What Is the Conservative Movement?
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 crackpots. The unmatriculated Mencken, who refused to write on an elementary level, would probably never be heard of in today's market of semiliterate alums spilling ink on the pages of conservative rags.
Consider the case of William Graham Sumner: a classical liberal renowned among libertarians who delivered a speech, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," in New Haven in January, 1899, criticizing American conduct in the Spanish-American War, the negotiations that ended it, and the subjugation of the millions of people and thousands of square miles appropriated. The town's prominent middle-class citizens reacted at once by petitioning the administration of Yale, where Sumner taught, to banish the "un-American" professor. Hence we are not to confuse the anti-Sumnerites of 1899 with present-day Fox News viewers and talk-radio listeners, who are often up in arms and demanding academic heads. The "great American's" who call Sean Hannity (from a penitentiary somewhere for all we know) are waving a new, improved flag with more stars on it.
A simple way to demonstrate the chasm that separates libertarians from "conservatives" of the 21st century is to use news incidents and media images as Rorschach inkblots and consider how differently each would respond.
When a libertarian witnesses an emaciated destitute, confronted, seized, and roughly rifled by the constabulary under dubious pretenses on "reality" TV, he is not immediately elated. Most of us question the necessity of such an action even if a joint, crack pipe, or penknife is found. We are offended by the image of a man abject — on the ground and in the clutches of enormous, armored, and heavily armed men — without substantive evidence that he has harmed someone else. That these same public servants can bust into people's homes, terrorize their children, kill their pets, shackle their persons, and destroy personal property on the flimsiest of pretexts is repellent to anyone placing even a modest value on the word liberty.
In the spring of 1999, NATO was sending 400 aircraft twice a day to bomb the tiny nation of Serbia. In the thick of it, three American soldiers in uniform were captured and held for a month. General Wesley Clark declared them "abducted" and the talking heads did not shy away from words like "war crime" and "atrocity." It was the first war ever where the United States was so humanitarian that the enemy became criminals if they returned fire to defend their own soil. At one point Milosevic referred to the Geneva Convention, his comment was roundly shouted down by a panel on CNN. One commentator averred that he "would not be manipulated by Milosevic's propaganda machine." All three were returned to us intact well before hostilities ended. The fact that Milosevic's wasn't the only propaganda machine out there was not a point with any traction in the American media.
Rush Limbaugh got his turn at righteous indication on behalf of the military five years later. This time US forces were holding the prisoners and photographing them in various poses the conventioneers in Geneva wouldn't have been keen on. As most everyone now knows, many of the depictions from Abu Ghraib included bizarre sexual scenarios. Limbaugh compared the victims to college fraternity pledges, exposing the fantasies of a man that eschewed higher education. By his lights, apparently, these pranks were merely examples of the kind of American liberty we were fighting to export. The only things missing were the kegs and strippers.
Recently a former navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, has written a book about his experience as a sniper in Iraq, boasting 255 kills with at least 160 of those officially confirmed. The book describes sucker punching Jesse Ventura at a SEAL watering hole in San Diego for comments the author did not approve of. He also makes the claim that each of his targets was deserving of the death sentence. So far the assault on Ventura has been subject to greater media scrutiny than any question of moral certainty in this multitude of executions.
In each of these instances of skewed perspective, and numerous others like them during controversial military action, the classical liberal is overwhelmed by voices he cannot respond to and no qualified representative is there to do it for him. Kosovo was Clinton's war, with endorsements from the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, and the idea that it could be a risk-free war was selling at the time. Abu Ghraib took the notion of impunity further still for people like Coulter, Malkin, and Limbaugh. Not only may we invade nations that never attacked us, but now anyone defending his homeland risks becoming the subject of the sadistic whims of federal agents. People who get offended hate America; judging by demeanor it is only for lack of developed biceps and a good right cross that Michele and Ann haven't cracked some recalcitrant heads. Now we meet the great American sniper who shot bad guys from afar, and we know that none of them were any good because Mr. Kyle says so. It isn't like any of us are accustomed to errors on the part of intelligence "experts" or lies from the military establishment, after all. We are simply to accept that the informants that fingered all those targets were without motives of their own in each case. Audible skepticism could be hazardous in the hero's presence; he might not be inclined to punch and run against opponents less formidable than Jesse Ventura.
