Bloc Busters

Conservatives' sudden discomfort with markets threatens the GOP coalition.


When he isn't busy defending the Unabomber's message in the pages of The Nation, self-styled "neo-Luddite" Kirkpatrick Sale gives speeches attacking just about every technological improvement since fire. The speeches end with a bang, as Sale hauls out a sledgehammer and smashes a personal computer.

It is a powerful image, akin to burning books. It lashes out at science, at progress, at the future, at intelligence itself. It strikes horror even in sympathetic audiences.

And it turned up this fall–uncritically and unironically–on the cover of The Weekly Standard, a magazine whose editorial mission is to define the parameters of respectable conservatism, to promulgate the official line in the new conservative order. "Smash the Internet," read the accompanying headline. The articles subsumed under that title included a sensible-but-routine debunking of Internet hype and a slightly hysterical tour of loony and perverse on-line newsgroups. To anyone who owns a Web browser, the cover art was more newsworthy than the articles. But the art said plenty.

I mention this incident not because it is particularly important in and of itself but because it represents a disturbing trend among the conservative intelligentsia (and a few friendly politicos): a campaign, conscious or unconscious, to ostracize libertarian ideas in general–and free markets in particular–as dull or dangerous. That campaign has political consequences, weakening congressional resolve to seriously roll back government.

The problem, as one congressional insider explains it, is that most members of Congress can't imagine doing without government–in any aspect of life. "They're good conservatives so they want to reduce government," he says. "But they think of that as getting as close to the abyss as possible without falling off."

And so, one year into the Republican Congress, the scope of the federal government continues to grow, and conservatives spend most of their time talking about the terrible state of the "culture." After a brief flirtation with regulatory reform, Bob Dole now directs his energies toward denouncing the movies.

Republicans have allowed cultural obsessions to shape even their budget battles. A whack at corporate welfare would have done wonders to show that GOP lawmakers are equal-opportunity budget cutters. But business handouts have no moral significance outside libertarian circles–there's no sex involved, no families–so Congress felt little pressure to upset business interests to prove a point. The Commerce Department survives, its pork-dispensing powers mostly intact, as Republicans allow themselves to be painted as the enemies of impoverished babies.

If you're convinced that the only thing conservatives should care about is "culture," you'll ignore the core "leave us alone" issues that unite the GOP coalition. And you'll end up like Phil Gramm.

The man who once bragged of being "the Gramm in Gramm-Rudman," who stood virtually alone against nationalized health insurance and invoked the Dickey Flatt test of whether government spending was justified, now spends his time trying to convince the Christian Coalition he's with them on abortion. Amid such craven pandering, his perfectly sound arguments against sending troops to Bosnia come off as pure opportunism, and his economic policies don't even get reported in the press. He has muffled his natural free market message. He wants us to believe he's for "more freedom and less government," but instead of talking about taxes, guns, or property rights, he debates the finer points of theology–the precise relationship between faith and works–with conservative Christians.

And, judging from my Thanksgiving jaunt to South Carolina, he is in big trouble in that must-win state. Liberals know he's the devil, close observers think he'll say anything to get elected, and most people haven't a clue who he is. Looking up from a newspaper article about how Gramm's campaign considers the state critical, my brother–a third-year medical resident with libertarian leanings, someone who worried a good deal about ClintonCare–declared, "Gramm isn't going to win South Carolina if I have no idea what he stands for." He's right. Gramm's campaign is melting down, and not just because he's egotistical and "mean."

"I sense a total breakdown of the vision thing….I can't believe I have to vote for Bob Dole," a libertarian Republican money manager recently e-mailed me in a blue funk. No wonder polls show Steve Forbes running second in New Hampshire, with about 10 percent to Dole's 37 percent. He may be slightly geeky, but at least he's not ashamed of his message.

Libertarians are not, of course, conservatives. In that sense, it's not surprising to see conservative magazines using libertarian as a vaguely pejorative word and scrupulously avoiding challenges to the regulatory state. The faster big-government liberalism collapses, the faster the political spectrum will reconfigure itself between libertarian (read: real liberal) and conservative poles. But such a reconfiguration is premature. To deny that libertarians make up an important part of the current Republican coalition is akin to suggesting that Bill Clinton does not need black votes to win reelection.

And full-blown libertarians are only part of the story. Republican strategists endanger their party's future if they assume that grassroots voters want to hear only "cultural" messages about the evils of Hollywood and the sins of unwed mothers. Even evangelical Christians pay taxes, struggle with regulations, and want the government to leave them alone. The most Republican group in Times Mirror's typology of voters–and the most politically informed and active–is the "Enterprisers." They believe in God, certainly, and hold socially conservative attitudes, but they vote on economic issues and don't trust government.

Republicans swept into office by painting Democrats as people who want the government to boss you around and destroy the things you love: Clinton and the old Congress, they could say, want to control your personal life by nationalizing health care and foisting weird ideas on your kids; they want to run your business, take away your land and your guns, and force your church to hire gay atheists as choir directors; if you protest too much or seem too odd, they'll send the FBI to shoot you down.

It wasn't always the most nuanced or sophisticated message, but it was close enough to the truth. And it worked.

So Republicans now have the power to boss people around and destroy the things they love–and they are loath to give that power up. They have plenty of court intellectuals who'll give them reasons not only to keep it, but to exercise it vigorously: reasons why the Internet cannot be left to evolve without federal regulation, for example, and no public school can be allowed to say anything remotely tolerant about gays.

The irony is that cultural–or at least religious–conservatives have at least as great an interest in shrinking the powers of government, especially in the economic sphere, as do yuppie Republicans. As long as fledgling churches and neighborhood minyans are shut down by zoning boards, and anti-discrimination laws are interpreted to forbid Bible verses on paychecks while forcing landlords to rent to unmarried couples, religious conservatives will need Richard Epstein's legal scholarship more than Allan Bloom's attacks on rock music.

And though Bill Bennett now sees the merits of school choice, he was none-too-keen on the notion when serving as education secretary and chief culture czar. Decentralist-come-lately Lamar Alexander also did precious little to advance choice when he was educator-in-chief. Giving parents, rather than bureaucrats, control over where kids go to school is an idea only someone who appreciates freedom and competition would conceive–which is why it came from Milton Friedman. (Who, by showing policy makers how to crush inflation, also did more to restore the possibility of thrift than a thousand conservative lectures on the "cultural contradictions of capitalism" and the erosion of the Protestant ethic.)

When mainstream conservatives were whimpering about the media and trying to use the Fairness Doctrine to force CBS to be nice to Richard Nixon, those boring old libertarians, with their tenacious belief in free speech and free markets, were building the intellectual case to dismantle the broadcasters' monopolies. The conservative voices on talk radio and cable TV can thank scholars like Ronald Coase, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Tom Hazlett for caring about the future and paying attention to something other than the "culture."

Conservatives are wrong if they think such things do not matter, merely because they are the stuff of "commerce" rather than "culture." The "leave us alone" agenda, as David Frum has tried to explain to his fellow conservatives, must succeed before traditional values can have a chance of revival. And that agenda is fueled almost entirely by libertarian thought, libertarian rhetoric, and libertarian conviction.