Killing Frankenstein’s Monster
Downblog, Chris puts together a fantastic post that quite well explains the ways in which modern liberalism and classical liberalism (ie, libertarianism) have a tremendous amount in common at the fundamental “first principles” level, at least if you accept the definition of modern liberalism contained within Chris’ post. As I note in the comments, arguably the only “first principle” on which libertarians and liberals fundamentally disagree is that of “taste for governance” – and even that is less a first principle than it is a means to the achievement of first principles. So the differences between an open-minded liberal and an open-minded libertarian should ultimately be resolvable, because both liberals and libertarians generally share a similar vision of a morally just society, even if some policies advocated by either group arguably fail to achieve or even outright undermine these goals.
And yet to many, the differences on policy prescriptions between libertarianism and liberalism seem even larger than the differences on policy prescriptions between conservatism and libertarianism. Why? The answer is, I think, quite simply the messy problem of coalition politics in a two-party system. In such a system, the various ideologies that make up each coalition will inevitably cross-pollinate as they unite behind a handful of core issues on which the constituent ideologies have a unity of interest. But, as I’ve argued time and again over the last year and a half, eventually those core issues fade to the background and one or more of the constituent groups gradually leaves the coalition and maybe even joins the other coalition, starting the cycle anew.
I argued earlier that the current political alignment has corrupted libertarianism in a way that has caused it to forget too much of its classically liberal roots (this is true even though it has also helped give libertarians influence in excess of our numbers, that being the Catch-22 of coalition politics), and that libertarianism at this point needs to find a way to sever its ties with conservatism.
But it’s also important to recognize the way that libertarianism has corrupted conservatism to a fairly large extent, resulting in a “movement conservatism” that is ideologically incoherent. “Conservatism,” at least as it was historically defined, represented a political philosophy that existed to put the brakes on social and economic upheaval. It was not an ideology that was per se opposed to any kind of cultural change; but it was an ideology that insisted upon respect for long-established cultural, societal, and political traditions, and upon stability as a moral imperative. Obviously, these are not values that are at the core of a libertarianism built around the maximization of individual freedom.
And yet, libertarians and conservatives for a very long while – even before there was a term for “libertarian” – made natural coalition partners against a New Deal coalition that must have seemed hell-bent on imposing fairly radical changes that were also anathema to core libertarian principles on economic freedom. And with the subsequent looming threat of international Communism, a valid raison d’etre for the alliance remained. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Not much. And yet the coalition largely remained in tact, perhaps mostly because of the way that cross-pollination had obscured the fundamental philosophical differences between libertarians and the dominant varieties of conservatism.
So why should libertarians remain in the fold if there is no longer much cause to ally themselves with conservatives? Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg have suggested that leaving would deprive the coalition of the Right of its most intellectual component, making it more explicitly anti-intellectual, nationalist, and nativist, while failing to exert much influence on the coalition of the Right.
Despite the fact that I’d love to see a more libertarian GOP, I actually think that an end of the libertarian involvement with the coalition would be beneficial to conservatism. A conservatism that lacked libertarianism would be able to form around a more ideologically coherent set of beliefs akin to traditional conservatism. Indeed, I would argue that the involvement of a radical ideology (and libertarianism is nothing if not radical) with conservative ideology in one coalition is responsible for the anti-intellectualism that has come to dominate the discussion on the political Right in recent years.
So what would a conservatism without libertarianism look like, if I don’t think it would be basically the same as it is now, just even more anti-intellectual? I actually think that Daniel Larison (with help in the comments from our own E.D. Kain) inadvertently expresses the answer in his post questioning the desirability of “growth”:
there is a proper fulfillment to natural growth beyond which growing is supposed to cease. Indeed, growth beyond that point is typically unhealthy and takes the form of cancers. This is the basic distinction that I believe John Lukacs also made long ago between “growth” and prosperity. On the other hand, perhaps a way of life geared towards perpetual and ceaseless growth is better understood as one that is continually regressing towards childhood and ultimately infancy, which might explain the prevalence of the optimistic, child-like belief that we can have whatever we want and there will always be someone or something to solve our problems. Maturity implies being fully grown and being ready to take on responsibilities, which suggests that the more we cultivate the idea of constant and endless “growth” as the proper goal the more irresponsible and dependent we will become.
Liberals and libertarians such as myself alike have a generally progressive view of the world, valuing the maximization of individual choice and freedom above all else, even as we may disagree on the means for achieving those goals. I can’t think of a more appropriate counterweight to that worldview than a political coalition formed around the idea of social, economic, and political stability, and a deep-seated sentiment for tradition. The existence of such a counterweight would act as an essential means of ensuring that change occurs slowly enough to prevent the kind of social upheaval that is so often associated with rapid social, political, and economic change.