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May 15, 2012

Neoconservatism Versus Libertarianism, Part 2

Smith tells the story of how a disagreement with Roy Childs over the ideas of Irving Kristol resulted in a serious argument.

In 1971, Irving Kristol—the “godfather” of neoconservatism—published an article in the New York Times Magazine: “Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship.” This article holds a special place in my memory, because it was the subject of a ferocious argument, in 1974, that I had with Roy Childs, one of the most influential figures in the early phase of the modern libertarian movement.

Our argument per se was of no consequence—we remained close friends until Roy’s untimely death in 1992—but the intellectual factors that contributed to our disagreement are directly relevant to a key question: How fundamental are the differences between neoconservatism and libertarianism?

It will take a while to explain what precipitated my argument with Roy, so please bear with me.

In late 1974, around a year after I had moved from Hollywood back to Tucson, I asked Roy to serve as best man at my wedding. Roy agreed, so I sent him plane tickets.

Shortly before all this occurred, the first issue of Libertarian Review (October 1974) was published. This issue contained Roy’s review of Irving Kristol’s On the Democratic Idea in America—an anthology that includes Kristol’s previously mentioned article on censorship.

It was Roy’s favorable review that occasioned our argument in Tucson. I accused Roy of “sucking up” to Kristol, and Roy did not respond well to my unfortunate choice of words. Things got ugly after that.

I knew of Roy’s plan to review Kristol’s book; he had mentioned it to me some time earlier, while we were both living in Hollywood. I knew nothing about Kristol at the time, so Roy explained that though Kristol was not a libertarian he might be persuaded to the libertarian point of view. This was more than idle speculation. Roy, as usual, had a plan.

Roy had written a prize-winning essay, “The Defense of Capitalism in Our Time,” that won him a trip to the 1975 meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Brussels, where he would present his paper for a distinguished audience that included Irving Kristol. Roy’s paper began:

In an address before the Mont Pelerin Society, social philosopher Irving Kristol has given us a searching and challenging account of the moral dilemma of our time, of the contemporary dispute and conflict between capitalism and socialism—and nihilism. Kristol’s thesis is a paradoxical one. In briefest essence, Kristol maintains that while the advocates of capitalism and “bourgeois liberal society” are winning the battles, they are losing the war, the war for liberty and a free market society against the onslaught of opposing ideologies and the encroaching power of the state.

Roy’s paper was part of his grand design to convert Irving Kristol. So (in my opinion) was his LR review, published before he delivered his paper in Brussels. Roy hoped to show how libertarianism could solve “the moral dilemma of our time” and thereby win a sympathetic hearing, and perhaps outright agreement, from Kristol.

As I said, I knew nothing about Kristol before I read Roy’s review of The Democratic Idea in America. His praise for the book was high indeed.

On the Democratic Idea in America is a collection of eight of Kristol’s major essays published during the last seven years. Every one of them, without exception, is brilliant, probing, and profound.

In the last paragraph of his review, Roy wrote:

While I do not agree with all of [Kristol’s] analysis—that of pornography and censorship is particularly inadequate—most of it is so refreshing and so profound that I found the book an experience at once exciting and disturbing. It set my mind racing with new ideas. The level on which most political radicals—including libertarians—address cultural, social, and political problems is so distressingly simplistic that this is more than welcome. When all is said and done, Irving Kristol and the neo-conservatives take reason, liberty, and civilization seriously.

Roy’s effusive review made Kristol’s book so appealing that I immediately ordered a copy. But the book did not set my mind racing with new ideas. On the contrary, many of Kristol’s points struck me as little more than hackneyed clichés—elegantly written, to be sure, but hackneyed clichés nonetheless. If anyone was “simplistic” about matters pertaining to culture and values, it was surely Irving Kristol.

