Book Review: The Conservatarian Manifesto

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John Hood’s review of The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future, by Charles C. W. Cooke, in the 5/4/15 National Review.

I bought the book at a luncheon/speech given by the author at a law firm downtown.  Funny chap (on top of the brains.)

His answer to the current nasty divisions in society: federalism.  We don’t need one-size-fits imposed from the capital.

Bold fusion

By the second page of the introduction, I knew I would like this book. American conservatism is “marked by its unorthodoxy and its radicalism,” observes the British-born National Review writer Charles Cooke. Rather than seeking to conserve “international norms” or “the tribal precepts that have animated most of human history,” he continues, the conservative movement in this country is animated by “eccentric ideas” such as free markets, property rights, the separation of powers, and freedom of conscience. Personal liberty is “a rare privilege” enjoyed by only a tiny percentage of all the human beings who have ever lived. “If conservatism in America has one goal, it is to preserve that opportunity,” Cooke explains.

As I read these words, I was reminded of a wonderful little book first published in 1947 entitled “The Mainspring of Human Progress.” Its author, Henry Grady “Buck” Weaver, was a half-blind statistician from Georgia who worked for General Motors. He’d never written anything before except articles on psychological research. But he had a way with words — and a passion for defending human freedom. “For 60 known centuries, this planet that we call Earth has been inhabited by human beings not much different from ourselves,” reads the book’s first sentence. “Their desire to live has been just as strong as ours. They have had at least as much physical strength as the average person of today, and among them have been men and women of great intelligence. But down through the ages, most human beings have gone hungry, and many have always starved.” The reason this reality changed, Weaver goes on to argue, was the birth of the free-enterprise economy, in turn made possible by the birth of limited government.

To describe modern conservatism as the celebration and preservation of progress may set certain thinkers’ teeth on edge. But it’s the right choice, as a matter of principle and as a tool of persuasion. The best defenses of both traditionalist conservatism and libertarianism are grounded in reality, not in abstractions or idealism. One need not share any particular theology to recognize that man is an imperfect creature prone to mistaken, self-destructive, and hurtful choices. And one need not be an Objectivist or an anarcho-capitalist to conclude that governments, being full of such imperfect creatures wielding the power of coercive violence, are unlikely to do better at achieving “the Good” than individuals acting on their own or through voluntary associations.

When the Founders enshrined the principles of liberty and limited government in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that was a great leap forward in human affairs. So were subsequent events such as the abolition of slavery, the invention of the private corporation, the birth of worldwide free trade in goods and ideas, and the final defeat of totalitarianism (at least in its secular-Fascist and Communist forms). The American Right seeks to explicate, protect, and build on these gains. For this we need make no apologies or concessions. We recognize that modern liberalism is illiberal and that modern progressives are actually backward-looking control freaks hostile to dynamism and progress. In my experience, young conservatives and libertarians are, as Cooke puts it, “passionate and ambitious,” quite proud to defend “the most successful, virtuous, and radical political philosophy in the history of the world.” They think the Left is lame. They’re right.

The Conservatarian Manifesto is full of brilliant insights and powerful arguments. Cooke uses the failures of gun control and the drug war to illustrate the proper limits of state power, without lapsing into dogma or ignoring the inherent tradeoffs of opting for personal freedom. There is a crucial difference, he points out, between saying “Society would be better off if the drugs vanished overnight” and saying “Society is better off when the government tries to make drugs vanish.” He also discusses at some length something I noticed several years ago: Today’s generation of young conservatives is more accepting of gay rights and less accepting of abortion than my generation was in the 1980s. Although left-wing analysts see these developments as confusing and contradictory, they are in fact entirely understandable and consistent applications of principle — and suggest to Cooke that conservatives “should spend their time on more fruitful endeavors” than fighting a rearguard action against what are really inevitable changes in marriage laws and customs.

But Cooke also properly warns against the irrational exuberance of certain libertarian activists who claim that if the Republican party would simply drop its opposition to drug legalization and same-sex marriage, it would suddenly command the allegiance of large swathes of young voters. Unfortunately, most of today’s voters in the 18-to-29 group have quaffed large amounts of welfare-state propaganda served up by their teachers, professors, and celebrity icons. A nasty hangover awaits them, of course, but in the meantime their votes won’t be so easy to get.

Unlike the notorious tract published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, The Conservatarian Manifesto is informed by sound principle and devoted to a noble goal, but it does resemble that earlier work in several ways: It is concise. It is quotable. And it makes no attempt to describe in a comprehensive fashion Cooke’s entire political philosophy, or to work out all the details of how that philosophy might be turned into a practical system of governance.

This is an observation, not a criticism. Actually, let me restate that: It is an invitation. The term “conservatarian” may be new. But the conservatarian project isn’t. It has a rich history, and ought to have an equally rich future as the interplay — however messy and boisterous it might be — between the politics of liberty and the politics of virtue. Buck Weaver, for example, was a devout family man and Southern Baptist, and his only book (he died in 1949) was later republished by the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education. The Mainspring of Human Progress was a huge success, providing hundreds of thousands of readers with a powerful argument for free markets and individual liberty. I think that, if he were alive today, Weaver might well associate himself with Cooke’s conservatarianism. Many of his contemporaries — the authors, scholars, journalists, and activists of the post-war Right — might do the same. Those who founded such institutions as the Mont Pelerin Society (1947), National Review (1955), and the Philadelphia Society (1964) brought substantial philosophical, political, and rhetorical differences to their respective projects. Some described themselves as libertarians or classical liberals, others as conservatives or traditionalists. They debated in public and bickered in private. Some formed lasting friendships and found their views converging over time. Others broke away from the discussion, citing personal slights, irreconcilable differences on particular issues, or a wider rejection of the possibility of consensus.

Modern-day conservatarians would be well advised to revisit this intellectual history and reread the works of its protagonists, starting with the father of “fusionism” himself, Frank Meyer. The longtime literary editor of National Review, Meyer argued, in such essays as “In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo,” for integrating liberty and virtue as mutually reinforcing principles. Another advocate of such integration (although not of the term “fusionism”) was my longtime friend Stan Evans. He just passed away, but you can still hear his version of the argument in all its splendor (as well as Stan’s trademark chuckle, if you listen closely enough) in his foreword to Principles and Heresies, Kevin Smant’s excellent biography of Frank Meyer, or in Stan’s own 1994 book, The Theme Is Freedom. (For would-be conservatarians seeking a model for a vigorous, freedom-promoting foreign policy that avoids both isolationism and impetuosity, I’d recommend Henry Nau’s 2013 book Conservative Internationalism.)

While we’re on the subject of labels, I’ll go ahead and register my objection to “conservatarian.” It’s clumsy. So was the earlier term “liberaltarian” (although the latter’s defects extended far beyond inelegance, in that what it described was little more than a marketing fad, not a realistic possibility for political realignment). With Hayek, I mourn the stealing of the proper term “liberal” by the avaricious Left, but am enough of a realist to concede that the pilferage is permanent. Given that Cooke devotes a great deal of his book to the case for decentralizing government power to states and localities — which, he argues, would produce better outcomes while harmonizing the libertarian and traditionalist strands of the movement — I suppose the term “federalist” could fit the bill. But it, too, was swiped long ago by those who actually favored its opposite, centralization.

Whatever we choose to call the renewal of libertarian conservatism, Charles Cooke has advanced its cause immeasurably. Here’s hoping that his manifesto will prompt the publication of other volumes, by Cooke and like-minded thinkers, that broaden and deepen the philosophy while applying it to the challenges of the 21st century.

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