The Libertarian Temptation
On its bad days, the conservative movement is beginning to look like the French Third Republic. Premier Gingrich teeters daily on the verge of collapse as whispers of coups and counter-coups flutter round him. At the rostrum, the supply-siders are accusing deficit hawks of wrecking the Republican party. In the aisles, the secular social conservatives are nervously edging away from the religious social conservatives. In the cloakroom, proponents of Catholic natural-law theory are glowering at old-fashioned defenders of judicial restraint. And in the cafe around the corner, the paleoconservatives are deep into the fifth glass of Pernod, bellowing that they can lick any man in the joint.
As if all of this weren’t rancorous enough, the April issue of Reason—the house organ of the libertarian movement—has just arrived in the mail, full of stinging remarks about non-libertarian conservatives. Virginia Postrel, Reason’s editor, complains, for example, that THE WEEKLY STANDARD “sprinkles the word ‘libertarian’ almost randomly, as an all-purpose epithet” and accuses the magazine of being “the New Democrats’ best friend.” Reason contributing editor Walter Olson suggests that THE WEEKLY STANDARD provides evidence that many conservatives are beginning to regard libertarian beliefs as “little better and in crucial respects perhaps worse than the loathed ideas of the liberal Democrats.”
Are such charges justified? It’s hard for people associated with THE WEEKLY STANDARD to reply in a way that would seem appropriate. But then, perhaps it does not matter whether the specific bill of impeachment presented by Reason has merit or not. For in a larger sense, the folks at Reason are indeed right: The relationship between libertarians and conservatives, never easy, has deteriorated markedly over the past few years. Things may not have sunk quite as low as when Whittaker Chambers claimed to hear in the novels of Ayn Rand a voice “from painful necessity commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” or when Ronald Hamoway, reviewing the first decade of National Review in the New Individualist Review, blasted William F. Buckley and his co-editors for plotting to reintroduce the burning of heretics. But they are bad enough.
This is unfortunate, to say the least. The libertarian and traditionalist wings of conservatism have never coexisted comfortably, but that has not made them any less indispensable to each other. On their own, libertarians are in danger of devolving into sectarianism. Conservatives, on the other hand, live in perpetual danger of being tempted into nostalgia. These dangers are nowadays arising in especially acute form. All too many conservatives seem to be flirting with communitarianism, a political movement that disguises its disturbing—and profoundly unconservative—intentions in vaporous thought and bad writing. And all too many libertarians have begun to wonder whether, with statist economics temporarily in eclipse, they might be able to jettison their stodgy old conservative associates for some glitzy new allies on the “lifestyle left.”
Let’s clear up something at the outset: The acrimony between libertarians and social conservatives is not the same thing as the much-reported split between the Republican party’s so-called economic conservatives and its social conservatives. The big Republican donors who delivered the Republican nomination to Bob Dole in 1996 resemble libertarians about as much as they resemble vegetarians. Libertarians hate the National Endowment for the Arts every bit as much as any Christian fundamentalist. They take the Second Amendment as seriously as the First or Fourth. They cannot be assumed to be pro-abortion (some are; others aren’t).
On the issues that most acrimoniously divide libertarians from social conservatives—drugs, defense spending, obscenity, trade, immigration, marriage and divorce—the Republican business establishment tilts to social conservatism on the first three, and to the libertarian position on the latter three. “Libertarian vs. social conservative” is a battle that overlaps with “business vs. social conservative,” but is not the same.
Indeed, psychologically, libertarians and social conservatives resemble each other more closely than either sort of conservative resembles a Team 100 member. Both feel estranged from the Republican “establishment.” Both are in politics for idealistic rather than practical purposes. And both prefer conflict to consensus.
As they are again now demonstrating. Over the past five or six years, social and religious conservatives have taken gleeful pleasure in an increasingly emphatic rejection of free markets and limited government. Patrick Buchanan rocked the Republican party with two presidential campaigns that attacked free markets—first abroad, then at home—with increasing vehemence. (In the 1996 Iowa caucuses, he went so far as to denounce large- scale pig farming.) Family Research Council president Gary Bauer has printed articles warning he will go AWOL if the Republican party gets serious about Social Security privatization. And generally you hear more and more of the ambient snarkiness toward economic freedom quoted by National Journal in January, in which Bill Bennett worried that “unbridled capitalism is a problem…for human beings” and the National Fatherhood Initiative’s Don Eberly complained that “decadence is brought to us by the marketplace.” “I am,” Eberly went on to announce, “anti-Wal-Mart.”
