PART ONE: WHAT IS LIBERTARIANISM?
Libertarians, As It Happens, Are Only One of Several Movements
in American Conservatism
At Least Four Different Intellectual Tendencies Exist
Libertarians, as it happens, are only one of several intellectual movements with grass-roots followings in American Conservatism these days. No surprise really. In effect, Conservatism operates politically as an umbrella term: at least four large distinctive groups, each with its own intellectual theorists and mass grass-roots support, fall under that term's heading. At times, for all their philosophical differences, these various factional groups coexist fairly effectively. At other times, their relationship is far more strained and marked by irreconcilable policy positions. Sometimes, as at present, it is full of frictions and mutual backbiting and recriminations as to what is genuinely Conservative or not.
The names of these diverse factional movements: Libertarians, Traditional Conservatism of, say, the William Buckley National Review sort, Moral Majority Christians, and NeoConservatives . . . the latter former Liberals who were and remain appalled by the radical cultural changes in American life spawned by the 1960s, by widespread anti-Americanism on the radical left and in universities, the corollary left-wing hostility to American power and behavior in the world, and by constantly failed social policies to intervene in American life that go back to the 1960s as well.
Focus First on Their Commonalities That Keep the Republican Party from Splintering Apart
Philosophically, what these four distinctive factions have in common derives from a shared ideological hostility, several decades old by now, to socialist and left-wing Liberal philosophies about the different roles of government and free markets in American life.
- For many of them, these differences go back to the New Deal era of Roosevelt policies of the Great Depression in the 1930s and, on a theoretical level, to all versions of Keynesian economics. For other Conservatives, their rejections extend back to the mid-1960s and the breakthrough influence of Senator Barry Goldwater and his rejection, vocally and vividly expressed in his failed presidential campaign of 1964, of all compromises with the economic and social policies not just of FDR, Truman, JFK, and Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side, but also to the coming-to-terms compromises with them of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. Yet another new Conservative breakthrough-movement didn't emerge until the late 1970s and early 1980s among Evangelical Christians, increasingly appalled by the cultural changes wrought after 1968 in American life, almost all of which were at odds with traditional American beliefs and moral codes, themselves partly religious in inspiration --- above all, what can be called rightly the Protestant Ethos and, whether in its religious or secular versions, individualism, self-reliance, and a strong sense of personal responsibility for your life and social behavior.
There are, as it happens a couple of corollary philosophical antagonisms that almost all Republicans generally share that keeps their strained coalition from shattering apart
- A common hostility to all redistributive egalitarian policies that the Democratic Party has embraced and implemented since 1930s and, more specifically, since the Great Society era of the 1960s. This powerful, principle-based aversion, observe quickly in passing, flourishes everywhere in Republican ranks no matter how limited virtually all Democratic policies have been in social and economic matters have been, at any rate compared with almost all other industrial democracies . . . especially in the advanced regulatory- and welfare-states found all over the West European continent.
- Another mutually agreed upon hostility to their partisan Liberal opponents also goes back to the 1960s. In a word, even among many Libertarians, the various Conservative movements in Republican ranks have combined to launch a sustained counter-attack against the radical cultural changes in American life that came out of the 1960s --- above all, to be specific, launched against the politically correct dogmas and identity politics that have become powerfully entrenched in American universities since the late 1960s as well as in the mass media and entertainment industries, and that have spilled over into wider American life in diverse ways: most of all, in declining respect for institutionalized authority, in over sexual behavior, and in growing secular hostility to traditional religious mores . . . not to forget over anti-Americanism expressed by the radical left. As we'll see, not all Libertarians are unhappy with each of these changes --- especially in sexual matters. But they do not usually push their opposition to a rupture-point with the other Republican movements, if only because all Libertarians are appalled by identity-politics and politically correct dogmatism in university life and in the media.
Politically, too, it goes without saying, all this shared intellectual hostility shows up especially in national elections. As a practical matter, despite their mutual differences and their frequent factional attacks on one another, all Republicans tend to rally and . . .
- Vote for their party's candidates, whether or not the different factions like, say, the presidential candidate or the party's platforms. Even then, less unity shows up for the local candidates on the Congressional level.
