Just two years ago, conservatives were in a triumphalist mood. George W. Bush’s supporters trumpeted him as the man who had won more popular votes for president than anyone else in the history of the Republic. With Republicans also adding to their majorities in both houses of Congress, America seemed to have become, as The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait dubbed her in the title of their 2004 book, The Right Nation.
No one would have anticipated that in January 2007 a cover story in Commentary would be asking, “Is Conservatism Finished?” There were conservative pessimists—especially among the few anti-Bush dissidents—in early 2005, but they were not to be found at Commentary, nor at National Review, which has also lately had to confront the question. Both magazines, in fact, still insist that their brand of conservatism is viable, the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections notwithstanding. But the headlines tell a different story.
One sign that all is not well with mainstream conservatism, philosophically no less than politically, lies in the growing dissension among libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett last year dubbed Bush, in the title of his book, an impostor who had betrayed the Reagan legacy. In Ryan Sager’s The Elephant in the Room, which explores recent tensions between the Republican Party’s Religious Right and libertarian factions, readers were treated to Dick Armey denouncing Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. “Dobson and his gang of thieves are real nasty bullies,” the former House majority leader said. Seeing the disarray on the Right, last June liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas ventured that libertarians ought to ditch the Right and build bridges to the Left, a topic he revisited in October in the Cato Institute’s web journal. By the end of the year, Cato’s director of research, Brink Lindsey, was making a case to readers of The New Republic for a “new ‘fusionist’ alliance of liberals and libertarians”—what he calls “liberaltarianism.”
The immediate electoral implications of libertarians bolting from the Right are not likely to spell catastrophe for Republicans. Relying on a variety of polls and using a very loose definition of libertarian, Cato analysts David Boaz and David Kirby estimate that libertarians comprise 13 percent of the American electorate. That sounds like a prize worth fighting for, but as The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait points out, Boaz and Kirby’s own figures reveal that courting libertarians may cost candidates greater numbers of non-libertarian voters. By Boaz and Kirby’s calculations “President Bush’s share of the libertarian vote dropped precipitously between 2000 and 2004,” Chait writes, “But, during that time, Bush’s total share of the vote rose by almost 3 percent. So, however many voters were turned off by the prescription-drug bill or the Patriot Act, many more were turned on.”
The long-term picture may look different, since an American Right shorn of its libertarian components would be a thing fundamentally unlike the conservatism of the last half-century. Philosophical realignments don’t change partisan politics overnight—but over time they can shift the tectonics of national life. The modern conservatism that arose in the 1950s provides a case in point: it took years to seize control of the Republican Party and nominate one of its heroes—Barry Goldwater—as the party’s candidate for president, and it took decades to break the Democrats’ hold on the South, elect a president, and win control Congress. In the 1950s, conservatives were every bit as marginal as libertarians and others on the dissident Right are now.
Strained relations between libertarians and others on the Right go back almost to the beginning. The earliest modern conservatives were the staunch opponents of the New Deal in the 1930s and ever after, an “Old Right” consisting largely of businessmen and philosophical libertarians of various kinds. They were joined in opposition to Left liberalism in the late 1940s and early 1950s by a group then called the “New Conservatives”—“new” precisely in that they were not the pro-business or laissez-faire types of the previous generation. These New Conservatives, including Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Clinton Rossiter, were often trenchantly critical of business interests and “Manchester liberals” on the Right.
Rising to the New Conservatives’ challenge was a contributor to the early National Review, an ex-Communist who would become the magazine’s literary editor: Frank S. Meyer. While Meyer was willing to deploy the same rhetorical intensity used by the New Conservatives against them—“Collectivism Rebaptized” was the title of one fusillade aimed in their direction—he also sought to develop a credo that could unite the Right. The result was called “fusionism” by its critics, but the term misleads since Meyer’s concessions to the New Conservatives were mostly rhetorical. The substance of the doctrine amounted to libertarianism in domestic policy and hard-line anti-Communism in world affairs, including a commitment to American military power that many older libertarians found unpalatable. Fusionism proved a good match for the Goldwater movement and the burgeoning Young Americans for Freedom.
Fusionism also provided conservatives with a lowest common denominator at the time when the Right was first building an institutional movement through organs like National Review, YAF, and the American Conservative Union (of which Meyer was treasurer from 1965 to 1966). But fusionism had its enemies: it never satisfied either the staunch traditionalists, as the New Conservatives and their successors came to be known, or those radical libertarians who rejected the Cold War and the attendant loss of American liberties it entailed. Meyer’s doctrine would run into other difficulties as well. Its author died in 1972, before the advent of anti-abortion social conservatism and the rise of the Religious Right, developments that would change the way many conservatives viewed domestic government power and make fusionism much less plausible.
