Jim DeMint’s libertarian lesson

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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This week, Sen. Jim DeMint offered some advice to the Republican Party: “The debate in the Republican Party needs to be between libertarians and conservatives. … There’s no longer room for moderates and liberals because we don’t have any money to spend, so I don’t want to be debating with anyone who wants to grow government.”

Rick Santorum has said: “I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement.” Sen. DeMint says: “I’d like to see a Republican Party that embraces a lot of the libertarian ideas.” Not surprisingly, Santorum has spent most of his political career promoting big government. Not surprisingly, DeMint has spent most of his political career fighting it.

Some Republicans today continue to insist that libertarianism isn’t really conservatism. The Republicans who say this are generally the same people who felt comfortable calling George W. Bush conservative. Some of these Republicans still believe this of Bush, even though the last GOP president was one of the biggest spenders in American history, second only to Obama. These same Republicans now often say they want to protect conservatism from libertarian influence. But there can be no conservatism without libertarian influence. This is nothing new.

Probably the most popular and cited history of American conservatism, George H. Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, begins in 1945 — and it begins with libertarianism. Titled “The Revolt of the Libertarians,” the second paragraph of Nash’s first chapter states, “For those who believed in the creed of old-fashioned, classical, nineteenth-century liberal individualism, 1945 was especially lonely, unpromising, and bleak. Free markets, private property, limited government, self reliance, laissez faire — it had been a long time since principles like these guided government and persuaded peoples.”

Chronicling the intellectuals who tried to rectify this bleakness, Nash begins his history with two men — economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises — and explains how these two libertarian heroes kick-started the American conservative movement. Few actually used the word “conservatism” in 1945, a term that began to gain popularity when Russell Kirk’s book “The Conservative Mind” was published in 1953 and with the founding of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955. Nash notes that even Kirk, who later had his own squabbles with fellow National Review writer and libertarian Frank Meyer, was first inspired by both Hayek and Mises, writing to a friend that these men represented a “great school of economists of a much sounder and different mind.”

Nash then cites Albert Jay Nock, who published the unabashedly libertarian magazine The Freeman in the 1920s. Nash writes that “Nock came to exert a significant amount of influence on the postwar Right,” yet was so libertarian that he “verged on anarchism in his denunciations of the inherently aggrandizing State.” Noting the impression Nock made on a young Buckley, Nash explains that “it was Nockian libertarianism, in fact, which exercised the first conservative influence on the future editor of National Review.”

Nash’s entire book is a grand history of the mixture of conservatism and libertarianism, with the two often being indistinguishable. The American Spectator says of this work: “Nash’s seminal book will remind today’s hotheads that the modern conservative movement was made possible by a coalition of traditionalists and libertarians …”

When Ronald Reagan called libertarianism the “heart and soul of conservatism” in 1976, he was not citing some imaginary coalition, but recognizing American conservatism for what it had always been — a “coalition of traditionalists and libertarians” dedicated to promoting the philosophy of limited government.

Dismissing libertarianism as not real conservatism is like dismissing filet mignon as not real steak — an attempt to marginalize a particular aspect of something that many have believed to be, as Reagan did, the meat of the matter. Indeed, advocating for “limited government” without employing some degree of libertarianism would be logistically impossible. In his 2002 book “Worth Fighting For,” Sen. John McCain unintentionally explained the missing ingredient in his big-government philosophy:

I welcomed a greater, if still limited, role for government in national problems, anathema to the “leave us alone” libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s. So did George W. Bush, I must add, who challenged libertarian orthodoxy with his appeal for a “compassionate conservatism.

Said DeMint of Bush-era Republicans: “You could accuse Republicans of a lot of things, but you could never convict us of being too conservative!”

DeMint’s insistence that the Republican Party adopt libertarian ideas is not some bizarre retreat from conservatism, but a return to form. During the last decade, the GOP retreated from conservatism. DeMint simply wants to go back to it. Libertarianism has never been simply an offshoot of the conservative movement but an integral part of it — historically, philosophically and definitively. DeMint, no libertarian himself, gets this. The rest of the Republican Party better get it too if there is to be any hope of limited government.

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.