Paleoconservatism (Traditional Conservatives) vs. Libertarianism

In addition to neoconservatism, there is another branch of conservativism, sometimes called paleoconservatism.  This is more in line with traditional conservative ideas and beliefs: limited government with a focus on liberty.  There is an emphasis on that which conserves culture, tradition, values, beliefs, etc.

Many of these traditional conservatives trace their philosophical lineage back to American thinkers like Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk rather than Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Jr. and Irving Kristol (or even some liberal Presidents such as FDR, JFK, and Harry Truman), as many neocons would.  If you go way back, you have thinkers like Edmund Burke who shaped conservative thought and ideas around the time of the American Revolution.

In the 1930s, when FDR started up The New Deal, which was a huge expanse in government at the time, many stood in opposition to his actions and policies.  There were also many in support of his policies: after all, it was The Great Depression, and we had to do something, right?  Something is better than nothing, right?  (So the mainstream liberal logic goes.)

Those that stood united against The New Deal constituted a wide coalition known then as the Old Right.  It was then part of the GOP.  (Before then, and before Woodrow Wilson, most classical liberals found a home in the Democratic party.  That was the home of laissez-faire economics, personal liberty, and limited government as compared to the then more-interventionist Republicans.  But I digress.)

The Old Right was a home for libertarians and conservatives.  All were opposed to The New Deal, to the huge increase in government spending and dependency that resulted from it, and to the concomitant contraction in personal liberty.  They were also opposed to a foreign policy of interventionism, instead favoring non-intervention.  This is sometimes incorrectly called isolationism.

Traditional conservatives of the Old Right ilk and libertarians agree on many nuts and bolts issues, or at least have many overlapping concerns.  Generally this is expressed as a concern about or opposition towards domestic and foreign intervention.  Some practical implications:

1. We should avoid foreign wars in foreign lands.  This would include WWI and WWII, at least to some adherents.

2. Our government should be much much smaller.  Some individuals were opposed to old school agencies like the FDA and the SEC even.

3. Budgets should be balanced.  It sounds silly that this is an actual political belief, as it should simply be common sense, but our patterns today are so different from common sense in so many ways (at least to my common sense).

4. We should have a sound monetary policy.  There was an opposition to the loose, inflationary monetary policies often associated with war financing.  What had once been used only in times of exigent circumstances (namely war) become the common monetary policy of the time: we print money when we need it.  Oh, and we print money without government supervision, at the discretion of a quasi-government and very secretive entity known as the Federal Reserve System.  Few talk about this today, of course, except a few anomalies like myself.  But they used to.  The most agreed upon way to have a sound monetary policy among the Old Right was to return to the gold standard, where the money we carry in our pocket is actually redeemable for something of value, namely, gold or silver, as specified in the Constitution.  Instead, today, the money in our pocket is redeemable for nothing, except the good warm feelings associated with an exchange of cold cash.  If cash reserves were commodity-backed, this limits the amount of money the government can print.  There are all sorts of problems with inflation that I should not get into here.  Suffice it to say there used to be much more opposition to it than there is today, where it is considered a fact of life for the most part.

All of these areas I would agree with, and others besides.  But the common thread was a support of liberty, and an opposition towards government intervention, both domestic and foreign.

After WWII, the Cold War changed the conservative movement, where a permanent bureaucracy was accepted in order to fight and oppose communism.  Interesting that we used central economic planning to oppose a country that used central economic planning (the USSR).  Hence, a large, strong, engaged and international military presence and even a permanent military-industrial complex was seen as helpful or even necessary to combat the Soviet menace.

After the Cold War was over, many traditional conservatives wanted to scale things back.  What was the need for such a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons, for instance, and troops scattered across the globe?  Let’s step down as superpower now that the Soviet threat vanished.

It turns out that this philosophy (more conservative in my opinion) was rejected in favor of a much more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy.  We not only kept our military strong, but we wanted to maintain our presence and monopoly as the world’s sole superpower.  We would make sure another country would not challenge us for this role.  Sounds a little too imperialistic for my tastes.  But by and large, the masses have swallowed this.  Even in discussions about Iraq, nearly no one is talking about re-thinking our interventionist foreign policy.  Instead, we need to get more involved in other regions and conflicts (i.e. Darfur for the Democrats and Iran for the Republicans) than we are today.  As I have said before, I am staunchly opposed to this aggressive, arrogant, militant attitude many mistake for patriotism.

In any case, there are paleoconservatives out there I agree with on many issues; examples include Pat Buchanan, Clyde Wilson, Tom Fleming, and Paul Craig Roberts.  While I may not agree with the vitriol used (especially in Dr. Wilson’s and Mr. Roberts’ articles) there is definitely compatibility with certain subjects and ideas about the role of government.



