands of some self-appointed leader of the movement. This freedom of discussion, of course, all came crashing down when National Review appointed itself supreme publication of the American right and took to spending half its time denouncing leftists, and the other half denouncing rightists who happened to disagree with the editors of National Review on whatever little topic they decided should define the right in any given issue.

Having degenerated into the Republican Party’s inter-office memo five minutes after becoming "respectable," National Review left the independent intellectuals of the American right (i.e., people not paid by think tanks to dream up tortured rationalizations for whatever the Republican party deems a good idea) to fend for themselves in other publications. The neocons, the eventual lords of National Review, having built themselves up into the dominant faction of the American right, thought that they could simply exile and ignore all who dared disagree with them. This actually worked pretty well during the Cold War as the right was more or less paralyzed intellectually by the fear of Soviet communism, but by the time Gorbachev found himself unemployed, many intellectuals and activists of the right again began to find an independent voice.

In his recent book Revolt From the Heartland, paleoconservative Joseph Scotchie compiles a historical account of paleoconservatism (one faction of the excommunicated right) that takes us from the intellectual seeds of the movement in the Old Right to the modern paleoconservative movement that took up the cause of the "Old Republic" following the end of the Cold War. Scotchie’s book is the latest addition to a growing body of work examining the Old Right and its modern successors (see recommended reading below). Scotchie has the thankless job of being an intellectual historian; a job that consists of repeating a lot of what other (more famous) people have said while trying to package it all into some kind of coherent system.

Nevertheless, the job of the intellectual historian is an important one because it gives legitimacy to a movement and organizes the various (sometimes conflicting voices) within a movement and illustrates that they are not just a handful of cranks crying out in the desert, but an actual current in intellectual activity that deserves notice.

This is Scotchie’s second book that aims at explaining paleoconservatism, but while The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right was a collection of essays by various paleocons, Revolt from the Heartland is a historical account that puts the work of paleoconservatives into historical, political, and intellectual context. The book includes limited but sympathetic references to Murray Rothbard and the libertarians, and concentrates on how both libertarians and paleocons have attempted in the last decade to reclaim the American right from the neoconservative movement and its maniacal drive toward a US empire of global democracy.

While I do not believe that this is a life-altering book, there is no indication that Scotchie believes that it is either. It is mostly a beginner’s guide of sorts, but one that the paleoconservatives have needed for a long time. The first thing that will strike the reader about this book is its length — a mere 115 pages. Scotchie seems to be trying to do little more than provide the reader with a basic yet adequate outline of the movement, and to provide the reader with enough background information about paleoconservatism to fill him in on what is behind the battle being waged between the mainstream American right and its detractors on what Rothbard referred to as the "radical right."

Scotchie spends most of the book concentrating on the central issues of immigration, foreign policy, decentralized government, and free trade, for it is these issues that define the paleoconservatives movement as movement against neoconservatism, while also providing insight into the sometimes strained, yet mostly civil relationship between libertarians and paleoconservatives.

Rothbard, who had friendly relations with Thomas Fleming, Paul Gottfried, and other paleos, wrote often on why libertarians should be sympathetic to the paleoconservative agenda, and while reading Scotchie’s book it is easy to see why. Except on the issue of free trade, paleoconservatives are virtually always trying to move American civilization in the same direction that libertarians like Frank Chodorov, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard had always tried to move it.

On the immigration issue, for example, Mises was clear that when dealing with modern social democratic states, open borders amount to little more than an expansion of the welfare state since the policy will inevitably end up expanding redistributive benefits not only more freely within the territory of a given state, but also expand it beyond its borders. Mises viewed open immigration in largely economic terms (without ignoring other considerations), and Scotchie views it in largely cultural terms, but the end goal is largely the same — putting the brakes on the expansion of various kinds of state-sponsored economic and cultural imperialism practiced on its own citizens.

The antiwar record of the paleocons since the end of the Cold War is also impressive. In the early 1990s, paleoconservatives publications were virtually the only publications on the right that dared to oppose the messianic visions of the neoconservatives who were salivating over the possibility of bringing American-style democracy to every corner of the globe no matter what the price. Scotchie includes an informative discussion of the paleoconservatives opposition to the Gulf War of 1991, and the paleo efforts to "bring the troops home" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We all know how this turned out, but the debate is still quite relevant over a decade later. The far-flung garrisons of American troops stationed in dozens of foreign nations seemed pointless to the paleos, yet, maddeningly, few others on the right seemed to have any problem with it. The vicious attacks on Pat Buchanan for his allegedly "isolationist" foreign policy was just the opening volley in a war that has been waged ever since.

