The Magazine

THE LIBERTARIAN TEMPTATION

Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By DAVID FRUM
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As they are again now demonstrating. Over the past five or six years, social and religious conservatives have taken gleeful pleasure in an increasingly emphatic rejection of free markets and limited government. Patrick Buchanan rocked the Republican party with two presidential campaigns that attacked free markets -- first abroad, then at home -- with increasing vehemence. (In the 1996 Iowa caucuses, he went so far as to denounce large- scale pig farming.) Family Research Council president Gary Bauer has printed articles warning he will go AWOL if the Republican party gets serious about Social Security privatization. And generally you hear more and more of the ambient snarkiness toward economic freedom quoted by National Journal in January, in which Bill Bennett worried that "unbridled capitalism is a problem . . . for human beings" and the National Fatherhood Initiative's Don Eberly complained that "decadence is brought to us by the marketplace." "I am, " Eberly went on to announce, "anti-Wal-Mart."


Libertarians, for their part, have taken equal delight in tweaking conservative sensibilities. They have long regarded themselves not as a faction of a larger conservative movement, but as a distinct "third way" between conservatism and liberalism, bound to the rest of conservatism only by tactical considerations. In the early 1990s, some of them even succumbed to the bright idea that an equivalent tactical alliance might be formed with centrist Democrats. This seems to be what Bush White House aide James Pinkerton had in mind in his 1995 book, What Comes Next, which proposed a new formula: a combination of social permissiveness, workfare, and decentralized government.


Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, went one step further. In 1993 he edited a book that attempted to repackage libertarianism as "market liberalism," the perfect ideological cocktail for the post-Soviet era. As for snarkiness, the libertarians are every bit as capable of it as the social conservatives: Crane's gifted lieutenant, David Boaz, snipes in his new book, Libertarianism: A Primer, that "conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do."


The good news is that this feud wouldn't be happening if liberalism weren't in so much trouble. This is a squabble over the spoils of victory. If the social conservatives are getting an ear for their criticisms of economic freedom, it may be because they have succeeded in attracting a large new lower-middle-class constituency to the Republican party, a constituency more fearful of the bumps and shocks of the free market than the traditional Republican voter.


And if some non-libertarian conservatives are indulging themselves in visions of a new era of conservative social engineering, one important reason may be the astonishing conservative success in enacting the 1996 welfare reform. More and more conservatives are beginning to fear that welfare reform might lead to a wave of horror stories that will discredit conservatism for a generation. This fear has prodded them to look sympathetically at all sorts of proposals to encourage private and church groups to step into the role the federal government has just vacated. Ed Crane may well be right when he cautions that "you're making a serious mistake if you think you can use the state to secure the institutions of civil society." Actually, he almost certainly is right. But the powerful sense of responsibility that has led conservatives like Arianna Huffington, Dan Coats, and Bill Bennett to want to try to use the state in this impossible way is surely admirable, even if misplaced.


On the other hand, while the circumstances of the moment have shaped the present quarrel, the quarrel's fundamental cause runs much deeper. Back in the 1950s, when a self-conscious American conservative movement first began squabbling over ideological issues, the National Review columnist Frank Meyer proposed a famous formula to paper over the differences that existed even then between libertarians and social conservatives. He contended that it was government, and especially the federal government, that should be blamed for American moral decay. It was activist federal judges who were banning prayer from the schools, busybody public-school teachers who were indoctrinating young people with ideas of sexual revolution, city planners whose highways and publichousing projects shattered cohesive urban neighborhoods and paved over small towns to construct subdivisions. Curb government, and you'll have accomplished most of what social conservatives aim for. "In a conservative society," Meyer promised, "libertarian means will achieve traditionalist ends."