During a question and answer session at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, one man opined “One thing I’ve learned here at CPAC is that the ‘C’ actually doesn’t stand for ‘Libertarianism,’ it’s not ‘L’PAC.” When Congressman Ron Paul won the annual straw poll at CPAC, talk host Rush Limbaugh made a point to tell his listeners that CPAC wasn’t conservative this year because a libertarian had won.
Both men are worse than just wrong. They’re on crack.
Probably the most popular and cited history of American conservatism, George H. Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America begins in 1945 — and it begins with libertarianism. Titled “The Revolt of the Libertarians,” the second paragraph of Nash’s first chapter states “For those who believed in the creed of old-fashioned, classical, nineteenth-century liberal individualism, 1945 was especially lonely, unpromising, and bleak. Free markets, private property, limited government, self reliance, laissez faire — it had been a long time since principles like these guided government and persuaded peoples.”
Chronicling the intellectuals who tried to rectify this bleakness, Nash begins his history with two men — economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises — and explains how these two libertarian heroes kick-started the American conservative movement. Few actually used the word “conservatism” in 1945, a term that began to gain popularity when Russell Kirk’s book “The Conservative Mind” was published in 1953 and with the founding of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955. Nash notes that even Kirk, who later had his own squabbles with fellow National Review writer and libertarian Frank Meyer, was first inspired by both Hayek and Mises, writing to a friend that these men represented a “great school of economists of a much sounder and different mind.”
After Hayek and Mises, Nash then cites Albert Jay Nock, publisher of the unabashedly libertarian magazine “The Freeman,” in the 1920′s. Writes Nash “Nock came to exert a significant amount of influence on the postwar Right,” yet was so libertarian that “Nock verged on anarchism in his denunciations of the inherently aggrandizing State.” Noting the impression Nock made on a young Buckley, Nash explained that “It was Nockian libertarianism in fact, which exercised the first conservative influence on the future editor of National Review.”
Nash’s entire book is a grand history of the mixture of conservatism and libertarianism, with the two often being indistinguishable. The American Spectator says of this work “Nash’s seminal book will remind today’s hotheads that the modern conservative movement was made possible by a coalition of traditionalists and libertarians…” Says president of the Heritage Foundation, Edwin J. Feulner, Jr. “Nash’s work is one of the very few books that must be read for a full understanding of the conservative movement in America.”
Feulner’s Heritage Foundation advertises on Limbaugh’s show, and yet the talk host is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the American conservative movement could not have existed without libertarianism. Furthermore, pundits like Rush often claim to be “Reagan conservatives,” yet said Reagan, a man whose conservatism was developed during the same time that Nash chronicles “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
Dismissing libertarianism as not real conservatism is like dismissing filet mignon as not real steak — an attempt to marginalize a particular aspect of something that many have believed to be, as Reagan did, the meat of the matter. Indeed, advocating for “limited government” without employing some degree of libertarianism would be logistically impossible.
Which is exactly why so many of today’s so-called “conservatives” are so quick to dismiss it. If there is an interloping ideology on the Right today, it is not libertarianism but neoconservatism, an ideology born not of limited government philosophy, but ex-Socialists who migrated Right as a reaction to the 1960′s counterculture, and who today are devoted to promoting the maintenance and expansion of America’s global empire.
Whereas traditional conservatives considered war — and the massive bureaucracy necessary to wage it — an occasional, necessary evil (as Buckley conceded with the Cold War), neoconservatives consider perpetual war a positive good precisely because they believe it is America’s mission to export democracy around the world. Nash notes the divide “Whereas, for instance, conservatives had resisted Communism in the name of Western civilization, the neoconservatives of the 1980′s did so in the name of a neo-Wilsonian ideology of ‘global democratic capitalism.”
Questioning the cost or wisdom of waging perpetual war is considered unconscionable or even “unpatriotic” to neoconservatives, which is why they are so dismissive of libertarians who insist on questioning foreign policy. Most neoconservatives also instinctively realize that their ideology is incompatible with libertarian’s pesky obsession with limited government, giving neocons good reason to marginalize or expel any hint of libertarian influence that threatens to expose the statist nature of today’s mainstream conservative movement.
It was no accident that the Bush-Cheney administration offered zero, traditional, limited government conservatism, but a healthy dose of neoconservatism in the form of unprecedented, preventive war and massive government growth. It is also no mistake that would-be future “conservative” leaders like Mitt Romney now write books explicitly promising more war and implicitly more government, while continuing to enjoy the support of pundits like Limbaugh.
Considering their new, radical definition, it’s easy to see why Rush and other mainstream conservatives don’t consider libertarians part of their movement — because they’re not. And while it remains to be seen how the irreconcilable differences will play out between limited government libertarians (whose numbers are growing) and big government neoconservatives (whose ideology still dominates), let there be no more ignorance about which philosophy is truly more alien to the historical American conservative movement — and let there be no further delusions about which philosophy was most responsible for creating it.