The Spectacle Blog

Libertarianism and Its Discontents

By on 3.5.07 | 9:53AM

Ross Douthat has a characteristically thoughtful post about libertarian revisionism, arguing that neoconservative ideas (as they were defined before that term came to be applied mostly to advocates of a particularly interventionist foreign policy) played a larger role in Republican electoral successes than libertarian ones. And, acknowleding that Ronald Reagan couldn't have been elected in 1980 running as Barry Goldwater and George W. Bush probably couldn't have won in 2000 as Reagan, it's a fair point. (I'm not going to get into Tanner's book because I'll be writing about it later.)

But in correcting one false version of the right's political history, we should be careful not to create a new one. Anti-statism was a bigger priority of the right's in the 1980s than it is today; it was a much bigger priority in 1994 than it was at any time since Republicans started winning national elections. The GOP freshman class in the House included some pretty radical government cutters and even a handful of constitutionalists approaching Ron Paul's level of consistency. Libertarians were probably less important that year than religious conservatives or gun owners, but they mattered.

Back in the 1990s, conservatives were united around the specific policies they were fighting for even when they disagreed about the endgame. Libertarians, social conservatives, and neoconservatives all favored welfare reform, even though some wanted simply to reduce illegitmacy or foster a work ethic among the underclass while others hoped to abolish the welfare state. Charles Murray was a big part of the debate as a welfare abolitionist; the wonks surrounding welfare reform pioneer Tommy Thompson, by contrast, were willing to spend more to move people from welfare to work.

The balanced budget debate was similar. Some wanted a balanced budget for the usual Concord Coalition, Ross Perot style reasons. Other conservatives thought it was a good opportunity to cut government with minimal public backlash. Libertarians shouldn't oversell their contribution to the GOP coalition -- or the short-term political dividends of small government -- but they shouldn't be airbrushed out of Republican history either.

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