Filed under fiscal policy, foreign policy, Libertarian, monetary policy, Paleoconservatism, politics, role of government

5 responses to “Paleoconservatism (Traditional Conservatives) vs. Libertarianism

  1. I have to learn how to control my vitriol too. I came from Europe, and having discovered the roots of liberty here, it hurts double to see what’s left of them being forgotten and despised. One issue I have with Ron Paul-style thought is the anti-military stance. Even though a less interventionist policy would be good, that doesn’t mean immediate withdrawal and rhetoric vilifying the “American Empire” are the right way to win over the young men and women who fight and die for the remaining culturally inherited belief in liberty that they possess.

    I will also never understand how people can belief in the literal word of the bible or koran or any religious book. We are evolved apes. I do respect and treasure the tradition of liberty that christendom has spawned, and christians have done more good than any other group of people in the history of mankind.

  2. plato04

    A Young Curmudgeon,

    Thanks for your empathy.

    What level of non-interventionism do you support? Is it just the rhetorical devices Dr. Paul uses that you have some difficulty agreeing with, or is it the ends to which he is working? Or perhaps a little of both?

    I would submit that Dr. Paul received more military donations than any other candidate. To me, that bespeaks military support. And I think there are many in the military who are unsure why we are in Iraq, in Germany, in Korea, etc. What is the great need and utility for our unending presence in these varied global locales?

  3. I am very much torn on this issue. Old Right non-interventionism was against WW1 and WW2 involvement. I would be in favor of protecting and saving Europe and all Western countries from totalitarian powers, whether they be fascist or communist. One could argue that American involvement in WW1 caused WW2, so I am open to the argument America should have stayed out from the beginning altogether. That didn’t happen, and given the state of the world in the 30s I think defeating Japan and Germany, and later on waging a more or less global strategic war against communism were noble ends that have created a much better world than would have happened if the US would have been completely non-interventionist.

    The rhetoric of Ron Paul is definitely a big part of my ambivalence towards him. It reeks of conspiratorial, ill intentions on the part of the US, which I think is very far from the truth. If anything, the US is too naive and well-intentioned. I think this is why Ron Paul attracts so many young supporters. They like the Black Helicopter type thinking, and gives them something to be “anti” about to differentiate themselves from the standard middle-class religious republicanism. I think this is a big attractor in general for young people to libertarianism: the need to take an idea to its extreme, to be ideologically purist, to rebel against existing structures. I don’t think this is a very sustainable way of looking at things, even though Ron Paul is part of an older tradition, I don’t think very highly of a lot of his supporters. Libertarianism is just a brand of the larger anti-government movement in America. Hard-core differentiation isn’t in anyone’s interest except the left-wing.

    I do believe the military is an attractor of constitutionalists, with patriotic citizenship values being very much a part of average soldiers. Support for Republicans, and even Ron Paul, seems a natural consequence. I think this is tragic. If anything, people with these sentiments are so rare in the world they should definitely not be incinerated by crude bombs made by illiterate medieval fanatics. They should be strengthening the conservative movement at home.

    What Ron Paul seems to forget is that US foreign policy was completely communism-focused before 1989, and after that sudden implosion was left with a superpower status. Institutional stickiness kept the bases around. They are already being closed in Europe I believe, and the process of reinvention is going on as we speak.

    I believe a fusion between the varying strands of small government ideologies is called for, with a more pragmatic outlook than Ron Paul, more aware of the dangers of Jihad, but also more careful and humble than the current approach, although given the situation that we’re in, the current policies in Iraq can’t be much improved upon I believe, although that is not saying very much.

  4. plato04

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I must say that “curmudgeon” is one of my all-time favorite nouns: right up there with “hooligan.”

    I share your mixed feelings about non-interventionism, especially with regards to WWII. However, I do think that if we ratcheted down our military presence from what it was during the Cold War, many many deaths would have been prevented (i.e. Vietnam, Korea). I also am of the opinion that the Soviet implosion could have happened just as well if the arms race was much more subdued.

    I sincerely wish that U.S. military bases were being closed in the world. And some are. But by and large, we maintain a huge overseas presence. I agree with you that there is an institutional stickiness, but I don’t think that’s really going away anytime soon. Without a strong opposition, what’s to unstick the stickiness? I think we should rethink whether the United States should assume the role as the world’s sole superpower.

    I agree that much of the rhetoric could and perhaps should be ratcheted down; I’ve noticed far too much simplistic name-calling (like “war-mongering fascist,” for one, being used as a descriptor of evangelical Christians) among the libertarian movement, and far too little attempts at true understanding and empathy.

    For the small government movement to grow, I think there needs to be a change in tactics: more empathy and less shock-value, which is what much of the movement (like Paul Craig Roberts, for instance) seems to do. If people really understood the true effect of huge government policies, then the small government movement would explode. But shouting in their ear really doesn’t get us there.

    I also have concerns about ideological extremism. I would like a practical, ideal, sustainable society. Extremism doesn’t really get us there.

  5. mormonpaleo

    A Young Curmudgeon,

    I am curious to know what sparked your comments about literal interpretation of the bible and the statement that we are evolved apes. Was there a particular post or comment that you were responding to with these comments?

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