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From Libertarianism to National Conservatism

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“National Conservatism, one strand of a broader emergent post-Cold War fusionist conservative movement, has the potential for both capturing youthful energy and enthusiasm while grounding and directing it with prudence and realism.”

Florida was recently host to the second National Conservatism conference, or NatCon II. The event was run by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a group headed by Israeli scholars Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry. Anyone involved in political culture on the Right is affected by the tides and currents in American political culture: what happens in the imperial center often ripples out into the provincial periphery, after. The question is, does National Conservatism have a serious, sustainable future? If so, this will be because its appeals take hold among the young, as Ron Paul-style libertarianism did in 2008 and 2012. Will this happen? Perhaps, or maybe not. History is not preordained and is written after the fact. 

First, we might define some terms. Libertarianism, at its most basic, is the belief in individual liberty as the fundamental, foundational ethical value and the highest good of political life. Government is inevitably a threat to liberty in the libertarian worldview, always on the look-out for new areas of life to intrude into and new powers to grab and use against the sovereign individual. A vision of the rugged, self-reliant individual, strong in his self-belief and competent in his actions motivates what one might call the libertarian mythos. 

Self-interest and non-aggression oil the gears of social relations, the market the purest expression of enlightened self-interest’s ability to enable the flourishing of human freedom and prosperity. As Tanner Greer argues in a blog essay on America’s “New Right,” the libertarian ideology of its Libertarian adherents is matched by a kind of don’t-tread-on-me, leave me alone folk libertarianism invested in autonomy and self-reliance, rooted in the Scots-Irish culture that comprises one of the four American folk-cultures, still strong today.  

This found its political expression in the surge in popularity of former Congressman Ron Paul, father of Senator Rand Paul. Congressman Paul gained a high profile as a warrior against the excesses of big government, the overmighty executive branch, an oppressive judiciary, and the crushing weight of the ever-growing administrative state. His appeal cut across racial lines, relatively uncommon for a politician on the American right. In some sense, as an outsider Congressman Paul seems to have presented an alternative to the progressive liberalism of President Barack Obama that young people found compelling and coolly subversive. It was a way of being non-leftist without being a Republican, which then still meant neoconservative bromides about democratic crusades abroad to spread democratic capitalism. Congressman Paul rejected all of that and argued his case with élan on the debate platform. 

Times change, however. What seemed new and exciting in 2008-12 turned sour as Congressman Paul’s past racism was revealed, and his political program fell out of favor as a result of where things were going in America at large. Now, the energy for young right-wing American politicos seems to be on what has been described as the New Right, the label’s regular repetition through the decades in both America and Britain notwithstanding. Increasing numbers of young conservatives and right-wingers have come to realize that libertarianism is not up to the task of the moment. National Conservatism, one strand of a broader emergent post-Cold War fusionist conservative movement, has the potential for both capturing youthful energy and enthusiasm while grounding and directing it with prudence and realism. 

National Conservatism takes the nation as the highest political good and goes from there. This is in contrast to the Reagan/Clintonite neoliberal consensus which had an instrumental relationship to nations and nationalism at most, seeing them as enablers of markets and obstacles to the free-flow of goods, capital, people, and ideas. Liberalism lionizes the individual, detached from time, place, family and community, locality and nationality. The highest good of the neoliberal order, pursued by both parties, has been increased consumption and hedonic freedom—never mind the costs to the social order, the economic order, or the natural world as resources are depleted and the environment degraded. 

By contrast, National Conservatism takes as an obvious fact that people are born into an existing social order, tied together through relationships of mutual loyalty maintained through reciprocal rights and duties, enabled and enforced by a transgenerational public culture whose preservation is the purpose of politics. Economics is subordinated to the common good of human needs and flourishing, and if state involvement is needed to correct the inevitable market flaws, foreign or domestic, so be it. 

National Conservatism grounds principles in observed experience that reveals universality, rather than shaping particular observed experience to fit abstract universal principles. In sum, National Conservatism, according to David Brooks, “pursued to its logical conclusion [means] using state power to break up and humble the big corporations and to push back against coastal cultural values. The culture war merges with the economic-class war—and a new right emerges.” Brooks laments this as ideological immorality. National Conservatives see this as reality. 

