The truth is out
of the bag: U.S. conservatives have conceded defeat in the battle for limited
government and constitutionalism and have decided to change the subject.
But the American right’s flagging commitment to containing the state’s ambitions
comes at a price. It will be paid in lost liberty, smothered wealth
creation and possibly irreversible changes in what it means to be a modern
American conservative and what the project of conservatism can hope to accomplish.
Email James Antle
Libertarians have primarily identified themselves as operationally members
of the political right since the end of World War II. Today this broad
coalition is in serious trouble, as many who think of themselves as libertarian
do not identify with conservatives at all and growing numbers of them are
finding much to identify with on the left. They are not just deserting
conservative Republicans for the Libertarian Party. Some libertarians
in good standing are actually thinking of voting Democratic.
Noah Shachtman is the latest pundit to point all this out. In a piece that appeared in the web edition of The American Prospect
on October 7, the noted commentator on defense, politics and technology introduced
readers to libertarians who are growing increasingly restive within the Republican
Party. Some of them, like 25-year-old blogger and Institute for Humane
Studies staff member Alina Stefanescu, could once legitimately be described
as right-wingers. Today, they are steeling themselves for their 2004
presidential vote. The candidate who looks most attractive to them
is not President George W. Bush – it’s none other than the former Vermont
governor who has energized the most antiwar and anti-Bush elements of the
left and invited comparisons to George McGovern, Howard Dean.
Why? Because instead of smaller government, free market economics and
fidelity to the Constitution, these libertarians associate conservatives
and Bush’s Republican Party with an invade-and-democratize foreign policy,
modest tax cuts accompanied by large-scale deficit spending, a growing welfare
state and civil liberties threats in the name of national security.
Libertarians believe in minimal government and maximum individual freedom.
For them, their association with the GOP and the broader right was a means
to an end. If the right and the Republicans change in ways less conducive
to their goals, the means no longer serve the end.
One weakness of Shachtman’s otherwise solid piece is that while he does cite
some of the election results that bolster his point about conservative Republicans
having to worry about libertarian defections (to the Libertarian Party, at
least), he draws a fairly inside-baseball crowd of movement libertarians
for his quotes. The fact that the majority of Shachtman’s sources are
friends has elicited criticism from such big establishment libertarian names
as Glenn Harlan “Instapundit” Reynolds and former Reason editor Virginia
Postrel. Blogger Will Wilkinson quipped, “If all libertarians are blogging,
Dean-leaning, Washington, DC libertarians, who at one point or another were
Koch Fellows and/or have worked at the Cato Institute, then that might really
throw a wrench in an election.”
Fair enough. But are libertarian outlets, ranging from the Washington State-based Liberty magazine to science fiction writer L. Neil Smith’s Libertarian Enterprise
webzine, that aren’t part of the young DC libertarian social circle any less
anti-Bush (and increasingly anti-Republican)? Postrel herself at one
point rooted for the Democrats to retain the Senate during the 2002 election.
More significant than Shachtman’s piece is where it ran. The American Prospect
was more or less founded to revive liberalism as a fighting faith.
The left is becoming aware of the emerging conservative-libertarian schism
while the right for the most part remains in denial. On those rare
occasions that conservatives pay attention to libertarian discontent at all,
the following reactions are common. Many rank-and-file conservatives
profess to be happy to be rid of all those “drug addicts.” John J. Miller
urged libertarians to get over themselves and vote Republican in an op-ed
piece following the midterm elections, ignoring the fact more would if Republicans
more reliably championed the types of policies he said votes for Libertarians
in close races were endangering. Michael Medved and other commentators
ridiculed them as “losertarians.”
Any reaction will do except an acknowledgment that conservatives have to
some extent lost their way. Now, I think libertarians will come to
regret it if they go too far in making common cause with the left.
I think Colby Cosh is right that the nanny statist impulses on the grassroots
left today are greater than any corresponding authoritarian urges among non-Beltway
conservatives. In terms of practical politics, presidential coattails
may not be what they used to be, but they still exist. Given this fact,
it may be tempting fate to vote in a Democratic president and hope for divided
government. It is even more clearly playing with fire to assume that
a more ideological Democrat like Howard Dean fresh from an upset victory
would behave the same in that environment as the more malleable Bill Clinton,
who faced off against an energized GOP and had a compelling interest in rescuing
his presidency from the debacle of 1994.
