For years, mainstream conservatives and libertarians have eyed each other warily, circling; they know on some level they should be natural allies, but for various reasons can’t quite bring themselves to admit it. Along comes Charles C. W. Cooke, an English-born writer for the conservative magazine National Review, with a provocative new book entitled The Conservatarian Manifesto that seeks to unite the two principal strains of thought on the Right and eliminate the crazier aspects of both.
Cooke, who has quickly established himself at NR and elsewhere as one of the brightest young conservative minds in the country, comes to the American argument with an admirably balanced and, as befits his English upbringing and education (Oxford), emotionally restrained view in his new book. Not that he isn’t an enthusiastic new American, of course — he grew up as one of those rarities, an Americanophile in England and voted with his feet when he joined the staff of America’s flagship movement conservative magazine. But Cooke’s dispassion (not to be confused with disinterest) serves him very well in this, his debut book. Nobody sees a country, for good or ill, quite like the newly arrived foreigner. Especially a perceptive and literary one.
This question, of the essential nature of man, is at the very root of the disagreement between the Left and the Right — the Right’s skepticism [of big government] resting heavily upon the presumption that human beings do not change when they accorded great power and that, if anything, we should be more and not less suspicious of anybody who seeks out influence; the Left takes the opposing view.
The Right’s acknowledgment of the limitations of man and of the state that he has created is imperative. It is often asserted that free markets perform better than does central preparation, and that governments are unable to achieve by design what a free people may spontaneously. But it is rarely explained why this is the case. The answer is refreshingly simple: Because so much that the state does it is not designed to do well, however ingenious are the men and women we put in charge. Brilliant as our bureaucrats may be, they are simply incapable of running a country this size.
The reality — the joke — of course, is that they are far from brilliant or even functionally capable. The manifest ineptitude, corruption and incompetence of Leviathan is, in fact, the thing that drives many not to the conservative cause (for Bush-era “conservatives” are anything but when it comes to their love of Big Government) but to the libertarian one. In the name of “progressivism,” the nation is being fleeced, re-ordered and “fundamentally transformed” from a Euro-centric representative republic grounded in the Enlightenment into a Third World kleptocracy whose administrators feign a concern for the poor out of electoral necessity but are really only in it for the money and the power. And so the libertarians flee, wrapping themselves in the time-honored American cloak of Leave Me Alone, but abandoning the muscular foreign policy and sense of cultural confidence that has always marked the United States at its native, conservative best. At the same time, however, the fixation in some precincts on the “social issues” bogs movement conservatives down in a series of pointless cultural engagements with the Left (the Memories Pizza story is one such) that feed directly into the media narrative of conservative troglodytism: the movie Footloose, writ large.
Cooke limns the sins of both sides as he sets out his synthetic argument. What’s wrong with conservatives? “Despite all of the Right’s energy over the past fifty years — and a good deal of electoral success to boot — the basic assumptions of the American government have in no meaningful sense been reversed.” As if to emphasize this sad but basic truth concerning what I have called the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party, the elections of 2014 returned large Republican majorities to both house of Congress and yet the forward (perhaps downward would be a better word), destructive march of Obamaism has not only not been slowed, it has picked up its pace, since the president, unchained in his final two years in office, no longer has to even pretend that he cares what anybody else thinks. “When was the last time you heard an aspiring conservative politician say, ‘I’m a George W. Bush conservative’?” asks Cooke.
At the same time, libertarianism comes in for some thumping. “The primary weakness of libertarianism is that it can become ideological and unmoored from reality. At their very worst, libertarians can behave like Jacobins: disrespectful of tradition, convinced that logic-on-paper can answer all the important questions about the human experience, dismissive of history and cultural norms, possessed of a purifying instinct, and all too ready to pull down institutions that they fail to recognize are vital to the integrity of the society in which they wish to operate.” The parable of Chesterton’s Fence comes readily to mind here. Libertarianism , for all its emotional attraction, can often seem — to those of us who emphatically do care about history and cultural tradition — to be a philosophy of inexperienced juveniles, in much the same way that “progressivism” is.
