the hollow Right

Brian DohertyJeffrey Tucker points us to an excellent article in Reason by senior editor Brian Doherty:

“Conservatism’s Hollow Defeat: The intellectual right, now in the wilderness, keeps deluding itself about supposed past glories.”

Here are my favorite passages from his review of some new histories of the American Right:

Schneider might not agree, but the lesson that comes through most clearly is this: War is the health of the state and the death of a principled movement supposedly dedicated to keeping the state limited. From the Cold War to the Iraq war, conservatives—and certainly Republicans—have sacrificed liberty in the name of national security.

[…]

There’s a reason most books about the right don’t recount these tales, or at least not in great detail: The intellectual and political tradition they represented was modern libertarianism, not modern conservatism. Phillips-Fein elides this point by telling a story about conservatism that pretty much ignores what became its constitutive aspect: foreign policy and the Cold War, which is the battleground on which the nascent libertarian and conservative movements fought and eventually separated.

[…]

While Phillips-Fein isn’t 100 percent solid on all the nuances of the ideas of the Austrian libertarian economists Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, she is far more savvy than most nonlibertarians who grapple with them in noting that their thinking was not conservative—that is, they were not defenders of any existing plutocratic privilege. Instead, they stood for the notion that “the market created a space of freedom, a world in which individual action could revolutionize society.”

[…]

Truly radical free market policies, of the sort Read and Mullendore supported, have always been and remain a niche concern, not the focus of a major political party or movement. Businessmen in politics mostly have supported what they think they need to support to get by in a world of omnipresent government. That sometimes entails loosening a particular regulation or trimming a particular tax, but it almost never entails general advocacy of laissez faire.

I love this history and I’m amazed at how consistently the mainstream (both Right and Left) gets it wrong. Doherty points to the essential reason: if you don’t follow the distinctions among these supposedly “right-wing” ideas — and the fact that the libertarian and conservative threads of this intellectual history are ultimately incompatible — then you can’t possibly makes sense of the discrepancy between word and deed in the 20th-century American Right.

For a history that does get it, you still have to turn to Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right.

I can’t comment on Doherty’s own Radicals for Capitalism, since I haven’t read it. (It came out just as my own focus was shifting more intensely from modern history to the ancient variety.) But if “Conservatism’s Hollow Defeat” is any indication, we have in Doherty a singular and worthy historian of American political thought.

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