Following the horrors of the Wilson and FDR presidencies, conservatives made nice with classical liberals and later libertarians as the only way to maintain any relevancy. This was a rather odd fellowship, conservatism being a fundamentally authoritarian philosophy. And because people seem unable to think in terms of anything outside the conservative-liberal spectrum, this has caused many people genuinely interested in a freer society to conflate authoritarian, conservative positions with classical liberal or libertarian ones. Examples:
- Conflating conservative “pro-business” mercantilism/crony capitalism with free markets
- Worshiping the enormous standing army rather than being suspicious of and reluctant to pay for it, as any liberty-minded person should be
- Ditto for the ubiquitous domestic standing army, the police
- Blaming corporations acting in their best interests in a corrupted business environment, rather than the government that created that environment and made it a business necessity to exploit it, lest their competitors do so first (Amazon, Walmart, etc.). This is how Tucker Carlson finds himself agreeing with Bernie Sanders
The foundation of conservatism, the reason it seeks to “conserve” what is already established by any forceful means necessary, individual rights be damned, is its belief that man’s nature is so fallen, dark, or inherently violent that it must be kept at bay. Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk all agreed that the primary purpose of government was to override men’s natural inclinations by force. For all of them, any freedom man has in society is a privilege granted by the government, not an inalienable right carried into society which the government is charged to defend.
In American history, Hamilton was a true conservative, seeking to conserve mercantilism and empire, the status quo of his day, albeit under American control. Lincoln was a true conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo of the union despite the expressed wishes of the states attempting to leave it peacefully. Today, Trump and the majority of the Republican Party are the true conservatives, pursuing an explicitly Hamiltonian platform, even borrowing Hamilton’s “national greatness” slogan.
Ironically, what attracts well-meaning people to the conservative brand is the libertarian-sounding rhetoric it often employs, despite libertarian ideas being fundamentally antithetical to conservatism. Once they’ve adopted that brand, and seeing that virtually no conservative politicians ever propose anything resembling a move towards laissez faire markets, a less powerful police state or a more peaceful foreign policy, they resort to suggesting the people who run for office under the conservative or Republican banners are not “true conservatives,” or in the case of the Republican Party, are “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only).
When pressed to name some “true conservatives” or “true Republicans,” the only answer one will ever get is Hamiltonian Calvin Coolidge, a conservative who genuinely seemed to hold some classical liberal positions, along with some conservative ones. We’re supposed to believe that in all American history, Coolidge and a few Republicans today like Rand Paul, Justin Amash and Thomas Massie are the true conservatives and/or true Republicans, and virtually everyone else were the “RINOs.”
That should sound ludicrous to any dispassionate observer. Why wouldn’t Coolidge, Paul, Massie and Amash be the RINOs, i.e., the ones who don’t think or act like 99% of the Republican Party throughout its history?
For these reasons, I believe there is a good argument that conservatism is more harmful to the cause of liberty than progressive liberalism. At least proponents of the latter come right out and tell us they’re going to trample our personal and economic liberty “for our own good.” Anyone seeking freedom knows not to vote for them. Not so the conservatives, who occasionally talk like Jefferson but always govern like FDR and Catherine the Great had a love child who won a U.S. election.
The conservative movement’s success in absorbing people with libertarian impulses keeps American politics from breaking out of a narrow range of positions, all statist to the core. This ultimately makes us poorer and less free than we would be if those interested in free markets, peaceful trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy would let go of their emotional attachment to the conservative label and let the Republican Party take its place on the junk heap with its predecessors, the Whig and Federalist parties.
A new movement and party, devoid of authoritarian conservative baggage, may attract a lot of people who currently hold their nose and vote Democrat, but don’t necessarily like the awful far left any more than libertarians do. In other words, what is needed is a radical change in the political landscape, meaning conservatism has to go.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.