essays

Feb 1, 1978

The Conservative Movement

“Both in the realm of intellectual leadership and political action, conservatives prove themselves corruptible.”

In recent months, a great deal has been written and said about the relationship between libertarians and other political groups in the nation: from liberals to conservatives, from neoconservatives to the antiwar left. This is a healthy discussion, as far as libertarians are concerned, for the very complexity of the task of achieving individual liberty requires that there be “competing strategies.” Libertarian Review has said some harsh words about both liberals and conservatives in recent months, and we will continue to assail them in the future, both to make the differences between their points of view and that of libertarianism crystal clear, and to pressure our political opponents as much as possible on issues where they are wrong.

But some thoughtful points are raised by Morton Blackwell, editor of The Right Report and an associate of Richard Viguerie, in his letter published in this month’s LR. Given the nature of Mr. Blackwell’s comments and of the editorial to which he is responding (“Abolish the Department of Energy,” September 1977), we had best take up the issue of the relationship of libertarianism to the conservative movement in some detail. This is perhaps more important for libertarians to consider at this juncture than for conservatives, because for the time being, at least, the libertarian movement is smaller than the conservative movement; and, for reasons we shall consider shortly, it must avoid at all costs being subordinated to the conservative movement in the way, by and large, that the infant libertarian movement of the 1950s and 1960s had been.

The problem with the conservative movement today, as for the past quarter of a century, is that it represents a peculiar combination of views, an outlandish conflation of issues which would advance individual liberty one moment, on one front, and restrict it somewhere else the next moment. Conservatism represents, in fact, a conflation of issues which, taken together, not only amounts to an incoherent position, but one which in reality is profoundly inimical to the triumph of libertarian ideals. This must be made clear: Not only are conservatives opposed to liberty in a great many areas, but the particular way in which conservative positions are woven together will in the long run itself impede the achievement of their valid ends. Ironically, it may only be by means of a sharp separation between the two movements that libertarian goals can be achieved in the long run.

Those who take seriously the achievement of libertarian goals must think in terms of a generation. That means that if liberty is to be achieved, it will have to be done by the young, by the generation which shall by then have attained its maturity. And the plain fact is that if conservatives have succeeded in doing nothing else today, they have succeeded brilliantly in driving a wedge between the free market, private property position and the youth of America. By combining an advocacy of private property and the free market with an opposition to civil liberties (through their support of victimless crime laws, government spying, and the national security state) and a hawkish, interventionist foreign policy, they have created a deadly package deal from which most intelligent young people have recoiled in horror. And justifiably so! But the sad thing is that the young have thus thrown out private property and the free market, along with war and the suppression of civil liberties. That is a tragedy of historic proportions, and it will not be an easy thing to correct. Nonetheless, that is what must be done.

If American youth is to be reached, it can only be by means of a ruthless honesty about the issues, not by public manipulation of reactionary emotions and fears. If young people are to be turned away from the traditional left and toward a libertarian perspective, it must be because tolerance reigns there, not conservative intolerance. Issues such as the choice of lifestyles must be depoliticized at all costs; a true humanism requires of us a full respect for individual differences and individual rights. But such a position is anathema to the right-wing today. Thus if the youth of America is to be reached, it will only be over the dead body of the American right, when the sinister coalition of issues which it represents and symbolizes has been smashed to bits.

 

During the past quarter of a century, the American right has continually cheered foreign interventionism, applauded militarism and roared for ever-greater armaments budgets to counter the communist menace. It was the most militant, unflinching supporter of escalating (“winning”) the war in Vietnam. It was an ardent defender of the draft. It has been elated by the prospect of suppression of the rights of those with diverse lifestyles, inspired by violations of rights of privacy of those whose sexual orientation or drug consumption they disapprove of. In the areas of civil liberties, conservatives today are quite simply against the right of privacy, with all its rich implications. Because they insist on negating individual self-ownership in these realms, the conservatives have lost the youth constituency, driving the next generation into the camp of the left. If conservatives had set out to erect a strategy which would alienate the young, they could not have done a better job.

It is in fact only by emphasizing the principles of self-ownership and all its consequences that headway can be made among this crucially important segment of the population. For all their lives, the young have been told by both establishment liberalism and conservatism that self-ownership (in the form of civil liberties) and private property are a contradiction. It is that separation which must be brought to an end.

There is no question that establishment liberalism hates self-ownership as much as it hates private property in other areas. But the conservative movement is schizophrenic, defending private property in some areas while being blind to it in others. It tears itself apart in front of the public, precisely because every time it attacks self-ownership in the form of civil liberties, it belies the static, ad hoc and unprincipled property rhetoric which it continually expounds.

