A Google Alert for Albert Jay Nock brought my attention to this surprising paper from the Heritage Foundation, which discusses Nock, Irving Babbitt, the Southern Agrarians, and even cites Murray Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right. But it’s not as good as that sounds: author Johnathan O’Neill seems to have a Jaffaite tilt, and his capsule history of progressivism and the varieties of the Old Right leaves a lot to be desired. Progressivism had right-wing as well as leftist qualities, as Paul Gottfried has made clear, and some of the outstanding Old Right libertarians were themselves close to the progressive movement — Nock launched his career as a writer with the muckraking American Magazine, after all, where his colleagues included Ida Tarbell and John Reed.
O’Neill focuses on pre-World War II constitutional conservatives of the Henry Cabot Lodge and William Howard Taft type, however, and there’s an interesting tradition here that hasn’t been explored before. I have a few qualms: Chief Justice Taft may have been a proponent of presidential power to dismiss executive staff at will, but when movement conservatives talk about the “unitary executive” these days, they tend to mean almost complete executive immunity from legislative supervision. That’s the nub of the problem with movement conservatives proclaiming themselves constitutionalists — however sincere some of them may be, the movement as a whole for eight years treated the Constitution as the document that authorizes indefinite detention as the president’s discretion, torture, and undeclared wars. Whatever the Constitution means to the John Yoos of the world, it doesn’t mean an executive bound by the rule of law, at least not when the rules are inconvenient to Republican administrations.
Joseph Lawler, writing at the American Spectator, highlights a more promising constitutional conservatism, the kind represented by Rand Paul: “What the label means, in Paul’s case, is that he has taken his father’s libertarian politics and packaged them for a wider conservative audience.” I’d say his father does that pretty well himself, but there is the difficulty that while the two Pauls are very much constitutionalists, much of the philosophical brains trust behind them is Anti-Federalist and anarchist. (Then again, actor Warren Oates may have been on to something when he called himself “a by-god constitutional anarchist.”) You can’t trust the conservative movement to reinvigorate constitutionalism, but it would be fruitful for the descendants of the New Humanists, Old Right, and Southern Agrarians to rediscover what is good in those parts of the American political tradition that prevailed, rather than dwelling on the Constitution’s (quite real) flaws and the virtues of history’s beautiful losers.