Charles C.W. Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto is a delightful call for a fusion of conserva(tive) and (liber)tarian ideals into a new synthesis that can lead the right to victory after eight years under George W. Bush “ruined its reputation, giving conservatism a bad name.”
“Republicans spent too much, subsidized too much, spied too much, and controlled too much.” The GOP “abandoned its core principle of federalism, undermined free trade, favored the interests of big business” over a free market, “used government power to push social issues too aggressively” and “lost its reputation for fiscal restraint, constitutional propriety and mastery of foreign affairs.” He justifies his indictment in crisp prose and difficult to dispute facts.
The best news is that Cooke’s solution is federalism and decentralization. The difference between the left and right, he argues, is that conservatives and libertarians do not insist on telling people hundreds and thousands of miles away how to live their lives. Progressive philosophy “is built upon the core belief that an educated and well-staffed central authority can determine how citizens should live their lives.” But, he argues, Utah and New York, indeed New York City and Buffalo, are very different places and deserve very different policies. Federalism is the answer.
In one of his few references to philosophical sources, Cooke questions whether it is even possible to run things well from the center. He references Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek’s magisterial “The Use of Knowledge in Society” to demonstrate that decisions must be left to people who are familiar with specific circumstances and know directly of resources and the changes in them necessary to make rational decisions. President Obama admits that many national agencies are “outdated” and “designed poorly” but he proceeds to utilize them to dramatically change and affect peoples’ lives. The result is today’s governmental dysfunction.
The intellectual elite in the media and education simply keep repeating the progressive mantra, blind to any alternative. The differences between this refrain and conservatarianism, Cooke insists, are fundamental and “utterly irreconcilable.” The solution for the right is to build competing institutions to influence those with an open mind as it has already begun through alternative media, talk radio, journals and think tanks. He concedes these are no match to the resources of establishment progressivism but is optimistic that the young represent “a generation of nonconformists” who will adopt his conservatarianism if it is presented attractively to them.
A sound platform must begin with the Constitution, the fount of federalism. But its central message is distorted by progressive intellectualism reading its prejudices into that document. He quotes progressive icon Woodrow Wilson that “The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straightjacket. In its elasticity lies its genuine greatness.” The conservative response should be the “simple idea” that “law should continue to mean what it meant when it was adopted,” which progressives seem to understand except when it comes to the Constitution. Before the progressive revolution, courts did not find black or female suffrage hidden somewhere in the Constitution. They required amendments, as required explicitly in Article V, which were in fact adopted in the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments. Today, rights to sodomy, gay marriage, abortion, and the like are “discovered” in a Constitution that has nothing to say about them. Although he seems to concede past anti-federalist interpretations, his basic solution is to defend that document as written, leaving issues not in the Constitution to the states and using the amendment process when national change is thought necessary.
At least in theory, Cooke’s manifesto preaches rational balance in foreign policy. He identifies himself as a firm believer in American world leadership but finds that “a contingent on the right that is hostile to the heady interventionism of the Bush years is a healthy thing indeed. [But] That there is a tendency to extend this skepticism beyond prudence into all out disengagement is worrying.” America, he believes, “can lead without needing to rush to the scene of every fire in every corner of the world.” Military spending should be privileged but the right should be in the forefront of “rallying against waste” and against using defense for pork-barrel spending.
Many conservatives will be upset with Cooke on social issues. On the positive side, he is a serious opponent of gun control and attributes the right’s success on this issue to having “the facts on its side” in a local-oriented policy (ignoring the Heller decision) that respects legitimate desires for protection and sportsmanship as well as differences between central city and rural life. Years of drug control policy (beginning with Wilson in 1914) have been a failure because it is national and cannot take into account local differences. It discriminates against African Americans, makes the U.S. the world leader in prison populations, and has contributed to the militarization of police forces. Drug policy should be decentralized to relate to local circumstances.
Cooke becomes provocative when he claims the whole idea of “social issues” is a myth. Each policy instead requires a pragmatic approach sensitive to different circumstances. Although specifying he is an atheist, he says abortion is settled by the simple and coherent argument that “a life is a life and that anybody who is interested in individual liberty is duty bound to protect the innocent.” Gay marriage is different. While Americans tend to oppose abortion—at least after the first three months—a large majority now support gay marriage.
Surprisingly, Cooke does not support the libertarian solution of privatizing marriage but does say that there is no Constitutional right to gay unions. The problem is that government is so intertwined in marriage that in a practical sense either gay unions must be recognized or gays must be deprived of too many government services, even ones libertarians recognize. Indeed, contracts cannot allow every human relationship (e.g. bondage or slavery) so the state cannot be excluded even when it is just enforcing free contracting. The solution again is local, to work out specific real-world difficulties. Minimally, those who do not wish to offer services to such marriages should not be coerced to do so.
Overall, Cooke presents a lively and interesting discussion of issues that should be widely read especially among America’s millennials and younger generations. This rising cohort should just buy the book and stop reading this review.
To older generations the book reminds one of Athena emerging full grown from the skull of Zeus. Here is an argument for some type of traditional and libertarian fusion written by an intellectual at the magazine National Review, who seems to have no idea that his magazine had developed the whole concept of conservative fusionism a half century earlier. Its founder William F. Buckley Jr., an editor Frank Meyer, and their acolytes promoted the idea of a conservatism based upon a synthesis between pursuing traditional value ends and utilizing free means to do so. While preferring “tension” to “fusionism,” both Buckley and Meyer adopted the latter as the least objectionable designation. At least it iterates better than conservatarianism.
Cooke’s omission is mitigated by the fact he is British by birth and young and so would have no reason to know this history. Yet, it is remarkable that no one at the magazine alerted him to its paternity. Perhaps no one remembers. The current mini revival of fusionism (the Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia Society, Intercollegiate Studies Institute among others) apparently passed them by. Indeed, this lineage traces back much further. As Meyer and Hayek both emphasized, the fusion of freedom and tradition was derived from the medieval synthesis of faith and reason that formed European civilization culminating in the Magna Carta, which in turn was grounded on St. Paul’s synthesis of Greek and Jew that created Western Christendom.
But these big issues are not required to enjoy this bright, reasonable to the max, and readable book. It is a good place for the younger generation to begin the long journey back from monochromatic utopian thinking, especially the modern progressive version being force-fed to them at their colleges and universities every day.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of the fusionist America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.