I felt mildly annoyed while reading the first few essays, but my mood quickly changed to disgust upon reading “Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship.” A treatment that Roy described as “inadequate” was nothing less than an unvarnished defense of censorship, not only of pornographic photographs and movies but also of “obscene” art and literature. As Kristol put it:

And lest there be any misunderstanding as to what I am saying, I will put it as bluntly as possible: If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship.

This was the issue that provoked my argument with Roy. For Kristol to defend censorship was bad enough, but his claim that opponents of censorship do not care about the quality of life in America was at once ignorant and arrogant.

Fully to appreciate why I responded so vigorously to Roy’s positive review, you need to know a little about our friendship.

Although only one month my senior, Roy had functioned as my mentor in some respects, especially during the year that we lived in the same apartment building on Selma Avenue in Hollywood. I was working on my first book during that period, and Roy was writing his brilliant series of articles on “Anarchism and Justice” for The Individualist.

As writers are wont to do, Roy and I were always looking for things to do other than write. Thus, in addition to going to movies and haunting bookstores, we spent endless hours discussing the fine points of libertarian theory, Objectivism, and other matters, including the importance of history.

I learned much more from Roy than he learned from me. Indeed, Roy altered the trajectory of my intellectual career with one comment: “George, you are great in philosophy, but you are tabula rasa in history.” It was at this point that I resolved to read virtually nothing other than history for the next five years, a span of time that would stretch into a decade. This is how seriously I took Roy’s ideas and recommendations.

Moreover, I knew that Roy pulled no punches when writing book reviews, even though Books for Libertarians (originally SIL Book Review and later Libertarian Review) was a commercial enterprise in the business of selling books. Rare is a reviewer who will trash a book that he hopes to sell, but this is precisely what Roy did in his 1972 review of It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, by Jerome Tuccille.

Roy hated Tuccille’s satirical skewering of Ayn Rand and other libertarian figures. This “book should never have been published,” he wrote. Tuccille “shows that he does not take the libertarian movement—or the tiny band of heroes at its apex—seriously and that he does not respect them, or honesty.” Roy continued:

Consider the fact that libertarianism is vitally important for man—a life-or-death matter. Consider the fact that Rand and Rothbard are the Jefferson and Paine, the Garrison and Spooner, of our tiny movement. Then consider the fact that it is these people—among others—whom Tuccille attempts to ridicule. It is not, you see, that he wants to demolish them—he just wants them not to be taken seriously. At least that is the impression one gets while reading this book, which makes both look like eccentric nuts.

Given this background, I could not understand how Roy could write such a favorable review of The Democratic Idea in America, unless his purpose was to curry Kristol’s favor. As I saw the matter, Roy’s comments were strategically motivated.

The fact that Kristol’s defense of censorship was inept only made matters worse. Kristol’s arguments, which were as far removed from “brilliant, probing, and profound” as it is possible to get, appeared sleazy to me. It was the sort of performance that I expected the Roy I knew to call “rat poison,” so I was astonished that he settled for “inadequate.”

Roy stood his ground. Always looking for bridges to build between the libertarian movement and other movements on both ends of the political spectrum, Roy insisted that libertarianism and neoconservatism shared a good deal in common and that there was no need to alienate neocons unnecessarily.

I maintained, in contrast, that the differences between neoconservatism and libertarianism were fundamental and irreconcilable. Any similarities between the two ideologies were relatively superficial; such similarities were no more significant or promising than the occasional overlap of views between libertarians and modern liberals and/or conventional conservatives.

Our argument resolved nothing—as is normally the case when two young libertarian warriors, each brimming to his eyeballs with intellectual testosterone, square off.

I do not know if Roy ever changed his opinion about neoconservatism, but my opinion has never changed. While rereading dozens of Irving Kristol’s essays over the past few weeks, I experienced a sense of déjà vu, feeling the same queasy frustration that I experienced in 1974, when I first read the “godfather” of neoconservatism.

In my next essay, I will explore Irving Kristol’s ideas about personal freedom—ideas that are shared by most neocons—in more detail.

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