- - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE CONSERVATARIAN MANIFESTO: LIBERTARIANS, CONSERVATIVES, AND THE FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT’S FUTURE

By Charles C.W. Cooke

Crown Forum, $25, 256 pages

In the 1960s, National Review senior editor Frank S. Meyer took on the Herculean task of finding common ground between conservatism and libertarianism. His political vision, fusionism, built right-leaning bridges that played significant roles in two Republican presidential campaigns: Barry Goldwater (1964) and Ronald Reagan (1980).

Meyer’s fusionist dream was ultimately unsuccessful. The two ideological groups identified like-minded ideas and strategies which still exist today, but weren’t able to form a cohesive working relationship. Hence, today’s GOP is a (mostly) conservative political party with occasional flashes of libertarian policies.

For the few remaining fusionists — I’m one of them — it’s been a constant source of disappointment. Meyer tried his best to unite the right. We still believe conservatives and libertarians can be fused, and will always promote this strategy.

Then again, maybe there’s another way.

Charles C.W. Cooke, who writes for (you guessed it) National Review, examines a growing political phenomenon in “The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future.” The fusionism of the past has been replaced with the conservatarianism of the present. It’s a bold new vision, and one that could potentially bring U.S. conservatives and libertarians together — or, at the very least, get them talking.

To be clear, Mr. Cooke didn’t come up with this political term. In the book, he writes that it “first appeared on my radar toward the end of 2006.” It was apparently “adopted by disgruntled Republicans who objected strenuously to the direction in which their party had been pulled under George W. Bush and, in consequence, aspired to distinguish themselves from the establishment.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much clarity when it comes to defining this term. “Ask one hundred self-identified ‘conservatarians’ what they mean by the moniker,” writes Mr. Cooke, “and you will get one hundred different answers.” Different descriptions, such as “liberservative” and “libertarian and a conservative,” would turn up.

According to an author of a 2007 essay posted on the popular Free Republic website, conservatarians are neither neoconservatives nor libertarians, but “a mainstream conservative in the Goldwater/Reagan tradition who subscribes to the fiscal and modern federalist principles of the libertarian philosophy.” Well, I hate to break it to him, but that’s pretty similar to what fusionists believe.

Hence, a conservatarian feels “betrayed,” and may perceive that “I’m not one of those guys.” To put it another way, it’s “as if the word ‘conservative’ has been taken away from him.”

What can be done? Mr. Cooke believes Republicans must “re-establish themselves as the party of liberty” and remain “committed to laissez-faire.” They need to “address their blind spots,” and show interest and tolerance to how “others wish to live their lives but that they have their own way of dealing with that.” They must prove “their talk of local control is not merely a ruse” and “crucially, that they do not believe that they have all of the answers to the world’s problems.”

In the author’s view, “the Right might do well to return to at least one of Reagan’s most famous statements: ‘The very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism’ … without it, the Right is nothing.”

Mr. Cooke spends a few chapters examining some successes and difficulties the right faces with specific issues. Instead of going on about the U.S. Constitution, he suggests conservatives should “act as that more intelligent type of reformer, standing in the road, chained to the fence, better to resist the incoming machinery.” The right to bear arms “represents a stunning victory for conservatives, for libertarians — and, really, for anybody who values reason over hysteria and facts over fear.” With respect to gay marriage, “conservatives would do well to recognize that their battle against this measure has been lost, and that it has been lost badly.”

Hence, conservatarian ideology should “render the American framework of government as free as possible and to decentralize power, returning important fights to where they belong: with the people who are affected by their conclusions and who are therefore best equipped to resolve them.” Once this has been accomplished, the movement’s primary objective should be to “oppose the centralization of power and the establishment of a permanent ruling class that dictates to hundreds of millions from a faraway city.”

This strategy to heal the conservative-libertarian divide will have its proponents and opponents. There’s plenty of room to agree and disagree with some or all of these positions. Conservatives and libertarians would be wise not to ignore Mr. Cooke.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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