The crowd at Fox has lately been telling us that Obama was wrong to apologize for the Koran burnings. Matters of military practicality are always more evident to the "conservative" leadership with a GOP president on the job. Instead we have been told by Newt Gingrich, et al., that once again it is the native who shoots back who ought to be apologizing. Only unbalanced observers will tell you that W would also be apologizing, and with soldiers in the field anything else would be irresponsible in the extreme. It's the "fair-and-balanced" crew taking the bizarre view that Obama is showing weakness here. While a libertarian would hold that no symbol — be it a flag, a book, or any other supposedly sacred thing — has a value higher than human life, a recurrent fact of foreign interventions, especially long ones, is that principles must be sacrificed to save lives and in pursuit of the abstruse goals entailed in such adventures.
Ultimately we can find no principle that anyone identifying with the broader "conservative" movement feels compelled to uphold. They supported the Pentagon over the New York Times in Ellsberg's case, and that vehemence has been redoubled against Bradley Manning. Similar contempt for the First Amendment has been demonstrated in cases involving flag burning, free-speech zones, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and others less clear-cut. George W. Bush signed a campaign-finance-reform act that suppressed expressive rights for common citizens at critical election times while allowing business as usual for corporate media entities.
"Fair and balanced" is a great goal to work toward but declaring that achievement is a psychotic delusion. No mortal is without bias, and pretensions to absolute objectivity are equal to claims of divinity. The Western world has acknowledged this limitation on the human race for centuries now with extensive rules for courtroom procedures and scientific experiments. Significant errors of justice and research occur even when the regulations are observed. Fox has yet to explain to the world what elaborate process it utilizes to eradicate from programming the most universal of all human weaknesses. If Mr. Murdoch really could demonstrate such a capability, he would render competitors obsolete.
The clearest distinction between believers in constitutional true religion and members of major parties is the willingness to question authority. "The reason power corrupts," said Kyle Rothweiller, "is that sooner or later its possessor comes to believe he deserves it." The "liberal is fundamentally a skeptic," Hayek tells us. This obviously does not refer to the ones that stood behind Clinton when he said, "You can't say you love your country and hate the government." Libertarians do not believe in giving the empowered the benefit of doubt. Government must perpetually justify itself and convince the ruled of its fitness. Power drunkenness is not uncommon in the pettiest spheres of human interaction. Most of us have seen it in our lifetimes in elementary-school teachers, DMV clerks, labor foremen, bartenders, low-level bureaucrats, and even teenagers imagining themselves at the vanguard of a clique.
Still pontificators from the right would have it a sad day when the Church Committee let out the fact that the CIA was testing LSD on unwitting human guinea pigs. That was the 1970s, around the time counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton returned from multiple-martini lunches at the Madison to find moles at every other desk. He was the same guy who always entertained Kim Philby whenever he was in town. During that era, the FBI, along with local police forces, infiltrated political movements they found unsavory with agent provocateurs. Many conservatives would prefer that nasty little tales like these remained swept under the rubric of "national security." Presently it is a bipartisan coalition that, if they cannot hang the boy, would combine the sentences bestowed upon Philip Nolan and the man in the iron mask for the special case of Bradley Manning. Meanwhile murderers like the ones he exposed enjoy substantially better conditions in military prisons. That excludes the ones still on the street barhopping with the likes of Chris Kyle.
People who feel entitled to rule, whether they are Democrat, Republican, bureaucrat, diplomat, or regulator, feel entitled to do much of it secretly. People who are okay with that are probably overwhelmed by too much barely relevant information already. This helps account for the willingness of so many to populate one of the two major parties.
Acton said, "It isn't a question of a particular class being unfit to govern. All classes are unfit to govern." But despots and demagogues can agree that the consent of the governed is easier to achieve if the governed are uninformed. Major media prioritizing has accommodated that whim for a generation.
Twenty-four-hour news programming imparts less new factual information daily than we used to get in an hour. Much of today's professional television "news" revolves around name calling, subjective characterization, innuendo, one-upmanship, distorted context, and other gimmicks that get no one any closer to the truth or to valid conclusions. Dissenters are shut down with the "conspiracy-theory" bludgeon by the very people finding plots against their vague ideals lurking in every shadow. Cable news continues to strive for the dignity of pro wrestling, even if Bill O'Reilly has learned to stop telling his guests to "shut up."
The so-called conservative movement, unmoored by any true desire for limited government, can only evolve into a party of national mythos. Lacking any lodestar, it must eventually return to the fold of elite institutions that have repeatedly failed in their duties. Any idea of US "exceptionalism" that isn't rooted in limited government is a deranged political voodoo.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.