“At CPAC, the Future Looks Libertarian,” read a dispatch on Time magazine’s website. “CPAC: Rand Paul’s Big Moment,” proclaimed The Week magazine. Meanwhile, the New York Times headlined its story about the annual conservative political action conference “GOP divisions fester at conservative retreat.”
George Will, a man who actually knows a thing or two about conservatism, responded to the NYT’s use of the word “fester” on ABC News’ “This Week.” “Festering: an infected wound, it’s awful. I guarantee you, if there were a liberal conclave comparable to this, and there were vigorous debates going on there, the New York Times’ headline would be ‘Healthy diversity flourishes at the liberal conclave.’”
Will went on to note that social conservatives and libertarian free-market conservatives in the GOP have been arguing “since the 1950s, when the National Review was founded on the idea of the fusion of the two. It has worked before with Ronald Reagan. It can work again.”
Will was right as far as he went, but I would go further. Fusionism was an idea hatched by Frank Meyer, a brilliant intellectual and editor at National Review. An ex-communist Christian libertarian, Meyer argued that freedom was a prerequisite for virtue and therefore a virtuous society must be a free society. (If I force you to do the right thing against your will, you cannot claim to have acted virtuously.)
Philosophically, the idea took fire from all sides. But as a uniting principle, fusionism worked well. It provided a rationale for most libertarians and most social conservatives to fight side by side against communism abroad and big government at home.
What often gets left out in discussions of the American right is that fusionism isn’t merely an alliance, it is an alloy. Fusionism runs through the conservative heart. William F. Buckley, the founder of the conservative movement, often called himself a “libertarian journalist.” Asked about that in a 1993 interview, he told CSPAN’s Brian Lamb that the question “Does this augment or diminish human liberty?” informed most of what he wrote.
Most pure libertarians and the tiny number of truly statist social conservatives live along the outer edge of the Venn diagram that is the American right. Most self-identified conservatives reside in the vast overlapping terrain between the two sides.
Just look at where libertarianism has had its greatest impact: economics. There simply isn’t a conservative economics that is distinct from a libertarian one. Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan & Co. are gods of the libertarian and conservative pantheons alike. When Pat Buchanan wanted to move America towards protectionism and statism, he had to leave the party to do it.
Libertarian and conservative critiques of Obamacare, the stimulus and other Democratic policies are indistinguishable from one another. On trade, taxes, property rights, energy, the environment, intellectual property and other issues, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the difference, if any, between the conservative and libertarian positions.
On the Constitution, there are some interesting debates, but both factions are united in rejecting a “living Constitution.” The debate on the right is over what the Constitution says, not what liberals think it should say.
When Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate, the pro-life libertarian journalist Timothy Carney wrote for the Washington Examiner, “For libertarians, Christian conservative pro-lifer Jim DeMint was the best thing to come through the Senate in decades.” DeMint had a 93 percent rating from the National Taxpayers Union and a perfect 100 percent from the libertarian Club for Growth.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), according to most media accounts, represents a new, younger, more libertarian approach. But at CPAC, Paul also announced that he would be introducing the “Life at Conception Act.” On gay marriage, Paul’s position is that it should be left to the states. And on immigration, Paul’s newfound support for a path to citizenship has more in common with George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism than it does with doctrinaire libertarianism.
Libertarianism has a better brand name than conservatism these days, particularly among young people. Conservatives shouldn’t be freaking out about this any more than libertarians should start a victory dance. The agreements between the two sides remain far greater than the differences.
(Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.” You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)