Otherwise, Though, Clear Philosophical and Activist Political . . .
. . . tendencies separate these different Conservative movements. The upshot is a loosely united, often unstable, and frequently bickering political party. If it weren't for these shared basic hostilities to the enemies on the Left, the contemporary Republican Party would probably splinter apart. And even with these common enemies, the party would probably disintegrate into different political parties if the US had an electoral system similar to West European ones, as, say, in Germany where the political right encompasses Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists (Bavaria), some neo-Nazis (fortunately small in number), and the centrist Free Democratic Liberal Party . . . the latter a swing party of libertarian tendencies, usually in coalition with the Social Democrats on the left or Christian Democrats (and their Bavarian wing) on the right. Or, again, as in France where four or five different political parties, each with their own leadership, form a loose coalition for national elections and expect to share posts in any government, but otherwise coexist very uneasily with one another.
McCain vs. the Die-Hard Right
Needless to add, these divisive tendencies in the Republican Party toward factional recrimination and internecine backbiting are on full display right now, in February 2008 . . . what with the openly vented animus among die-hard Conservatives in all four groups toward Senator John McCain, and not just from the far right.
These anti-McCain critics push several practical afnd theoretical objections to his likely candidacy. They question his Conservative credentials; they dislike his well-known ability to work with moderate Democrats in several policy areas and bring them to fruition in Congressional legislation, like those that condemn the use of even limited torture in the war on terror, and favor limits on political campaign contributions, and support a more vigorous government program over climate change, and to top off the list, McCain's former support for an amnesty bill in matters of illegal immigration. f
Who then are these critics? Mainly those Conservatives, found in all four intellectual groupings, that regard Senator McCain with the same suspicion and contemptf that Barry Goldwater and his followers once showed toward moderate and half-liberal Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and Senator Jacob Javits of New York (or for that matter Mitt Romney when he was recently the governor of Massachusetts. The Goldwaterites and self-proclaimed guardians of the Reagan legacy despise McCain and these other Liberals-in-Disguise Republicans as heretics and hence more dangerous in many ways than their collectivist Democratic enemies.
Is Any of this surprising?
Hardly. Recall here what was just said a few moments ago about the impact of our age-old electoral system: invariably, its first-past-the-post winner-take-all voting creates two major umbrella-covering coalitions of different factional groups that in Continental Europe, with its different electoral systems, would lead to multiple and independent political parties. Want more proof? Then look at the Democratic Party.
As things stand, it's no less a strained hybrid collection of distinctive intellectual and activist groups, all co-existing uneasily and generally united by at most a few core common principles --- such as an active role for government in economic and social policies, a certain suspicion of free-market outcomes, and hence a commitment, more fervent in the left ranks of the party, to some some of redistributive policies in the name of equality and justice; and beyond that, by hardly anything else. Certainly not, when you get down to it, any accord in foreign policy and the readiness of the United States to use military power against potential or active enemies. What's left is a shared hostility among Democrats to Republican candidates in national elections for the presidency and for Congress.
Our bugged-out concerns here lies elsewhere, no? --- strictly with contemporary US Conservatism and above all the common philosophical and policy precepts of Libertarianism.
Shift Focus Now and Consider Each of These Four Factional Movements
1. Libertarians. Distinguished by their enthusiasm for largely unregulated free-markets and very limited government, whether central or local. Then, too, drawing on classical liberal thought of the 18th and 19th century that culminated in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, libertarians show radical preference for individual freedom: in effect, the right to do as the individual pleases with his or her life, provided that individual does not infringe on the rights and freedom of others to do the same. As you'll see in Part Two today, nothing else substantially real in social life exists beyond individuals --- always conceived by Libertarians as self-contained, self-centered, and strictly self-interested. Any other entities in human societies --- groups, states, political parties: whatever --- are strictly derivative and secondary, having no ontological existence of their own apart from their ability to serve overlapping individual interests. This is so whether the group aggregates are cause or interest-groups, religious organizations, business corporations, political parties, nation-states, or governments in such state.