The decentralization issue is where libertarians should have the most in common with paleoconservatives, yet it is also where they could have the most to learn. Paleoconservatives have long understood that the only way to do away with allegiance to the huge modern state is to replace it with allegiance to something else. In the paleoconservatives world, this has usually meant increased allegiance to local communities, churches, and families. Scotchie discusses what Samuel Francis called "Middle American Radicals" and their dissatisfaction with the beltway political machine as well as the "Chapel Hill Conspiracy" that attempted to reclaim intellectual legitimacy for Southern political and cultural traditions. In essence, they have spent a good deal of time trying to shift the locus of American politics away from Washington, which is hardly something a libertarian can find much fault with.

Unfortunately, many libertarians have insisted that, even in the real world, all forms of public authority are equally corrupt and illegitimate, and they have thus set up a false choice between supporting either all forms or none at all. Theoretically, this claim tells us that the local school board is as big a threat to liberty as the presidency. This can be a dangerous position. The most obvious illustration of the speciousness of this argument is for one to consider if he would rather his friends and neighbors be harassed by the local police chief or John Ashcroft. Hopefully, the choice would be obvious for any friend of liberty. To paraphrase Rothbard — total privatization would be wonderful, but pending that glorious day, I’d rather fight city hall than the White House. Radical decentralization is a cause that any libertarian should be able to get behind, and the paleos have touted the benefits of such an agenda for a long time.

Scotchie rightly identifies the free trade issue as the biggest sore spot in the paleoconservatives-libertarian alliance. According to Scotchie, in the early 1990s "Rothbard tolerated [Pat] Buchanan’s apostasy on free trade," declaring that "any man is due one failing." Scotchie credits Rothbard with the success of the alliance during the peak years of the radical right, and blames Rothbard’s death for the subsequent cooling of relations between the two camps. And, while it is true that libertarians and paleocons have had little to say to each other on the issue, they have also found themselves coming down on the same side of many issues, most notably on the Nafta and Gatt mega-bureaucracy debate that had nothing to do with free trade and everything to do with creating a giant international regulatory organization. Also, as Rothbard pointed out, a decentralized world in the model of paleoconservatism would make the imposition of high tariffs difficult since it is a strong central state that makes tight controls on the movement of economic goods possible.

Scotchie does little to solve some of the problems of philosophical incoherence that remain among paleoconservatives. For example, Scotchie, like many paleos, speaks highly of American annexation of large parts of North America during the nineteenth century, yet fails to make any distinction between American imperialism in the 19th century and American imperialism in the 21st. Paleoconservatism is very good in examining the problems and pitfalls of expanding American influence in Asia and the Middle East, but speaks in absolutely glowing terms when referring to American expansionism into Indian and Spanish territory during the 19th century. An expansion of the American state into a greater and greater geographic power in North America did nothing to limit centralization of government or to bolster strict adherence to the constitution, yet many paleocons seem fine with it, presumably because it kept more and more territory out the hands of those filthy Spaniards. Alas, however, favoring ethnic feuds over principles of good government is not exactly a recipe for philosophical coherence.

And then, of course, there is always the issue of free trade. The paleoconservatives have shown remarkable insights into historical and cultural matters, but have shown precious little insight in economic matters. The benefits of free trade have been examined often in this publication, so there is little need to rehash it here, but let is be said, that in economic matters, paleoconservatives, in their intimate connection to the more tangible realities of community and culture, have failed to see the invisible benefits of free trade as so eloquently described by Frederic Bastiat. All the paleocons can see are jobs shipped oversees and trade deficits. To their credit, however, the paleoconservatives can clearly see that many new jobs have been rendered insufficient to pay for basic necessities thanks to the fact that the government steals half of everyone’s income.

Even after these little differences are examined, however, it is clear that many of the philosophical differences between libertarians and paleoconservatives do not necessarily translate into very significant differences in real world public policy preferences. Paleoconservatives and libertarians alike can all agree that the government machinery produced by the New Deal and all the big government schemes that came after it should be done away with, and until that day comes, it is hard to see why, in discussing a political agenda, paleocons and libertarians should even bother quibbling about what would come next. Why fight over what laws to support after the Federal Reserve System is gone if the possibility of that happening in the near future stands at just about zero?

Unfortunately, the library of good books on the history of the American right remains small. Revolt From the Heartland is an excellent introduction to this history, and is a quick read that will provide the reader with much knowledge that is simply ignored or disparaged by other historians of the American right. Revolt is an up-to-date book and offers fine summations of current problems and issues facing the American right. It would be fruitful reading for anyone who considers himself a conservative but has understandably found messianic neoconservatism and Republican sloganeering (remember compassionate conservatism?) shallow and repetitive. It might also be enjoyed by any libertarian who is interested in learning more about a movement that, while at times in conflict with free-market principles, has been instrumental in challenging the modern American state along with its wars, its arrogance, and its lies.

Other Good Books on This Topic Are:

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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