Can National Conservatism Threaten the Regime?
Last week the Edmund Burke Foundation played host to the third annual National Conservative Conference in Miami, Florida, bringing together several of the preeminent political and intellectual leaders in the contemporary Right. Organized by Yoram Hazony, this year’s NatcCon brought together diverse segments of a conservative movement that has been transformed globally by a modern age of populist politics and the external threats posed by covid tyranny, the Great Reset, and the rising tide of militant cultural leftism.
Among the presenters at this year’s event were scholars associated with the Mises Institute, including associated scholars Jason Jewell and Paul Gottfried, and our friend Daniel McCarthy, vice president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who was the keynote speaker at the Mises Institute’s recent Libertarian Scholars Conference. The three joined Eugene Meyer for a panel on the failures of 1960s fusionism, with Gottfried noting some of Murray Rothbard’s criticisms that the National Review’s intellectual project, which sacrificed domestic concerns in favor of aggressive anticommunism abroad, was a betrayal of the American Right.
While this was the only panel to explicitly reference Austrian scholarship, a Rothbardian-like reckoning of the failures of the modern conservative movement hung over much of the event. Michael Anton of the Claremont Institute offered an “apology” to libertarians for not taking past concerns about the Patriot Act seriously and called for tearing down the modern American security state—including “breaking up the CIA,” “dissolving or reigning in the FBI,” and eliminating FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, which have served as rubber stamps for a regime whose focus has increasingly turned away from the Middle East and toward Middle America.
Anton’s mea culpa to “libertarians” was one of the rare occasions where the L word wasn’t used as a slur at the event.
[Also Read: To Stop the Left, America Needs a Rothbardian Right]
While Edmund Burke’s name was featured on the backdrop of NatCon stages, it is the work of James Burnham that perhaps has most inspired the ideas on display. In particular, his books The Machiavellians and The Managerial Revolution are near-essential reading for keeping up with postevent discussions with attendees.
Grounded in Burnham’s appreciation for power-elite analysis is a recognition that politics in action simply doesn’t resemble the liberal concept of democratic theory. American institutions are not governed by democracy but instead by the ideology of a professional political class that is willing to ignore, neuter, and, if necessary, prosecute an elected president serious about disrupting their grand designs. This includes American corporate power that rather than being checked by the “democracy of the market,” has itself been captured by the managerial class, putting its ideological pursuits over profit.
As such, national conservatism does not simply scoff at libertarian notions of a hands-off approach to corporate power but criticizes the classical liberal notions of politically “neutral” institutions. The final speaker, evangelical theologian Albert Mohler, ended the event with a powerful attack on the very concept of secularism.
A consistent message of NatCon was that a government not grounded explicitly in Christian values will devolve into a government expressing far more sinister beliefs, explaining how America now has a presidential administration that actively demands the celebration of child mutilation and sterilization.
These aspects of the national conservative project have attracted sharp criticism from libertarian circles, including former congressman Justin Amash and Reason’s Stephanie Slade, the latter of which attended the event.
Amash has criticized national conservatism broadly, tweeting that it represents “repackaged authoritarianism … [which] fundamentally rejects individualism and property rights and thus has more in common with socialism than with libertarianism or classical liberalism.” Slade, in a worthwhile review of the conference, pointed to some concrete examples of political action that represent what she sees as national conservatism in practice, with a focus on the most popular speaker of the event: Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida’s governor addressed the audience for an hour in a speech that mainly served to highlight the achievements of his leadership in Tallahassee. This included emphasizing his battle against corporate power—in particular passing legislation that banned private businesses from requiring vaccine passports, prohibited firing employees for failure to be vaccinated, stopped corporate HR departments from mandating critical race theory training, and removed special tax privileges from Disney after it vowed to finance the repeal of the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” which restricted conversations about sexuality and gender theory in Florida public schools.
To Slade [and Amash], this legislative action demonstrates a dangerous infringement upon the rights of private businesses.
The idea that the government may stop companies and organizations from setting the terms under which they will do business because other people have “a right to participate in society” is, of course, the same argument that leftists have trotted out to justify crackdowns against Christian wedding vendors that do not wish to participate in gay marriage celebrations and against religious schools that expect job candidates not to openly flout tenets of the faith. Yet conservatives have long argued that private property and free association do, or at the very least should, broadly protect employers’ rights.
A free society must respect people’s freedoms even when lots of other people dislike how they’re used. Fortunately, abiding by that bargain will tend to produce a rich and diverse marketplace where people have the space to experiment with different business practices and consumption decisions.