Libertarians, for their part, have taken equal delight in tweaking conservative sensibilities. They have long regarded themselves not as a faction of a larger conservative movement, but as a distinct “third way” between conservatism and liberalism, bound to the rest of conservatism only by tactical considerations. In the early 1990s, some of them even succumbed to the bright idea that an equivalent tactical alliance might be formed with centrist Democrats. This seems to be what Bush White House aide James Pinkerton had in mind in his 1995 book, What Comes Next, which proposed a new formula: a combination of social permissiveness, workfare, and decentralized government.
Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, went one step further. In 1993 he edited a book that attempted to repackage libertarianism as “market liberalism,” the perfect ideological cocktail for the post-Soviet era. As for snarkiness, the libertarians are every bit as capable of it as the social conservatives: Crane’s gifted lieutenant, David Boaz, snipes in his new book, Libertarianism: A Primer, that “conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do.”
The good news is that this feud wouldn’t be happening if liberalism weren’t in so much trouble. This is a squabble over the spoils of victory. If the social conservatives are getting an ear for their criticisms of economic freedom, it may be because they have succeeded in attracting a large new lower-middle-class constituency to the Republican party, a constituency more fearful of the bumps and shocks of the free market than the traditional Republican voter.
And if some non-libertarian conservatives are indulging themselves in visions of a new era of conservative social engineering, one important reason may be the astonishing conservative success in enacting the 1996 welfare reform. More and more conservatives are beginning to fear that welfare reform might lead to a wave of horror stories that will dis-credit conservatism for a generation. This fear has prodded them to look sympathetically at all sorts of proposals to encourage private and church groups to step into the role the federal government has just vacated. Ed Crane may well be right when he cautions that “you’re making a serious mistake if you think you can use the state to secure the institutions of civil society.” Actually, he almost certainly is right. But the powerful sense of responsibility that has led conservatives like Arianna Huffington, Dan Coats, and Bill Bennett to want to try to use the state in this impossible way is surely admirable, even if misplaced.
On the other hand, while the circumstances of the moment have shaped the present quarrel, the quarrel’s fundamental cause runs much deeper. Back in the 1950s, when a self-conscious American conservative movement first began squabbling over ideological issues, the National Review columnist Frank Meyer proposed a famous formula to paper over the differences that existed even then between libertarians and social conservatives. He contended that it was government, and especially the federal government, that should be blamed for American moral decay. It was activist federal judges who were banning prayer from the schools, busybody public-school teachers who were indoctrinating young people with ideas of sexual revolution, city planners whose highways and public housing projects shattered cohesive urban neighborhoods and paved over small towns to construct subdivisions. Curb government, and you’ll have accomplished most of what social conservatives aim for. “In a conservative society,” Meyer promised, “libertarian means will achieve traditionalist ends.”
The Meyer formula was in many ways too glib, but it wasn’t wrong. This used to be a very socially conservative country. As late as 1967, only 5 percent of American college students had ever smoked marijuana. In 1972, with the sexual revolution sweeping America’s campuses, half of all Americans still believed premarital sex to be always or almost always wrong. Divorce was no more common in 1966 than it had been in 1926; church membership and confidence in the institutions of government were near their alltime peaks; and television and the music industry adhered to standards with which the Edwardians would have been comfortable. At the same time, the socially conservative America of the mid-1960s was equally politically liberal. In the age of William Scranton and Nelson Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson and John Lindsay, the idea of Russell Kirk-style conservatives exercising national political power seemed fanciful, to put it mildly. Under the circumstances, Meyer’s libertarian wager seemed to offer attractive odds.
But today it’s not so clear that the American people, left to their own devices, will behave in ways that a conservative would consider “virtuous.” In fact, a disconcerting minority of them will choose to smoke marijuana, get pregnant out of wedlock, major in basketweaving at college, wear T-shirts with obscene messages on them, watch too much television, live on welfare, burn the flag, and play their boomboxes too loud.
And it’s easy to imagine that the free market seems to be egging them on. A generation ago, social critics were attacking big corporations for imposing a suffocating conformity—the life of the “man in the grey flannel suit”—on American society. Today, conservative social critics watch in horror as an ever more specialized market brings us not only mango tofutti ice-cream substitute, cranberry-colored sports-utility vehicles, and combined wine-tasting and spelunking holidays in Castile, but also gangsta-rap compact discs, the Jerry Springer show, and topless pictures of Jenny McCarthy on the Internet.
There’s a good—even convincing—libertarian answer to this, and Walter Olson argues it well: a free society can, through criticism and shame raise its standards without “calling in the cops.”
It’s a big country (and, as regards the Net, a big world), and diagnosing its cultural ills on the basis of the worst you can dig up in its darkest corners will yield far from a balanced picture…. Trash TV is a blight, but the effects of justified ridicule are beginning to show even there, while the film reaction against [Quentin] Tarantino is satisfyingly underway. Rap music has seen a sharp fall-off in market share in recent years, while interest mounts in retro categories, including lounge and Tin Pan Alley. Even as [Robert] Bork reproached Americans—from the best-seller list—with having created perhaps the most depraved society in human history, the number- one box-office draw was, for better or worse, 101 Dalmations.
