Denouncing libertarianism as not true conservatism is like saying The Rolling Stones somehow dethroned Elvis Presley. There’s no questioning that both acts sound very different-there’s also no questioning that both are rock n’ roll personified. The philosophies of libertarianism and conservatism are no doubt particular and distinct, as the loudest voices for each will eternally argue; but both brands have also been virtually inseparable in the history of American conservatism. Perhaps Ronald Reagan said it best in 1975: “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism… The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”
Judge Andrew Napolitano’s FOX Business program “Freedom Watch” now brings to a wide audience this integral conservative ingredient that has long been missing in the right-wing media-pure, unadulterated libertarian philosophy. Sure, there are conservative hosts who spend hours explaining the many different ways in which they don’t like this president or his party. There are even right-wing hosts who claim to be libertarian yet enthusiastically support unprecedented civil liberty intrusions so long as the intruder is Republican. But what talk radio or FOX News “Reagan conservative” actually consistently advocates for the Gipper’s basic concepts of both conservatism and libertarianism: less government interference, less centralized authority and more individual freedom?
At precisely the moment the Tea Party is raising questions related to these concepts, particularly concerning the practical limits and sustainability of our current government, Napolitano’s show is a custom fit for what’s brewing on the grassroots Right. In April, a Tea Party poll conducted by The Politico showed the movement split evenly between the more socially conservative Sarah Palin and libertarian hero Ron Paul. The television debut of “Freedom Watch” was billed as a “Tea Party Summit” and featured both figures, as Paul suggested that the gap was exaggerated and Palin reinforced this point by surprisingly agreeing with the Judge on marijuana legalization and the unconstitutionality of government snooping. Predictably, the largest divide was on foreign policy, where Paul and Napolitano advocated a strict and thorough non-interventionism and Palin subscribed to Reagan’s “peace through strength” axiom, keeping the details of her position vague. But no matter-where else are such issues being raised, before mainstream conservatives, Tea Partiers and people like Palin? It’s hard to imagine changing the conversation on the Right from partisanship to principle without first starting conservations about said principles, and Napolitano’s program shines a much needed libertarian light on the Republican darkness that has become mainstream conservatism.
Compare Napolitano’s efforts to get conservatives to think outside the GOP box to his fellow FOX host Sean Hannity’s most recent effort to stuff the Tea Party back in it. Reviewing Hannity’s new book, Conservative Victory, the Charleston City Paper‘s Chris Haire writes: “Hannity has nothing but disdain for the Tea Party’s No. 1 goal: to vote all the bums out, Democrat and Republican alike. Hannity wants to keep those bums in power, as long as they’re members of the GOP and their last name isn’t Paul… Even worse, like many of his talk radio and Fox News brethren, Hannity pays lip service to the Tea Party movement, but only for so long. For the talking head, there’s nothing more disastrous that could happen to the GOP than for the Tea Party to become a true force within the Republican Party.” Hannity’s partisanship and Napolitano’s principle paint a stark-and new-contrast for FOX’s conservative audience. Hannity closes his radio show each day promising a “conservative” line-up of regulars like Karl Rove and Mitt Romney, where these men do little more than nitpick Democrats and excuse Republicans. Napolitano closed his program’s television debut with the following: “The American public needs to know and understand that the government that serves best is the one that serves less.”
First debuting as an exclusively online program, then moving to weekend TV, and just recently graduating to weeknight, prime time programming, Freedom Watch is poised to become a powerhouse of conservative and libertarian thought, providing a mainstream forum on the Right where viewers can reexamine what they believe and why they believe it. For former Bush Republicans who’ve now become Tea Partiers or are at least trending toward a more substantive conservatism, such a reexamination is not only overdue but necessary-particularly considering that such intellectual travelers won’t get any help from the Republican spokesman who pose as conservative pundits, most of whom want their audiences to reexamine nothing. Refreshingly, on Freedom Watch there’s no reflexive support for war, big government and loss of liberties simply because a Republican is in charge-and neither is there a distaste for each simply because a Democrat is doing the damage. Almost alone among his FOX brethren, the Judge has always been comprehensive in his critique of the state, reminding us that hating liberals is no substitute for loving liberty-and he now has his own, prime time show on which to prove it.