The Brazen Arrogance of Conservatives

Earlier this month, I wrote an essay for Cato Unbound regarding the topic of fusionism, which is a theory of sorts that libertarianism works best when slaved to conservatism. A blogger, by the name of Neal Dewing, took umbrage at this and wrote a response. Now, normally I am perfectly fine with this. But, in this case, Mr. Dewing wrote a very, very uninformed, poorly written blog post that made it clear he had no idea what he was talking about. It was so lousy, in fact, that Cato Unbound didn’t even want to post a response to it. Why bother recognizing such rubbish with a response? Best to ignore it and let it slip into obscure ignominy.

I, however, am of a different mind. While I concur that Mr. Dewing’s blog post is the epitome of stupidity, it is precisely because it is so full of errors that I must respond. Such garbage needs to be addressed, lest people think that, somehow, it is true. Rumors and lies must be quashed. And here I shall do the quashing. It is right. It is proper. It is necessary.

Without more further ado, here is what I wrote in response to Mr. Dewing:

Over at Pocketful of Liberty, blogger Neal Dewing has responded to my Cato Unbound essay on fusionism being “An Unequal Treaty.” He titles his response the “Imprudence of Big-L Libertarianism” and in the process makes several grievous errors.

The first major error that Mr. Dewing makes is that he labels me a “big-L libertarian.” Let’s get something straight: I’m not. I used to be, but then I realized than the Libertarian Party was, regrettably, not a workable solution. So I am a small-l libertarian instead; I profess no real allegiance to any party.

Which, if Mr. Dewing had read my essay through it’s entirety, he would have known, because he would have read this paragraph:

Before I conclude, I wish to make two quick points. First, when I speak of fusionism, I am political party–neutral. Specifically, I am Republican Party–neutral. I am focusing on political ideologies, on left and right, not on institutions or parties; to me, the party is a political tool. Having libertarians take over the Republican Party and work within it to effect change may–or may not–be the most effective strategy in politics. I do not know. That’s something for political consultants, campaign strategists, and the talking heads on TV to figure out.

Perhaps if he had taken the time to read that, he would not have made that point. It colors his entire essay, unfortunately, so it will take time to deal with it.

He then declares that I become “more puerile” instead of fleshing out a coherent argument. I find this to be rather strange. Puerile, you see, means “childishly silly and trivial.” I fail to see how arguing for libertarianism to have a stronger, independent brand is in any way “childish,” “silly,” or “trivial.” And I’m not quite sure Mr. Dewing makes that point at any time in his essay.

First, Mr. Dewing acts rather puerile when he writes “While it is true that I etched this essay into a clay tablet and sent it to my libertarian editor to be transcribed into her Glowing Devil Box for you heathens to read it[.]” I ask, pray tell, how this is anything but childish, silly, and trivial. It does not advance the debate and just looks silly. Considering that libertarians are for liberty and especially for people to speak their mind, the very notion that Mr. Dewing would have to submit to libertarian censors is outrageous. It makes me wonder if Mr. Dewing really understands the libertarian philosophy.

Secondly, he says that

“Conservatism isn’t about fearing the future — it is (partly) about learning the lessons of history. As Otto says, “the process of trial and error known as civilization has worked out a lot of errors.”

Yes, the trial and error about passing Jim Crow laws and treating blacks as second-class citizens, which conservatives were for before they were against. Unfortunately, they have not learned that lesson, clearly, as conservatives are still fighting the same war against same-sex marriage–in other words, denying the same rights to homosexual couples as heterosexual couples enjoy on the mere basis of their sexual orientation. You could replace homosexual with black, heterosexual with white, and sexual orientation with race, and you would have largely the situation with conservatives in the 1960s.

You would think, if conservatism was truly about “trial and error,” conservatives would have learned their lesson in the 1960s and moved on. Except they clearly haven’t. For instance, take the war on drugs. You would think, after learning the disastrous error that was alcohol Prohibition in the 1920’s, conservatives would take a page out of history and declare “No, we had a trial and error process here, and we found that prohibition didn’t work.” Yet who is in favor of the War on Drugs, the second coming of Prohibition? Yes, that’s right–conservatives. And who is favor of the War on Drugs even though the past 50 years have demonstrated no decrease in drug use or better communities? Yes, that’s right–conservatives.

