The Libertarian-Conservative Debate

Low-Tax Liberalism Redux

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

February, by proclamation of President Bush, was officially Black History Month, the Man once more cheating African-Americans by giving them the shortest and coldest month of the year for their own. Unofficially, however, February seems to have been the season for libertarian-conservative debate. In the pages of The American Conservative, for example (and for which I work), Robert Locke and I squared off, his anti-libertarian "Marxism of the Right" contending with my own In Defense of Freedom.

A little earlier, in the wake of the annual CPAC pep rally, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and New York Post liberventionist Ryan Sager batted around a few moot points within the overall context of their brand of statism. Sager supports the warfare state as much as Ponnuru does, so when Ponnuru asked him to explain how National Review was for "big-government conservatism" Sager uttered not a peep about the biggest non-entitlement item in the federal budget, what’s euphemistically called "defense." Sager paid no notice to the billions of taxpayer dollars spent to invade and reconstruct Iraq, nor to the cost in human life and limbs — American and Iraqi alike — of the Iraq War. Government doesn’t get much bigger than that, Ryan, until you get to Soviet levels.

And then there was the face-to-face conservative/libertarian debate at the February 23 gathering of America’s Future Foundation. AFF bills itself as "America’s next generation of classical liberal leaders" and surprisingly, considering that it’s based here in the Babylon-am-Potomac, the outfit comes within a nautical mile of living up to the boast. There are not too many big-government types in the group, and there are a few — maybe more than a few — committed constitutionalists and anti-statists. The panel for the roundtable discussion on the 23rd pitted my American Conservative colleague W. James Antle III and the Cato Institute’s Jeremy Lott against Reason editor Nick Gillespie and the American Spectator’s Amy Mitchell, formerly of Cato herself but here giving a straight Bushist line. The topic was "Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?" — Gillespie and Mitchell saying no, Antle and Lott arguing the affirmative. One libertarian and one conservative on each side was the idea, though Lott and Antle were both somewhat libertarian and conservative, and, well, the ghosts of Murray Rothbard and Robert Nisbet might argue that Gillespie and Mitchell were neither one nor the other. But we’ll get to that.

Two days earlier Reason contributing editor Cathy "Perhaps There Are No True Libertarians in Times of Terrorist Attacks" Young had denounced Thomas Woods in the Boston Globe as the "Last of the Confederates." It was an attack not at all dissimilar from the one first made by Adam Cohen in the New York Times and later regurgitated by Max Boot. Seeing a putative libertarian hew to the same party line put me in mind of a question for the night’s panel: with libertarians like Young, who needs neocons?

Turnout for the event was at capacity, some 50 to 75 young (and a few not-so-young) journalists and politicos crowding into the lounge where the panel would take place and spilling out into the hall beyond. Familiar faces were there: Norman Singleton of Ron Paul‘s office, Tim Carney, and others, as well as Don Devine of the American Conservative Union and several Reason contributors, including Ron Bailey and, as Gillespie was later to point out, Ms. Young herself. Gene Healy of Cato served as moderator of the panel. He had Lott speak first, giving the case against a conservative-libertarian divorce.

Lott spoke of fusionism — someone even handed him a copy of Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom at the beginning of his remarks — and emphasized that the Christian Right originally became politically active in the 1970s for defensive reasons, after the Carter administration threatened Christian schools. Politically active Christians are not enemies of liberty, Lott argued:

Religious conservatives may not hold to the canons of libertarianism as laid out by Murray Rothbard or even Charles Murray, but the instincts are there. They understand the virtue of thrift and they don’t want the government to spend like a drunken Democrat either. They want a less oppressive tax burden just as much as we do. And George W. Bush would not be pursuing Social Security privatization if James Dobson and Franklin Graham objected.

If only the Bush social security plan were libertarian! When his turn came, Antle, also speaking for the "pro-marriage" side, put forward the argument that government is no friend to the institutions and customs dear to genuine conservatives — quite the contrary. This seemed to frustrate Amy Mitchell, the "purge the libertarians" minicon of the panel, for whom conservatism seemed to be synonymous with support for the Grand Old Party and Lyndon Baines Bush. Gene Healy’s post-debate summary puts it aptly:

In Jim Antle’s telling, a conservative is someone who champions family, faith and freedom against the forces of centralization, whether red-team or blue. I don’t think I’m being unfair to say that in Amy Mitchell’s account, it’s someone who roots, roots, roots for the red team.

Her remarks did not go down well with the audience. Citing Reason’s pre-election survey of libertarian-ish pundits, she sternly admonished libertarians for being, collectively, a faithless spouse. Many of them didn’t vote for Bush and — the horror! the horror! — some didn’t vote at all. Mitchell was visibly put out by this, much to the merriment of the peanut gallery. She drew laughs with remarks like "You want to vote based on what makes you feel better," and her observation that the U.S. isn’t crashing airliners into civilian buildings in Iraq — no, an audience member observed, instead the U.S. has dropped high explosives on them. No doubt the civilians who became "collateral damage" rest in peace knowing that they were killed for a good cause and unintentionally, too. (But is it unintentional if you know full well your actions will lead to innocent casualties?) Mitchell unwittingly gave Antle one of the best laugh-lines of the night when she invoked the omniscience of government to justify the Iraq Attaq — the president knows things we don’t, she said. To which Antle replied, "I hope I know a whole lot more than him."

