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Re-fusing politics

By: Michael M. Rosen
October 12, 2015

he heart and soul of conservatism,” Ronald Reagan said in 1975, “is libertarianism.” He made the same point 14 years later in his farewell address as president. “There’s a clear cause and effect … that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”

Yet key differences divide traditional conservatives from libertarians, especially on social and cultural issues. Center-right philosophers, pundits, and politicians have struggled for decades to reconcile the camps and synthesize the ideas. Frank Meyer, National Review co-founder, labeled this amalgam “fusionism.” He dedicated his life’s work to uniting libertarians and social-cultural conservatives, including conservatives of both types at his own magazine.

In Defense of Freedom (1962), Meyer’s systematic exposition and defense of fusionism, now has a successor, The Conservatarian Manifesto by Charles C.W. Cooke, also of National Review. An Oxford-educated writer who emigrated to the U.S. in 2011, Cooke assesses our politics from an outsider’s perspective, diagnosing the challenges conservatives and libertarians face in forging a common strategy. Some of his suggestions are implausible or counterintuitive, others are vague, but he’s begun the process of updating fusionism for the 21st century.

Conservatarians include those who have “abandon[ed] or amend[ed] the ‘conservative’ and ‘libertarian’ labels traditionally used to describe the two strongest building blocks of the Right’s coalition.” The onset of the disintegration came in the Bush years, Cooke writes, when the Republican Party lost its way. “Conservatives,” he contends, have recently “exhibited a nasty tendency of focusing on the wrong things and ignoring what it was that catapulted them to a position of influence in the first place.” Specifically, under Bush the Republicans “spent too much, subsidized too much, spied too much, and controlled too much.”

For Cooke, conservatarianism’s mission is “to decentralize power, returning the important fights to where they belong: with the people who are affected by their conclusions and who are therefore best equipped to resolve them.” He proposes an alliance grounded in federalism and constitutional originalism, and explains how it can confront challenges like drugs, social issues, education, and foreign policy.

Cooke decries Republican activism on issues like drugs and same-sex marriage as a betrayal of the party’s federalist principles, the reinvigoration of which would unify the conservatarian coalition. Federalism can “reconcile the competing claims of libertarians and conservatives, meshing the libertarians’ live-and-let-live attitudes with the conservatives’ respect for the nation’s founding traditions.” Along these lines, he distinguishes the grassroots, decentralized “Jeffersonian” model of public education from the rigid, top-down, “Prussian” one, lamenting the shift from the former to the latter, which began in the mid-19th century. Resist the temptation for policies conceived and directed from Washington, DC, he advises, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core, and the GOP can recapture libertarian support.

In addition, Cooke rejects “living Constitution” progressivism, insisting that “conservatives who side with the detached wisdom of the founding generation are siding not with the antique, but with the perennial.” The Constitution is the most durable warrant for freedom ever written, and those who would restrict or reinterpret its particulars to suit modern times serve only to weaken it.

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On issues that typically divide traditionalists and libertarians, Cooke’s fusionism can be more earnest than convincing. Amalgamating federalism to what he considers a smarter drug policy, he urges conservatives to “agitate for federal withdrawal and continue to argue against the wisdom of using drugs and leave the legal questions to the states and localities.” On abortion, conservatives should “continue to win hearts and minds” by appealing to common sense, not religion. (Cooke describes himself as a pro-life atheist.) But Ron and Rand Paul aside, few libertarians support abortion restrictions, preferring by wide margins to treat “reproductive rights” as fundamental to freedom. Cooke never really explains how to bridge this gulf.

In gay marriage, Cooke believes, conservatives have picked “the wrong fight” and then “lost badly.” He pleads for pragmatism, yet rejects as an impossibility the libertarian notion that government should simply “get out of marriage.” This middle ground may appeal to the next generation of conservatives, including Cooke (born in 1984), but large parts of the conservative coalition will remain unreconciled to same-sex marriage for many years.

Cooke clamors for a foreign policy in which America doesn’t “rush to the scene of every fire in every corner of the world” yet serves as “the supplier of stability” around the globe. But how? Cooke wants to cut wasteful military spending, a good call but an easy one. The next president will have to make choices about ISIS, Libya, Iran, Ukraine, and other grave dangers. Nothing in the mere 20 pages of The Conservatarian Manifesto devoted to foreign policy will be of much help in making those complex, fraught decisions. Similarly, Cooke berates libertarians for indulging the fantasy of an open-borders immigration policy, but envisions the GOP winning a larger share of the Latino vote simply as a byproduct of increasing its electoral appeal in general.

Cooke, in short, is asking the right questions. Better and more complete answers will come, including from Cooke himself. The thinkers who develop them will find The Conservatarian Manifesto an astute effort to describe the challenges conservatism faces, and the perils of failing to meet them.