Even before Roe, the fusionist consensus had fractured over the Vietnam War. There is something unreal today about libertarians and libertarian-conservatives like Brink Lindsey and Ryan Sager criticizing latter-day conservatism without emphasizing libertarian opposition to the Iraq War, since it was the Vietnam War that first led libertarians to break en masse from the conservative Right. But Sager and Lindsey both supported the invasion, which Lindsey only now concedes was “atrociously bungled.” By downplaying foreign policy, the Cato scholar obscures some important historical parallels, for the Vietnam era also saw attempts by libertarians and liberals to find common ground, chiefly on the basis of opposition to the conflict. Those efforts proved essentially fruitless, though by defining themselves against the Right, libertarians set off on the path toward building their own institutions in the 1970s, including the Libertarian Party and Lindsey’s employer, the Cato Institute.
The new libertarian movement rather quickly, however, fell back into the orbit of conservatism, especially once Cato relocated from California to Washington, D.C. The more that Cato focused on policy, rather than philosophy and radical libertarian theory (as it had in its early days, when Murray Rothbard was its head of research), the greater the mutual attraction between Cato and the conservative mainstream became.
On economic and regulatory questions—Cato’s bread and butter—libertarians plainly remained much closer to the Right than to the Left. The Libertarian Party made a bid for centrist and liberal support in 1980, when its presidential candidate, Ed Clark, described his philosophy to Ted Koppel on “Nightline” as “low-tax liberalism.” In 1988, however, a once and future Republican Congressman, Ron Paul, perched atop the LP ticket as the party’s presidential nominee.
The trial separation from the Right did not end in divorce—and it’s not likely to do so on the strength of Brink Lindsey’s “liberaltarianism,” which amounts to something less than low-tax liberalism. Indeed, Lindsey is open to raising certain taxes. “Go ahead, tax the rich,” he says, “but don’t do it when they’re being productive.” That might sound good to liberals, but what appeal does it hold for libertarians? And Lindsey’s ideas get worse: he would cap home mortgage interest deductions and raise taxes on energy—including universally hated gasoline taxes. Not only does that not sound consonant with libertarian principles, but it’s hard to imagine that economic program paired with a libertarian-liberal social agenda—gas taxes and gay marriage—as a winning political platform.
Libertarians won’t go wild for many of Lindsey’s other ideas either, such as his support for unemployment and even wage insurance. In fact, his litany of Republican defects, “ranging from runaway federal deficit spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson” to “extremist measures of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism” is the only part of his New Republic essay that is at all persuasive. What are opponents of such measures to do if not make common cause with the Left?
The political scene today is reminiscent not only of the Vietnam era but also of the early 1990s. Then too there was an unpopular president named Bush, aided and abetted by Dick Cheney—and then too American troops were deployed in the Middle East, Congressional Republicans were demoralized, and there was much talk of a “conservative crack-up.” (R. Emmett Tyrrell even published a book by that name in 1992.) But at that time, rather than looking Left, some notable libertarians began looking further to the Right.
In particular, the radical libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who had tried to build a principled antiwar alliance with the Left in the Vietnam years, looked toward Pat Buchanan and paleoconservative thinkers associated with Chronicles magazine. Rothbard and his friends, including Ludwig von Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell, were not intent on dusting off the old fusionism of Frank Meyer. For one thing, this new libertarian-conservative alliance would be cemented by opposition to, rather than support for, U.S. intervention abroad. An emphasis on federalism and decentralization—and an agreement to disagree—would characterize the project’s domestic views. As Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming later recalled, “We struck a bargain from the beginning: Although I believe that the commonwealth is a natural and necessary part of human social life, I nevertheless agreed with Murray that 90 percent of what modern states do is evil and destructive. ‘When we get to the last ten percent,’ I said, ‘it will be time for us to quarrel.’” In the meantime, there were surprising areas of common ground on immigration and trade, for Rothbard came to believe mass immigration was doing more harm than good for the cause of liberty, and he saw NAFTA as—in the words of Rothbard biographer Justin Raimondo—“mercantilism, pure and simple, a regional trade bloc whose economic practices are no freer than that of the European Community.”