The libertarian movement, on the other hand, by its emphasis on the totality of self-ownership in all its manifestations, including the deprived ownership of material goods, is totally consistent, unreservedly a spiritual movement based on a rigorous and far-reaching set of moral values. The libertarian movement alone, by standing for man’s self-ownership and for economic freedom, stands for the totality of human nature, centering on man’s spiritual natureand material attributes.

As in the nineteenth century, when classical liberalism was successful because it gave primacy to mind or soul (taking for granted the material benefits which would flow therefrom), only the modern libertarian movement is capable of regaining today the hegemony which classical liberalism once had—and of gaining the absolute freedom which the classical liberal proponents of self-ownership had been in the process of achieving.

The prospects for liberty are today great indeed—but only if issues and alliances can be redefined, and incoherent package deals crushed, replaced by a consistent ideology of individualism, private property and the free market. But that must entail nothing less than opposition to the conservative movement.

 

In the past decade, libertarianism has issued its declaration of independence from the left and the right. We have asserted our right to an independent ideology. But we were never really confused with the left, even when we took identical positions on social issues or foreign policy questions, because our position on these issues obviously flowed from our commitment to the values of individualism, private property and a free market. At the same time, we have always had the problem of being confused with conservatives, when we spoke out on economic issues, because of conservative rhetoric. We must now resolve to defend tenaciously the independence of our position from both.

But are not some conservatives our allies? Of course—there are specific issues on which we agree, and there are also some conservatives authentically concerned with liberty. But usually they are quiet about all but economic issues. Whether out of an authentic lack of interest in noneconomic liberties, or a concern only over their own interests (seen all too narrowly), whether out of deference to the conservative money men, who bankroll their organizations and publications, or out of a fear of provoking their chosen constituencies—among the most reactionary elements in this country—they have been all too selective, all too silent.

Too often, when they should have spoken out, they have not done so. They have refused to defend publicly not only civil liberties (and to challenge a mindless jingoism) but also simple human decencies. They have sat still, while uttered around them, in their name, have been the grossest slurs against human dignity, the most shameless scapegoating of minorities.

Because they do not speak out, because they have no sense of indignation or justice, there is operating today in the conservative movement a sort of Gresham’s Law: Bad leaders drive out good. The worst have risen to the top in the conservative movement. The best have been silenced.

The result is that the conservatives’ constituency is never spoken to honestly, but rather is continually manipulated by everything from direct mail campaigns to political demagogues. This constituency, which has an authentic and genuine fear of big government encroaching on their lives, is talked down to. Leaders who should elevate them do not. So this constituency is never told of the real need for tolerance, for respect of the rights of those they may despise. It is never told that it should let peaceful people be. It is never taught that scapegoating of minorities is wrong. It is never taught that freedom of association is a valuable thing, or that people have a right to different lifestyles.

The result is that this conservative constituency, helpless and enraged as it is, beaten down by the bone-crushing level of taxation, on the edge of a nation-wide tax revolt, is made to think that its real oppressors—the tax collectors and the bureaucrats and militarists they support—are somehow necessarily connected with social, racial and sexual minorities. It is upon this alleged link that the conservative demagogues are attempting to build a route to political power.

The heart-rending truth is that this conservative constituency does have legitimate concerns, which liberals have arrogantly ignored. But these concerns are not addressed by conservative leaders with either the intellectual weight or the moral consistency that they demand. The conservative leadership, which prates endlessly about “morality,” stubbornly refuses to adhere to the moral principles underlying self-ownership and individual liberty. The “moral decay” of this country—particularly in the political sphere—is thus caused in no little measure by those conservatives who use authentic moral concerns as manipulative devices to rouse and mobilize a political constituency. Individual liberty and the libertarian ideals upon which this nation was founded are invoked when it is profitable to do so, and ignored when it is not. Ronald Reagan is only the most prominent political symbol of this unfortunate combination: of rhetorical courage and political cowardice, of verbal principles and practical evasions. It is not a combination likely to lead this country forward to individual liberty. It is nonetheless a combination intrinsic to the conservative movement. That is the tragedy of modern conservatism.

Both in the realm of intellectual leadership and political action, conservatives prove themselves corruptible. They have demonstrated that they are unequal to the needs of the hour and to the requirements of the coming generation.

Only by proudly proclaiming our right to our own ideology and the independence of our own movement, by leaping over the contradictions of left and right alike, can we Achieve victory for liberty in our time.