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Libertarians and Conservatives

So, yes, libertarians should find a friendlier home in the GOP if their priority is pushing the traditional GOP agenda of low taxes and weaker regulation of the economy. But should this be their priority?

Over the same period that saw libertarian priorities in economics relatively ascendant, we have seen a distinctly negative trend in the growth of militarism and the national security state. In principle, this should worry libertarians as much as government intrusion in the economy. In practice, it should worry them more, for two reasons: first, the trend has been in the wrong direction for a while; second, while there are large organized interests fighting against government intrusion in the economy, there are no large organized interests similarly interested in fighting the growth of the national security state.

If what libertarians are interested in doing is shifting the national conversation, they could do the most good by organizing people who are not culturally liberal but who value freedom into opposition to military spending and the cult of national security. If Brink Lindsey and, say, Andrew Bacevich got together to say: listen: moving the national conversation on the security state security and our military posture matters more to freedom today than keeping taxes low, and matters more to each of us than stuff we disagree on like immigration and gay marriage – that would get noticed. Over time, commitments like that could have a real impact – opening up space in one or both parties for candidates to step outside the Washington consensus on these matters without fear of being trampled to death. ~Noah Millman

That would be a very healthy development, and it would get noticed, but Millman perhaps unintentionally reinforces Lindsey’s complaint against contemporary conservatives. Lindsey complains refers to the “it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism,” and he provides a litany of statist positions that dissident conservatives abhor no less than libertarians:

Notwithstanding the return of libertarian rhetoric, the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement. It endorses the systematic use of torture. It defends unchecked presidential power over matters of national security. It excuses massive violations of Americans’ civil liberties committed in the name of fighting terrorism. It supports bloated military budgets, preventive war, and open-ended, nation-building occupations.

To the extent that a few conservative movement leaders have started criticizing some aspects of the security state (e.g., Keene, Norquist), this overstates things slightly, but only slightly. There are also some cultural conservatives who reject all of these things, and I count myself among them, but as we all know we are fairly unrepresentative. So libertarians have every reason to try building an anti-militarist, civil libertarian political alliance, but they lack politically influential partners among conservatives. I understand that Millman is talking about “shifting the national conversation,” so he takes for granted that the national conversation and especially the conversation among conservatives are very much oriented toward militarism and expansion of the security state. Lindsey doesn’t seem very interested in a long, hard, unpopular slog to reshape public opinion. After all, this is the same person who has spent so much time inflating the size and significance of the “libertarian vote” to make libertarians seem more relevant in electoral politics than they actually are. One of the main points Lindsey makes against contemporary conservatism is that it has become unpopular and its demographic base is declining in size and power over time:

God-and-country populism may still appeal to a large number of Americans (though certainly not a majority), but its future looks bleak.

Lindsey’s estimate of the staying power of what he calls “God-and-country populism” seems badly off. That “certainly not a majority” parenthetical remark seems unfounded. A cynical observer would point out that the only thing currently keeping the Republicans from collapsing as a national coalition is its embrace of “God-and-country populism.” The GOP’s exploitation of religious and patriotic sentiments is not what drags it down. It is the disastrous policy decisions Republicans have made abroad once it has exploited those sentiments to gain power that have resulted in its recent political downfall. Indeed, one of the reasons why “military spending and the cult of national security” are so difficult to challenge, much less roll back, is that it can reliably count on “God-and-country populism,” which easily commands the support of 55-60% of the population. Not only does Lindsey seem uninterested in changing that, but he simply assumes that “God-and-country populism” will gradually disappear as the country’s demographic make-up changes. It may find somewhat different expressions in the future, but it something enduring that anti-militarists have to contest and re-define if we want to see foreign and national security policies less injurious to American liberties.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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