Liberty and the Future of the GOP

Shikha Dalmia’s piece at Reason, Dear GOP Please Choose Liberty, makes the case for Republicans and conservatives to embrace liberty.

So what should the Grand Old Party do to resurrect itself enough to mount some semblance of resistance to the advancing Democratic juggernaut? The answer is that it needs intellectual coherence around a powerful idea, and that idea should be liberty. This is a principle that is both strong enough to intellectually moor the party in the way that those who want a “purer” GOP desire—and grand enough to appeal to a broad swath of the population, as those who advocate a more Big Tent approach recommend.

Dalima takes us through the well told tale of how George W. Bush combined the worst anti-liberty elements from both social conservatives and the statist left—a critique with which I agree.

However, Dalima’s analysis then proceeds to go off the rails.

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In fact, F. A. Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who did more than anyone in the 20th Century to fight socialism and revive the cause of liberty, urged conservatives nearly half a century ago in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” to find another name—one that emphasizes liberty—to describe themselves. There is an inherent tension between conservatism and liberty, he pointed out, which in a “conservative” party can’t reliably be resolved in favor of liberty.Conservatives of course dismiss this tension. America’s institutions are built on principles of liberty, they claim, therefore defending them means defending liberty. But labels shape self-understanding—and the term conservatism shifts the emphasis from defending America because it is the land of liberty to defending liberty because it is American….

But to truly become the party of liberty, conservatives have to accept liberty not just in name but also in attitude. They can’t be the party of liberty if they reject the consequences of liberty. This means they have to internalize the notion that leaving individuals free to incrementally revise existing institutions in response to shifting human needs adds to—not subtracts from—the overall social well-being. To put it in economics terms, liberty produces positive—not negative—externalities. It
doesn’t destroy existing culture, community, and country, but rather produces what Hayek called “spontaneous order,” which, without bloodshed, allows the old and decrepit ways to be replaced by new and better ones. In short, they have to unabashedly welcome progress and finally purge the ghost of William F. Buckley, who keeps telling them to “stand athwart history and cry stop.”

No. Conservatives don’t dismiss this tension, some may have forgotten it, but it is this very tension that helped forge the modern conservative movement. The history Buckley stood athwart was the march of Soviet communism abroad and creeping statism at home, in defense of the same principles of liberty as Hayek. Buckely’s genius in founding National Review was that he brought together traditionalists and libertarians, including radical libertarian Murray Rothbard. In the mid 1950s, Buckley along with Frank Meyer formulated the idea of fusionism. Fusionism simply put is libertarian means for traditionalist ends. Meyer understood the importance of traditionalist emphasis on protecting the values and traditions, which constitute Western culture. He synthesized the libertarian principle of human freedom with the traditional end of preserving that which is worthy of preserving in our society. This consensus was, as he put it, “reason operating within tradition,” and that this ordered liberty fit squarely within the tradition of the American founding.

Fusionism didn’t end the fundamental disagreements inherent between conservatives and libertarians, but it did lead to the later electoral success of Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement that in the end served both the cause of liberty and reasserting those timeless values into our political and cultural spheres of American life.

Many critics use Buckley’s “stand athwart” line out of context against him. However, Buckley told Reason—Dalima’s employer— that he shares “about 90 percent of the views of most libertarians.” If you doubt that see his condemnation of the drug war.
However, Buckley also understood that liberty must be ordered to preserve that which is worth preserving. In that same interview he also said:

Now if, for instance, a society feels that its attachment to that society is substantially vitiated in virtue of the toleration, let’s say, of a movie based on a comedy treatment of Dachau, it tends to lose self-esteem. And to the extent that it loses self-esteem, it stands in danger of reducing that which is its principal resource in matters of emergency. An America that hates itself cannot possibly defend itself against the Soviet Union or anybody else.

…I’m talking about morale. A morale is not the kind of stuff you see at a football game. I’m talking about a morale in the sense of urging you or me voluntarily to make sacrifices for the survival of something we cherish. Now if we don’t cherish it, then we’re not disposed to make any sacrifices.

Yes, Dalima is right that the GOP and some conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with liberty. Yet we can’t champion pure liberty at the cost of abandoning that fundamental—and correct—conservative insight that there are values and traditions that need to be defended and preserved. In the age of Obama and the resurgent progressive god-state both libertarians and conservatives are in the wilderness, similar territory that both Buckley and Hayek found themselves after World War II. Conservatives and libertarians will have thier arguments about core ideas and principles. (Progressives have none, other than the naked will to power) but that will only make both stronger and eventually form a successful politics that can defeat the rising tide of collectivism. Indeed we’ve seen a glimmer of some possible future consensus on the right concerning gay marriage, from no less a conservative than Dick Cheney.

Purging the lessons of William F. Buckley and fusionism, the man and the ideas, which brought conservatives and libertarians together, however is not the way forward.

h/t Jim Manzi for the Buckley interview.

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