No need to say anything more at this point. Most of what remains of today's argument, never mind the next two articles in this buggy series, will probe their philosophical outlook and policy preferences in depth. For time being, note that there is a small group let of intellectuals --- mainly philosophy professors, a few social theorists, and a few evangelical pastors, with nary an economist among their modest numbers --- who call themselves, oddly enough, "left-wing libertarians. Later today, in the next part of this buggy article, we'll look at their basic philosophical views and, more important, what mainstream Libertarians think of them.
2. Moral Majority Christians. Marked by a similar preference for free-markets and little government regulation of them, they reveal strong moral convictions that condemn virtually all the changes in American life since the 1960s as immoral, whether gay liberation, zealous feminism, abortion rights, youth culture, the hang-loose, do-your-thing counterculture, the sexual "revolution" and practically all liberal (and libertarian) celebration of individual freedom that collides with traditional American middle class morality.
The latter is identified with a claim that the United States was and should remain a tolerant but Christian nation. Virtually everything that has gone wrong in American life since then, in the Moral Majority view, can be traced to excessive secularism, the decline of traditional authority, and self-indulgent license that libertarians, among others, would regard as expanding human freedom and choice. Hence moral majority Christians want to use government power to end abortion rights, curb runaway individualistic excess in sexual matters, censor music, films, and other forms of popular culture that encourage what they regard as degeneracy.
3. Traditional Conservatives of a more secular sort. Not numerous these days, most of them are intellectual followers of Edmund Burke's respect for the guiding soundness of tradition, community customs, and the stored historical wisdom of each country, which means they are suspicious of all radical individualism and runaway abstract reasoning . . . something Burke, the great English parliamentarian (who supported American independence), found at the base of the horrendous excesses of the French Revolution. Associated with the National Review of William Buckley's days (the 1960s - 1980s) or intellectual followers of Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago, these traditional Conservatives join Libertarians supporters of limited government, but they are simultaneously less adamant about free-market capitalism's virtues --- particularly if markets undermine traditional authority or promote hedonism --- and oppose, like Libertarians again, Moral Majority zealots in using government power to regulate moral excesses as both movements understand them.
Note though. Whatever dynamic intellectual creativity these traditional Conservatives once showed has been largely confined for two or three decades now to the cultural wars within universities between a traditionalist sense of scholarly objectivity and balance on one side and politically correct radicalism on the other.
4. Neo-Conservatives: In Effect, Semi-Communitarians at Home and Democratic Crusaders Abroad. For all intents and purposes, the term refers to groups of intellectuals who have had a profound impact on both US domestic and foreign policies. Some clarification seems necessary here, if only because of the misuse of the movement's ideology and its demonizing by the mass media since the invasion of Saddamite Iraq in the spring of 2003.
Some Clarifying Remarks about Neo-Conservatism, Badly Understood in the Mass Media, Deserve To Be Set Out Here
(i.) In its origins, back in the early 1970s, neoconservatism-conservatism had nothing to do with foreign policy. It was strictly limited to uncovering the excesses and pretentious fatuity's of the Kennedy-Johnson Administrations Great Society and War on Poverty that came to fruition in the mid-1960s. The promise made by the Democratic Party leadership was that the War on Poverty rested on clear social science work, it could rectify in a few years the lingering effects of age-old racial discrimination against African Americans, thanks to a maddeningly ambitious series of government programs --- mass urban renewal, affirmative action, extended welfare to families with dependent children, and eventually (in the Nixon year) massive school busing, all compounded by the national government working with grass-roots activist black organizations within huge urban areas.
The promise went further. Thanks again to solidly established social science work that had unveiled the roots of complex social pathologies and perverse human behavior, the Johnson and later Nixon Administrations indicated over and again that these programs would not only work their magic, but that their end result was clearly in sight, just a decade or two down the road or at most a generation or so. Namely? A large bulk of poorly educated black youth, increasingly the offspring of mother-headed families with no father around, would be weaned away from school drop-out, gangs, violent crime, drugs, and what became celebrated in rap music and much of the media as "gangsta" life. The problems, it was argued, lay in the legacies of discrimination, poverty, lack of opportunity, and other failures inherent in traditional American life. Remedy those failures, create new opportunities, send welfare workers galore into the inner cities as helper-mates, and voilà --- soon, in less than a generation or two, inner city blacks would respond with alacrity. They would be uplifted and transformed into becoming standard-model American citizens of the middle class sort. By then, affirmative action would have done its work, and --- so its champions said --- would then be revoked and sent to the legal dustbins.
