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Up From Libertarianism?

Conservatives are grappling anew with how to balance liberty and virtue.
Lady Liberty

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A libertarian and a conservative go to dinner. America’s numerous problems and challenges are on the menu. The conservative laments the woeful state of our culture, family dissolution and low birth rates, the intersection of identity politics and uninterrupted mass immigration, the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party. “Libertarianism has failed,” the conservative concludes. “What are you talking about?” the libertarian asks incredulously. “It has never been tried!” To which the conservative replies, “Sure. Just like the Marxists say about communism!” 

This article appears in the November/December issue.

It’s a frustrating time to be a libertarian. The federal government is growing. The annual budget deficit is once again approaching $1 trillion, this time without an economic contraction, adding to a $22 trillion national debt that itself seems insignificant compared to Washington’s total unfunded liabilities. The forever wars still aren’t winding down, as even modest redeployments continue to raise bipartisan hackles. They are now joined by tariff-laden trade wars. To add insult to injury, libertarians see themselves getting the blame.

“The Obama-libertarian foreign policy does not make America safe,” warned Senator Lindsey Graham, who is second only to former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley as the neoconservatives’ favorite South Carolina Republican, when President Donald Trump planned to move U.S. troops away from the border between Syria and Turkey. “If ignoring radical Islam made America safe, there would NOT have been a 9/11.” Libertarians found themselves asking, “What Obama-libertarian foreign policy?”

“I never would have guessed libertarians dictated U.S. foreign affairs not only from 2008 to 2016 but also in the run-up to 9/11,” replied my friend Bonnie Kristian, a sometime TAC contributor, in The Week. I thought we were very angry about American foreign policy in those years, always complaining about the blowback, the drone strikes, the unconstitutional executive war-making, the attacks on innocent civilians, the costly and incompetent nation-building efforts, and so on.”

This disconnect drives much of the discourse on the Right. Populists, traditionalists, and nationalists look at what ails this country and feel constrained by possible solutions that are limited to deregulation, tax cuts, or seemingly politically implausible budget reductions. They ask a question supply-siders and deficit hawks alike find impolitic: what, if anything, will these ostensibly conservative policies actually conserve? Indeed, what have they conserved?

Libertarians by contrast keep hearing how they control the Republican agenda, yet libertarianism is a political philosophy that seeks minimal government. Whatever can be said about the government we have, minimal is not the most apt adjective. In fact, they see a government attempting to do many things while doing few of them well, a foreign policy that remains stubbornly interventionist even under a Republican president who campaigned otherwise, and politicians promising to expand federal entitlement programs even though over the long term we have no clear plans for paying for the commitments we have already made. The baby boomers are exiting the workforce and retiring, the bombers are still flying, the bureaucrats are getting paid.

To some extent, the interlocutors are talking past each other. National conservatives, for example, may generally be more willing to use government power than others on the Right. But their main quarrel with libertarianism isn’t over limited government per se but rather a certain hyper-individualistic conception of politics and society. Margaret Thatcher is often (incompletely) quoted as saying, “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” National conservatives would prefer to quote George Costanza of Seinfeld: “You know, we’re living in a society!” 

“Today we declare independence…from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism,” Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, said in his address to the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. this summer, of which he was a primary organizer. “From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics.”

Many libertarians would deny that theirs is a philosophy of atomistic individualism. J.D. Vance, who has complained that “conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians,” attempted to speak to them in his own remarks at the National Conservatism Conference. “Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don’t consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize,” the Hillbilly Elegy author said. “What I’m going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”

This debate is not entirely new. “The dispute between traditionalists and libertarians has been among the fiercest and most protracted in American conservatism,” writes historian and Heritage Foundation scholar Lee Edwards. “Like the generational conflicts of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the philosophical feuding between these two branches of conservatism has been going on for some 50 years.”

While Nobel laureate free-market economist Friedrich Hayek’s influential “Why I Am Not A Conservative” was aimed more at European conservatism than the modern American variety, many of its complaints are leveled by libertarians against national conservatives today: economic illiteracy, “strident nationalism,” an “essentially opportunist” lack of “any guiding principles which can influence long-range developments,” and an inclination to use “the powers of government to prevent change” with “no limit.” Guardian of the conservative intellectual tradition Russell Kirk, for his part, famously dismissed libertarians as “chirping sectaries” who are “metaphysically mad” and “so repellent.” 

“If one has chirping sectaries for friends, one doesn’t need any enemies,” Kirk wrote. The “great line of division in modern politics,” he said, was not libertarianism versus authoritarianism but rather the divide “between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming.” This too sounds familiar, as contemporary traditionalists reject the notion that a country is simply a market and its citizens a mass of deracinated consumers. 

