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Let’s start off with the historical. Matt said it sort of as a joke, that the question should be, “Is conservatism part of the libertarian movement?” But you could actually make a very good case that it’s the right way to think about it. Classical liberalism predates modern conservatism by a few centuries. And modern American conservatism is nothing else if not an attempt to conserve those institutions of liberty that are embedded in classical liberalism.
This is a point in [F.A.] Hayek’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Lots of people love to quote the headline, but no one likes to quote the article or read the article. In the essay, Hayek is quite clear that he thinks America stands apart from much of the world in that it is one of the few countries in the world, if not the only country in the world, where you can be a conservative and still be a defender of liberty. Because conservatives in the American political tradition are trying to defend and preserve and conserve those institutions of liberty represented by the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. [Political philosopher] Leo Strauss (I know, really popular among a lot of libertarians) always used to joke about how in America, one of the most conservative organizations was called the Daughters of the American Revolution. Right? In the United States, conservatives are defending a revolution, defending a radical idea.
Philosophically, it’s sort of the same point, right? The classics of the American conservative canon—Locke, Adam Smith, all of these guys—are classics of libertarian thought. You can’t remove the libertarians from conservatives and leave conservatism standing, in the modern American tradition.
Practically, you sort of have the same issue. When you talk about conservative economics, or economic conservatives, you’re talking about libertarians. There really is no distinction between the two. Ask a conservative, “Who are your favorite economists?” and it’s Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, and on and on and on. Because libertarian economics is conservative economics.
This is the one area where libertarianism is most relevant. I mean, no offense, the drug war is vital and all that kind of stuff. We can have that argument if you like: Legalizing PCP is a vital national emergency! But the relevance of libertarianism is primarily in the economic realm. And in the economic realm—go to any conservative think tank in Washington. They all have libertarians doing their economic work.
This brings us to the political point. There are millions upon millions of libertarians in the conservative movement and the Republican Party. They just don’t call themselves libertarians. There’s a reason why George Nash’s book on the history of the conservative intellectual movement begins with a chapter called, “The Revolt of the Libertarians.” There’s a reason why William F. Buckley called himself a “libertarian journalist.” There’s a reason why the masthead of National Review was festooned with libertarians.
The project of National Review conservatism is fusionism. Fusionism is the essence of mainstream American conservatism. The basic idea that you cannot have a virtuous society if it’s not a free society, because virtue not freely chosen isn’t virtuous. I can hold a gun to your head and tell you to give lots of money to a charity. You get no credit for it because you didn’t choose to do so. And while there are some philosophical and metaphysical problems with fusionism, as a practical organizing principle of modern American conservatism, it’s worked pretty damned well.
The one last point I would make is that one area of disagreement between conservatives and libertarians is on the importance of maintaining a culture of liberty.
Libertarianism is a universal credo, a universal philosophy. It’s global in its perspective and applies to all mankind. But it’s important to remember, and this is a point conservatives and some libertarians make, is that it grew up in a certain place and time for certain reasons. It grew out of Western Europe, it flourished in the United States, and you cannot have freedom unless you have a people that cherishes freedom. And one of the points of conservatism is to keep that in mind and keep the love of liberty alive in the hearts of people, rather than simply say, “whatever floats your boat.” Because the habits of the heart are really one of the things that will sustain a liberty-loving people far more than just libertarian public policies.
Welch: Jonah’s right, in that economists valued by National Review are going to be some of the same people valued by reason. A lot of what we’re talking about here is a difference of tactics. And in this age, the Internet age, in order to promote that culture of liberty, people have learned the technology of independence from political tribes. The only reason we have [Kentucky Republican] Rand Paul in the Senate is because he fought and won against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He fought and won against the mainstream of the American conservative movement in the Republican Party. He’s changing that conversation, and that only happened because the Tea Party kept an arm’s length from the Republican Party.
The technology of independence is a hell of a way to promote the culture of liberty and change the Republican Party. And, I hope to God, change the Democratic Party on issues like the drug war, which for me is not an incidental PCP laugh line. We’re still arresting 800,000 people a year for something that should be legal, and we should all feel a sense of shame about that.
Goldberg: Matt has spent a lot of his time in his book and the current issue of reason (which, of course, everyone should subscribe to) talking about this vital role of independents and how the nature of independents is changing American politics. And my problem with this is that it’s a lot of clicking your heels together and wishing it were so. He says we’re seeing people declaring independence from their political tribes. This is a really overhyped argument, by my lights. And it’s something I think libertarians are pinning a lot of false hope on.
Since a book 20 years ago called The Myth of the Independent Voter, it’s been pretty clear in the political science and the social science literature that there really aren’t that many independents out there. That what you have are people who are partisans who don’t like the Republican Party or don’t like the Democratic Party, or think it’s somehow embarrassing to call themselves Republicans or Democrats. Which is one of the reasons why a lot of people call themselves libertarian—it’s just a cooler thing to call yourself. Especially on college campuses, libertarianism is the one philosophy that allows you to be a rebel and also not ruin the party on Saturday night.
But at the end of the day, when you strip away the people who are reliable Democratic voters and reliable Republican voters, there are very few independents left. And these are not particularly impressive people, the ones who are left. These are people who honestly can’t figure out after 18 months of a presidential campaign who they’re going to vote for. These are not steel-trap minds we’re talking about. It would be silly for the libertarians to pin their hopes on these sausage-spined cowards.
American Enterprise Institute Coalitions Director Dan Rothschild, moderator: Why do all libertarians have to be a part of the conservative movement? Shouldn’t the answer to this ques- tion be some libertarians are part of the conservative movement and some aren’t?