(ii.) The reality?
By the time of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, a clear backlash among the vast majority of Americans had set in. Small wonder. As things worked out, the original glittering promises of the War on Poverty and had worsened inner city pathologies, not improved them. There was more illegitimacy in the black community than ever (up from 25% in 1965 to nearly 70% by the mid-1980s); much more more drug use, worse school performance for inner city youth, more gangs, more violence, more fatherly abandonment, more poverty, and more gangsta celebration . . . social pathologies that soon began to engulf the swiftly increasing Hispanic communities in many American cities, and --- at least as illegitimacy went --- parts of the white American population too. Even black mayors, now elected in large numbers all around the country, recognized that compulsory school busing was a failure and joined the backlash against that Nixon-ordered program.
(iii.) What went wrong with the War on Poverty and its empty meretricious claims? That was the point of the new neo-conservative movement, founded in the early 1970s by some former liberal intellectuals and centered on the most influential policy journal in American life
A Little More Clarification Imposes Itself Here Too
(iv.) Starting out as favorable to the Great Society's clarion calls, these liberal intellectuals and social scientsts soon recoiled from the radical excesses of the counterculture on one side and, on the other, from the empty pretentious claims of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that they knew enough about complex social problems and human behavior --- thanks to advances in the social sciences --- to formulate exlaborately complex policies like the War on Poverty and vast urban renewal projects that would quickly solve the problems of poverty and the social pathologies that were spreading rapidly in the African-American communities of inner cities by the mid-1960s. The same was true of constant revamping of the public school system, including forced busing that rested on mindless, self-defeating liberal optimism.
What followed is well known to policy analysts in all the social sciences. A small handful of these prominent, increasingly alarmed liberal intellectuals created what soon became the most influential journal of public policy in American life: the Public Interest, with Irving Kristol its chief editor, along with Nathan Glazer (after Daniel Bell resigned in protest at the journal's rightward movement).
(iv.) Over the next three decades or so, the Public Interest specialized in academic articles --- written always for a general educated audience, not just for social scientists and other scholars --- that showed, with persuasive evidence and cogent theoretical analysis, how virtually all the Great Society's ambitious government programs backfired badly: intended to right the problems of the black ghettos, educational decline there and elsewhere, rapidly spreading violent crime, family disintegration, and fatherly abandonment, each and every new, costly, and disruptive government intervention into the economy and social life either turned out to be a failure or, more worrisome yet, were making all these distrubing social pathologies much worse, not better.
The cause of these failed policies?
As it happened, they were unmasked hammered home in the dozen or so sober, evidence-based articles that appeared in each quarterly issue of The Public Interest.
(v.) One such cause was the documented failure of the Great Society programs to exaggerate what cumbersome bureaucracies could do. Another cause was to over-promise, on oneside, beneficial changes in the black inner cities and elsewhere where social pathologies like illegitimacy and fatherly abandonment were mushrooming swiftly, and on the other side to ignore both the financial costs of these new ambitious interventions and, worse yet, not understand the unintended harmful consequences of such interventons . . . particularly in their rife damage to the already battered middle-class norms, discipline, and personal responsibility.
The latter point about rapid cultural changes can be taken a step further.
In particular, already under attack by the radical counter-culture of the 1960s and the radical social movements that it spawned, these traditional middle class norms and cultural beliefs were assaulted from several directions: by tenured radicals in US universities, later by more and more of the teaching corps of our public schools (caught up in a tizzy of egalitarian mania), and later, too, by the mass media's quick adoption of these radically anti-bourgeois sentiments. The same was true of the commericalized mass entertainment industry --- whether in popular music, films, or TV, all celebrating the new heroes of counter-cultural change: gangsta rappers, punk rockers, violent outcasts made that way by society, the upbeat side of single-parent families, and inner city illiterates and their coarse and violent language.