Hmmm. It seems clear, then, that conservatives are not about “trial and error,” so much, as they really are about just keeping what we already have. It’s an ideology of inertia, of the status quo…of fearing change.

Mr. Dewing then gives us this whopper:

In his discussion of economics, Kolassa runs headlong into the major problem of pure libertarianism, which is its remarkable impracticability outside of one’s freshman dorm room. He takes issue with “trickle down” economics, but fails to address any successful real-world libertarian policies for the reader to use as a point of comparison. Libertarianism may be universalist in scope, as Kolassa alleges, but it is certainly does not have universal appeal — as reality seems to attest.

Notice how he says this is a “major problem of pure libertarianism, which is its [sic] remarkable impracticability outside of one’s freshman dorm room.” Yet does he actually back up and defend this point? No–he simply handwaves away my argument that libertarian and conservative economics are quite different. He does say that I don’t address any successful real-world libertarian policies, but that really gets to the crux of the matter, doesn’t it? There haven’t been any libertarian policies enacted, largely because we libertarians have been treated as the junior partner, to be ignored, in this fusionist alliance.

But there is, oddly enough, one example of libertarian economic policy that would have worked if conservatives let it: the first vote on TARP. If you recall, in 2008, the first vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program–in other words, a massive government bailout of failed companies–was rejected. Yet the conservatives then turned around, joined forces with liberals, and proceeded to shove the bailout through Congress.

Thanks, Mr. McConnell.

Also, if Mr. Dewing is going to claim that libertarian policy does not have “universal appeal,” as reality seems to attest, then let me just point out that conservative policy does not have universal appeal either. Indeed, public opinion polls regularly show that on social issues like gay marriage, the war on drugs, and in foreign policy, conservatism is being abandoned. As my Cato Unbound colleague Clark Ruper notes:

There is a line from Jacqueline’s essay which I find particularly inaccurate: “the survival of the free market is at stake; as we watch the overall trend of my generation veering left, I fear the war for liberty may be lost while we on the right skirmish over degrees of freedom.” This is just wrong. Young people are not moving “left.” They are just moving away from conservatism. Stephen Moore recently cited a study by the conservative Young America’s Foundation in the Wall Street Journal, saying “One important finding is that it’s no longer cool to be conservative on college campuses. For example, the term ‘conservative’ is a turnoff to the young, viewed favorably by 28% and unfavorably by 32%, though terms like ‘free markets,’ ‘entrepreneurship,’ and ‘limited government’ are viewed positively.” What this study shows is that the libertarian elements of conservatism remain popular; the rest has become toxic to young people.

And at least, libertarianism is universalist in its plain appeal for freedom, while conservatism is selective: freedom for straight Christians, but not for others.

Mr. Dewing then advances on the issue of civil society, when he cites Peter Wehner, and quotes, “referencing the ‘ancient insight [of] how we do not live in isolation, that we are part of a continuum[.]’” This is a very puzzling criticism of libertarianism. At no point do I see libertarianism advocating that we should all be isolated hermits up in the wilderness. For us, the argument is over voluntary and non-voluntary. That is completely different from social versus alone. That Mr. Dewing makes this argument baffles me; first, it’s from the leftist playbook, and second, it has nothing to do with libertarianism aside from a very cartoonish, straw-man version that only exists in the minds of libertarianism’s critics.

Libertarians are for choice. We want to give people the choice of either being socially active or being more isolated, that’s all. And what’s the problem with choice? I mean, conservatives were all about choice when Obamacare was passed, trying to pass many Health Care Choice bills across the country. So…is he taking a page out of Nancy Pelosi’s playbook?

Libertarians are all for civil society. What we’re against is people being forced to do things against their will. What part of civil society, which is usually more voluntary than involuntary, goes against libertarian ideas?

He then moves into promoting the idea of subsidiarity, or that value-shaping should be done at the lowest possible level. He attacks me for not bothering to look up the term. But here’s why: it’s almost never, ever used; and it’s rather pointless. If I think that value-shaping should be done on a mostly personal level, then I don’t need to use the term “subsidiarity,” (which sounds like either support for companies having subsidiaries or government subsidies) I have a much better term: individualism.

What I find even more baffling is that he says the following (the boldness is Mr. Dewing’s emphasis, not mine):

Big government conservative views — such as those held by Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and (to a lesser degree) former President George W. Bush — are out of step with the times.

