The Inherent Corruptibility of Conservatism and Liberalism

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Joy overcame me when I read Jeffrey Tucker’s recent column on "the violence of conservatism." I understand why many libertarians want to bring back "real conservatism" or resurrect the Old Right, but I found Tucker’s opinion refreshing.

A libertarian friend of mine told me he enjoyed the article, but that he thought Tucker was a little hard on conservatism. He blamed the publisher Regnery — which prints some of the very worst of today’s modern conservative drivel — for "single handedly dumbing down the conservative movement." On top of these books, talk radio, Fox News and other media widely passed off these days as "conservative" are overwhelmingly air-headed, bigoted, and saturated with irrational, nationalist garbage.

If the "conservative media" deserve blame for the decline of modern conservatism — if all it takes is the hateful stream-of-consciousness gobbledygook of Sean Hannity to hijack an intellectual movement and drive it towards pigheaded fascism — then how sturdy and intellectually tenacious a movement could conservatism ever have been?

Conservatism, like left-liberalism, is inherently corruptible, because it is based on incomprehensible and contradictory principles — if it is based on any principles at all. What really defines conservatism, anyway? Family values? National security? Old-fashioned morality? Limited government? Constitutional government? Religion? Authority? Liberty?

Not all of these values are inherently contradictory, but they are not necessarily interdependent, either. Conservatives can believe in family values and religion, and understand the state is a threat to these. Or, they can attempt to use the state to reinforce tradition, in which case the only traditions protected are usually the stupid ones, and the more timeless tenets of traditional morality fall by the wayside. War typifies this problem, as the glorification of the state — a tradition older than Christianity — is never more brisk than at wartime, and the wonderful American traditions of liberty are never in greater peril than when the bombs are falling.

Is it "conservative" to enforce laws against homosexuality or pornography? Or is it "conservative" to let people make their own choices on these matters, no matter how much one may disagree with those choices? Is it "conservative" to foster free trade? Or is it "conservative" to protect and "conserve" American companies through protectionism?

Who knows? Who really knows?

There are decent conservatives. When I read The American Conservative, I find much in it agreeable, though certainly not all of it. It is heroic for conservatives to criticize Bush from the Right, and it wouldn’t really make sense to classify Pat Buchanan as anything but a conservative. But as a movement, in spite of its brightest stars, conservatism has never been very resistant to dangerous ideas and lunatic, statist tendencies. Furthermore, as good as Buchanan is on issues of empire and war, and as much an improvement it would be for America if he represented the future of conservatism, I worry that the bigoted reactionary screeds on Free Republic better foreshadow the movement’s destiny.

These days, conservatism is mostly a synonym for GOP cheerleading, and GOP cheerleading is generally synonymous with Bush apologism. During election time this is clearer than ever.

When Democrats are in power, the conservative movement has more value to it. I would guess that about 75% of what conservatives complained about during the Clinton era was the stuff of legitimate grievances. The rest was either whining about Clinton not doing enough to enforce bad laws, or it was simply gossip about his marital infidelities.

Of course, liberalism is also inherently corruptible. I actually believe there might be more philosophical principle on the Left — as much as I disagree with it — than there is on the Right. But not by much. What qualities and values make a liberal? Tolerance? Equality? Fairness? Freedom? Social improvement? Openness to change?

Again, these are not mutually exclusive, nor are they mutually dependent, nor do they really mean anything definitively.

The other day I met a pleasant leftist from Michigan at a bar in Washington, D.C. He agreed with me about the absurdity of fighting terrorism by bombing civilians, as well as on the futility of the War on Drugs, and we agreed on some other issues, as well.

He detested Bush and nostalgically longed for Clinton. I told him that Clinton killed many, many innocent people in Serbia. The liberal from Michigan seemed to buy into the lies about Kosovo, even as he saw through the lies about Iraq.

But you know what? He listened to me. He listened to what I said about Kosovo. I didn’t convert him, in that short conversation, to full-fledged free market libertarianism. But he listened to what I had to say.

Not all leftists will listen, and many conservatives will, especially when it is not election time, and especially when Democrats are in power.

There are heroes and villains on both sides of the nonsensical political spectrum. However, since both conservatives and liberals make excuses for government power — whenever their side is in charge, or their noble goal is being pursued — both conservatives and liberals end up, at least some of the time, on the side opposite of liberty.

Lacking consistent principle, both conservatives and liberals tend to believe whatever other people who sound like their kind have to say about all the issues. Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter sound like conservatives — they definitely spend as much time as anyone complaining about "liberals" — and their high profiles solidify their crazy ideas as the Conservative Platform of the United States. Since those on the Right and Left tend to believe whatever people on their "side" say, they end up having all sorts of incomprehensible positions on everything.

Are libertarians guilty of this? Sometimes. But more than conservatives and liberals, we have solid principles against which we can measure anything to determine whether it is libertarian. If Lew Rockwell were to say tomorrow that to stop terrorism, the government should spy on all the mosques in America and convert Iran to a Jeffersonian democracy, most of his readers would say, "What? That doesn’t make sense! Lew usually understands that government simply doesn’t work, war doesn’t work, democracy doesn’t work, and that sacrificing our liberties and money to the state isn’t the best answer to anything!"

If a conservative proposes the same absurd solutions to terrorism — even if in the 1990s that same conservative repeatedly said, "government never works"— his readers would likely think to themselves, "Hey! You know what? That makes sense. The guy who said it is a conservative, who hates the same people I hate, so it must make sense to go to war and spy on mosques!" If a liberal proposes the same solutions, many of his buddies will say, "You know what? The fact that a liberal is saying something so unliberal means it must be true!"

Unfortunately, some neo-libertarians have recently used libertarian rhetoric to defend the Bush administration and its corresponding expansion of state power — perhaps the greatest such expansion since World War II. Giving a libertarian veneer to imperialism is great for empire, and terrible for liberty. We need to guard against this, but, thankfully, libertarianism is not nearly as corruptible as conservatism and liberalism, which have no real roots in principle at all. Libertarianism will survive any foreseeable changes in the world, even if today’s conservatives end up sounding like liberals tomorrow, and future liberals come to echo the sentiments of today’s conservatives.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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