In practice, however, Hayek was more of a defender of tradition than some of today’s libertarians and Kirk more anti-statist than a number of his Trump-era admirers. So what’s changed? The Cold War that united disparate factions on the Right against Soviet communism has been over for more than a quarter century now. In its place in 2019 is a combination of libertarians (and more than a few self-described conservatives, including the influential columnist and author George Will) who reject former National Review senior editor Frank Meyer’s fusionist defense of “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man,” and conservatives sharply skeptical of former Reagan official Donald Devine’s call for “utilizing libertarian means for traditionalist ends.” The occasional highly contested religious liberty carve-out aside, traditionalists don’t see libertarianism conserving that which they would most like to conserve.

There is also the ubiquitous Donald Trump, who owes his election less to anti-government backlash than any non-incumbent Republican in recent memory. He’s done some conventionally conservative things on taxes and regulation that a libertarian could like, but domestically his impulses are not libertarian. Even on foreign policy, he has broken to some extent with the neoconservatives without embracing any kind of consistent realism or non-interventionism. The fact that Trump won while barely paying lip service to limited government and expanded the Republican electoral map to include the Rust Belt has opened new possibilities and elevated once marginal conservative tendencies.

The controversy involving China and the NBA has also been eye-opening to many conservatives. When Daryl Morey, general manager for the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted out an image in support of protesters in Hong Kong—it said “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”—all hell broke loose. Even though it was deleted after a few hours, the response from Chinese corporations and government entities was swift. The Chinese conglomerate Tencent announced it would no longer broadcast Rockets games. China is a big market for the team; Yao Ming was one of the franchise’s stars. The NBA called Morey’s statement “regrettable” and expressed vague “disappointment,” even as commissioner Adam Silver robotically intoned, “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear…that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”

The Communist Party-run outlet China Daily thought otherwise, stating in an editorial: “Let’s hope the incident with Morey and the Houston Rockets will teach other companies a lesson: The big Chinese market is open to the world, but those who challenge China’s core interests and hurt Chinese people’s feelings cannot make any profit from it.” The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s popular sports website, reported that “Rockets ownership has debated Morey’s employment status and whether to replace him” amid “a geopolitical controversy that could put their chief front-office executive’s job in jeopardy.”

“We apologize,” said Rockets player James Harden. “You know, we love China.” And Silver’s support for Morey’s “freedom of expression” only went so far, as he warned “I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.” Conservatives couldn’t help but notice reeducation camps for Chinese Muslims and the police shooting at Hong Kong protesters elicited a far more equivocal response from the NBA than North Carolina passing a transgender bathroom law ahead of the All Star game, then scheduled to be played in Charlotte. Protests against the Chinese government are breaking out at professional basketball games, with security in some cases dutifully confiscating signs containing such incontrovertible slogans as “Uighurs exist.”

The NBA brought into the public eye what had been apparent for some time. Google declined to renew a contract with the Pentagon but had no moral scruples about continuing to work with China—Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has been scathing in his public criticism of what he sees as “seemingly treasonous” behavior on this front. The film Red Dawn had to be rewritten to make the poorer, weaker, and smaller North Korea the bad guy rather than China. 

Libertarians are naturally as outraged by Chinese tyranny as anyone, though every political tendency has its useful idiots. Purer forms of the ideology are more consistent in their opposition to the corporate state than mainstream Democrats or Republicans. But whatever the economic consequences for the United States, often debated in these pages, trade with China importing authoritarian values into America rather than exporting classically liberal American values into China does not fit neatly into libertarian theory. If anything, it contradicts it.

When the United States opened trade with China, the belief was that Beijing would be unable to fully enjoy the affluence markets could provide without also seeing liberalizing effects that would eventually loosen the Communists’ control of the country. More modest exposure to the outside world helped collapse the Soviet system. Perhaps in the fullness of time, this will still happen. So far, it manifestly has not. The cravenness of corporate America toward China as it builds a surveillance state and predictably oppresses Hong Kong seems like the classic example of the capitalist selling the rope to hang himself.

It is possible that these challenges can be met in ways entirely consonant with libertarian principles. Consumer reaction to the NBA’s groveling before Beijing and a strong bipartisan reaction bringing together Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a start (it is also suggestive of the possibilities for an inclusive American civic nationalism). Certainly anything approaching war would be a humanitarian disaster to be assiduously avoided by all rational people. But it is hard to overestimate the role China has played in making important, non-neocon conservative figures like Thiel and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson move from being substantially libertarian into a more populist and nationalist direction. So has the transformation of corporate human resources departments into almost quasi-governmental wokeness enforcement brigades. What’s good for General Motors, as the saying once went, is not necessarily good for Middle America.