And yet, all these people have been standard bearers of conservatism over the past decade, of one sort or another. So if you are saying these folks are out of step with the times, are you not saying that conservatism is, therefore, out of step with the times?

Mr. Dewing then leads us back into social conservatism, and attacks me again where I said:

Libertarians are in favor of letting gay and lesbian couples enjoy the same legal benefits and recognition as heterosexual couples. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been against this and for relegating them to a second-class status, or just flat out not recognizing them at all.

Mr. Dewing retorts with:

While misconstruing the views of one’s ideological opponent may provide a convenient straw man, it doesn’t do much to advance one’s own argument. There are many reasons to oppose same-sex marriage; a desire to relegate certain citizens to second-class status is not an animating principle for the conservatives I know.

The problem with Mr. Dewing’s argument is that, even if social conservatives don’t consciously “desire” to relegate certain citizens to second-class status, that is precisely what they are doing. It is a distinction without a difference. Let me try to explain this via an example. You go up to a gay couple and say “I’m fighting against your marriage and I don’t think you should be allowed to marry, but don’t worry, I don’t desire to relegate you to a second-class status, I just want to protect the sacred institution from people like you.”

Can you see how ridiculous that statement is? Can you see, on its face, how utterly absurd it is? If Mr. Dewing actually believes what he says, he should go up to a gay or lesbian couple and say just that, and record their reaction. Preferably with a camcorder because I think it would more visual than audio.

Moving on from that, he then gets to the one point where I admit I may have overstepped my bounds just a tad: my citing of Jeff Flake, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul as libertarians. It is true that Flake and Lee are not in favor of gay marriage, but in Flake’s case, he did support the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which says that there’s much more to his position on gay marriage than Mr. Dewing would probably like.

Furthermore, Mr. Dewing also very deliberately mentions that these folks are all “pro-life,” and boldens it, in fact. I’m glad Mr. Dewing brought that up, because I didn’t, and I didn’t for one simple reason: libertarians don’t agree on abortion. Not two years ago I went to the International Students for Liberty Conference in DC and talked to one of the regional coordinators, and asked him if Students for Liberty took a stance on abortion. His answer was no, because the libertarian community was so strongly divided on the issue. There are both pro-choice libertarians and pro-life libertarians. The abortion issue, therefore, is something where you can’t say there is a general “libertarian” to. It depends on the libertarian in question.

Which probably would shock Mr. Dewing, considering that he writes in his essay that my “big-L Libertarianism” is the “more rigidly dogmatic party.” Yes, we are so rigidly dogmatic that we have two major camps on an important issue, if not more smaller camps surrounding them.

And it doesn’t stop there. It may also shock Mr. Dewing that there are tons of other areas where libertarians disagree. There is a huge debate that keeps swirling and swirling like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter between those libertarians who want a small government and those who want no government at all. And there are many schools of libertarianism out there. Like:

  • Right-libertarianism

  • Left-libertarianism

  • Natural rights-libertarianism

  • Consequentialist libertarianism

  • Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

  • Anarcho-capitalism

  • Geolibertarianism

  • Green-libertarianism

  • Paleolibertarianism

  • Neolibertarianism

  • Autarchism

  • Conservatarianism

  • Liberaltarianism

  • Christian libertarianism

  • Atheist libertarianism

  • Libertarian socialism (those guys are weird, we tend to keep them away from the punch bowls at parties)

And so on and so forth. This is hardly an exhaustive list; there is always some new form of libertarianism coming in whenever someone else declares to be so. Libertarians, in fact, fight amongst themselves far, far more than they fight amongst others. How rigidly dogmatic is that, do you think, Mr. Dewing? From where I stand, that is not rigidly dogmatic at all. Of course, if Mr. Dewing had perused the libertarian blogosphere or forums or social media networks, he would have seen this immediately.

But moving on from that, Mr. Dewing then takes unction with my suggestion that libertarians be political opportunists, and seek alliances with the left when feasible and our interests are aligned. He writes:

If libertarians made common cause with liberals where their views aligned –  so be it. Never mind that experience shows that for every supposed “liberty” lefties claim they want to protect, they effectively trample another.