DeSantis has proven his willingness to wield government power to punish political dissent and pre-empt choices he does not like. Despite that (or perhaps, as I suspect, because of it) NatCon III attendees were in fits of adulation over his speech. The will to power ran deep in Miami.
While I am sympathetic to Slade’s criticism in the abstract, the examples she mentions illustrate why the national conservative project finds a growing audience.
State power is being constantly used by politicians at the federal and state levels to legally harass the very same Christian wedding vendors she mentions. Masterpiece Bakery, the shop at the center of the Supreme Court case, continues to be hit with lawsuits from left-wing activists determined to destroy the business because of the owner’s faith. Just last week, the Supreme Court refused to stop a New York court order that would have required Yeshiva University to recognize an LGBTQ student club (they responded by abolishing all student clubs on campus).
Calls for the Right to respect the pluralism of classical liberalism fall on increasingly deaf ears when the progressive Left—which dominates the most powerful institutions in modern America—has no interest in such an arrangement.
This marks the current challenge libertarians find themselves in.
Should libertarians be critics of DeSantis-style policies that protected vulnerable Floridians from being forced to choose between their employment and a vaccine promoted with state-backed lies? A property rights argument would say yes, but America replaced a property rights legal system with a civil rights regime in the twentieth century. Pretending otherwise creates a dynamic where only those who stand against the ideology of the regime face the threat of legal discrimination. Do libertarians have no recourse—beyond personal boycotts—against large corporations subsidized by Federal Reserve–fueled financialization and increasingly flexing their influence for aggressive political ends?
If so, what value does political libertarianism provide to the protection of individual liberty in such a world?
Of course, the other side of the sort of aggressive state action that Governor DeSantis has wielded popularly in Florida is the threat that in the future such power may be used against those cheering it now.
Perhaps that threat is less concerning in the Sunshine State, which has become substantially redder as a result of DeSantis-era popularity. But there is a lingering concern with the national conservative project—namely, its “national” character—a point touched on by Daniel McCarthy in his remarks.
As Allen Mendenhall noted after the first NatCon event, the attempt to create a cohesive conservative intellectual movement, not just in America, but in Europe and South America as well, can come at the expense of the uniqueness of American history. America is not a traditional nation but rather a country that began as a confederacy of various nations—with separate traditions, cultures, religions, and histories. Ignoring this can lead to political projects intractably linked to unionism over the virtue of federalist decentralization.
Is the example of Ron DeSantis’s success not better understood as what can be done when strong leadership arises from the state level, providing a robust check against federal and corporate authoritarianism? Would a DeSantis in every state not be a better path to success than an attempt to convert and control the imperial city of Washington, DC? Instead of amplifying federal power to wield against the Left, should the goal not be—as Anton outlined—breaking up and dissolving the infrastructure of the federal regime and having its authority replaced by state and local authorities? Is true national unity not only achievable by dispersing the power DC has claimed as its own at the expense of civil society, by removing national elections as a constant battle for the soul of the nation?
This leads to one other existing weakness of the national conservatism project to date: a general disinterest in monetary policy and the Federal Reserve and the role it has played in shaping the current state of the world. Burnham’s book was written in the 1940s, almost thirty years before the dollar’s last remaining tie to gold was severed. Not only has the Fed’s monopoly on the creation of money supercharged the managerial trends he identified through financialization, but the American regime has turned money and banking into its primary tools against its enemies, both foreign and domestic. Tools, they announced this week, that they seek to enhance.
While conservative criticisms of libertarianism’s appreciation of culture may very well be justified, it is also true that realpolitik and Christian ethics alone do not satisfy the material needs of the public—nor fully capture the true nature of the modern regime. While some NatCon-orbit scholars celebrate the economics of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, it can also be argued that the economic policies of their intellectual predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, sowed the seeds that led to the French Revolution, which sparked political conservatism in the first place. Economics matters.
All in all, this year’s National Conservative Conference was a rare opportunity for diverse worldviews to engage seriously in the most pressing issues facing the civilized world. Whether NatCon becomes a force for good or—as the fusionism of old—becomes a vessel to grow the regime is to be seen.
Ultimately, though, events like NatCon mean nothing if not followed with deliberate action and commitment, guided by a sober and honest analysis of the reality we find ourselves in.
As Paul Gottfried reminded the audience during his remarks: “Sharing slogans or stating similar views at an annual conference, however exhilarating that experience may be, is not the same as struggling to save an inherited way of life.”