The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) sponsored what it called a debate on February 8 over the question “Are libertarians a part of the conservative movement?” The contenders (although orators would be more accurate as it was frequently difficult to determine who was arguing what), were Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason magazine and Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online editor, syndicated columnist, and AEI fellow.
The names of all the usual suspects were invoked: Locke, Hayek, Mises, Rand, Paul, Rothbard, Meyer, et al., along with allusions to their principles. References to actual developments in American law, policy, and everyday living over the last several decades, however, were sparse. An otherwise uninformed observer might get the impression, based on the content that night, that any distinctions between libertarians and mainstream Republicans were remote, abstract and ideological ones with little potential impact on the human condition.
Media celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Dennis Miller, and others calling themselves conservatives were never mentioned. Since these public figures have scores of millions of listeners and readers who go by that name, that gives them a considerable stake in the word’s popular definition. Prominent libertarians such as Lew Rockwell, Jacob Hornberger, James Bovard, Sheldon Richman, William Norman Grigg, and Glenn Greenwald are in near perpetual opposition to the public positions of the aforementioned, but these kinds of real-world differences never came up in the “debate” for some reason. Goldberg argued that both camps have common roots in the classical liberalism of the 19th century. Welch left that notion uncontested ostensibly because he believes it himself.
The idea that there is political kinship between people calling themselves “dittoheads,” buying copies of Who’s Looking Out For You, or missing the last President Bush and those who can faithfully paraphrase Nock is essentially propaganda in this election cycle. Prospects are grim for a Republican presidential nominee if he cannot rely on the antistatist vote in November. But the memory hole isn’t deep enough to bury the fact that Obama’s most authoritarian and supraconstitutional policies were inherited nearly verbatim from George Bush Jr.
Even a J.K. Rowling grand wizard wouldn’t know the newspeak incantations it would take to make the GOP appear as a party of fundamental liberty. The AEI “debate” and the Koch brothers move to seize control of the Cato Institute may be desperate stabs at this impossible task. A postcoup Cato, aligned with FOX, the RNC, and the Weekly Standard would be a political animal as startling as a chimera out of the book of Revelation, but it could never succeed as an organ of persuasion. The only advantage the right-wing establishment has on the Democrats in winning over sincere opponents of big government and centralization is nonincumbency. Goldberg portrays undecideds as morons who don’t get it, but they certainly aren’t as stupid as people who fail to recognize Leviathan as a bipartisan creation. The latter category surely accounts for the bulk of his daily readership.
During the debate Goldberg referred to Hayek’s “Why I am Not A Conservative” in describing the supposed mutual ancestors of the two ideologies. He declares that “conservatives in the American political tradition are trying to defend, preserve, and conserve those institutions of liberty represented by the founding fathers and the Constitution,” but he fails to provide a single example.
Political nomenclature is a purposefully inexact system. Mass movements, like fugitives on the lam, have a talent for fantasizing about their pasts on those occasions when they can’t blot them out altogether. Some tell us that the story of American “conservatism” begins post World War II. Others claim a lengthy pedigree with roots in Smith, Burke, Acton, Bastiat, Locke, and all of the proponents of laissez-faire. Do the facts really bear this out? Is the right-wing establishment truly concerned about the legitimate deployment of force in the world? And is that the legacy of its political ancestors?
What political camp would be best suited for the imperialists who promoted war against Spain, the Phillipines, and other imperial projects of the early 20th-century era? On what channel would men like Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Beveridge, and Teddy Roosevelt feel most at home and away from hostile inquiry today? They never called themselves classical liberals and it isn’t difficult to imagine any of them enjoying the rapt attention of Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, G. Gordon Liddy, or Oliver North. They are exactly the kind of “experts” that are guaranteed op-ed space and airtime today whenever the nation’s martial spirit is deemed insufficient.
And who do you suppose they’d be smearing and opposing? Who’d be dubbed anti-American, radical, and pin-headed? Does anyone possessing a modicum of literary judgment imagine Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce yukking it up with Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Miller, and Greg Gutfeld? Today they would probably be banished to publishing in blogdom and written off as…(read more)
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