Robert Eno of Conservative Review named Rand Paul the “standout of the night” after the December 15 Republican Presidential Debate on CNN. Eno laments that the mainstream media, including “conservative media pundits,” will proclaim Rubio the winner. Eno implies these pundits aren’t true conservatives, referring to a species of unicorn sought by millions of self-identified conservative voters.
Rand Paul himself has called out Rubio and other proponents of the U.S. military empire as failing to adhere to authentic conservative principles. The self-named “neoconservatives,” we’re told, are really progressives in Republican clothing, failing to promote the true conservative principles of small government, free markets and a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Rand is right about nonintervention, but he’s wrong about conservatism. There is nothing new about the neoconservatives. The essence of conservativism itself is belief in the need for an all-powerful government that regulates every area of life domestically and dominates every other nation in the world. This has been the conservative worldview for thousands of years. It has never changed.
Conservatives see the world as Thomas Hobbes did. Human nature is so depraved that the government must be powerful enough to “keep them in awe.” Like other enlightenment philosophers, Hobbes saw the relationship of nations to one another as virtually identical to the relationship between individual people. They are all in a de facto state of war unless one nation dominates the rest.
This explains the otherwise puzzling compulsion by generations of U.S. politicians to interfere in the affairs of destitute Third World countries thousands of miles away. Just as individual liberty within society is a threat to the commonwealth, self-determination by any individual nation is a threat to the world order. The “domino theory” offered as justification for the Korean and Viet Nam Wars was firmly rooted in Hobbesian conservatism. So was the British Empire.
Many conservatives would object and point to Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk as representing the true tenets of conservatism. There’s only one problem: Burke and Kirk agree with Hobbes on just about everything.
Hobbes, Burke and Kirk all deny the existence of natural, inalienable rights. Like Hobbes, Burke says that man in the state of nature “has a right to everything,” meaning there can be no rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Rather than “to secure these rights,” according to Burke, governments exist so “the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.”
The only disagreement between Hobbesian “centralizers” and Burkean “constitutionalists” is on how government power should be distributed. The Hobbesians believe the sovereign power can never be safely divided. It must reside in one place, preferably in one man. Hobbesians in American history include Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and George W. Bush.
The Burkeans believe the opposite. As the politicians have the same dark nature, they must be thwarted, too. Burkean conservatives in American history include John Adams, Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater.
Here’s the rub. While Burkean constitutional conservatives want power divided, they still believe 100% of the power resides somewhere in the government. If the federal government isn’t going to regulate a particular area of life, then the state or municipal government should. Or the town government. Or your local school board. No area of life remains unregulated.
Similarly, the two conservative camps have disagreements on foreign policy, but not on principle. “Old Right” conservatives like Robert Taft may have argued against war, but Taft’s chief argument against participation in NATO was his fear it would concentrate too much power in the executive, although he hints at the non-aggression principle in passing:
“Under the Monroe Doctrine we could change our policy at any time. We could judge whether perhaps one of the countries had given cause for the attack. Only Congress could declare a war in pursuance of the doctrine. Under the new pact the President can take us into war without Congress.”
Contrary to the beliefs of a lot of well-meaning people, individual liberty, limited government and free markets are the antithesis of conservatism and always have been. Mercantilism is the economic system of conservatism; empire its natural foreign policy.
The American Revolution was very much a libertarian revolution against a Hobbesian, mercantilist and militarist empire. The ensuing struggle between Federalists and Jeffersonians was likewise a struggle between conservatism and libertarianism, respectively.
As inconsistent as he sometimes was in practice, Jefferson’s thinking and writing remained consistent on this point throughout his life. He repeatedly cited the libertarian principle that government should “restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free” in describing the limits of government power.
His foreign policy was mostly libertarian as well. Unlike President Obama, he really gutted the military, cutting its budget by over 90% and largely dismantling the navy (the army was already disbanded when he took office). His stated purpose was to make the navy a purely defensive force, incapable of foreign adventures.
Like millions of self-identified conservatives, Rand Paul is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. He’s trying to see libertarianism as a subset of conservativism, just as Reagan did. It isn’t. It’s no surprise that even his attempt to portray himself as an authentic, Old Right conservative has failed. Trying to blend conservatism and libertarianism leads one into all sorts of self-contradictory positions.
It’s no coincidence that enthusiasm has peaked at those moments when Paul has taken the purely libertarian positions of his father, as he did filibustering drone strikes on American citizens or the Patriot Act. The marketplace of ideas is telling him something.
There is an intuitive libertarian instinct in everyone. The desire to live and let live and use force only in response to aggression is quite literally the “law of nature,” as Locke wrote over three hundred years ago. There are millions of Americans who believe it, but have it philosophically jumbled with the antithetical tenets of conservatism.
Rand Paul may be one of them. Or, he may believe the only way to make America more libertarian is by appealing to conservatives within the political process. Either way, he’s wrong.
Americans are starving for something besides conservatism or liberalism (as it’s defined today). A lot of them just don’t know it. Rand Paul could do the most good by taking his father’s ideas a step farther and rejecting conservatism altogether. It’s a dead end for the liberty movement, just as it always has been.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.