Politics & Policy

Libertarians Under My Skin

Grow up already.

So there’s this site called Lewrockwell.com. Never heard of it? Yeah, well, you’re not alone. Still, quite a few readers of NRO spend time over there so I will be diplomatic in how I describe it. It’s a site for angry libertarians. Kick-the-cat, yell-at-the-TV, demand-a-refund, take-your-marbles-and-go-home libertarians. They want their government smaller — a lot smaller — and they’re willing to march into the kitchen and make a big stinking scene if they don’t get things their way: Now!

God bless ‘em.

But they can be exhausting. In the last couple weeks three different Lewrockwell.com-ers have banged their spoons on their high chairs about me. I’ve been called a “schmuck” by one guy, a closet socialist by two, and an ignoramus by all three. That’s all okay, I’m certainly not one to throw stones about name-calling. But I do wish the attacks were done better. There’s nothing so deflating to one’s self-esteem than being castigated poorly.

Anyway, I really don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time to do a point-by-point rebuttal because, well, nobody cares. Besides, two of my critics — some guys named Myles Kantor and David Dieteman — would be better suited arguing with each other anyway since Kantor wants me to embrace more libertarian thinkers and Dieteman is angry at me for embracing any at all. Gotta love those big-tent arguments.

The third guy, Gene Callahan, is angry at me — and a lot of other people — for something else entirely. He doesn’t like modern-day conservatives because we’re too willing to compromise with the way things are rather than fight for “the way things used to be” (but never actually were). Furious that William F. Buckley and conservatives generally aren’t trying harder to get rid of Social Security — and presumably the interstate highway system, fluoridated water, and other modern outrages, Callahan offers a new motto for National Review: “Standing athwart history, yelling, ‘We surrender!’”

We can be assured that many a high-fives were heard a-clapping at the Lewrockwell water cooler the day that bon mot was read aloud.

Who Gets Hayek?

Moving beyond Lewrockwell.com to the larger universe of organized-movement libertarians, i.e., out of the phone booth and into a bigger phone booth, what unites these three guys as well as many (but certainly not all; please no e-mails saying “not me!”) in the broader libertarian “movement” is a deep-seated resentment of conservatism and a corresponding white-hot rage directed at anyone who deigns to call libertarians “conservatives.”

For example, in the column I wrote that had Dieteman and Kantor spitting Diet Coke out their noses onto the computer screen, I said that Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom contributed to the “core of modern conservative philosophy.” I am about the 5,316th person to make this flatly factual assertion, and yet for every 5,316 times someone says this some libertarian somewhere kicks a cat.

Every serious telling of the modern conservative story says the same thing. For example, the very first chapter of The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945 is entitled, “The Libertarians Revolt,” and the first story in that chapter is about — guess what? — The Road to Serfdom.

The libertarians respond that conservatives have no claim to Hayek because Hayek was a libertarian who wrote an essay titled “Why I am Not a Conservative.” Case closed as far as they see it. Even Milton Friedman has made this argument. What’s odd about all this is that Hayek was explicitly talking about pre-modern conservatives, European conservatives, and reactionaries. In the essay Hayek consciously describes himself as an “Old Whig” just like Edmund Burke, the — ahem — father of modern conservatism. Hayek unabashedly describes himself as a classical liberal in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville. But nowhere does he say that he is a “libertarian” — in fact Hayek explicitly rejected that label.

It’s very odd; they say “Old Whig” should be interpreted broadly as “libertarian” but “conservative” must be taken narrowly to mean American conservatives. This is a deliberate misreading of the essay. Hayek says that in the United States you can “still” be a defender of liberty by defending long-standing institutions that were designed to preserve freedom. In other words, “conservatives” in America are — or can be — classical liberals. Moreover, just because Hayek said he wasn’t a European or religious conservative, he didn’t share the bile and hatred that so many libertarians have for traditionalists. Hayek had a healthy respect for this kind of conservatism, which, he felt, had helped to preserve the organic order. He even says it’s “legitimate” and “probably necessary.”

