For those who cherish the ideals of free minds and free markets, 21st century politics in the United States has not been a particularly welcoming place. The big-government conservatism of George W. Bush has been followed by the bigger- government liberalism of Barack Obama. The twin crises of 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown spawned the twin leviathans of national security hyperextension and the never-ending bailout. The nation’s political class has rallied around the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and the country’s short-term financial picture only looks tenable when compared to the long-term fiscal nightmare that just about everyone agrees is coming.
So where should libertarians drop anchor and forge alliances within the famous four-sided Nolan Chart spectrum of political beliefs and groupings? In this exchange, Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey argues that it’s time, once and for all, to sever the libertarian-conservative alliance that dates back to the New Deal while remaining skeptical about the illiberal populism of Tea Party activism. In response, a conservative writer—National Review Online Editor-at-Large Jonah Goldberg—disputes Lindsey’s portrayal of the right and contends that the only major party giving free market economics the time of day is the GOP. Meanwhile, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe tells Lindsey and his think tank fellow travelers to climb down off that high horse and celebrate the most promising limited-government popular uprising in generations.
Right Is Wrong
Libertarians need to disengage from Republicans and conservatives once and for all.
By Brink Lindsey
By the waning years of the Bush administration, the old “fusionist” alliance between libertarians and social conservatives seemed to be on its last legs. After the inglorious collapse of Social Security reform, the political agenda of the right was more or less free of any contamination by libertarian ideas. The GOP sank into ruling-party decadence marked by borrow-and-spend fiscal incontinence and K Street Project cronyism. The broader conservative movement, meanwhile, expended its energy on gay-bashing, anti-immigrant hysteria, fantasies of World War IV, meddling in the Schiavo family tragedy, and redefining patriotism as enthusiasm for mass surveillance and torture.
Now, however, opposition to Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress has sparked a resurgence of libertarian rhetoric on the right, most prominently in the “Tea Party” protests that have erupted over the past year. “Libertarian sentiment has finally gone mainstream,” wrote Chris Stirewalt, political editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, in a column this April. “After two wars, a $12 trillion debt, a financial crisis and the most politically tone-deaf president in modern history, Americans may have finally given up on big government.”
Such talk gets many libertarians excited. Could a revival of small-government conservatism really be at hand? After the long apostasy of Bush père et fils, could the right really be returning to the old-time religion of Goldwater and Reagan? Could the withered fusionist alliance of libertarians and conservatives channel today’s popular disgust with statist excess into revitalized momentum for limited-government reform?
In a word, no. Without a doubt, libertarians should be happy that the Democrats’ power grabs have met with such vociferous opposition. Anything that can stop this dash toward dirigisme, or at least slow it down, is a good thing. Seldom has there been a better time to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” So we should rejoice that at least some conservatives haven’t forgotten their signature move.
That, however, is about all the contemporary right is good for. It is capable of checking at least some of the left’s excesses, and thank goodness for that. But a clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative.
What are those impulses?
First and foremost, a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Next, a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona) and it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism. And, less obvious now but always lurking in the background, a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues. The combined result is a right-wing identity politics that feeds on the red meat of us versus them, “Real America” versus the liberal-dominated coasts, faith and gut instinct versus pointy-headed elitism.
This noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment is the antithesis of libertarianism. The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions. History is full of ironies and surprises, but there is no rational basis for expecting an outlook as benighted as the contemporary right’s to produce policy results that libertarians can cheer about.
Groupthink and Fever Dreams
Modern conservatism has always had an illiberal dark side. Recall the first great populist spasms of the postwar right—McCarthyism and opposition to desegregation—and recall as well that National Review founder William F. Buckley stoutly defended both. Any ideology dedicated to defending traditional ways of doing things is of necessity going to appeal to the reactionary as well as the prudently conservative. And since, going all the way back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, the right’s adversary was the nation’s liberal intellectual elite, conservatism has always been vulnerable to the populist temptation.
But prior to the rise of the conservative counter-establishment—think tanks, talk radio, websites, and Fox News—the right’s dark side was subject to a critical constraint: To be visible at all in the nation’s public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman thus became the public face of conservative ideology, while the rabble-rousers and conspiracy theorists were consigned to the shadow world of mimeographs, pamphlets, and paperbacks that nobody ever reviewed. The handicap of elite hostility thereby conferred an unintended benefit: It gave conservatism a high-quality intellectual leadership that, to some extent at least, was able to curb the movement’s baser instincts.