Not to overlook other celebrated heroes too: rebellious white teen-agers alienated from society and persecuted by conformist bullies; homosexuals and lesbians who didn't simply come out of the closet to enjoy their new freedom and opportunties, but who were usually shown in films and on TV as having more genuine sexual lives and deeper companionship than existed in bland, uptight American families of the conventional sort --- recall here the Academy Award best-film called The American Family; and, wherever you looked or heard in the mass media and entertainment worlds, a celebration of the new sexual revolution in American life as formerly joyless, repressed teen-agers, spouses, and workers and managers in the business world and professional life acted out blatantly and graphically their new sexual freedoms and the coarse language for describing them . . .with even adolescent girls using "fuck" and "asshole" and "cock-sucker" or "mother-fucking" in everyday parlance, at times in the schools themselves, as though it's the most natural thing in the world . . . and emotionally and descriptively authentic, compared to the oppressive language-control formerly exercised by uptight, horribly repressed white grammarians and the middle class hypocracy that American schools, media, and business used to impose in the bad old days before 1968.
Or so say the great New Left semi-literate, jargon-spoutingg professors in our university departments of feminist studies, ethnic studies, cultural theory studies, much of sociology, and much, believe it or not, of English departments. (Prof bug's favorite fatuity of such Great Minds was spawned by some radical-minded mathematicians who responded to the claims of certain defenders of "authetic black thought and language" that black minds recoiled from abstract thought and numeracy and flourished only with concrete or tactile knowledge. The breakthrough pedagogical answer to this? Counting and multiplication should be taught to black kids in the schools in tactful tactile manner: on their fingers and, who knows? with their shoes and socks off so that they could at least get into double numbers beyond "10" itself. What? You say this is buggy hallucination? Far from it, some mathematicians from UCSB managed to convince certain schools in Southern California to experiment with this high-tech innovation in mathematical pedagogy . . . with results that anyone with a modicum of common sense could have predicted.)
(vi.) By the end of the 1970s, a counter counter-cultural upswing was in progress on the political right and among disillusioned liberals . . . first in politics with the emergence of the Moral Majority and in the new impetus to Libertarian thought in economics and economic policymaking; along with the growing revulsion among working class whites to the explosive upsurge of violent urban crime that made city streets, public places, schools, and downtown centers increasingly dangerous places, not least after dark.
Unlike the prosperous, increasingly "liberated" well-to-do middle classes, black or white, they couldn't escape from the disorder and violence by fleeing to the suburbs or living in private-security protected enclaves. For the same reason, solid working-class white, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics couldn't afford to do for their children what the prosperous middle classes left in the urban areas could do: withdraw them from standard-sagging public schools, more and more unsafe anyway, and put them in expensive private schools, all the while that many of the securer, more prosperous middle classes among whites and blacks would, largely, continue to voice support for affirmative action, egalitarian educational norms, identity politics, and more and more sexual and personal freedom that seemed indistinguiable from blatant license.
The upshot of the counter counter-culture was signaled in 1980 by the Reagan Presidency and, later, by the emergence of Conservative newscasters and commentators with a large mass following, first in radio and then, with Fox news, in TV journalism. The same was true of the big breakthrough in blogging from Conservatives of all stripes.
(vii). Where did neo-Conservative thought enter into this counter counter-cultural backlash? In serious social science work and policy analysis in both US universities and private institutes funded by Conservative groups and business firms, with a quick spillover into Republican Party parlance and platforms. On that strictly intellectual level, to repeat, no media source of any sort ever exercised such influence on scholarly and intellectual thought as The Public Interest had.
Note two differences, though, that neo-Conservatives have compared to the other factional movements in Conservative thought.
First, they differed from libertarians and traditional conservative intellectuals by championing a limited welfare state as essential to the stability and decency of American life. And though they otherwise opted extensive deregulation of our economy, they were always suspicious of Libertarian individualism and free-market zeal, stressing instead that the key problems in American life couldn't and wouldn't be solved by just limited government and free-market liberation --- rather, only by reviving respect for inherited bourgeois American customs and morality. Shared culture, not economics, was and remains the key to neo-Conservative thought.
