Barry Goldwater

In Memoriam: Barry Goldwater


Barry Goldwater was 20th-century America's first libertarian politician.

Had it not been for him, the magazine you are reading–and its parent organization–might not exist. I read Goldwater's book, The Conscience of a Conservative, in high school, just as I was becoming politically aware. Its powerful message of individual liberty, economic freedom, and anti-communism struck a chord with me, launching an intellectual journey that went on to Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and many others. Ultimately, this process generated the idea that I would make a career out of defending rationality and liberty.

Over the years I have returned again and again to these lines in Goldwater's book, in which he set forth the credo of a new breed of politician, dedicated to reclaiming liberty: "I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is 'needed' before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' 'interests,' I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause, I am doing the very best I can."

To budding libertarian and conservative activists of the early '60s, these words were electrifying. Thousands of us got our first political experience going door to door, staffing literature tables, and even serving as poll watchers in Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Many of us knew he would lose that battle, but we saw it as but the first engagement of a long war. And though he chose not to run for president again, by inspiring Ronald Reagan to run, Goldwater achieved something of a belated victory in 1980.

What Goldwater did was to make it acceptable to question the legitimacy of an all-powerful national government. Though widely denounced as extremist in 1964, his ideas had become almost mainstream by the time of Reagan's election. A proliferation of conservative and libertarian think tanks arose in Goldwater's wake, including the Reason Foundation, to lay the basis for shrinking big government by perfecting the critiques of the status quo and working out the details of decentralist, market-based alternatives. Although our government has in many respects grown larger over the past three decades, its legitimacy as the universal problem solver has been undermined, and its power in many specific areas (economic regulation, marginal tax rates, regulation of lifestyle choices) has been reduced.

Despite the near-universal praise following his death, during his life Goldwater was attacked unfairly by both the left and the right. The left caricatured him as a warmonger for his assertive stance against the Soviet empire–most egregiously in Lyndon Johnson's famous TV commercial of the little girl blown away by a nuclear blast. Yet how radically extremist–in hindsight–are these concluding words from Conscience of a Conservative?

"Either the Communists will retain the offensive; will lay down one challenge after another; will invite us in local crisis after local crisis to choose between all-out war and limited retreat [not bad as a forecast of the Jimmy Carter years]….Or we will summon the will and the means for taking the initiative, and wage a war of attrition against them–and hope, thereby, to bring about the internal disintegration of the Communist empire [more or less the Reagan Doctrine]." It doesn't sound so radical after the fact, but in the '60s that sort of tough-minded policy prescription was beyond the pale in polite society.

The other attacks on Goldwater have come mostly from the religious right during the past decade or so. Responding to his pro-choice views on abortion and homosexuality, and his concern about mixing religion and politics, a gaggle of right-wingers variously charged that Goldwater had lost his way, either to senility or to the manipulations of his second wife, whom he married in 1991, six years after the death of Peggy Goldwater. Those charges are mendacious. Barry Goldwater was always an individualist first. The son of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, he deeply understood the importance of the separation of church and state–and the divisiveness of attempts to make laws that would impose some people's religious beliefs on others. He and Peggy were early and longtime supporters of Planned Parenthood. And he began criticizing the Moral Majority on the Senate floor soon after its rise to prominence in 1981.

Barry Goldwater was an American original. He was not an intellectual; his libertarian individualism stemmed from the commonsense values of ordinary Americans: Work hard, take responsibility for your life, honor your commitments–and mind your own business. If only we had politicians like him today.