When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives* is how we view neutrality and bias. Because the differences are uncharted, I have no way of describing the variance without resorting to a grossly simplistic caricature—so with a grossly simplistic caricature we shall proceed:
Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.
At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.
Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.
Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”
When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)
I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reacts to musings by conservative writers David Brooks and Michael Gerson about Rick Santorum’s political rise in the GOP primaries and how his social views might be expressed in government policy. Would a President Santorum usher in a smaller but more “transformational” role for the state in addressing social ills? Gregg:
On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.
At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Problem with Compassionate Conservatism” on NRO.
Yesterday, five leading Republican candidates participated in the Palmetto Freedom Forum, a serious debate on constitutional principles. Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain answered questions from Tea Party congressmen Jim DeMint and Steve King, and Princeton professor Robert P. George.
National Review Online has gathered reactions to the debate from notable conservatives; Acton director of research Samuel Gregg and senior fellow Marvin Olasky are among them. Gregg’s take-away is that American politics is shifting in two ways: first, constitutional conservatism is now seen as a winning message, and candidates are unafraid to disavow progressivism as a whole; and second, issues, particularly economic ones, once on the margins of political debate are now up for discussion in the mainstream.
Here is the full text of Gregg’s response.
If there was any theme linking the responses to the questions posed by Senator DeMint, Congressman King, and Professor George to five of the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for president during today’s South Carolina debate, it was the need for America to return to its founding principles. Yes, there was substantive discussion of specific matters ranging from financial regulation to immigration. But again and again, most of the candidates articulated the principles—and subsequent policies—of constitutional conservation.
Politically this makes sense, because it helps to integrate American conservatism’s fiscal and social wings. But it also reflects many Americans’ consciousness that the last four years have seen an acceleration of a long drift away from the best of the American experiment. So whether it was different candidates quoting Jefferson at length, or Ron Paul and Robert George discussing the 14th Amendment’s finer details, evidence mounted that constitutional conservatism is going to be a major reference point for whoever ends up running against President Obama in 2012.
The second aspect of the debate worth underscoring is how issues once considered marginal to mainstream politics are becoming central. It’s no longer just Ron Paul talking about the need for sound money. The economic downturn and the failure of interventionist policies have turned the Fed and fiat money into live issues that no conservative candidate for office can ignore. Ben Bernanke—you’re on notice.
Long-time Acton Institute friend and Markets and Morality contributor Jean-Francois Orsini has a new book out. In Fight the Left (yes, it has a polemical edge!), Orsini argues that there are essentially two approaches to the world: liberalism and conservatism. His use of liberalism is decidedly contemporary (i.e., modern, not classical liberalism). His conservatism is sympathetic to the free market but, more importantly, it is “first principled,” meaning that he lays out the foundation on which conservatism must be based. In particular, it must recognize the truth about man: a being, created by God, endowed with the ability to choose good or evil. From this anthropology flows the rest of Orsini’s discussion, including a brief historical survey of conservative giants (Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan); an exposition of Catholic social teaching; and a few policy applications.
If you’re looking for a brief, easy, but nonetheless thought-provoking read, check out Fight the Left.
Political commentators have spilled a septic field of ink explaining what drives the Tea Party movement; and, sure, the movement is complex and varied, resisting any single attempt to blah blah blah. But the core of it boils down to the Saturday Night Live skit below. The analogy runs like this: The Steve Martin character and his wife represent the ruling political class in Washington; and the Tea Party is the book author.
I realize it’s not a perfect analogy. If it were a perfect analogy, the book author wouldn’t be nearly as detached, because the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before. Oh, and the husband would be accusing the book author of racism, or of being a flyover country yahoo without the sophistication to understand Keynesian economics or something.
[Hat Tip to Luke at Cornerstone University for the SNL skit.]
Acton’s The Birth of Freedom comes to six PBS stations this Independence Day weekend, and AEI’s Enterprise blog has a good post about the Christian foundations of American freedom and The Birth of Freedom: “It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.”
PBS Airings This Weekend
Tampa Bay, WEDU–July 4th, 9:00 p.m.
Carbondale, Illinois, WSIU/WUSI–July 4th, 1:00 p.m.
San Diego, KPBS–July 5th, 12:00 am (also July 7th, 4:00 am and July 11th 3:00 a.m.)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana Public Broadcasting–July 4th, 8:00 a.m. on LPB2
Grand Rapids, Michigan, WGVU–July 5th, 12:30 a.m.
Syracuse, New York, WCNY–July 4, 3:00 p.m.
Here’s the PBS station finder if you want to thank your station for airing it or find out if your station plans to air it later.
Lee Edwards calls William F. Buckley Jr. “The St. Paul of the conservative movement.” No other 20th century figure made such a vast contribution to the intellectual force of political conservatism. He paved the way for the likes of Ronald Reagan and all of those political children of Reagan who credit the former president for bringing them into politics. He achieved what no other had done and that was his ability to bring traditional conservatives, libertarians, and anti-communists together under the same umbrella. Late in life, when asked why he continued working so hard despite fame and wealth, a surprised Buckley said, “My Father taught me that I owe it to my country. It’s how I pay my debt.”
