As W. James Antle III puts it,
“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.” I have to agree with him, but only up to a
point. If I ask any mainstream conservative whom I am likely to come
across what they think about big government, invariably I get deluged with
stories about how things would be better off for them, and just about everyone
they know, if government could just be brought to heel. The man or
woman on the street hasn’t decided to change the subject; it is the people
in office, and the Republican Party leadership who have done so. At
the same time, big “L” Libertarians aren’t the only people who understand
that government is, in the end, the likely enemy of a free society.
My involvement with the Libertarian Party began when I became acquainted
with Joe Fuhrig, who was teaching economics at a number of local colleges.
He asked me to act as his campaign treasurer during his run for the US Senate
against Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson and others. As the campaign had very
little in the way of funds I had very little to do, but the position offered
me the opportunity to meet a fair number of people and to study some libertarian
ideas at close range.
What I found was a regular mishmash composed in large part of Ayn Rand style
objectivism, Milton Freedman economic theory, almost pacifist anti-military
sentiment, and an underlying current of belief that the individual always
knows best for him or herself. Government should keep its hands off
so people can either succeed or go to hell in the proverbial hand basket
if they so choose. Many of the stalwarts seemed to believe that they
would succeed in the end because they had all the right ideas. It was
just a matter of getting enough money and people together so that the press
could no longer ignore them. It never happened.
Meanwhile, I began to question the sanity of libertarian theory because I
was forced to conclude that it was just too idealistic and in some ways too
prejudiced. And there were incidents where I came to believe that there
was a certain lack of serious thinking going on. Once, perennial candidate
Richard Boddie advised me not to earn my law degree because in so doing I
was joining the enemy. On another occasion a libertarian college friend
suggested the reason America was so successful militarily in World War II
was because it was relatively disarmed at the outset. He advocated
shutting down all but about ten percent of the military. He wanted
just enough to patrol the borders to prevent an invasion.
But the connection between libertarianism and the political Left, noted by
Mr. Antle, is nothing new. In the 1980’s there was antagonism over
Republican anti-drug policies and on the issue of homosexual rights.
It led some conservatives to consider libertarians more concerned with libertines
than with liberties. The Libertarian connection with conservatism may
have been little more than anti-communism continuing until it lost the necessary
adhesion. Finding that they couldn’t achieve the small government aspect
of their agenda, Libertarians may be more inclined to seek solace with a
political Left that is willing to give them other, less significant rewards,
but rewards, nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s failure to understand the need to make
more than a verbal commitment to cutting government tends to go unnoticed
in our capitals. The most likely reason is simply that the Party leadership
realizes that it is playing to a captive audience, and can do pretty much
what it pleases. Having lost touch with the enlightenment in “enlightened
self interest,” it has become more interested in gathering power, despite
the dangerous effects that could and probably will result. Meanwhile,
Conservatives have become fractured into different groups; some are attempting
to enforce certain traditionally libertarian beliefs, while others are just
trying to be patriotic Americans reacting to the present situation as best
as they can.
Many of these left-leaning libertarians may be doing so because of their
anti-military standing. Libertarians have long stood for the belief
that one should not use violence or coercion to achieve political ends.
This meshes nicely with the current Democrat Party trend to criticize any
foreign military adventures, regardless of the justification. What
this attitude fails to recognize is that in today’s world we may not have
much choice. There are actually more potentially dangerous enemies
today than in 1940 or earlier, and America cannot count on the oceans to
protect it as in the past. International and intercultural competition
can affect the world much more quickly than many of us realize.
The rift between libertarian and conservative movements in America today
appears to be the result of a failure to communicate. Actually they
have more in common than not. Mutual success could be achieved incrementally
through an alliance concentrating on more critical subjects first, then others
later, as social and political mechanisms adapt to a changing society.
One could see education as a major point where these two could work together
to bring about positive change through home schooling and privatization.
As public schools become less influential and socialist dogma less a staple
in education both parties could be gradually strengthened. Similarly,
resurrecting states' rights as a means of limiting federal power could be
an excellent starting point. Nothing has been done on either.
Idealism on one hand and inability to compromise to bring in a needed ally
have prevented the union.
In the end American government may become its own worst enemy. A government
can become too powerful and overwhelm its nation’s ability to produce. At
the same time it will likely destroying underlying patriotic beliefs that
previously existed as the people come to realize that government is out for
itself. To paraphrase Chief Justice John Marshall, the power to destroy
can easily overwhelm the power to create. The works of creation take time.
Destruction frequently takes only an instant. A government operating
in this way can easily bleed the nation dry over time, leaving it with nothing
left to govern, rather like Romulus Agustulus in 476 AD. Right now,
no one wants to recognize the problem. When they finally get around to doing
so it will probably be too late, and George Santayana will have another notch
in his figurative belt. Didn’t Russell Kirk consider Santayana a conservative?
Steven Laib is a practicing attorney.