Mitchell’s drubbing set one lonely neoconservative among the attendees, Eric Pfeiffer, to pouting on National Review Online the next day:

Most disappointing was the stark absence of conservatives in support of the liberation of Iraq…. the onslaught of hissing and cackles whenever Amy Mitchell made some point defending traditional conservative values or the war made me feel like I was back in Eugene, Oregon, suffering the trust-fund progressive masses.

When the likes of Pfeiffer — who can get big bucks from any of a number of neocon-controlled foundations — pose as populists to engage in a bit of class warfare, one has to wonder whether they even take themselves seriously. Sneer at trust-fund liberals if you want, Eric, but at least they’re not sending other Americans abroad to die for their ideology (not at the moment, anyway). Jonah Goldberg may be too old to die for his beliefs, but what’s your excuse? Then again, why should a valuable blogger take a bullet for his cause when he can send a National Guardsman, working two jobs with a wife and kids and a mortgage, to do it for him?

Enough of that, though, let’s get to the real star of the night’s show. He’s the man Gene Healy calls "the Fonzie of Free Markets," who was keeping it cool in his trademark leather jacket even under the blazing studio lights of McLaughlin One on One. Unsurprisingly, Nick Gillespie was the most laid-back and smoothest of the panelists. What was surprising was his idea of libertarianism, which sent a ripple of horror through most of the young libertarians in the audience and overshadowed his position in the debate itself (he was for divorce, arguing the conservative-libertarian marriage had long been loveless).

According to Gillespie, if libertarianism is about reining in the State, "we’re screwed" — government is always going to grow. So contrary to Friedman and Hayek, to say nothing of Rothbard (literally: Rothbard went unmentioned), libertarianism isn’t about freedom from government intervention, it’s about "pluralism and tolerance," "being able to afford your home," and gay couples checking into love motels without drawing stares of reproach. As Healy later summarized:

Nick Gillespie…argued that a monomaniacal focus on the state left out some important aspects of liberalism. He rejected the notion that libertarianism could be limited to the realm of political philosophy. At one point, he noted that we were dramatically freer than we had been decades ago, because, among other things, in 1970 it was difficult for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel together. Afterwards, I wondered what the hell that had to do with libertarianism, and a friend cracked that I must have skipped the part about hot-pillow joints in Locke’s Second Treatise.

Gillespie elicited about the same degree of incredulity here as any remark from Mitchell did, and not only from the libertarians. Was he really saying that, yes, libertarianism is libertinism — or something very nearly to that effect? An older member of the audience, a former Reagan official now with a conservative activist group, professed himself baffled: "Are you really a libertarian?" he asked Gillespie, noting that libertarianism has always been concerned with means, and here he was proposing ends. But what if freedom turned out not to be the best way to bring about "pluralism and tolerance"? Most people, if left alone by the government, would probably support a traditional, man-woman idea of marriage, the critic noted. But Nick was not dissuaded. For him, evidently, as for Ed Clark, libertarianism is something like "low-tax liberalism."

For good measure, Gillespie also argued that an individual’s views on war and foreign policy are "not an accurate predictor" for libertarianism. "It’s a separate realm," he said. Perhaps aggression is okay in certain "realms."

I like Nick Gillespie. I’ve spoken to him very briefly on a few occasions — a Philadelphia Society meeting here, an American Spectator party there — and always found him plainspoken and even modest, great and rare virtues indeed among the punditariat. And behind his cockamamie remarks is a point that I can agree with: there’s much more to life than politics and, moreover, a measure of humility is needed to realize the proper limits of one’s responsibilities; that’s a kind of tolerance. But then, the Iraq War — which Gillespie opposed at the time but now believes is turning out for the best (scores of thousands of American and Iraqi dead and maimed notwithstanding) — was precisely that and still is: an armed and bloody exercise of the belief that everything everywhere is everyone’s business — and America is everyone.

One wonders what kind of tolerance Gillespie extends to those who don’t share his open-mindedness. He’s no Cathy Young, though. I asked him my question: what’s the difference between the Cathy Young kind of "libertarian" and a David Frum? According to Gillespie, the distinction is that neocons are "ultra-nationalists." True enough; but if people who call themselves individualists or libertarians embrace the national-security state and give unprovoked wars a pass, while attacking an anti-statist like Thomas Woods, as Young has done, the substantial differences between them and the "ultra-nationalists" start to look pretty meager.

As for Woods, Gillespie said he was not sure that he "rises to the level of a libertarian" or indeed to the level of anything other than a "neoconfederate." That was the most disappointing remark of the night: one can see how reasonably laudable intentions can degenerate into low-tax liberalism, but damning a decentralist libertarian because he offends the sensibilities of the New York Times and the Southern Poverty Law Center is pretty low. It certainly isn’t very tolerant or pluralistic.

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