The Corner

Con Fusion

Jonah: One reason I didn’t comment on Brink Lindsey’s “liberaltarian” article is because I basically agreed with your quick assessment of it. But since you’ve baited me, here are a few further thoughts on Lindsey’s interesting but unpersuasive argument.

First off, I suspect that although libertarianism may have played a small role in Democratic gains in Arizona and Colorado, other factors loomed larger: the growing Hispanic population, migrants from California, sixth-year Bush fatigue, GOP corruption, concerns about the war, candidate quality, and, in the case of Colorado, unprecedented levels of left-wing 527 spending (a topic I covered closely in NR’s post-election issue). The demographic factors in particular make me wonder whether these places are expressing their fabled libertarianism or actually losing it.

The most puzzling section of the piece, however, is Lindsey’s claim that “an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends” and his statement that “the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era”–the fall of Jim Crow, abortion rights, Miranda rights, etc.–“were championed by the political left.”

Gosh, I had thought that conservatives had championed quite a few causes that also might be described as libertarian breakthroughs: tax reform, welfare reform, deregulation, free trade, and the rise of charter schools and the promise of school choice, to say nothing of successful defensive actions against national health care and the like. How about crime control? Any libertarian worth his salt knows that successful libertarianism rests upon a rule-of-law foundation, and my bet is that most libertarians would rather live in the New York of the un-libertarian Rudy Giuliani than in what came before it. Also, the preening about Jim Crow is a bit much; do libertarians really embrace the Left’s commitment to color-coded equal outcomes, or the conservative vision of colorblind equal opportunity? Finally, please, please, please let’s not forget the issue that originally fused the diverse factions of the Right: anti-Communism. As Reagan said, you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit, and libertarians must be remembered as an important part of the coalition that helped confront and bring down the Soviet Union.

The last section of Lindsey’s piece lays out the “liberaltarian” agenda. A lot of it involves dragging the party of socialism toward acceptance of free markets. I’m skeptical about Lindsey’s prospects, but I wish him only good luck. I sincerely hope he can increase the political clout of those of us who would like to eliminate farm subsidies (has he scheduled meetings to discuss this with North Dakota’s Democrat senators or his new friend Jon Tester yet?), cut corporate welfare, reform the tax code, and transform entitlements. I love this line about retirement income: “We need to move from the current pay-as-you-go approach to a system in which private savings would provide primary funding for the costs of old age.” What a brilliant idea! Hey, wait a second. Hasn’t President Bush been saying exactly the same thing for years?

I’m a fusionist to the core–when hair-splitters ask me to label my views, I alternately call myself a libertarian conservative (the adjective modifies the noun) or a law-and-order libertarian. My critique of modern Republicanism is very similar to Lindsey’s, at least insofar as it concerns the monstrosity of “big government conservatism.” But although Lindsey at one point describes “the liberalization of divorce laws” as a great libertarian accomplishment (I’m not so sure about this), I think it’s far too soon to break up the fusionist marriage. It’s been said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and surely there are tensions in the conservative-libertarian union. Before Lindsey joins hands with the socialists, protectionists, Wal-Mart bashers, and nanny-staters, however, I urge him to think a little harder and deeper about contuining to live with the devil he knows. Or does that make me sound too much like Russell Kirk?

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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