American Conservative Movement

January 22, 2012 by staff 

American Conservative Movement, Last week, Sen. Jim DeMint offered some advice to the GOP. “The debate in the Republican Party needs to be between libertarians and conservatives,” South Carolina’s junior senator said. “There’s no longer room for moderates and liberals because we don’t have any money to spend, so I don’t want to be debating with anyone who wants to grow government.” He added, “I’d like to see a Republican Party that embraces a lot of the libertarian ideas.”

Some establishment Republicans today continue to insist that libertarianism isn’t really conservatism. The Republicans who say this are generally the same people who felt comfortable calling George W. Bush conservative. Some of them still believe this of Bush, even though the last GOP president was one of the biggest spenders in American history, second only to Obama. These same Republicans now often say they want to protect conservatism from libertarian influence. But there really can be no conservatism without libertarian influence. This is nothing new.

Probably the most popular and cited history of American conservatism, George H. Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, begins in 1945, and it begins with libertarianism. Chronicling the intellectuals who tried to rectify this bleakness, Nash begins his history with two men — economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises — and explains how these two libertarian heroes kick-started the American conservative movement. Few actually used the word “conservatism” in 1945; the term began to gain popularity after Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind was published in 1953 and William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955. Nash notes that even Kirk, who later had his own squabbles with fellow National Review writer and libertarian Frank Meyer, was inspired by both Hayek and Mises, writing to a friend that these men represented a “great school of economists of a much sounder and different mind.”

After Hayek and Mises, Nash then cites Albert Jay Nock, publisher of the unabashedly libertarian magazine The Freeman in the 1920s. Nash writes, “Nock came to exert a significant amount of influence on the postwar Right,” yet was so libertarian that he “verged on anarchism in his denunciations of the inherently aggrandizing state.” Noting the impression Nock made on a young Buckley, Nash explained that “it was Nockian libertarianism, in fact, which exercised the first conservative influence on the future editor of National Review.”

Nash’s entire book is a grand history of the mixture of conservatism and libertarianism, with the two often being indistinguishable. The American Spectator says of this work: “Nash’s seminal book will remind today’s hotheads that the modern conservative movement was made possible by a coalition of traditionalists and libertarians.”

When Ronald Reagan called libertarianism the “heart and soul of conservatism” in 1976, he was not citing some imaginary coalition, but recognizing American conservatism for what it had always been — a “coalition of traditionalists and libertarians” dedicated to promoting the philosophy of limited government.

Saying that libertarianism is not real conservatism is like saying that filet mignon is not real steak. It’s an attempt to marginalize a particular aspect of something that many — including Ronald Reagan — believe to be the meat of the matter. Indeed, advocating for “limited government” without employing some degree of libertarianism would be logistically impossible. In his 2002 book Worth Fighting For, Sen. John McCain unintentionally explained the missing ingredient in his big government philosophy: “I welcomed a greater, if still limited, role for government in national problems, anathema to the ‘leave us alone’ libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s. So did George W. Bush, I must add, who challenged libertarian orthodoxy with his appeal for a ‘compassionate conservatism.’?”

Interestingly, when it comes to Bush-era Republicans, DeMint has this to say: “You could accuse Republicans of a lot of things, but you could never convict us of being too conservative!”

DeMint’s insistence that the Republican Party adopt libertarian ideas is not some bizarre retreat from conservatism but a return to form. The GOP retreated from conservatism throughout the last decade; DeMint simply wants to go back to it. Libertarianism has never been simply an offshoot of the conservative movement but an integral part of it — historically, philosophically, definitively. DeMint, no libertarian himself, gets this. The rest of the Republican Party better get it too if there is to be any hope for limited government.

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