Thursday, February 6, 2014

Traitorous brand

Bob Belvedere responds to my criticism of libertarians:

A number of the men and women who accept the label “libertarian” are not actually ideological libertarians at all, but simply conservatives under another name. These are people who perceive in the growth of the monolithic state, especially during the past half century, a grim menace to ordered liberty; and of course they are quite right. They wish to emphasize their attachment to personal and civic freedom by employing this 20th century word derived from liberty. With them I have little quarrel—except that by so denominating themselves, they seem to countenance a crowd of political fantastics who “license they mean, when they cry liberty.”

The borrowed line at the end is from John Milton’s poem, “I Did But Prompt.”

To the extent that Belvedere is right, the label “libertarian” is to failed conservatives as “progressive” is to failed Marxists. The labels exist to dissociate ideas from their past failures. The failure on conservatives’ part is personal, while the failure on Marxists’ part is ideological.

Whenever I hear someone say “I’m a libertarian on economic issues,” I cringe. Why not say “I’m a conservative on all the issues”? Either you’re ashamed of the legacy of conservatism, or you’re not a conservative.

Political rebranding attempts to repackage and reinvigorate old ideas. (There are no new ideas.) The progressive brand has been successful, both in gaining converts to Marxism and in staying true to the original program. Many planks of Marx’s Communist Manifesto have been achieved under the title of progress. Who could be against progress, the inevitable change of civil and social arrangements in response to our growing understanding of the natural world and human nature?

On both those counts, libertarianism has been a less successful brand for conservatism. “Liberty [as] the direct end,” as Patrick Henry said, is a tough sell to people in a secular, post-Christian society who view the earth and their bodies as prisons. Liberty from what, exactly? From need for food and shelter? From gravity? From getting old? Material liberty doesn’t exist in this world. Whether you accept God or not, all are subject to His tyranny.

Worse yet, the libertarian brand has betrayed its creator, splitting the conservative base and weakening it. From the beginning, libertarianism had its own objects, its own hierarchy of values. It was only a matter of time before conservatives who co-opted libertarianism to justify themselves began to follow the logic of libertarianism to different conclusions. On the fundamentals, libertarianism is conservatism’s mortal enemy.

Remember the golden years of the tea party? Remember when the test for public office was opposition to higher taxes, opposition to government growth, opposition to Obamacare? What happened to those years? What went wrong? The presumably natural alliance among conservatives and libertarians that united a majority of Americans against the march of progressivism fractured on the social issues.

To be continued...

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