One of the great, failed movements of the twentieth century was the attempted “paleo” alliance between libertarians and conservatives. In the mid-1990s, such libertarian intellectuals as Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Justin Raimondo, and Lew Rockwell joined forces with conservatives like Russell Kirk, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis, and Tom Fleming to fuse conservative arguments on the importance of traditional and localized culture with libertarian critiques of the state. As Hoppe wrote in his masterpiece Democracy: The God That Failed, statism is highly corrosive of traditional, bourgeois values, which are much more likely to thrive if people are left free to order their own lives in the way they see fit. Therefore, “conservatives must be antistatist libertarians and . . . libertarians must be conservatives.” (p. 189)
Though in a strong sense elitist (the movement centered around the John Randolph Club, whose namesake famously stated, “I am an aristocrat–I love liberty, I hate equality”), the paleos also had a broad populist strain. They based much of their power on appealing to “Middle American Radicals” (MARs): middle-class, middle-aged, largely white voters in flyover country who felt dispossessed by the bureaucratic and politically-correct federal leviathan.
Ultimately, of course, the movement fell apart, in large part due to its leaders’ outsized personalities. Hoppe gave a speech in the ’90s denouncing then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s economic policies and calling Sam Francis a “national socialist.” As late as 2010, emotions were still rancorous enough that Tom Fleming would write a response to Hoppe with gems like, “I know personal loyalty does not mean much to libertarians, but that is one more sign of their insanity,” and adding that, ever since the libertarians (“impoverished dead beats”) left the Randolph Club, the club could afford to host its events in nicer hotels.
In a sense, the death of the paleo movement is disappointing. But, though I personally wish it had flourished, the election results from Tuesday make me question whether a libertarian-conservative alliance can be politically beneficial at all and whether, even if it were not for personal squabbles, the movement could have realistically lasted much longer than actually it did. (Such an alliance may, however, be culturally beneficial. I’ll have a post up in a few days on the election’s cultural/ideological significance.)
Since election day, many commentators have noted that this country isn’t what it used to be. Mass immigration of Democratic voters, combined with a marked liberalizing of younger voters on issues like gay marriage and abortion have created a sizable voting bloc for socially-liberal candidates like Barack Obama–a bloc that seems impervious to the economic arguments against him. The MARs, by contrast, do not have the voting power they once had, even as recently as the 1990s, when they gave respectable showings to Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
In another sense too, libertarian successes in the past few years have materialized from throwing off past affiliations with the paleo-conservatives. Though Ben recently defended Ron Paul’s “conservatism” on this blog, the Paul campaign caught fire primarily through Paul’s libertarian positions on economics, the Fed, war, and civil liberties, and by downplaying his conservative opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and open immigration.
Moreover, the people fueling his campaign’s energy were emphatically not the Middle American Radicals that the ’90s paleo movement thought would lead to a rebirth of antistatism. In fact, from my personal experience, the people most hostile to Ron Paul are those very same white, middle-aged MARs, like the members of my local Tea Party. On the other hand, the people most sympathetic were socially-liberal–or at least socially-indifferent–cosmopolitan college-age kids. Even among Cornell law students (not a demographic receptive to right-wing ideas), people generally treat me with respect when they find out that I’m a Ron Paul supporter. (“Yeah, he’s a Republican, but at least he voted for Paul instead of Bachman or Santorum”). And when Ron Paul came to speak on Cornell’s campus during the primary campaign, he filled up our entire hockey stadium, with at least a thousand or so people left outside. The people who lined up to see him were not the culturally conservative MARs that Sam Francis envisioned.
Pile that on top of the disparity between libertarian election victories and mainstream Republican election victories that I pointed out yesterday and the cultural renaissance that Austrian economics and certain classic libertarian books have been undergoing since 2008. Libertarianism isn’t yet any kind of political steamroller. But nor is it the “political masturbation” that John David derides. It has achieved real progress in recent years, and it has done so with very little help from conservatives, whose star seems ever on the decline.
All of this is to say that, when looking at Tuesday’s election results, it is hard to see how an explicit libertarian-conservative alliance is an effective political path to smashing the state, as Rothbard and Hoppe hoped it would be. I wish this weren’t so. My personal values are much more in line with those of the John Randolph Club members than they are with the average college hipster. But politics should be the art of the possible (as long, of course, as achieving the possible doesn’t contradict your ultimate goal, as would be the case, say, with voting for the statist Mitt Romney). So if libertarians are to continue their political progress, then, demographic changes being what they are, a too-close affinity with conservatives seems more harmful than good.