Conservatives, Libertarians, Pespi, and Koch

by Henry Olsen

The New York Times yesterday published an article examining David Koch’s 1980 campaign as the vice-presidential partner of Libertarian presidential nominee Ed Clark.  The article also described Charles Koch’s early involvement in the Libertarian party as a donor and activist.  All this is gleefully described by the Times as the effort that “gave birth to the Koch’s powerful network”.

As a narrow matter, this observation is old news and uninteresting.  Unlike in the 1980 campaign, the Kochs today aim their weapons largely at Democrats, much to their chagrin. Movement-conservative politics in 2014 is significantly benefited by the Kochs and their network.

The 1980 effort does, however, have current resonance.  The Libertarian challenge then was based on the idea that conservative outsider Ronald Reagan, much less the dominant GOP establishment, represented “‘no change whatsoever from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats”.  For these Libertarians, opposing Ronald Reagan was crucial to changing the course of America, even if a strong Libertarian effort resulted in Carter’s re-election.  The ideas behind this challenge — that there is a bi-partisan consensus that is antithetical to American freedom and that freedom-focused political action should be pursued without compromise regardless of the practical effects — are at the heart of today’s so-called GOP civil war.

In effect, today’s GOP battles are a re-fight of the Clark-Reagan battle from 1980.  Only this time the fight is within the Republican party; it is a fight for the party’s soul.

Reagan’s victory started the process by which the liberals and moderates who had dominated the GOP since the 1940s were slowly driven out.  Today’s Republican establishment is solidly Reaganite, farther to the free-market right than any party establishment since before the New Deal.  Yet to many, these conservatives are themselves indistinguishable from liberals.  

In many senses this is laughable; John Boehner is not a political clone of John Lindsay or John Kerry.  But in the sense that Clark and the 1980-era David Koch meant it, this charge is correct.  Ronald Reagan and his heirs believe in free markets and smaller government, but they are not opposed in principle to the entire modern entitlement-regulatory state.  They seek significant reforms, reforms that drive terror into the hearts of Democrats, but they do not seek to repeal the basic structure itself.

Reagan said as much many times in his career, but perhaps the most telling is in the moment many conservatives love to quote, the moment from his debate with Jimmy Carter where he defused an attack with the famous line “there you go again”.  As this clip shows, Reagan responded to Carter’s attack that he had opposed Medicare by saying that in 1964 he was “not opposing the principle of providing care for [senior citizens], [he] was opposing one piece of legislation versus another” (emphasis added).  

In effect, Ed Clark was right: If the extension of federal power in the 20th Century, not the manner and extent in which it had come to be exercised, was the source of America’s problems, there was no difference between Reagan and Carter.  

The current GOP in-fighting is, in essence, about one of two things.  Either it is a debate about tactics, personalities, and marketing, or it is about principle.  If it is, as many involved say, about principle, then it must be about this principle.  It must be that many suspect that the solidly Reaganite GOP leadership is at heart comfortable with a size and scope of government that is much larger than was the case prior to the mid-20th Century, that it is comfortable with the idea that the federal government can be involved with running large entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and the like if only it changes their form.  They suspect this is true – and they don’t agree.

Some are more open about this than others. Freedom Works president Matt Kibbe, for example, recently told Reason TV that libertarians — 1980 Clark-Koch style libertarians — should “take over the GOP”.  Others are more circumspect, but end up advocating principles that, taken to their logical conclusion, would lead to a very similar result.

Regardless of the side one takes in our intra-party disputes, we should all have some idea exactly what they are about.  Revisiting the Reagan-Clark debate is an excellent place to start.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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