If there is a conservatarian ideology, its primary tenet should be to render the American framework of government as free as possible and to decentralize power, returning the important fights to where they belong: with the people who are affected by their conclusions and who are therefore best equipped to resolve them. This way can many of the cracks between the libertarians and the conservatives be mended. This way can the coalition’s competing visions be best harmonized. And, most importantly of all, this way can the primary objective of the movement — to oppose the centralization of power and the establishment of a permanent ruling class that dictates to hundreds of millions from a faraway city — best and most permanently be achieved.
That this is crucial almost goes without saying. For the first time since the Wilson Administration (FDR had to fight a war he actually needed to win), we have had Democrats in power whose primary allegiance is not to the United States of America as founded, but to the nation as transformed. Now that they no longer require the protective coloration of “patriotism” to mask their true objectives, they are quite open about this. And while the congressional rollback of Democrat Party power is a good first step, no one should make the mistake of thinking that it represents a rollback of the “progressive” philosophy. Like Satan, that will always be ready to strike again when the time is right.
Cooke finds the way forward in basic aspects of the American governmental system including, crucially, federalism (talk about something that really has “never been tried yet”), and constitutionalism. He also understands the importance of, if not reclaiming than at least contesting the Left’s dominance of, the culture: the media, Hollywood, academe. Part of the fight includes an unabashed defense — in the face of the bogus and dishonest bugbear of “diversity” — of the nation’s largely European cultural heritage: “Conservatives should [be] celebrating and fighting for the richness of the thinkers and writers who have come before us and who have stood the harsh test of time.”
In a pair of particularly apt and challenging twinned chapters, Cooke takes a look at national policy on guns (“a study in success”) and drugs (“a study in failure”). The latter is something particularly close to the heart of libertarians, who often cite the “War on Drugs” as an example of catastrophic governmental failure, which it is. But, for me at least, it is the chapter on guns that is the more interesting. The reversal of the Left’s campaign to marginalize firearms has been perhaps the Right’s greatest triumph of the past quarter-century; the Pansy Left really did think it had made its anti-Second Amendment argument and then — poof — it vanished from underneath them.
In the early 1990s, pundits would have laughted openly at anybody who predicted in public that by the year 2013, all fifty of these United States would have concealed-carry regimes; that five states would have followed outlier Vermont in abolishing almost all of their gun laws; and that a unified Democratic government in Washington would in fact have expanded, rather than abridged, run rights. Similarly mocked would have been anyone who believed that the Supreme Court would rule in the twenty-first century that the Second Amendment clearly represented an individual right and that the states were constitutionally obligated to respect it. ‘The natural progress of things,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1788 letter, ‘is for liberty to yield, and government to gain.” Indeed it is. But not here.
Cue the cheers.
Cooke tackles head-on the “social issues” (abortion, gay marriage) and advises the Right to pick its fights carefully. I agree. The reason the gay issue is all over the media lately is that that’s the battleground on which the Left and the Leftist Media wish to fight. They can make it a “civil rights” issue, rather than a moral or religious issue, and thus dishonestly use the potent sword African-Americans forged in the sixties against their opponents on a matter that has absolutely nothing to do with race.
There are more important battles than gay marriage, including one that the Right is winning: abortion. There are few Americans who are pro-choice, opposed to marijuana legalization, and against gay marriage, which puts Republicans considering playing up the pro-life position and taking a backseat on the marriage and the marijuana questions in a rare position of strength. A candidate that can stand on a platform of leaving marijuana to the states, opposing judicial interference (but not gay marriage per se) and taking a hard line against the wanton murder of babies would not be in too bad a position come election time. Not bad at all, for a party that has ‘lost’ on social issues.
Can conservatism and libertarianism unite? Given the relative strength of both sides, it would seem that libertarians need conservatives more than vice versa. Were you to ask me, I would recommend taking the “Don’t Tread On Me” aspects of libertarianism, the Natty Bumppo philosophy of not calling oneself subject to much of anything at all, and combining it with the rich history of western culture (too often, libertarians appear to be half-educated children, disporting themselves among the ruins of a culture they don’t really understand) to create what would be a Back to the Future moment. If How We Got Here (our national narrative) could be repackaged and sold as Where We Are Going (a modified form of Reaganism), the Right would be a formidable force indeed.
Cooke has provided a road map to electoral majority. Now what’s required is the will and the intelligence to follow it. The existential fight against the Left is far too important to be alienating any possible ally in the battle for the soul of America.