Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Even" Libertarians?

Dennis Sevakis just sent me an article that discusses the tea party phenomenon and coming problems for the Democratic Party because of the left-wing extremism of many of its leaders. The article begins:

"The battle for the future of America is in the Republican Party. Conservatives, tea party patriots, taxpayer activists, even free market libertarians need to join the fight over whether we will have a Reagan Republican party, or a McCain Democrat party, or a dysfunctional party whose vote is hopelessly split by third party spoilers. The threat to our country is now more serious than ever. If we don't figure this out, we will lose our country, and the world will enter the New Dark Ages." (emphasis added)

Dennis misconstrues the nature of conservatism. I do not blame him because popular discussion about American ideology is almost universally confused and a-historical. There is no such thing as an American conservatism, with apologies to the late William F. Buckley. The notion that Edmund Burke proposed of retaining institutions that slowly evolve is inapplicable to America, as are the terms "left" and "right".

Burke wrote in a Europe that until the late fifth century had been Roman. Thereafter, barbarian tribes, including the Angles, conquered western Europe, but eastern Rome continued on until the 1400s. Barbarian institutions that in some ways continued Roman customs and in others represented radical breaks were put in place in western Europe. This facilitated experimentation and economic development throughout the so-called "dark ages". By the 1400s major advances in agriculture and technology had been made because of the experimentation. Notice that advances occurred in the place where there was the most decentralization, not where traditions were retained in the east or in China or Arabia, all three of which were more advanced than western Europe until the 1500s.

Burke wrote at a time when the institutions that had descended from barbaric conquest had been gradually centralized and various intellectuals had argued for rationalization of control. The Church of England, for example, had evolved from incursions on the Catholic Church, such as seizure of their land, as well as oppression of Protestant sects, many of whose practitioners fled to North America. There was a European debate between (a) radicals who did not want to preserve monarchy, the established church and aristocracy but instead rationally design new forms of state control (the left), and (b) those who wanted to retain the older forms of institutionalized state control (the right). Since there has never been an established national American church (there were regional or state-based churches but they were in conflict with each other and could not have amounted to a national church); a legally imposed aristocracy; nor an established monarchy here there cannot be a "right" and there cannot be an American "conservatism". America has rejected state control of the kinds advocated by both left and right in Europe, at least until the late nineteenth century. The terms left, right and conservative are inapplicable here. Their use is an ideological sleight of hand by advocates of state control, who pretend to have a "progressive"/"conservative" debate.

When the Protestants came here, in both Massachusetts and Virginia, they had been told to adopt the common field communist system that had evolved before and after the barbarian seizure of Roman manors. The colonists tried the notion of common ownership and learned that communism does not work and leads to starvation. Hence, they established property rights on Lockean grounds and broke with their European past. The presence of abundant free land here meant that differences of religious doctrine, such as occurred in Massachusetts when Roger Williams left Boston and founded Rhode Island, could be settled by westward expansion. There was evolution, of course, but there were frequent breaks, new establishments and radical departures throughout the colonial period.

The American experience continued the gradual decentralization and experimentation of post-Roman barbaric Europe. Socialism is an attempt to re-institute a common culture and regulation of the resulting diversity, i.e., to re-institute Roman centralization on barbarian diversity and decentralization. Socialism can take many forms. One is to select institutional characteristics prevalent in past years, say that all people should be compelled to adopt them, and then call yourself a conservative. In the American case this often has the characteristics of a fictionalized past along the lines of Washington Irving's History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving created a fictionalized author and wrote a fictionalized history of Dutch New York. Similarly, "conservatives" frequently create a fictionalized past in their minds and argue that the fictionalized past should be reimposed. This is virtually the same thing as socialism, which involves invention of some new set of institutions, saying that all people should be compelled to adopt them, and then calling yourself a "progressive". Conservatism and progressivism are the same thing, especially given that most conservatives lack historical knowledge and so lack a clue as to what they think they are conserving. Both viewpoints are violent and suppressive, and both involve variants of "socialism in one country" or "national socialism" as John Lukacs points out.

Both conservatism and socialism had their birth in America in the late nineteenth century in response to the growth of big business. Before that, all Americans were libertarians. Some were less libertarian and more in favor of big government, and these were viewed as conservatives. Others were more libertarian and more in favor of small government, and these were viewed as radicals like Sam Adams. Almost all Americans agreed in (a) free markets; (b) the right to bear arms; and (c) fundamental personal freedom such as the right to property. There was disagreement about central banking, mostly until the 1830s and in the 1880s and later.

The birth of conservatism occurred at the same time as the birth of socialism. Both conservatism and left-wing socialism are invented reactions to big business. Big business posed new questions. In response to it, some advocated laissez-faire, and until the late nineteenth century this was the mainstream viewpoint. Some, like Edward Bellamy in "Looking Backward" advocated socialism. And some, like Theodore Roosevelt, argued for big government intervention in the economy to manage corporations in the corporations' and supposedly the public interest.

The "conservatism" of Roosevelt was a response to socialism and was largely socialistic in strategy and concept. Someone like Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Senator from Wisconsin, Woodrow Wilson and Ida Tarbell, muckraking author of History of the Standard Oil Company were called "progressives" but were basic libertarians who fell into the "progressive" camp because they were confused and awed by the growth of big business. When Progressivism fulfilled its socialistic premise and became the "new deal", (most of Franklin Roosevelt's policies had been advocated by Theodore Roosevelt) many of these people who were still alive, like Tarbell, pulled back from the socialist movement that came to dominate the Democratic Party. Thus, the distinction between conservatives and socialists. Conservatives are either pro-business socialists, like Theodore Roosevelt, the American Enterprise Institute, Wall Street Republicans and Nelson Rockefeller, or they are confused libertarians.

There is no American conservatism because American institutions are rooted in flexibility and change (before the meaning of the word change was corrupted by Barack Obama). To be conservative is to argue for flexibility and change. But the two concepts are contradictory.

Thus, when someone calling themselves conservative uses an adjective like "even" with respect to libertarians when discussing a future American conservativism, I must conclude that he either is ignorant and confused or a socialist.


david said...

The accounts of Burke, American history, and its values posed here seem terribly flawed.
Conservatism in America pertains to the CONSERVATION of the nation's fundamental values, which inform its governmental structures, the substantive law, and the use and scope of rights. Burke himself said the American Revolution wasn't a complete revolution in the sense that the colonists were merely perpetuating English norms.

Furthermore, your account seems unable to explain the fact that 19th Century members of all parties (Dems, Repubs, Whigs) referred to themselves as dividing along 'liberal', 'moderate', or 'conservative' wings. What were these labels in reference to? True, the Dem-Repub and Federalist parties do not fall along those lines (one couldn't call the Federalists "conservative", but rather pro-business), but their demise still puts the generative period of Left and Right nearly 100 years prior to the stated era, i.e., the end of Jacksonian rule.

Even to say "there is no American conservatism because American institutions are rooted in flexibility and change" is to appeal to a discernible norm subject to alternation, replacement, or complete conservation (as conservativism may inform the nature and degree of alteration).

It is Libertarianism that has a more modern foundation. For example, how, pre-incorporation doctrine thinking, could a libertarian explanation account for some states actualizing their right to a state church?

Mitchell Langbert said...

See my response on the main blog.