Then there's foreign policy. It wasn't until the first Reagan administration that neo-Conservative intellectuals, some influenced by Leo Strauss and his followers at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in academia, others by tradtions of Wilsonian liberalism that was being betrayed, in neo-Conservative thought, by the Democratic Party and its catering to the McGovern wing more and morre in its foreign policy principles and practices. No time, alas, to clarify the neo-Conservative adoption of Wilsonian liberalism, with its firm commitment to spreading market capitalism and democratic government as the only reliable way to wrest control of the United Nations --- a clear Wilsonian idea (like the earlier League of Nations) --- from the Communist totalitarian camp and its 3rd world sympathizers galore in the General Assembly and turn it into a more effective agent of international security and peace. In the meantime, the United States should go on the offensive in undermining, diplomatically and militarily, the Soviet bloc and its imperial strangle-hold on hundreds of millions of Communist-hating peoples, inside or outside Soviet borders themselves.
(viii.) In a nutshell, then, neo-Conservatism amounts to rejecting all radical and left-wing Liberal assaults on American policy as reactionary, anti-democratic, and dangerously aggressive --- such blame-the-United States ideology rife on the left-wing of the Democratic party and its activist wings as well as among university faculties; instead, it saw the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil (totalitarianism), and resuscitated Wilsonian liberal democratic crusading as the best way to defeat the Communist threat world-wide and later, after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the cold war, of Islamic and other authoritarian enemies of the United States. Its influence flourished sotto-voce in the Clinton administrations, but came to the fore --- and was demonized --- in the Bush administrations' policies in the War on Terror after 9/11.
And a Fifth Movement Too? Enter Buchanan-ite Xenophobes, Anti-Globalists, and Anti-Semites
Agreed, lots of questions around this taxonomy and the buggy treatment of it. No matter. Can't be helped. To delve deeper into the different philosophical and activist movements in American Conservatism these days would take us far afield. Simply note, in passing, that it's also possible to identify yet a something of a 5th philosophical tendency in the Republican Party --- if not a full-fledged intellectual faction or movement.
Associated above all with the policy positions and public prominence of Patrick Buchanan, it is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-globalization. If these right-wing types were in West Europe, they'd feel at home in extremist populist movements like Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front. As it is, they draw on earlier populist and xenophobic tendencies in American life, exercising a strong appeal to embittered workers, farmers, and small businessmen who feel hurt and overwhelmed by the economic and technological changes that have unfolded all around them since the 1960s, not to forget the disruptive cultural and legal changes in American life that they detest: affirmative action, feminism, gay liberation, insecurities in the job market caused by both new technologies and globalizing tendencies, the surge of Hispanic immigration of both the legal and illegal kinds, and a new cosmopolitan liberal media and entertainment worlds that, Buchanan and his followers think, reflect the dominance of big finance, Jews, and giant corporations. They want scapegoats for their troubles, and they find them aplenty, though anti-Semitism is an abiding thrust among them all. Even Washington DC politicians are said to be in the pockets of Jewish money, a scapegoating tradition that goes back to the anti-elitist populism of the late 19th century that combined resentments of big business, Wall Street finance, and the growth and importance of non-WASP immigrants with blame on Jews.
How numerous these Buchanan followers are is hard to say. Probably not that many, at any rate as an organized movement.
Either they have drifted into the ranks of the Christian Moral Majority (despite is pro-Israeli stance), dropped out of political life, including the act of voting, or in some instances found a home in skinhead or neo-Nazi gangs. A slap in their bigoted faces was deftly administered by William Buckley Jr back in the early 1990s. Faced with a Pat Buchanan campaign to run in the primaries for the Republican Party nomination, Buckley filled out the entire issue of the biweekly National Review with a lengthy dissection of the anti-Semitic tendencies that once marked much of American Conservatism, both of the populist sort and the WASP upper-class bigotry that he himself had been immersed in as a youth, only to recognize it as nothing but the prejudiced resentments and ignorance of once secure people who couldn't deal with the competition in business, finance, and intellectual life that a small Jewish minority was generating in stolid upper class circles from the 1880s on.
Well, this initial part of today's buggy argument has run on much longer than he anticipated it would be when he started a couple of hours ago. No need to wear out my welcome among visitors to this site. The third article in this series on Libertarianism will pick up the threads left hanging here and draw them tightly together in the argument that will unfold there.