All this is playing out amid long-simmering second thoughts about the “three-legged stool” approach to conservatism that has dominated the mainstream movement since Ronald Reagan was first elected president. Economic conservatives like tax cuts in practice and balanced budgets (or at least restrained spending) in theory; national security conservatives want to keep our military strong and engaged in the world; social conservatives defend faith, family, and the unborn.

It’s no secret that many individual participants in the conservative coalition favored only one leg of the stool but understood that such a rickety contraption couldn’t stand on its own. So like good disciples of Adam Smith, they practiced division of labor: economic conservatives handled fiscal policy, social conservatives social and religious issues, national security cons foreign policy. This worked well enough in victory, but in defeat the different factions began to eye each other suspiciously. 

Social conservatives noticed they were supplying a lot of votes for candidates who reliably cut taxes but seemed less surefooted on abortion, religious liberty, or the family (though there has certainly been some incremental pro-life legislative progress, especially at the state level). Republican presidents were appointing sympathetic judges, but the liberal precedents legalizing abortion and banishing most school prayer still stand—only now alongside new decisions affirming gay marriage which, unlike Roe v. Wade, triggered essentially no political reaction. 

As Iraq descended into chaos, low-level economic conservatives diligently working on Social Security privatization white papers for Beltway think tanks quietly expressed their doubts that the national security conservatives knew what they were doing. During budget sequestration, the Tea Party Republicans’ only major spending win over Barack Obama, the national security types felt shortchanged by their green eyeshade brethren. They also worried that new leaders like Rand Paul would make budget hawks foreign policy doves. Members of both camps, watching the GOP sink into minority status in their Northern Virginia neighborhoods, feared religious conservatives were holding them back with respectable suburban voters due to their focus on God, gays, guns, and abortion.

Every faction faced questions about the feasibility of its main goals. Did the electorate really want to shrink the welfare state, ban abortion, or police the world through benevolent global hegemony? And if either the conservative movement or the Republican Party was forced to choose, what would the priority be—and would the voters in turn choose them? With defense hawks fearing the budget hawks’ spending reductions and the corporate tax cut beneficiaries boycotting states that pass pro-life laws, the internal contradictions of the conservative movement are laid bare.

Failing to win either wars or elections has the potential to fracture a political coalition. So does the emergence of new issues. By the 1990s, rank-and-file conservatives had developed concerns that did not fit easily within the three-legged stool framework. One was a-difficult-to-articulate-but-easy-to-caricature unease with immigration rates. The 1986 Reagan amnesty-for-enforcement deal failed to stem the tide of illegal immigration. The amnesty was permanent and the stepped up enforcement proved temporary, a fact that doomed every subsequent attempt at “comprehensive immigration reform” for the next 30 years. 

It was also becoming apparent that the 1965 immigration act had, despite promises to the contrary, increased admissions of legal immigrants. So what did George H.W. Bush do during his single term as president of the United States? He signed legislation increasing these numbers further still. Two years later—and two years before the passage of the much maligned Proposition 187 ballot initiative barring most taxpayer funds for illegal aliens—he was defeated, becoming the first Republican presidential nominee to lose California since Barry Goldwater.

Bill Clinton, the Democrat who defeated George Bush, appointed a commission to study immigration and propose reforms. The chairwoman was Barbara Jordan, an African-American Democratic House member from Texas who had been active in the civil rights movement. Although a liberal, her immigration views would today get her bounced from the Democrats’ presidential debate stage faster than you can say “Tulsi Gabbard.”

“Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave,” Jordan said. “The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process.” A far cry from contemporary slogans like “No borders, no nations, no more deportations.”

The Jordan commission recommended enhanced enforcement measures against illegal immigration and making legal immigration more about skills and less about family reunification. The final product was, if anything, to the right of Jared Kushner’s immigration outline for the Trump administration. In 1996, Jordan died and congressional Republicans, by then in control of both chambers, shelved her handiwork. Many economic conservatives considered any immigration reduction anti-business and anti-growth; some social conservatives viewed less generous family reunification as anti-family. 

