Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The confidence of an Aquarian libertarian

Ramesh Ponnuru points us to a debate, begun here by the recently ubiquitous Brink Lindsey, and continued here (Ponnuru), here (Lindsey), and here (Ponnuru), with recent interventions by Peter Wood here and here.

Let me begin at the beginning. Here’s the contradictory core of Lindsey’s argument:

[After the 60s, a] strong work ethic and belief in personal responsibility, a continued commitment to the two-parent family as the best way of raising children, and a robust patriotism all survived the Aquarian challenge. Meanwhile, a host of hopeful indicators showed that the country’s frayed social fabric was on the mend....

Conservatives deserve considerable credit for restoring American society to relative health and vigor. Ironically, though, conservatism’s successes ended up making the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius. Traditional attitudes about race, sex, the role of women in society, the permissible scope of artistic expression, and the nature of American cultural identity have all taken a beating.

I think Lindsey is all to confident that the characteristics and attitudes that sustain the prosperity that he clearly loves can survive the acid bath of the Aquarianism he also clearly loves. Hence I don’t share his conclusion:

What should [conservatives] be seeking to conserve? The great American heritage of limited government, individual liberty, and free markets seems the only viable answer. As Peter Berkowitz has frequently and wisely noted, a truly American conservatism must have at the core of its concerns the defense and preservation of the liberal tradition. Which makes it a special kind of conservatism indeed: Its function is not to arrest change generally, or even slow it down, but rather to preserve the institutions that are both the chief source of change and the primary means through which we adapt to new conditions.


[M]uch of what has defined modern social conservatism — namely, political resistance to the incessant cultural change engendered by economic development — is not authentically conservative at all. It is reactionary.


It turns out that the core middle-class values that sustain a free society can survive — indeed, they can thrive — even as various historically contingent embellishments are dropped along the way. Look, for example, at blue-state New England today, where the most pronounced sort of cultural liberalism coexists with some of the highest incomes per head and lowest levels of social dysfunction (crime, divorce, illegitimacy, etc.) in the country.

I can’t believe that Lindsey buys this liberal chestnut! Has he considered that these numbers in New England have to do with the relative homogeneity of the region, the persistence of traditional religion (much of it Roman Catholic) among the working class, and the paucity of big cities. I’d be willing to bet that Boston and Hartford probably don’t look too different from other big cities. Consider, for example,
this comparison. Here’s the 2004 crime data for Hartford, Boston, and, say, Mongomery, Alabama and Atlanta.

I suppose if we depopulated the country, largely getting rid of poorer minorities and importing lots of well-to-do refugees from dysfunctional cities, we could perhaps have New England-style social statistics and the kinds of attitudes Lindsey finds congenial. But that’s not the real world, not even the real world at the end of Lindsey’s history.

This post is getting way too long. I’ll deal with the other interventions in the debate in another post.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Your response is better than Ponneru's, who seems to have accepted the underlying assumptions of Lindsey pretty much in total.

If you don't accept that conservatism exists to preserve "classical liberalism", then Lindsey makes no sense.

If you don't accept that "classical liberalism" is the wellspring of prosperity, then Lindsey makes no sense.

And if you don't accept that free market capitalism is best defined as "what businessmen want", then Lindsey makes no sense.

It is a sad day when F.A. Hayek is more conservative than the writers at National Review.

One thing which is not commented on often enough is how far libertarianism has strayed from its own roots. It used to be devoted to things like "limited government, individual liberty, and free markets". But it increasingly seems to have made its peace with liberalism.

The New England states praised as being "libertarian" are not libertarian at all, in the older sense of the word. Vermont and Connecticut hardly exemplify limited government.

To be a libertarian nowdays is to be someone who accepts the degree of power the state has, but to say that no matter how much power it has, it's ok as long as people are well off.

On a side note, I can't believe that a professional political pundit like Lindsey would make the mistake of confusing the policies of the Republican party with conservatism. But I suppose that sort of thing will happen when political punditry becomes the pastime of a closed guild.

Anyone who defines libertarianism as being cool with pot, porn, and abortion isn't worth taking seriously. These issues, however one comes out on them, are not fundamental to the size and scope of government. That's what libertarianism is about. New Englanders are not friggin' libertarians. Nor are most Americans, but New Englanders are even less so.

I fail to see why American conservatism must be primarily "American" rather than primarily "conservative." Americanism must be primarily American. Conservatism need not be, and shouldn't be, any more than American Christianity or science or education should be primarily American. To say that the purpose of conservatism is to conserve liberalism is to say that our society consists of liberalism, which is an absurdity. Conservatism is always and everywhere about the preservation of society and of civilized behavior, not about abstract political ideals. Conservatism tends toward the preservation of liberty and is a far better friend to liberty than is modern, statist liberalism. However, it is not ABOUT liberty.

David Frisk, while I am sympathetic to what you say, it does seem increasingly as if libertarianism has been redefined as "being cool with pot, porn, and abortion", and being cool with the size of the state pretty much as it is.

You see basically this position being taken all the time by people at Cato and Reason. Not in so many words, but that is what it comes down to.

If that's really what some of the Cato and "Reason" people are saying, then they're still wrong. It's a sad commentary on one of two things: Either the intellectual caliber of such people is too low for the work they're supposed to be doing, or they're desperate to be accepted by the liberal establishment, or by young people, or by someone -- and therefore spin.

Lindsey is a VP at Cato, so unless you disagree with my characterisation of what he has said, I think my description of what certain people at Cato and Reason think is on target.

I believe John is painting a twisted picture of Cato and Reason. While they are indeed "cool wth pot, porn, and abortion", to classify these libertarian organizations as being concerned with nothing else is a downright mischaracterization.

As Levar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow..."You don't have to take my word for it."

My own characterization of modern libertarians was "someone who accepts the degree of power the state has, but to say that no matter how much power it has, it's ok as long as people are well off." I also endorsed Davids remarks, without saying that those were all that things were all the libertarians are interested in.

Libertarians used to oppose the way in which liberals used the power of the state to transform society. They seem to have largely abandoned that position. In fact they seem to have largely embraced the liberal view of the good society. They are much more hung up on material wealth than they used to be. That does not cause much of a problem with liberals, who have abandonded their 1930's era approach to economics and are themselves among the wealthiest people in society.

Here is an example of the change I'm talking about;

The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand,—in the name of a concern for “human beings”—regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society. They are, moreover, in a hurry. So that their characteristic approach is to harness the society’s political and economic forces into a collective effort to compel “progress.” In this approach, I believe they fight against Nature.

That is Barry Goldwater in "The Conscience of A Conservative", the man often cited as the father of the libertarians in America. I think they have moved a long way from their beginnings.

Written by Brent Bozell, not Goldwater. But Goldwater sometimes talked like this himself, at least in and leading up to '64. It is a major historical error to think that the Goldwaterites, or Goldwater, were "libertarians" in the sense in which liberals use the term -- that they didn't care about the values of social conservatism. The issues were somewhat different back then, of course.

According to a major Goldwater biography, the senator agreed in 1956 to an abortion for his young daughter, who didn't feel she could handle a child (although she was soon to be married to the father). However, Goldwater also tried to persuade her against the abortion in a rather moving letter.

I do think, as John says, that libertarians have tended to become more materialistic since the 1960s.

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