The Republican Party of the late Cold War stood for economic freedom, opposing collectivist tendencies at home and abroad. With the end of the Cold War and the revelation that the Soviets falsified their economic reports, socialist economic theory was largely discredited and the Republican macroeconomic position vindicated. But in their victory, the Republicans lost a political edge: a Democratic president signed welfare reform into law, the Democrats largely renounced Johnson’s Great Society and Democrats joined Republicans in lauding the greatness of capitalism. It remains to be seen whether the new Democratic majority in Congress will live up to its rhetoric of fiscal responsibility. But it is a remarkable fact that the 2006 candidacy considered by many to represent the far left was that of Ned Lamont, an entrepreneur and self-described fiscal conservative.
In the wake of the Republican defeat in the midterm elections of 2006, a plethora of voices on the right explained the Republican defeat by saying the Republicans strayed from their core principles. Though they claim the mantle of conservatism, these pundits push a libertarian platform, arguing that American voters abandoned the Republican Party because it strayed from its commitment to libertarian ideology. In reality, American voters abandoned the Republican Party because they are a moralizing people who reject Republican corruption and the opacity of the American effort in Iraq.
It is true that Republicans in Washington could use a refresher on the benefits of limited government, but Republicans would not be reclaiming lost principles by adopting a libertarian ideology. The commitment of American conservatism to limited government has never been about an ideology that favors freedom as an end over all other goods. Rather, American conservatives have long recognized that limited government and free economic markets are often conducive to the greater goods of health, industry, purpose, family and charity. This stance could be called “means-libertarianism,” for it advocates limited government insofar as limited government is a means to higher ends. Thus, to the extent that such freedom infringes upon these ends, conservatives realize the necessity of limiting freedom. The Republican Party would do well to listen to its conservatives and “means-libertarians” rather than the ideological libertarians who consider the 2006 defeat a chance to consolidate control of the party.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is forging ahead, developing an increasingly coherent ideology despite its best efforts to be a mere coalition of minorities and special interests. The emerging ideology: “end-libertarianism,” a philosophy that takes individual autonomy as its end and constructs all policy around this purpose. Under “end-libertarianism,” the federal government first plays a prominent role as a means to undermine social prescription and custom, thereby favoring individual freedoms over the standards of families and communities. After the federal government has done the dirty work of coercively limiting the influence of custom, all forms of government — federal, state and local — are barred from further activity by an ever-expanding assertion of individual rights. The result: Individuals are liberated from the bonds of custom and government force, left free to fulfill their every whim. While the fractious minorities and special interests in the Democratic Party disagree on which interest is most important and which interests should receive the most patronage, all agree to this vision of individual autonomy.
Moreover, while the philosophy of “end-libertarianism” prescribes a method by which to attain greater individual autonomy, it also integrates in one philosophy the threads of political advocacy that dominate the American left. It provides a principled philosophical foundation for pacifist sentiment; it produces the value system that places at its fore tolerance, diversity and pluralism; it justifies the rejection of traditional morality; it excuses abortion.
The good news for the Republican Party: A majority of Americans reject “end-libertarianism.” Despite hating the war, the president, the deficit and the scandals, many Americans stuck with the Republicans because they correctly sense that the Democratic Party is animated by a philosophy incompatible with traditional family values. Indeed, the fact that the left finds little significance in President Clinton’s personal infidelities reveals how out of touch it is with the great mass of the American people. The consequence is that as long as the Democrats maintain their current intellectual course, the elections of the next few decades will be won or lost by the Republicans. If the Republicans prove competent and somewhat less corrupt, they will win.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.