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GMU’s Dan Klein Reviews Charles Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto

George Mason University’s Dan Klein has a review of Charles C.W. Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future. It is very complimentary, as the book deserves.

Klein nicely highlights Cooke’s project of forging a coalition that is (1) good politics and (2) pretty good policy (or at least better policy, meaning both better than the status quo policy and better than the other team’s policies). It’s a coalition that joins conservatives and libertarians.

Klein, a libertarian, endorses some of Cooke’s critical remarks about certain tendencies among some libertarians. For example, libertarians often refuse to see that social life necessarily privileges the status quo to some extent, and that policy analysis is best formulated as practical reform to the status quo. Cooke and Klein suggest that a proper attitude is one anchored in the status quo, not the “first best” approach, where all undesirable institutions are eliminated.

For my part, I tend to argue for the “first best” – I disagree with Cooke and Klein that it is always better to argue for reforms from the status quo rather than from a clean slate. There are instances, where offering an uncompromising defense of the “first best” is the most effective way, not necessarily to change policy in the short-run, but to fight the battle of ideas and influence the culture in the longer-term (which will then lead to change in policies). In a way, I think Klein and Cooke may be a little too dismissive of the long-term influence uncompromising libertarian positions have had. 

Klein also applauds Cooke’s bid to get conservatives to move in the libertarian direction on several issues, notably the drug war. I couldn’t agree more. Klein writes: “[Cooke] affirms the hope that better policy can be good politics. We really have little choice but to hope that hope.” 

I may be an optimist but I think we are actually seeing some progresses being made on that front and that we can expect some more rapprochement in the near future. 

There is much more in the paper than I can cover in this short Corner post, so I would recommend reading both the book (if you haven’t already) and the review. But just in case you don’t have time, I would like to include these two paragraphs: They are a great description of how Cooke goes about achieving his goal of trying to get good policy to work as good politics. 

Cooke speaks principally to conservatives, or Team Republican, but also to libertarians. He wants to persuade conservatives of two things: First, that, generally speaking, good policy is policy that is quite libertarian; his most significant case is the folly and evil of the war on drugs. And second that good politics, for Team Republican, is politics that seriously upholds a presumption of liberty. So Cooke holds that better policy can be good politics. He argues, I think persuasively, that Republicans would renew their liberty luster and gain support by taking the lead in drug liberalization. 

Speaking to libertarians, Cooke has parallel aims. Cooke wants to persuade them that good policy is not always as formulaically libertarian as they might think. A key theme here, arising notably in discussions of foreign policy and immigration, is that a policy that augments liberty directly, such as downsizing and withdrawing the military or opening the borders to all comers, might have consequences that reduce liberty indirectly, and enough to spell a reduction in liberty overall. Cooke illuminates the idea that augmentations in direct liberty may sometimes produce reductions in overall liberty

I wrote up my own thoughts on the book a couple of months ago.

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