Conservatism at a Turning Point: Turning Out Old Friends, That Is
R. Kesler, writing in National Review Online, declares that we are
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.
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
reviewing some a few quotes from BGCs such as Fukuyama and Will,
Kesler begins his argument:
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.
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."
a bad start. But, here comes the real point of the article:
11's attacks settled nothing on this score, except perhaps to discredit
the most extreme forms of libertarian anti-statism."
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.
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?
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 — especially executive-branch energy."
cynical among us might suspect that is exactly why we have
so many wars. But cynicism is an ugly thing, isn't it?
also elicits patriotism, which confirms that man is not by nature
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?
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"?
and Will are correct that the conservatives' and especially the
Republicans' fight against Big Government was faltering long before
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.
this doesn't prove that conservatives lack a cogent criticism of
the modern state..."
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.
proves only that the common libertarian critique, rooted in amoral
freedom and the economist's view of human nature, has run its course."
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.
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.
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.
of this sort may continue to offer conservatives useful arguments
but can no longer set the tone and agenda for our criticism of the
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.
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
are not anarchists, and reject even anarchism's romance."
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.
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?
did the Founders, who stood for moral freedom and thus for limited,
"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.
Government is bad not so much because it is big and costly but because
it is disordered and, in principle, unlimited."
Small Government, as Butler Shaffer brilliantly points out,
is bad for exactly the same reasons. So we welcome you to market
anarchism, Mr. Kesler!
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').
we're winning, and it's driving them nuts.
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/Stu Morgenstern Archives
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