The Magazine

THE LIBERTARIAN TEMPTATION

Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By DAVID FRUM
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On its bad days, the conservative movement is beginning to look like the French Third Republic. Premier Gingrich teeters daily on the verge of collapse as whispers of coups and counter-coups flutter round him. At the rostrum, the supply-siders are accusing deficit hawks of wrecking the Republican party. In the aisles, the secular social conservatives are nervously edging away from the religious social conservatives. In the cloakroom, proponents of Catholic natural-law theory are glowering at old- fashioned defenders of judicial restraint. And in the cafe around the corner, the paleoconservatives are deep into the fifth glass of Pernod, bellowing that they can lick any man in the joint.


As if all of this weren't rancorous enough, the April issue of Reason -- the house organ of the libertarian movement -- has just arrived in the mail, full of stinging remarks about non-libertarian conservatives. Virginia Postrel, Reason's editor, complains, for example, that THE WEEKLY STANDARD " sprinkles the word 'libertarian' almost randomly, as an all-purpose epithet" and accuses the magazine of being "the New Democrats' best friend." Reason contributing editor Walter Olson suggests that THE WEEKLY STANDARD provides evidence that many conservatives are beginning to regard libertarian beliefs as "little better and in crucial respects perhaps worse than the loathed ideas of the liberal Democrats."


Are such charges justified? It's hard for people associated with THE WEEKLY STANDARD to reply in a way that would seem appropriate. But then, perhaps it does not matter whether the specific bill of impeachment presented by Reason has merit or not. For in a larger sense, the folks at Reason are indeed right: The relationship between libertarians and conservatives, never easy, has deteriorated markedly over the past few years. Things may not have sunk quite as low as when Whittaker Chambers claimed to hear in the novels of Ayn Rand a voice "from painful necessity commanding: 'To a gas chamber -- go!'" or when Ronald Hamoway, reviewing the first decade of National Review in the New Individualist Review, blasted William F. Buckley and his co-editors for plotting to reintroduce the burning of heretics. But they are bad enough.


This is unfortunate, to say the least. The libertarian and traditionalist wings of conservatism have never coexisted comfortably, but that has not made them any less indispensable to each other. On their own, libertarians are in danger of devolving into sectarianism. Conservatives, on the other hand, live in perpetual danger of being tempted into nostalgia. These dangers are nowadays arising in especially acute form. All too many conservatives seem to be flirting with communitarianism, a political movement that disguises its disturbing -- and profoundly unconservative -- intentions in vaporous thought and bad writing. And all too many libertarians have begun to wonder whether, with statist economics temporarily in eclipse, they might be able to jettison their stodgy old conservative associates for some glitzy new allies on the " lifestyle left."


Let's clear up something at the outset: The acrimony between libertarians and social conservatives is not the same thing as the much-reported split between the Republican party's so-called economic conservatives and its social conservatives. The big Republican donors who delivered the Republican nomination to Bob Dole in 1996 resemble libertarians about as much as they resemble vegetarians. Libertarians hate the National Endowment for the Arts every bit as much as any Christian fundamentalist. They take the Second Amendment as seriously as the First or Fourth. They cannot be assumed to be pro-abortion (some are; others aren't).


On the issues that most acrimoniously divide libertarians from social conservatives -- drugs, defense spending, obscenity, trade, immigration, marriage and divorce -- the Republican business establishment tilts to social conservatism on the first three, and to the libertarian position on the latter three. "Libertarian vs. social conservative" is a battle that overlaps with "business vs. social conservative," but is not the same.


Indeed, psychologically, libertarians and social conservatives resemble each other more closely than either sort of conservative resembles a Team 100 member. Both feel estranged from the Republican "establishment." Both are in politics for idealistic rather than practical purposes. And both prefer conflict to consensus.