A version of this debate also played out on trade. A significant subset of grassroots conservative activists opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement—conceived by Reagan and negotiated by Bush before Clinton led the fight for its passage—and U.S. entry into the World Trade Organization. Congressional Republicans overwhelmingly supported both, though Newt Gingrich assured conservatives he was for “world trade, not world government.” But free trade remained the consensus position among elected Republicans and important conservative institutions, even though TAC founding editor Pat Buchanan’s economic nationalism outperformed free trader Phil Gramm’s small-government message and Steve Forbes’ flat tax in the 1996 GOP primaries.

The 1990s intraconservative debate on foreign policy was arguably fought to a draw. The post-Cold War rethinking of American commitments some on the Right hoped for did not occur. From the Persian Gulf War to the bombing of Kosovo, military interventions seemed relatively cost-free, although Somalia suggested that the public’s tolerance for casualties was limited. The GOP foreign policy elite mostly remained reliably hawkish, arguably becoming more so as neocons like Paul Wolfowitz rose up the ranks while realists in the Brent Scowcroft mold aged out of government service. 

But neither did conservatives or the rest of the country embrace the hawks’ efforts to replace the Soviet Union with a new Cold War-style foe, whether that be China, Russia, or any number of Muslim-majority nations. Notwithstanding the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, calls to go to Baghdad and actually wage war to topple Saddam Hussein largely fell on deaf ears—Desert Storm was popular precisely because we did not—until the murderous attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

You will note, then, that there was a conservative split on the triad of issues that helped give rise to Trump, papered over after 9/11 and under George W. Bush. If the nationalist-versus-globalist divide was not exactly consistent with the three-legged stool model of conservatism, it was especially uncomfortable for libertarians. That’s not to say that there aren’t non-globalist, even nationalist libertarians—Ron Paul could be so described. “Mr. Libertarian” Murray Rothbard initially supported Buchanan for president. There are libertarians in good standing who favor reduced immigration and reject most NAFTA-style trade deals as government-managed, not genuinely free, trade. Others still support the opposite policies in principle but can be pragmatic about how to implement them in practice.

But the prevailing sentiment among libertarians is for something closer to open trade and immigration than the U.S. status quo, with the purists arguing that borders and sovereignty—the attributes of a nation-state—are violations of the non-aggression principle and inherently illegitimate. Only on foreign policy does a Trumpier conservatism potentially move the Right or the Republican Party in a direction more congenial to libertarians. “Potentially” is the key word, but foreign policy is also the area where a nationalist-libertarian rift could do the most damage by tearing apart the antiwar Right at a moment of opportunity, and nudging nascent national conservatives in a more bellicose direction almost by default. As the National Conservatism Conference assailed libertarians, for example, John Bolton—subsequently ousted from the Trump administration—was a keynote speaker.

Foreign policy isn’t the only area where libertarians add value to conservatism. Humility about what can be accomplished through government is vital, especially in a climate where too many derive their emotional identity from politics. The discrepancy between the federal government’s promises to the American people, to say nothing of clients throughout the world, and the taxpayers’ willingness to pay is truly staggering. 

Resurgent socialism on the Left will surely provoke a renewed libertarian response on the Right at some point, just as more modest forms of progressivism inspired that reaction in 1994 and 2010. The fortunes of nationalists and populists remain for the moment tied to Trump. By 2021, anything from Trump’s reelection to landslide defeat to impeachment and removal from office is possible. Some of the new national conservatism will seem discredited if the Trump presidency ends badly. That could be a temporary setback, much like the reemergence of many Iraq war apologists as Resistance figures on cable news and the transformation of George W. Bush (who, at his nadir, had a lower job approval rating than Trump has ever had) into Ellen DeGeneres’s loveable, candy-sharing buddy. But there will be a lot of media and institutional firepower on all sides dedicated to making sure it is permanent.

There are journals on the Right like American Affairs that are doing important work thinking outside the normal conservative box on domestic policy. But progressives know what they want to do with political power in a way that many heterodox conservatives still don’t. An overly exuberant embrace of government can lead to hubris and bad outcomes. “The common good” can become an unthinking phrase to justify ill-conceived policies just as easily as paeans to the free market employed in defense of Chinese state-run industries or American defense contractors.

At the same time, proponents of limited government have to identify an electoral coalition and social base that can turn their political aspirations into reality. An advantage Trump has over his intraparty critics is that he has shown he can win more than 300 electoral votes at least one time. Maybe 2016 was an anomaly; perhaps the combination of Trump’s celebrity untainted by incumbency and Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity cannot be replicated. Still, the center-right remains the only coalition that has shown any receptiveness to checking government growth, and there is no plausible center-right majority or plurality without the voters Trump activated.

The libertarian moment may have passed—no one predicted a libertarian century, after all—but the state of conservatism remains very much in flux.

James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.



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