I confess all of this skirts the line between esoteric and juvenile, but what drives me nuts is that so many libertarians, including my friend Jim Glassman, the sainted Milton Friedman, and especially this Dieteman guy, quote the title of the essay and fling around a few excerpts out of context and then declare that Hayek would want nothing to do with, say, National Review-style conservatism. And that’s simply not true. More to the point, it wouldn’t matter if it were true because even if Hayek didn’t like National Review conservatives, National Review conservatives have always liked him. He fits our idea of what conservatism is about. The Road to Serfdom, written in the pre-dawn hours of the Cold War, was a call to arms for conservatives. You can ask Bill Buckley yourself. Why this should upset so many libertarians is a mystery to me. I don’t know any Jews who get worked up about the fact that Christians revere the Old Testament too, and I’ve never met a Christian to say the Old Testament is theirs and theirs alone. This is probably a bad analogy, except that it illustrates that most movements are usually happy, or at least unconcerned, when another team admires their play book. The whole point of political movements is to sell your ideas to people. Well, the conservatives bought a huge amount of libertarian stuff. But some libertarians schizophrenically demand a recall — “We’re taking Hayek back!” — or they are furious that we haven’t bought their whole inventory — “Revere Ayn Rand as a God or be smitten!”

Deal With It

Which brings us to fusionism. This was an intellectual enterprise launched in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a libertarian editor at National Review named Frank Meyer. Meyer’s was an unwieldy effort to merge the classical liberal emphasis on limiting the size of the state and expanding individual freedom with the conservative emphasis on maintaining a moral order based on transcendent principles. Truth be told, as a coherent philosophy it never really worked as well as Meyer wanted it to (and Meyer himself converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, in effect switching to the other side at the last minute.) But as a political effort within the conservative movement it worked just fine. This was especially so during the Cold War when libertarians and conservatives both saw the Soviet Empire as the apotheosis of everything evil in the world. But even after the Twilight Struggle, as a matter of practical politics, fusionism still thrives.

Generally speaking, traditionalist conservatives and free-market libertarians agree on about 85% of all public-policy issues. Moreover, most conservatives who want to get rid of the NEA or corporate welfare or the estate tax or the public-school monopoly don’t think of these efforts as libertarian. They see them, correctly, as legitimate objectives of the conservative movement. Even those libertarians like the indispensable Virginia Postrel, who rightly reject the conservative label — just as Whittaker Chambers did — need to understand that operationally they are still members of the capital “R” Right. Which is why conservatives shouldn’t care too much about libertarian griping.

Yes, from time to time they advocate wacky stuff. But most of the time they’re just fighting our battles under a different flag. When they try to break ranks entirely the most common result is that they throw a party to which nobody shows up. Indeed, if you read Lewrockwell.com on a given day you will find plenty of rants about how “so-called” conservatives have “sold out” and how neoconservatives are all ideological imposters. “In their hearts, they are still socialists,” Callahan writes straight out of his posterior. But so much of this is the sort of screaming you’d expect from people too “pure” to suit up and get on the playing field. You have to yell that loud when you’re heckling from the nose-bleed seats.

The conservative movement needs libertarians the way the Republican party needs the conservative movement (and the way America needs the Republican party). Nobody feels they get the respect and attention they deserve from their hosts, but that’s life. This is something that Barry Goldwater, that great fusionist-conservative hero, understood. When Richard Nixon betrayed the Goldwaterites by capitulating to East Coast liberal demands, fed-up conservatives (i.e., future Reaganites) threatened to bolt from the party. Barry Goldwater then had some sage advice. “Grow up conservatives,” he declared. “We are conservatives. This great Republican party is our historic house. This is our home.” I have some similar advice for the libertarians: Grow up, you’re stuck with us.


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