A Tale of Two Libertarianisms


Matt Lewis

I was surprised and delighted by the terrific response (both positive and negative) my recent Politics Daily column on social conservatism versus libertarianism aroused.

One friend -- whom I respect greatly -- even direct messaged me on Twitter, saying: "Best thing you've ever written."

My primary goal was to make the case that there are long-held and respected intellectual arguments for a social conservative philosophy. (It had occurred to me that this is not widely understood -- or fully appreciated.) In this regard, I think I succeeded.

But while my primary argument about social conservatism may have been acute, my criticism of libertarianism may have painted with too broad a brush. Though I did note that my criticisms were aimed at "the pure libertarian (as opposed to those of us who have some libertarian leanings)" -- some who read the piece clearly misinterpreted my column as an attack on classical liberalism.

Of course, a thorough reading of my oeuvre would paint a clearer picture of my political philosophy than any one column ever could. (This, of course, is the burden of every writer.) Not to compare myself to a great conservative thinker, but concluding that my denunciation of a pure libertarian philosophy makes me anti-classical liberal would be like assuming that Bill Buckley's feud with Ayn Rand made him anti-classical liberal.

Again, my mistake was in not drawing a clear enough distinction between different strains of libertarianism. It is fortunate for me that another writer has recently made what I think is perhaps a key distinction -- which I neglected.

Writing at the DC Examiner, Chris Malagisi writes:

Presently, there are two groups of classical liberals that represent one-third of the conservative coalition – Conservative-Movement Libertarians and Neo-Objectivists. Conservative-Movement Libertarians are the majority and associate themselves with the traditional "Classical Liberal" wing of the conservative coalition. They are not only ardent limited government supporters but understand the importance of being part of a larger coalition in order to actually achieve legislative and electoral victories. They understand that being right, in the sense of being philosophically correct, is not sufficient to win.

On the other hand, Neo-Objectivists, led by Rep. Ron Paul (TX-14) and his affiliate groups, demand libertarian ideological purity and are outright hostile to the other strands of the conservative coalition. The Neo-Objectivists are the modern descendants of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism. While Rand is known primarily for her two novels – Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead – her philosophy of objectivism, stressing radical self-interest and domestic isolationism, lives on through the Neo-Objectivist's cult-like following of Ron Paul and their zealous, if not, belligerent display of licentiousness. For example, as former Vice President Dick Cheney was speaking at the recent CPAC, this crew raucously yelled at him throughout his speech calling him a "war criminal."

There is no doubt the lure of objectivism is attractive to many, especially to younger masses as they are still discovering their political and moral compass in life. The rejection of the welfare state, the virtues of the free market, and the celebration of individual self-assertion are popular themes of the libertarian right and are shared by "fusionist" movement conservatives. So why are these conservatives upset by this small minority? While claiming they are conservative – they are not, and because they are not only disagreeable, but also hostile to the other two legitimate strands of the conservative movement – Traditionalists and Anti-Communists

Malagisi, it seems to me, has made a keen observation about modern-day libertarianism. In retrospect, my criticism would have perhaps been better-directed at what Malagisi dubs the "Neo-Objectivists."

To be sure, one can still quibble about traditional conservatism versus conservative-movement libertarianism, but both fit comfortably into the rubric: "Friends of liberty."

(I have no doubt that my "clarification" may also prove controversial to some. Still, it is more rewarding to be criticized for what you actually believe to be true...)