• The Life and Death of the Old Right

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    First
    published in the September 1990 issue of The
    Rothbard-Rockwell Report
    .

    The
    libertarian movement was once a mighty movement, hardcore but not
    kooky, part of the mainstream of American ideological and political
    life. In the 18th and 19th centuries (for
    example, in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements), libertarians
    were even the dominant political force in the country. America was,
    indeed, conceived in liberty. But right now, I'm not going back
    that far: I'm talking about the origins of the modern 20th
    century movement. For various reasons, the Progressive movement
    had wiped out 19th century intellectual and political
    libertarianism, and, by the 1920s, it was reduced to a few vibrant
    but lone intellectuals such as H.L. Mencken and his friend, Albert
    Jay Nock.

    But
    then something happened to shock libertarianism back to life –
    the cataclysmic Great Leap Forward into collectivism hailed as the
    New Deal. It's a process of historical reaction: a sudden social
    change will often give rise to a fierce opposition. Opposition to
    the New Deal was, necessarily, a coalition politics united on a
    negative: hatred of the socialism of the New Deal. Increasingly
    gathering into that coalition were the few libertarian or individualist
    intellectuals, the heritage and the remnants of the old Jeffersonian
    Democracy left from the days of Grover Cleveland – men such
    as Senator James A. Reed of Missouri and Governor Albert Ritchie
    of Maryland, and Republicans, including formerly stalwart statists
    and Progressives such as Herbert Hoover, who condemned FDR for going
    much too far.

    As
    the New Deal intensified and was championed by the Democrats, the
    opposition inevitably coalesced around the Republican Party. It
    was a strange transformation, since, from its inception in the 1850s,
    the Republican Party had always been the party of statism and centralized
    Big Government. Well, life is strange some times, and this shift
    was no stranger than what had happened to the Democrats, during
    the 19th century the party of minimal government and
    laissez-faire.

    When
    Roosevelt dragged America into World War II, the growing opposition,
    which I have called the "Old Right," shifted its moorings
    and changed some of its alliances. Some economic free-marketeers,
    such as Lewis W. Douglas, became ardent pro-war New Dealers; while
    former progressives, mainly Republican, who opposed the war, began
    to see the deep connection between interventionism and Big Government
    in domestic as well as foreign policy. As a result, by the end of
    World War II, the Old Right, largely Republican but still including
    Jeffersonian Democrats (such as Rep. Samuel Pettingill of Indiana),
    was consistently libertarian, opposing statism at home and war and
    intervention abroad.

    The
    Old Right was a strong and vibrant movement, dominant in the Republican
    Party in Congress (especially in the House of Representatives) and
    constituting roughly the Taft wing of the party. The Old Right was
    firmly opposed to conscription as well as war or foreign aid, favored
    free markets and the gold standard, and upheld the rights of private
    property as opposed to any sort of invasion, including coerced integration.
    The Old Right was socially conservative, middle class, welcoming
    people who worked for a living or met a payroll, and was the salt
    of the earth.

    What
    the Old Right lacked was not a political mass, but rather an intellectual
    cadre, and the small but increasing number of hard-core libertarians
    influenced by Mises and Rand and Nock after World War II provided
    a growing intellectual foundation for that movement. What we have
    to realize, and we almost have to shake ourselves to believe, is
    that hard-core libertarians were not considered kooks and crazies;
    we were treated only as extreme variants of a creed that almost
    everyone on the Old Right believed: peace, individual liberty, free
    markets, private property, even the gold standard. And since we
    were simply consistent upholders of a creed which the entire Old
    Right believed, we were able, though small in number, to influence
    and permeate the views of the broad mass of Old Right Americans.
    It was a happy symbiosis.

    That's
    why, politically, all libertarians, whether minarchists or anarcho-capitalists,
    were happy to consider ourselves "extreme right-wing Republicans."
    [The general term for the broader movement was "individualist"
    or "true liberal" or "rightist" – the word
    "conservative" was not at all in use before the publication
    of Russell Kirk's Conservative
    Mind
    in 1953].

    It
    was a great time for a libertarian to be politically active. Neither
    did the Old Right collapse with the onset of the Cold War. On the
    contrary, the Old Right reached a peak in its last days: for it
    was virtually the only opposition to the Korean War. [Only the Communist
    Party and I.F. Stone opposed U.S. entry into the Korean War; the
    entire rest of the Left, including Henry Wallace, supported it in
    the name of the old interventionist slogan: "collective security
    against aggression."]

    Major
    opponents of the Korean War were such libertarian and Old Right
    publicists as Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn, F.A. Harper and Leonard
    E. Read; influential newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune;
    and major political opponents such as Senators Bridges and Wherry
    and the libertarian Congressman Howard H. Buffett of Omaha.

    It
    was after the Korean War that the Old Right collapsed. The catalyst
    was the literal theft of the Republican presidential nomination
    in 1952 from Senator Taft by the Wall Street elite behind Eisenhower;
    the deaths of Taft and Colonel McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune;
    and the capture of the political reins of the Republican Party by
    the "conservative" New Dealers constituting the Eisenhower
    movement. Whereas the right-wing Republicans aimed to repeal and
    abolish the New Deal, the Eisenhower forces aimed at consolidating
    the New Deal and fastening it permanently upon American life, and
    in this they succeeded all too well.

    But
    probably the most important reason for the collapse of the Old Right
    was not external blows, but the loss of its own soul and principles.
    As the older intellectual and political leaders died or retired,
    a powerful new force arose in 1955 to fill that vacuum. This new
    force – people grouped around National Review –
    set out to transform the nature of the American Right, and they
    succeeded brilliantly. Headed by a brace of shrewd ex-Communists,
    steeped in Marxist-Leninist cadre organizing tactics, allied to
    youthful Eastern seaboard Catholics, the New Right determined to
    crush isolationism, and to remold the right-wing into a crusade
    to crush Communism all over the world, and particularly in the Soviet
    Union.

    At
    first, NR had a patina of individualism, in order to capture
    the considerable amount of Old Right libertarian sentiment and wed
    it to a policy of global war. The Buckley machine founded Young
    Americans for Freedom as its youthful political arm. The Intercollegiate
    Society of Individualists for libertarian-minded student intellectuals,
    and headed by NR publisher Bill Rusher, moved to capture
    the College Young Republicans, then the YRs nationally, and finally
    moved to dominate the Republican Party with the Goldwater movement.

    Early
    in this process, moreover, National Review, in the late 1950s
    and early 1960s, moved quickly to read out of the New Right, or
    "conservative" movement, all "extremists" who
    would prove an embarrassment in its march to power. And so, in a
    series of purges, the Birch Society, the Randians, and the libertarians
    (those who remained isolationists) were ousted from the right wing.
    NR and the New Right were ready to achieve power, which they
    eventually would attain with the Reagan administration. But the
    point is that the ideological transformation – into a warmongering
    and vaguely theocratic movement – was achieved by the early
    1960s. The Old Right was dead, and those libertarians who still
    remembered and cleaved to their principles, were out in the cold.

    Murray
    N. Rothbard
    (1926–1995) was the author of Man,
    Economy, and State
    , Conceived
    in Liberty
    , What
    Has Government Done to Our Money
    , For
    a New Liberty
    , The
    Case Against the Fed
    , and many
    other books and articles
    . He
    was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
    Rothbard-Rockwell Report
    .

    Murray
    Rothbard Archives

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