Neoconservatism, not libertarianism, is the true aberration on the American Right
During a question-and-answer session at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., one man opined, “One thing I’ve learned here at CPAC is that the ‘C’ actually doesn’t stand for ‘libertarianism.’ It’s not ‘L’PAC.” When Congressman Ron Paul won the annual straw poll at CPAC, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh made a point to tell his listeners that CPAC wasn’t conservative this year because a libertarian had won.
Both men are worse than just wrong. They’re out of their minds.
Arguably the most popular history of American conservatism, George H. Nash’s bookThe Conservative Intellectual Movement in America begins with libertarianism. In the first chapter titled “The Revolt of the Libertarians,” Nash states: “For those who believed in the creed of old-fashioned, classical, 19th-century liberal individualism, 1945 was especially lonely, unpromising, and bleak. Free markets, private property, limited government, self reliance, laissez-faire — it had been a long time since principles like these guided government and persuaded peoples.”
Chronicling the intellectuals who tried to rectify this bleakness, Nash begins his history with two men: economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Then he explains how these libertarian heroes kick-started the American conservative movement. Few actually used the word “conservatism” in 1945, a term that began to gain popularity when Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind was published in 1953 and with the founding of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955. Nash notes that even Kirk was inspired by both Hayek and Mises, writing to a friend that these men represented a “great school of economists of a much sounder and different mind.”
After Hayek and Mises, Nash then cites Albert Jay Nock, publisher of the unabashedly libertarian magazine The Freeman in the 1920s. Writes Nash: “Nock came to exert a significant amount of influence on the postwar Right,” yet was so libertarian that “Nock verged on anarchism in his denunciations of the inherently aggrandizing State.” Noting the impression Nock made on a young Buckley, Nash explained that “it was Nockian libertarianism, in fact, which exercised the first conservative influence on the future editor of National Review.”
Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., president of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, says, “Nash’s work is one of the very few books that must be read for a full understanding of the conservative movement in America.” However, Feulner’s Heritage Foundation advertises on Limbaugh’s show, where the host is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the American conservative movement could not have existed without libertarianism. Furthermore, pundits like Rush often claim to be “Reagan conservatives.” However, they seem to forget that in 1976 said Reagan, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” As you can see, advocating for “limited government” without employing some degree of libertarianism would be logistically impossible.
Which is exactly why so many of today’s so-called conservatives are so quick to dismiss it. If there is an interloping ideology on the Right today, it is not libertarianism but neoconservatism, an ideology born not of limited government philosophy but of ex-socialists who migrated Right in reaction to the counterculture of the 1960s. Today, neoncons are devoted to promoting the maintenance and expansion of America’s global empire.
Whereas traditional conservatives considered war — and the massive bureaucracy necessary to wage it — an occasional, necessary evil, neoconservatives consider perpetual war a good precisely because they believe it is America’s mission to export democracy to the rest of the world.
Questioning the cost or wisdom of waging perpetual war is considered unconscionable or even “unpatriotic” to neoconservatives, which is why they are so dismissive of libertarians and others who question foreign policy. Most neoconservatives instinctively realize that their ideology is incompatible with the libertarian’s pesky obsession with limited government, giving neocons reason to marginalize, or expel, any libertarian influence that threatens to expose the statist nature of today’s mainstream conservative movement.
Considering their new, radical definition, it’s easy to see why Rush and other mainstream conservatives don’t consider libertarians part of their movement –because they’re not. And while it remains to be seen how the irreconcilable differences will play out between limited government libertarians (whose numbers are growing) and big government neoconservatives (whose ideology still dominates), let there be no more ignorance about which philosophy is truly more alien to the historical American conservative movement. And let there be no further delusions about which philosophy was most responsible for creating it.