The reality that young Americans face is a social order that is fragmenting and an economic order that is stratifying. Inequality is not an inherent evil, given the natural inequalities in temperament, talent, and pure physical endowment that defines the human condition. Accepting this, it is still possible to see that the income and wealth inequality now regnant and made worse by the pandemic are simply obscene, and no amount of “personal responsibility” preaching will alter the structural reasons for this. This stagnation and stratification is matched by a social alienation, where loneliness and atomization are fast becoming the norm among millennials and Gen Z, the opioid epidemic its lethal conclusion. Friendships and family life are now often a class marker, signifying the high status of those who enjoy social stability and economic prosperity. 

This gives the lie to the myth of meritocracy. As Christopher Lasch argued, the meritocratic ethos that grew out of the social revolution of the 1960s was fake. It produced a socially insular elite buttressed by extreme wealth, divorced from the country it governed with disdain. This Overclass preached (and continues to preach) a cultural radicalism not practiced by those who espouse it, instead wreaking havoc among the less fortunate, combining with the economic dislocation brought about through economic and trade policies that benefited the Overclass. 

The myth of social mobility is a moral justification for power and privilege increasingly neither righteously gained nor justly exercised. The transformation of America’s creative minority into a dominant minority cements an ossified society into a Neo-Feudal order. It is because of all this that Charles Fain Lehman has described disillusionment with “freedom as quote-unquote self-actualization,” given that the promise of liberatory advancement strikes a cruel contrast with the growing tyranny of meritocracy, meaning “it actually makes people quite miserable.”

The nascent National Conservatism movement has recognized the parlous state America has been driven to, even if those gathered under its banner often fail to make explicit the material basis on which the social pathologies of today play out. This is a failing that must be rectified, the material causes and structural solutions of America’s woes put center stage along the discussions of high political philosophy. People cannot eat books on the manifest failures of liberalism, after all, though perhaps they could use them to heat their homes as fuel prices rise and supply lines collapse in a world wracked by geopolitical instability. 

The use of political power to achieve a rebalancing of American culture and economics is essential but will not be achieved if the GOP remains a party of corporate shills and conspiracy nuts, both of whom act as political sedatives for their constituencies, numbing their discontent away with promises made to be broken. As Julius Krein wrote in 2019, National Conservatives face a “highly stratified and largely dysfunctional Republican Party: a few billionaires and corporate interests (mainly those who cannot fit into the more attractive progressive neoliberal program) pay their second-rate propagandists to offer a discredited and incoherent policy agenda to an increasingly disaffected voter base.” The National Conservatives need to reconcile themselves to the fact that “only power restrains power,” as James Burnham put it, and act accordingly. The fact is that Chris Rufo, whatever one’s opinions of him, has both recognized and implemented an institutional angle of attack to roll back the Successor Ideology of extreme identitarian egalitarianism in American education. His speech at NatCon II was one of the few that dealt with such practicalities. 

In terms of political practicality, Greer argues that the New England Puritan culture represented by the NatCons and the Republican barstool conservative base are mutually exclusive at a fundamental philosophical level. Maybe, but neither can do without the other. Without the barstool base, the NatCons stand no chance of gaining power to pursue their ends of achieving hegemony through the legislative, executive, and administrative institutions of government to implement the political conclusions of their ideas. Likewise, without the NatCons or similar in power, the barstool base will fall further victim to the enforced economic stratification of the Overclass, left at the mercy of their cultural revolution. Each side needs the other to survive as a viable political power base, to act as an eventual countervailing power to the current Overclass and its Neo-Feudal order. 

Without this, the growing radicalism of the online right, dubbed “Conservatism Ink” by Mary Harrington, could become further radicalized and thereby itself constitute a threat to the order of the American nation, acting as a mirror to the far-left extremism of Antifa and others. National Conservatism must provide a channel for this energy that reduces the likelihood of outcomes inimical to human flourishing, the most likely of which is further social disengagement through an increasing sense of isolation and a nihilistic cynicism that is ultimately poisonous for the individual and the political community. 

As a Brit, it brings no joy to see America in the state it finds itself. The polarization, fragmentation, and economic calcification are all contributing to a frankly vile culture, from either side, that is infecting the rest of the English-speaking world and even beyond. It is, bluntly, unlikely that the NatCons can overcome the entrenched interests in the Republican Party to direct it toward a more communitarian conservatism that simultaneously preserves America’s folk libertarianism. However, it is at least a start to recognize that preserving a folk libertarianism paradoxically means abandoning an ideological and political libertarianism. Where things go from here, who knows? I just hope the NatCons can maintain a sense of intellectual and political vitality that carries them through the times ahead.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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