by Ryan McMaken (Reprinted from LRC with permission)
Thanks to Ron Paul, the Conservative movement is having an identity crisis. The old guard of the Conservative movement, which also happens to be the Republican Party establishment, still clings to the old creation myth of the Conservative movement. Namely, that there was no opposition to the New Deal-Liberal consensus until William F. Buckley and National Review came along in 1955, saving America from the American left, social democracy, moral turpitude and international Communism.
The modern gatekeepers of the movement, and the Republican Party officials, who fancy themselves as the keepers of the last word on the acceptable range of debate within the movement, cannot understand why the Ron Paul movement is more concerned with actually shrinking the size of government than with waging endless wars for endless peace. They cannot fathom that people claiming to be part of the American Right might actually be interested in rolling back government power to tax, wiretap, spy, arrest, imprison and feel up American citizens. This runs contrary to everything they have ever imbibed about what it means to be Conservative in America.
And to a certain extent, they are correct. Since the Buckley-National Review wing of the movement in the 1950s gradually took control of the American Right, the movement became recognizable no longer by any particular concern with freedom or with free markets, but with a struggle against international Communism, with fighting culture wars and with other collectivist and big-government notions that came to dominate the movement by the 1960s. Thus, in response, the modern National Review columnists and the established Conservative punditry has repeatedly attempted to read the Ron Paul movement out of the American Right wing, although to very little effect.
While the modern disciples of Buckley and American interventionism act aghast and claim that the Conservatives and libertarians within the Paul movement have some how betrayed the ideals of the right, it is actually the laissez faire and anti-interventionists among the Paul wing of the movement that have the better claim to being true to the roots of the movement.
The Conservative movement, in its original form, was primarily concerned with laissez faire, with civil liberties and with a restrained and anti-interventionist foreign policy. This wasn’t just some quick flash-in-the-pan that occurred before people supposedly wised up about the so-called Communist menace. This was a diverse ideological movement that dominated the American Right for more than twenty years from the early days of the New Deal to the mid-1950s.
The names that come down to us today from what is now called the “Old Right” were powerful voices for laissez faire during the New Deal and post-war years: Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt and Felix Morley.
Now, these theorists almost never referred to themselves as “Conservatives” in these early years. Frank Chodorov famously threatened to punch anyone who called him a Conservative, but this was the label that was affixed to the movement by its enemies who insisted on branding anyone who opposed the revolutionary and socialist policies of the Roosevelt administration as “reactionaries” and “Conservatives.” (Later, the Buckley wing would adopt the term and graft it onto the movement that had earlier thought of itself as a “radical” movement.)
Yet, it was this burgeoning laissez faire movement in opposition to the New Deal and later to a variety of foreign military interventions that provided the foundation of the movement that Buckley and his followers would later distort to fit their own policies of big-government anti-Communism.
Even the Pro-Buckley version of movement history, penned by George Nash, recognizes the primacy or laissez faire and anti-state ideologies in the movement. Indeed, Nash’s history of the movement, in its first chapter, titled “The Revolt of the Libertarians,” places the anti-government movement, with theorists such as Hayek and von Mises as instrumental in providing the theoretical underpinnings of the movement.
Nash presents this libertarian “stage” of the movement all as a minor and short lived affair of course, and as a mere stop on the way to Buckley-style conservatism. In reality however, Buckley’s takeover of the Conservative movement, made possible through connections to the East Coast establishment and by promoting militant nationalism at the expense of laissez faire, allowed Buckley to build on a growing anti-establishment movement, and turn it instead into a movement that actually promoted the establishment through endless military intervention and culture war.
This new movement which was called the New Right (since it was something new) was devoted to an agenda that was opposed to the free-market and small-government ideologies of the Old Right, but which also exploited the popularity of the old libertarian message to hammer together a movement that occasionally made a nod in the direction of free markets and civil liberties.
Thus we see that Buckley had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Human Events magazine which was itself moving toward aggressive anti-Communism, but still retained many of the laissez faire leanings inherited from past editors Morley and Chodorov. At the same The Freeman, a magazine edited by Chodorov, and later by Hazlitt, was also considered one of the mainstays of the movement, and was printed under the auspices of the Foundation for Economic Education, the first free-market think tank, and founded by libertarian Leonard Read.
Buckley went on in 1955 to found National Review where he could fully depart from the old laissez faire and anti-interventionist coterie that was found at The Freeman, Human Events and among some widely read columnists, such as Henry Hazlitt, who still promoted the old line.
Buckley brought with him a stable of former Communists who had little to no grounding in the established intellectual strains of the libertarian and Old Right movements of the time. Recent Communists like James Burnham, Max Eastman, Frank Meyer and Whitaker Chambers were brought in the displace the old rightists and libertarians who were more interested in freedom than in waging endless crusades against far away countries with second-rate economies.
The ex-Communists were still in awe of the movement they abandoned. For whatever reason, they had turned against their old movements, but they still believed that the economic system of Communism would produce better results than the economic system of capitalism. They believed that Communism as a political system of Communism was therefore more likely to succeed than the far less “disciplined” and “organized” ideologies of the West.
No one held this gloomy view of the future more steadfastly than Whitaker Chambers. Chambers believed that Western opposition to Communism was probably little better than a rear guard action that would only slow the eventual triumph of Communism.
This sort of doomsday Conservatism, based on a weak understanding of economics and a latent Communism that still believed in its inevitable triumph, could only further propel the Buckley movement ever more down the road of an apocalyptic foreign policy that saw the central battle of our time as an Armageddon between the American state and the Soviet state. Naturally, with the stakes so high, all must be devoted to the war.
