Principle vs. pragmatism on the right

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 5, 2001

The brickbats are flying on the right side of the Internet, with a recent tete a tete between National Review On-Line editor Jonah Goldberg and several writers whose work appears on LewRockwell.com. Much of the details are fairly esoteric, but the ideas underlying the debate have vast implications for those who wish to roll back the modern welfare state.

Lew Rockwell William F. Buckley
Lew Rockwell and William F. Buckley

NRO is of course the indispensable on-line version of National Review, the flagship publication of modern American conservatism since its inception by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. LewRockwell.com is the web site of Llewlyn Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama and protégé of the late Murray Rothbard. It features articles by many paleoconservative and radical libertarian writers, including Rockwell, Paul Gottfreid, James Ostrowski and National Review exile Joseph Sobran. It is an offbeat and inimitable attack on modern statism, with no equivocation and no holds barred.

Which brings us to the origins of this melee. In an article about the most important books conservatives should read, Goldberg slighted Mises during his recommendation of The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit by Friedrich Hayek. Goldberg indicated that while Mises wrote books that might be preferable to adherents of uncompromising libertarianism, he wasn't sure what those books might be and implied he had never read any. This is a bit silly considering that Mises was among the preeminent free-market economists of the 20th century and one of Hayek's teachers, and the folks at LewRockwell.com called him on it.

Of course, the paleo-libertarians lobbed a few doozies of their own during the exchange. Gene Callahan implied that the more mainstream conservatives of the National Review variety were "in their hearts, really still socialists." The site alleged that Goldberg was following in Bill Buckley's tradition of fealty to the state and a desire to "crush" anyone who dissented from "big-government conservatism." One writer sniffed that National Review's credo should be amended to, "Standing athwart history yelling, 'We surrender!'" [editor's note: read Jonah Goldberg's Libertarians under my skin from March 2, 2001 here]

The crux of the exchange was that paleo-conservatives and their libertarian allies were unrealistic curmudgeons pursuing unattainable goals and in the process relegating themselves to the fringes of political debate, whereas the mainstream right consisted of compromising careerists whose go-along-to-get along attitude is impotent in the face of rapidly expanding government and effectively concedes the debate to welfare-state liberals. Both are at least partly right.

The fact of the matter is, the success of modern American conservatism varies depending on the criteria applied. The American right has more successful in preserving traditional mores and resisting the expansion of the welfare state than any analogous movement in the West.

Compared to Canada, Australia and Western Europe, the United States has a freer market, more limited and decentralized government and, with few exceptions, a greater commitment to the Judeo-Christian ethic. Conservatives have contributed heavily to this reality, with some of the greatest contributions coming from conservatives inspired by Buckley and National Review.
Additionally, over the course of the last generation self-styled conservatives have enjoyed more acceptance in the marketplace of ideas and greater electoral success than was ever imaginable when National Review was founded in 1955. Buckley has done much to gain conservative ideas equal footing with liberal notions in an intellectual climate once hostile to anything that smacks of resistance to statism.

Nevertheless, conservatives can point to few successes in policy implementation on the scale of the New Deal or the Great Society. Few conservatives today seriously talk about rescinding the personal income tax or the Federal Reserve. Medicare and Social Security are largely viewed as sacrosanct. Each liberal expansion of the welfare state is seen as irreversible and the expansions continue, albeit at a slower rate. Enforcement of the Constitution and a return to a federal government the size it actually authorizes is not seen as a realistic policy goal; slight cuts in tax rates are the best we can hope for. From this perspective, the indictment offered by Callahan, Myles Kantor and David Dieteman against Goldberg and mainstream conservatives in general has substantial merit.

Republicans are cheered not only by rank-and-file conservatives but conservative pundits and intellectuals as they grow government, erode liberties and ignore the Constitution. The Republican-controlled Congress last year authorized $22.5 billion more than the Clinton administration requested for non-defense discretionary spending. Its appropriations have increased at a 6 percent annual rate in recent years and 8 percent this past year. Under President Bush's budget proposal, by 2004 federal spending may well be double what it was in nominal terms when the Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995.

Lew Rockwell and his friends do not primarily concern themselves with justifying this Republican excess. Instead, they offer a more intellectually consistent defense of individualism, free-market economics and constitutional government. They set their goals much higher than many in today's conservative movement and judge success versus failure much more harshly.

Rockwell-Rothbard righties are not without their own faults. They are often too dogmatic and unrealistic; they seek an unattainable libertarian utopia that never was and pretend it is how things were in the past. They do not debate in terms that are likely to win converts and are reluctant to acknowledge that any of the liberal reforms of the past few decades have done any good whatsoever, such as the legislation that ended Jim Crow. Part of Buckley and National Review's success in advancing the conservative cause from a fringe movement to a viable political force was a willingness to repudiate rather than defend the indefensible on the right. Not so with many of their critics on the right.

National Review can take credit for the popularization of many conservative ideas and has played a role in virtually every conservative success since its founding. The simple fact that the liberal "Modern Republicanism" of Eisenhower has been supplanted by the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan is an enormous tribute to Buckley. Buckley and his fellow fusionist conservatives have walked a prudent path between pragmatism and principle.
Ultimately, conservatives need to defend a more intellectually coherent agenda rather than attempting to tinker with the use of government for conservative purposes. While Jonah Goldberg is correct that most libertarians are operationally members of the political right, conservatives are not libertarians and libertarians are not always conservatives. Conservatives do however have to remember that government should be valued only in its proper place. It is understandable for conservative politicians to adapt their calls for less government to the desires of a populace that still rather likes social programs. Conservative writers and intellectuals must move away from this practice.

Frank Meyer's fusionism is the right's imperfect answer to a vexing question that plagues politicos of all ideological persuasions. How do we balance realism and principle? From a perspective more unique to the American right, how do we both serve the transcendent moral principles valued by conservative traditionalists and the classical liberal tradition that limits political authority to protect individual rights? It's a questions conservatives need to take more seriously.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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