Lee Edwards offers an excellent story of Buckley’s founding and overseeing of the modern conservative crusade in William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement. Edwards traces the roots of those who influenced Buckley, from libertarian author Albert Jay Nock, conservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall, the anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, and political theorist James Burnham. Buckley fused together these right of center factions that were often feuding with each other more than with their common foes, the statists. Kendall, Burnham, and Chambers were all closely associated with National Review, launched by Buckley in 1955. Russell Kirk was also an essential conservative voice in the mix who agreed to become a contributor to the magazine. Buckley purged Ayn Rand and her anti-Christian and morally bankrupt philosophy of Objectivism from mainstream conservatism. He dismissed anti-semitism from the movement by dismissing it from his publication. The conservative historian George Nash simply said, “Much of the history of American conservatism after 1955 is the history of the individuals associated with the magazine William F. Buckley Jr. founded.”
A significant aspect of this book, and one that has received more attention since the death of Buckley, was his magnanimous personality and financial generosity. It is estimated that since he was paid a nominal salary by National Review, he diverted $10 million to the magazine because he forwarded speaking fees, lecture fees and other fees to National Review’s coffers. He waived his speaking fee for the Acton Institute in 1992 because according to Edwards, “He was taken with the idea of an organization dedicated to explaining the relationship between-free market capitalism and Christian morality.” Edwards offers other points of generosity:
He once visited a young man in a Texas hospital recovering from wounds in Vietnam. The soldier’s doctors had told him he would never see again. Buckley paid for his flight to New York City, where after an eye examination by one of the world’s leading eye surgeons and three operations, the young veteran’s eyesight was restored.
Buckley’s wit, sunny personality, and charm was infectious. Edwards tells a story about how Buckley was wildly cheered by Harvard students at a debate because of his biting wit and intellectual prowess. It became apparent that Buckley was cut from a far different mold than the stereotypical angry or dour faced conservative.
The weight of his commitments to National Review, Firing Line, his column and book writing, lecture schedule, and assisting other conservative organizations was staggering. He even found time to run for mayor of New York City in 1965. Buckley wanted to raise national awareness of conservative and libertarian ideas and when asked what he would do if he won he famously quipped, “Demand a recount.” He called for welfare reform in the campaign, saying recipients should work for assistance, outlining the ideas future Republican lawmakers would embrace in their own calls for reform. He supported free enterprise zones in ethnic minority neighborhoods long before Jack Kemp would popularize the idea. Buckley shocked many pundits with a respectable showing in the race, garnering support from many ethnic, Catholic Democrats and middle class Republicans. These, of course, were the same groups Ronald Reagan would later tap into in his presidential campaigns.
Buckley’s Roman Catholic faith was intricately tied to his conservative views. He believed in human liberty but understood that liberty itself could not lead to an earthly utopia. He penned a meditative account of his Catholic faith in Nearer, My God. Edwards reminds us his anti-communist views stemmed “not just because it was tyranny but also because it was heresy.” When he was asked by Playboy Magazine what he wanted as an epitaph, he replied, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
Buckley’s friendship with Ronald Reagan was deep and abiding, even among the occasional political disagreements. Both men shared a passion for not merely containing communism but defeating it. Buckley called Lech Walesa, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov the great heroes of the 1980s and they had earned their place in “freedom’s House of Lords.” But the political leader was Ronald Reagan, with his strategic vision. Reagan too praised Buckley saying at the 30th anniversary celebration of National Review:
You and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion in the critical battle of style and content. And then, suddenly riding up through the mists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.
No less praising is the truth Edwards articulates when he says Buckley, who was born into wealth, could have simply been a playboy of the Western world. But Buckley ferociously served and sacrificed in order to raise up the conservative cause and place it into the mainstream of American politics. He uplifted the intellectual debate of conservatives and the country, and always asked probing questions of the direction of the movement, most recently questioning the continued conflict in Iraq before his death. But never a quitter his last public comment on the war was “stick it out,” despite his skepticism of nation building in the Middle East, which he called “Wilsonian.”
William F. Buckley Jr. was a conservative icon. Generations of young conservatives grew up learning from him and tried to emulate his ideas and values. One of the greatest losses to conservatism with his death is the power of his ideas in times such as these. Many conservatives are reminded of this when we hear or read the anti-intellectualism and lack of critical thinking echoing from talk radio or the blogosphere. Buckley was the one who not only made conservatism respectable and mainstream, but reminded us too that it could tower over the liberals of the academy.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reviewed a new book by George H. Nash on the history of the American conservative movement:
By Bruce Edward Walker
In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”
Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”
Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.
Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.
Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.
The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.
Saturday February 27 was the second anniversary of the death of the conservative giant William F. Buckley, Jr. I first saw Buckley in person when Ole Miss hosted Firing Line in 1997. I read National Review in High School even though I admit I did not always understand some of his words at that age. It was a wonderful reminder of the importance of intellectualism and conservatism, and that I still had a lot to learn. The political left too had to respect Buckley’s brand of conservatism because of the seriousness of those ideas. It didn’t hurt that he was charming, gracious, and extremely generous.
After his death, Buckley was publicly honored with the Faith & Freedom Award by the Acton Institute at its annual dinner. He had long been a friend of Acton and Rev. Robert Sirico. Kate O’Beirne accepted the award on his behalf. It was a very touching evening and one we still remember well. The media department, with most of the leg work coming from Tabitha Blanski, produced this tribute video in honor of Buckley. It premiered at the 2008 Acton Annual Dinner. It is available publicly and on the Powerblog for the first time. The tribute is well worth the view.