As important as specific areas of agreement, however, was the character of the “paleo” synthesis as a coalition of the periphery against the center—of Auburn, Ala. (home of the Ludwig von Mises Institute) and Rockford, Ill., against Washington, D.C. and New York City. The political and media mainstream, whether conservative, liberal, or libertarian, was the enemy. Rothbard did not accept a “four-way matrix” of American politics, of the sort cited by David Boaz and David Kirby in their recent analysis of the libertarian vote, that cast libertarians and populists as diametric opposites, with libertarians being socially liberal and economically conservative and populists the reverse. Rothbard believed that libertarians ought to be populists—culturally if not economically—and that they potentially had much in common with the people described by paleoconservative theorist Sam Francis as “middle-American radicals.”
The anti-establishment and anti-government mood on the Right in the 1992 and 1994 election seasons seemed to bear out the theoretical possibilities of the paleo alliance. As Lew Rockwell later noted, “The 104th Congress [elected in 1994] put into power a group of freshmen legislators who won on platforms that looked like they were written by the Old Right. They were skeptical of war, opposed to taxes, bitter about regulations, and not very friendly to imperial, trade-diverting treaties like Nafta and Gatt.” Rothbard anticipated betrayal by the Republican Congressional leadership, however. In a Dec. 30, 1994 op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Newt Gingrich Is No Libertarian,” Rothbard argued that in contrast to the “Gingrich-Dole-Armey Republican elites” grassroots Americans “couldn’t care less about Bosnia or Somalia or Haiti; they resist government-made multinational trade cartels, and they oppose foreign aid. Yet the Republican ‘conservatives’ are at least as enthusiastic as Democratic liberals about these programs.”
Rothbard died eight days after that piece was published, and the co-operation he had fostered between the Center for Libertarian Studies and the paleoconservative Rockford Institute came to an end the following year. The intellectual and institutional ferment he had brought about by bridging the paleo Right and radical libertarianism continued, however, both in the pages of Chronicles—which continued to feature libertarians like Bill Kauffman, Justin Raimondo, and Jesse Walker alongside paleoconservatives like John Lukacs, Thomas Fleming, and Sam Francis—and in new venues such as Raimondo’s Antiwar.com. The Mises Institute has likewise continued its engagement with many paleoconservative scholars, including Paul Gottfried and Clyde Wilson.
The similarities between the political scenes of 1991 and today might seem to augur a revival of paleolibertarianism—at least, on the face of it, such a development doesn’t seem any more implausible than a libertarian swing to the Left. While Brink Lindsey and Ryan Sager prefer to avoid harsh criticism of the Iraq War, libertarians who do put a high premium on an anti-interventionist foreign policy will find much to their liking on the paleo- and “post-paleo” Right. And although most libertarians continue to favor open borders—a symposium on the topic in the August/September 2006 issue of Reason featured no restrictionists and was titled “Immigration Now, Immigration Tomorrow, Immigration Forever”—recent issues of Liberty magazine show that among libertarians, too, resistance to mass illegal immigration is building. Liberty’s October 2006 issue also carried a symposium on immigration, with editor Stephen Cox taking the side of restriction and senior editor Bruce Ramsey reluctantly supporting a “half-open door.” Letters in the December issue commenting on the symposium showed strong reader-support for Cox’s position—and also, less surprisingly, strong criticism. (The same issue also contains an essay by Bruce Ramsey, “What Conservatives Are Good For,” arguing that libertarians should continue to work with conservatives, especially on the state level.) The Liberty symposium, and reader reaction to it, shows that the immigration is not nearly so settled an issue for libertarians as the as the movement’s loudest voices might wish.
More plausible than either liberaltarianism or a revival of 1990s-style paleo-libertarianism, however, is a gradual reconfiguration of conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism alike under the pressures of the War on Terror. Lindsey may have been more right than he realized when he wrote, “the real problem with our politics today is that the prevailing ideological categories are intellectually exhausted”; it may already be anachronistic to talk about libertarians aligning with the Left or the Right, when different factions of Left and Right are even beginning to align with one another, not in some grand theoretical project but in support of or opposition to the extreme measures that have so far characterized the War on Terror.
The highly unusual mixture of support for Sen. Jim Webb found among antiwar conservatives, conventional liberals, economic populists, and libertarians suggests what may be in the offing. If Left and Right really are outmoded terms, libertarians—and others who are beginning to peel away from the conservative establishment—should not wonder which side to choose. They should simply stay true to their philosophy and oppose government aggrandizement as effectively as they can—which, contra Lindsey, does not mean embracing energy taxes or forgetting that war is the health of the state.
Daniel McCarthy is a senior editor at ISI books.