And there are examples of this, like the Patriot Act, the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, TARP, the NDAA, the expanded drug war, the restrictions on habeus corpus, Guantanamo Bay, domestic spying operations, dramatically increased spending across the board…except these are all conservative examples, just from the past decade, when conservatives had power.

And that’s the real crux of this matter, isn’t it? Mr. Dewing also writes that fusionism is the benefit of libertarians, but history shows precisely the opposite. While the left is certainly not a friend to liberty, I submit that under right-wing, conservative administrations, we’ve just as much–if not more–erosion of our liberties. And if one looks at the erosion of liberty through government spending figures, as many libertarians and conservatives are wont to do, then even St. Reagan turns out to be no saint, as he tripled federal debt and spent billions of dollars all over the place.

And what about, as Mr. Dewing says, that libertarians like myself jeopardize getting ourselves ejected from the big tent? Well, I ask, which big tent? Because the conservative “big tent,” as demonstrated by the recent editions of CPAC and the further rejection of the right in elections, is growing smaller and smaller. Meanwhile, the big tent of American politics, frayed as it is, is becoming more welcoming to libertarians all over the spectrum. Mr. Dewing asserts that libertarianism is a spice, not a dish, and has limited appeal with the electorate, but considering that America is becoming a center-libertarian nation, the appeal is not with conservatives either.

These are the direct points Mr. Dewing makes, and now, to conclude, I wish to address the running theme that permeates his entire piece. From the beginning where he labels my piece that “of a rebellious libertarian teenager chafing under the oppressive yoke of conservative parents who Just. Don’t. Get. It.”  to handwaving away my arguments and asserting that I have no real points (only a “flirtation”) to finally that fusionism is for libertarians benefit, not conservatives, and we really, really need them, the entire piece has a theme of browbeating, chest-thumping, and talking down to libertarians. And if anything, this is precisely why fusionism isn’t going to work.

If you were to go to a corporation to pitch a merger proposal, would you tell the people of the other corporation that they need you because they are “rebellious teenagers” and need your guidance? Of course not. You would never talk down to them in such a way. You would research their position, understand their needs, and say, “This is how we can meet your needs in this arrangement.” So, if you truly care about this fusionism, Mr. Dewing, why are you browbeating us libertarians and not, you know, actually trying to make a genuine pitch for our support? Where is the carrot? Why do you only have a stick?

And while we’re talking about “conservative parents who Just. Don’t. Get. It,” let me say that in one place, Mr. Dewing is absolutely right: he doesn’t get libertarianism. At all. He has simply not done the research. He doesn’t understand that conservative stances on social issues are no longer tolerable. He doesn’t understand that libertarianism is hardly rigid and dogmatic. He doesn’t understand that there are many pro-life libertarians in existence. He doesn’t understand his movement’s own history. He doesn’t understand the core message of my piece. And he doesn’t understand what Big-L Libertarianism actually is–which is an important thing to understand when that’s what the title of his blog post is.

In short, Mr. Dewing doesn’t get it whatsoever. He doesn’t understand the topic at hand. And how, may I ask, is one supposed to make a pitch or proposal to unite, when one has no idea who or what the client is? Why on Earth should libertarians be content as a “wing” of conservativism when conservatives demonstrate not only that they don’t understand libertarianism, they don’t even bother to try and understand? How does that make us feel included? By Mr. Dewing’s demonstration, it seems that libertarians have already been ejected from the big tent.

Mr. Dewing titles his piece “The Imprudence of Big-L Libertarians.” What this demonstrates is simply the brazen arrogance of conservatives, who think they can just knock us down, say forceful things, and they have won the argument. But if you look past the veneer, you realize their argument is entirely without merit, as this one was. Necessary to respond to, to be sure, in order to clear away the myths, misconceptions, and utter errors, but not because of its nonexistent merits. Twenty, thirty years ago, perhaps, conservatives could browbeat libertarians, talk down to them like children, and tell them they had to stay within fusionism because that’s the only option they had. But not today.

Mr. Dewing ends his piece by saying that if I want to score cheap points against “backwards” social conservatives, libertarians will be left out in the cold. Yet it is blatantly clear that the real situation is that the train has left the station, and if Mr. Dewing and conservatives don’t get with the program soon, they’ll be left behind in the dust.

One last thing I must say: next time, Mr. Dewing, please, do your homework.