It’s also worth noting the following irony. Small-l libertarians who
could not bring themselves to vote Republican in 1996 or 2000 had Harry Browne,
the big-l Libertarian Party presidential candidate, as an alternative.
He offered voters the great deal of trading in their favorite federal program
in exchange for never having to pay income tax again. Dean’s policy
gambit is practically the opposite. He promises that he can give the
American people nationalized health care in exchange for them paying Clinton-era
marginal income tax rates. This is an acceptable libertarian alternative?
But conservatives have a lot to lose as well by jettisoning their small-government
principles, and it isn’t just a few close Senate and gubernatorial races
with pesky third-party candidates on the ballot. Big government conservatism
is folly. It promises to achieve meaningful conservative reforms without
getting bogged down in politically disastrous attempts to cut popular government
programs, but it ultimately cannot deliver.
The welfare state directly undermines the family and civil society by competing
for its resources and usurping its functions. This is not just true
of harmful entitlements aimed at the poor that in some cases reward bad behavior.
Even such popular entitlements that benefit the middle class as Social Security
have had their impact on the family. David Frum asked in Dead Right
if it were realistic to expect the family to survive in its pre-Social Security
form in a post-Social Security world. It is even less so to expect
the same once a more advanced form of welfare statism has taken hold.
Has the welfare state produced the kind of society conservatives want in
France, the Netherlands, Sweden or even Great Britain?
Nor does big government conservatism make economic, or even basic arithmetic,
sense. Supply-side theory is far more nuanced than many of its latter-day
political practitioners make it out to be. Yes, lower marginal tax
rates increase economic growth by enhancing incentives to produce while reducing
incentives to conceal income from the tax collector. The latter can
partially or wholly offset revenue losses from the tax cut depending on the
circumstances, while the former inevitably leads to greater revenues over
time. But this is not the same as saying every tax cut, or even every
cut in marginal tax rates, will necessarily increase government revenues,
much less increase them enough to keep up with rapid government expansion.
Even the Laffer curve assumes a certain point at which lower tax rates reduce
revenues – it is irrational to base economic policy on approaching this point
while continuing to increase government spending.
Government spending has to be paid for somehow. If it won’t be paid
for by taxation, it will be paid for through borrowing (which itself can
amount to nothing more than deferred taxation) or inflation. Both of
these methods take resources from the economy in their own way just as surely
Even the political justification isn’t entirely accurate. If ever the
political and economic conditions were right for big government conservatism,
it was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Marginal tax rates were further
out on the Laffer curve. The economy was being strangled by price controls,
regulations, tax rates and inflation. The Reagan tax cuts helped grow
the economy, and revenues continued to increase even as tax rates fell while
GDP expanded. But government spending remained out of control, rising
even faster than revenues, resulting in deficits. And Reagan was less
of a big spender than either Bush.
The public liked big government plus low taxes while it lasted. But
when they were ready to deal with the deficit – and when they could associate
deficits, albeit largely erroneously, with the 1990-91 recession – one of
those had to give. With two big-spending parties but only one party
(partially) committed to avoiding tax increases, it was the marginal tax
rates that gave. On the bright side, they have not yet returned to
their pre-Reagan levels. The downside is that the most conservative
president since Reagan has been unable to reduce them to their pre-1990 levels.
Without spending restraint, politics dictated that taxes be increased.
Cutting spending is tough when government lavishes tax dollars on so many
things that Americans like. But giving up on limited government will
require conservatives to give up on a lot of other things they want to accomplish
as well. Libertarians are already beginning to give up on conservatives.
Will the general American right as we knew it for decades simply give up
at its moment of opportunity? Whether the conservative-libertarian
split can be resolved will go a long way toward answering that question.
Even some liberals are starting to get this. How come some conservatives don’t?
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.
this Article to a Friend