It’s a bit cheeky to compare neo-libertarian Senator Rand Paul to the late leftist songwriting icon Pete Seeger, but they share a naive sense of the possibilities of politics that is too obvious to ignore. That’s especially true now that Paul has elevated himself into a serious presidential contender seeking to shift the conservative movement away from its roots in multiple non-socialist traditions into something more monolithic and millenarian in its outlook and its aims.
This morning’s New York Times profile of Sen. Paul’s fundraising efforts serves as a fresh reminder of that. Paul’s basic message is that the American Right suffers from the flaw of not being libertarian enough. If only we were less interested in using law to help people avoid dangerous temptations like excessive drug use, Americans would embrace rigid free-market and anti-redistributionist economics. If only American foreign policy were conducted along the lines of a Las Vegas tourist commercial (what happens in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan), Americans would flock to the freedom banner. If only.
Seeger had that sort of naive sensibility too. If only we could show solidarity with the downtrodden, Americans would flock toward socialism (the hard kind, not the namby pamby stuff offered by our current president). If only we could renounce the use of force, others would follow in line and war could be abolished. If only.
Seeger and Paul share a sense of human malleability that defies conservative sensibilities. People, including Americans raised and baptized in the font of liberty, are both selfish and altruistic. They are both proud and humble, desirous of liberty and stability. They are also rather agnostic about the exercise of government power, both favoring it and opposing it in turn depending upon the circumstances. They are, as Madison reminds us in Federalist 51, not angels: they can neither be trusted with power without checks and balances nor be able to live freely without government.
Conservatism defies easy explanation precisely because people defy easy explanation. Its adherents anger and disappoint libertarians and progressives because they do not offer neo-Cartesian policy prescriptions flowing neatly from a single principle. But that merely means that conservatives have their feet solidly planted in American political thought in a way that their more ideological brethren can only dream of.
It’s said that for someone armed only with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Paul and Seeger know they have a hammer, and they are eager to use it on whatever nails they find. Conservatives, who believe that the choice of tool ought to follow from the choice of task, would do well to look elsewhere.
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.