But there’s also a bad libertarian answer, and it’s the one Reason’s Postrel reverts to. As she sees it, and she’s not alone, respecting the free actions of individuals means not only tolerating bad choices; it means rejecting the very idea that any lawful choices can be called bad and not just called bad by scattered individuals, but condemned by that mysterious thing we call society. “The market has no boss,” she writes triumphantly.
It’s unpredictable and contradictory. It lets Americans spend $ 8 billion a year on pornography and $ 3 billion in Christian bookstores (not including sales of Christian books in secular chains). It permits both The Book of Virtues and Nine Inch Nails to find their niches. It allows parents who think children should be encouraged to use their imaginations to coexist peaceably with those who think imaginative play is dangerous and sinful…. The market does, however, undermine central authority. Though the organizations created within it may contain many hierarchies and authorities of their own, the market process does not establish one best way. So if your central political value is authority, if you take tradition not as an evolutionary process but as a settled decree, if you see choice and liberation as inherently evil, you will necessarily be driven to oppose the market.
In other words, if you believe that the $ 8 billion pornography market is an evil thing—and if you take the next step of asserting that this belief is not just a mere personal opinion but is actually true—then you have taken the first fatal steps toward joining the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD as the New Democrats’ best friend.
Without fully intending to, Postrel illustrates why so many conservatives—even those who would probably agree with her on virtually every public-policy issue—mistrust libertarians. There always hangs over them a little cloud of suspicion: Do libertarians favor radical freedom even despite its sometimes unconservative consequences? Or because of them?
One of the founders of modern libertarianism, John Stuart Mill, answered this question very frankly in his much-quoted essay, “On Liberty.” Most people remember “On Liberty” as a stirring defense of freedom of speech. And so it is. What people forget was that the England of 1859 was a country in which freedom of speech was treasured every bit as much as we treasure it now. (The English had their blind spots of course: As Mill complains, a man could spend 30 days in jail for scrawling anti-Christian blasphemy on a gate. But is that really so much more oppressive than our rule that a lawyer can be ordered to pay a million dollars to his secretary for complimenting her figure?)
But “On Liberty” is something else—something much closer to the reasoning of Virginia Postrel. What Mill is really defending is not freedom from the government, but freedom from the disapproval of others. It is social stigma, not legal stigma, that most worries Mill—“so effective is it that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment.” Mill yearns for a world in which people can be as odd as they want to be—though even he perhaps never imagined a Dennis Rodman or a Madonna Ciconne—without anyone pursing their lips. “In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric…. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”
Some of us may think that a time whose chief danger was an insufficiency of oddballs didn’t know how lucky it was. We may nod our heads with Mill’s most brilliant critic, James Fitzjames Stephen (ironically enough, the uncle of Virginia Woolf), who pointed out that eccentricity was a form of distinction sought only by “weak and trifling minds.” But what’s most alarming about Mill’s variety of libertarianism is that, for him, every bit as much as for Robert Bork, political liberty is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. Both men judge political liberty a success or a failure according to whether it promotes their vision of the good society. For Bork, this means that the test of liberty is whether it preserves a bourgeois society. For Mill, the test is whether liberty helps discover a replacement for a Christian morality that he believed had outlived its usefulness: “The creed”—and the context makes plain that he means Christianity—“remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.”
It’s not fanciful to hear in this the original of the thought that echoes in Virginia Postrel’s argument. But libertarians need to realize this: If their contention is that freedom is good because it helps them find a new morality, they will succeed only in convincing adherents of the old morality that freedom is bad. Charles Murray has argued that a society that legalized drugs but freed landlords to eject tenants who use drugs, school principals to expel drug-taking students, and employers to fire drug-taking employees will do better at fighting drug abuse than a society in which drugs are barred at the border but in which drug addiction is a prohibited grounds for discrimination. That’s persuasive. What isn’t persuasive is the claim that snorting cocaine is some sort of fundamental human right.
Conservatives didn’t oppose the New Deal, support the Cold War, demolish the case for price controls, slash taxes, and reform welfare only to surrender their claim to be the party of liberty at the end of the twentieth century. The party of liberty is what conservatives are, and what they ought to be. When conservatives forget that identity, the more libertarian members of the conservative coalition do right to chide them. But if conservatives have to be reminded that they are the party of liberty, so libertarians need to be reminded of their obligation to the cause of virtue. For without a shared understanding of what is right, what is moral, no political movement can long survive.