During the Bush years, disciples of Leo Strauss often complained that they were unfairly typecast as neoconservatives. There are many kinds of Straussian, including the antiwar French conservative Pierre Manent, the libertarian Paul Cantor, and even a few Front Porcher traditionalists. Many neoconservatives likewise insisted that they were not now, nor had they ever been, Straussians. The two categories had some significant overlap — especially in Kristols pere et fils — but adherents of each thought it unfair to assume the two were coterminous.
Ross Douthat has now done for Rand Paul and the paleoconservatives what Straussians and neocons claimed had been done to them: Douthat has blended together some overlapping but distinct non-neo varieties of the Right to pronounce Rand Paul a paleoconservative. And by the commutative principle, whatever objectionable things one paleo has said may now be applied to Rand Paul. Thus, the Kentucky Republican’s reservations about the Civil Rights Act can be traced not only to libertarianism but to racially minded thinkers like Sam Francis.
Several points of clarification are in order. First, paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives formed an alliance in the 1990s, but they stem from separate origins and have branched out in different ways since then. Murray Rothbard, the original paleolibertarian, was also the original libertarian simpliciter, a co-founder of the non-paleo Cato Institute and at various times an ally of Dixiecrats, National Review, the League of Stevensonian Democrats, the New Left, and the Libertarian Party before joining forces with paleoconservatives in the 1990s. The other leading paleolibertarians, Ron Paul and his former staffer Lew Rockwell, don’t have backgrounds quite so eclectic — Rockwell was an editor for the conservative publisher Arlington House and Hillsdale College back in the day and edited a medical-industry newsletter, Paul got involved in Austrian economics and Republican politics long before the term paleoconservative had been coined in its present meaning. Rand Paul is most closely connected, of course, to his father’s views. But if that makes Rand a paleolibertarian, it doesn’t mean that he subscribes to some strict body of dogma. One cannot use the commutative principle even to ascribe Rothbard’s views to Rand Paul.
To connect Rand Paul with paleoconservative thinkers is even more of a stretch. He need not have read anything by, say, Paul Gottfried in order to have arrived at his critique of nondiscrimination law — if he was looking to sources other than the purely libertarian (where criticism of nondiscrimination law is commonplace), Barry Goldwater and the no-prefix conservatives of the 1960s would have sufficed. There’s nothing peculiarly paleo about Rand Paul’s domestic policy views: they are the views that conservatives in general held until around the time of George H.W. Bush administration. His foreign policy, meanwhile, is pitched somewhere between the “humble foreign policy” that George W. Bush alluded to in 1999 and the elder Paul’s non-interventionism. This is a blend that appeals to many paleoconservatives, but I don’t see any evidence that it derives from Pat Buchanan or anyone else closely identified with paleoconservatism. Rand Paul has various ideas in common with paleoconservatives, but except for those derived from his father — who is more libertarian than paleo — he shares at least as many notions with the conservative mainstream. His landslide win in the Kentucky primary is proof of that.
There are other, greater problems with Douthat’s column beyond this general confusion. Take his assertion that paleos are “good at applying their principles more consistently than your average partisan, but lousy at knowing when to stop. (Hence the tendency to see civil rights legislation as just another unjustified expansion of federal power.)” Is Douthat therefore in favor of using nondiscrimination laws to assert homosexuals’ rights against the Catholic Church? Does it not look to him as if the defenders of nondiscrimination laws are also — by his own standards — “lousy” at knowing “when to stop?” And again, the problem to which Douthat points is not a paleo problem: most conservatives in the 1960s opposed or at least had strong reservations about federal civil-rights laws. If anything, there’s a better case against nondiscrimination laws today than there was then, since racial discrimination is broadly socially unacceptable in all parts of the United States now (and no amount of federal power will eliminate all racial discrimination). At the very least, this would seem to be something that even a moderate conservative such as Douthat would want to think about, given the way nondiscrimination laws are increasingly wielded against the religious conscience.
Paleos and libertarians opposed nondiscrimination laws then and now; movement conservatives opposed them then and support them now. Does that, in Douthat’s estimation, make non-paleos less “lousy” at determining the limits of their principles? It doesn’t look that way to me.
For all that Douthat is at pains to be fair — “there’s a lot to admire about this unusual constellation of ideas, and its sweeping critique of American politics as usual,” he writes — in this column he acts as a mere enforcer of liberal orthodoxy, damning as bigotry or crankishness deviant views on topics as disparate as the gold standard and World War II. Has Douthat absorbed enough Austrian economics to know why the two Pauls favor a gold standard over fiat currency? Note that Douthat does not present even the hint of an argument, he just dismisses these monetary concerns as an “obsession.” As for Patrick Buchanan’s views on World War II, Douthat seems not to have paid attention to Churchill, Hitler, and the “Unnecessary War,” which argues in several places that there were more effective ways to contain Hitler (via the Stresa Front, for example) than by Britain offering an impotent war guarantee to Poland. Douthat is content to insinuate evil motives — anti-Semitism — rather than allow that there could be anything worth debating in these matters. It’s a poor showing from someone smart enough to know better.