Buckley had already set the tone in a 1952 essay in which he declared that in the name of eradicating Communism, “we have got to accept Big Government for the duration–for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
If one of the most prominent members of the Conservative movement is advocating for a totalitarian bureaucracy, what place is there in the movement for the likes of a Nock or a Chodorov? The laissez faire wing of the movement gradually was pushed out.
Buckely sought backing for this interventionism and for this disparagement of laissez faire by seeking an entirely new ideological framework for the movement. For this reason, Buckley forged an alliance with the traditionalist Conservatives who could provide academic and intellectual underpinnings to the movement and who introduced a novel interpretation of history in which the movement that rose in opposition to the New Deal was actually the successor to the European traditionalist and class-based conservatism of Edmund Burke, Coleridge, Brownson and others.
Russell Kirk became the most prominent theorist behind this new theory of the American Right and most importantly argued that the tradition of laissez faire in America had no place on the American Right or within the Conservative movement. Kirk’s larger theory was that it was Conservatism that was responsible for preserving the vital institutions of American civilization, and that the laissez faire individualists were actually at odds with the true American ideological tradition. Thanks to Kirk and the traditionalists (who dominated the masthead at Modern Age magazine), Thomas Jefferson, the Jacksonians, William Graham Sumner, Mencken, Nock, Chodorov and all later individualists were working against the preservation and success of Western civilization that had allegedly been handed down to Americans through the old-style Burkean Conservatives.
Thus were American proponents of laissez faire and individualism made second-class citizens within the very movement they had founded. Kirk went on to create a theory of American exceptionalism, based on its alleged past Conservatism, that he explored in his book The American Cause, which equated militant anti-Communism with the preservation of all things decent and traditional in American life.
Armed with this new theory of conservatism that disavowed any connection to past individualist ideologies and which disparaged free markets, Buckley succeeded in silencing most consistentlaissez faire voices within the movement while claiming that the laissez faire Conservatives actually misunderstood their own history. Certainly, Buckley would brook no comment suggesting that American foreign policy should be anything other than highly interventionist.
This sea change in the Conservative movement can be illustrated by the shift in the ideological patrimony of the major movement theorists. Prior to Buckley and the traditionalists, Herbert Spencer was perhaps the most influential theorist among the members of the Old Right and the early libertarian movement. Spencer had been exceptionally popular in the United States during the late 19th century, with his books selling more than 300,000 copies during the last quarter of the century. This would be equivalent of selling well over a million copies today.
Sumner, Nock, Hazlitt, and Chodorov were all heavily influenced by Spencer who had been one of England’s most strident individualists and defenders of free markets.
After Buckley, however, Burke replaced Spencer on the American right as the recognized ideological father of the movement.
Thus, by the 1960s, Buckley headed the dominant wing of the American Right, and it is at this time, that we then see the libertarian movement begin to form its own movement.
Now, at this point I must stop and note that some readers may take exception to my inclusion of the libertarian movement within the Conservative movement, or even on the right wing. There are indeed compelling arguments on all sides as to whether the libertarians should be included on the right or on the left or on neither. Looking at the fact of the matter, however, the modern libertarian movement has both historically and organizationally associated with the right wing far more than with the left.
And for this reason, when speaking about the history of the movement itself, it is safe to include the libertarians on the American Right. Perhaps it is helpful to make this important distinction also: While libertarians are obviously not Conservatives, they might nevertheless be placed within that larger ideological movement we call the Conservative movement.
As Brian Doherty notes in Radicals for Capitalism, the patrimony of the libertarians is extremely similar to that of the Conservatives, and Doherty described the important contributions of numerous members of the Old Right and of the libertarians to which Nash, in his own history of Conservatism credits the early foundations of the movement. Thus we see that both the libertarians and Conservatives claim a similar past during the thirties forties, and even early fifties, as which point the Buckley wing of the movement begins to diverge from the larger movement.
It is the libertarian, however, who carried on the movement that arose as opposition to the New Deal and the social democratic consensus of the thirties, while the Buckley wing of the movement tried to take the movement in an entirely new, different and far less radical direction.
It is no surprise then that today, some of the candidates that command the largest following among Conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich, openly defend the New Deal while denouncing the likes of Ron Paul for wanting to drastically cut back the American government, its abuses and its wars.
The remnants of the Buckley movement, far less dominant today than in decades past, nevertheless still tries to define who is and who is not entitled to be part of the movement, making proclamations without any regard to the historical fact that the Buckley wing of conservatism came to the opposition movement 25 years behind the old individualists, and is based on an unconvincing theory of conservatism that ignores the central role of classical liberalism and laissez faireindividualism in American intellectual history.
Modern conservatism of the Buckley strain remains true to its roots of endless foreign intervention, combined with a disregard to civil liberties at home and a half-hearted nod toward free markets.
Thanks to Paul, many Americans, even if they have yet to understand Paul’s ideological roots in the pre-Buckley Conservative movement, seek a return to the Old Right and the early libertarian movement that formed the only opposition to the rapid destruction of American during the New Deal and during the multiple wars that followed.
The “mainstream” Conservatives are perplexed by any consistent demand for small government among Conservatives. For them, advocating for constant war, while perhaps throwing in a few smears about homosexuals or Ted Kennedy, is what defines any movement that claims to uphold the freedom tradition in America.
The real tradition of the American right is the laissez faire individualist tradition. That tradition is no longer being ignored.