Are You Confused About National Conservatism?

By Jeffrey A. Tucker

Economic libertarians are people convinced of the practical and moral legitimacy of the commercial society. Here’s a warning to those who self-identify: you are seriously under assault from the left and the right, not to mention an army of regulators and tax-hungry bureaucrats, and moralists of all stripes. 

It seems incredible: Civilization has never been so obviously blessed by markets as we are today. At this very moment out come the long knives. 

For the better part of half a century, the main opponents of the free market have come from the political Left, people who want to use the state to steer markets to achieve predetermined results. The excuses for intervention are endless, but the leftist orientation has been a mainstay, thereby creating the mistaken impression that economic liberalism is properly placed on the right side of the political spectrum, perhaps even representing some version of conservatism. 

These past taxonomic habits are quickly becoming non-operational with the rise of nationalism in the U.S. and around the world. The new rightists loathe the Left but are equally hostile to the commercial forces of laissez-faire capitalism. They are thus driving a deep wedge into a fragile political and intellectual coalition that has lasted many decades since World War II: that between the commercial interests of the merchant class, the large-state ambitions of the defense industry, and the moral agenda of the religious right. This emerging reality is compelling economic libertarians to rethink their own ideological identity as something independent of both left and right — as it always has been and should be today. 

The trend has been growing on the American Right for some years, beginning with skepticism toward markets and trending ever more to open hostility. The latest evidence comes from a large-scale conference in Washington, D.C., on what purports to be a new ideological movement called national conservatism, as organized by Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism. His brand of politics is restrictionist in every way: against immigration, against global trade, against freedom of choice, and even raising doubts about religious freedom. While the conference had diverse participants, the general message is that this new nationalism is the best-possible response to left-wing domination of the academy, the media, and the giants in technology. It purports to be a muscular and powerful ideology of national unity, renewing a sense of American purpose. 

As for the racism and anti-Semitism (and many other isms) that have discredited the so-called alt-right, this group claims to have zero tolerance. This is nationalism scrubbed clean of its historical baggage, so they say. As regards most in attendance, this is surely correct, just as a similar high-end left-wing conference would undoubtedly repudiate the long history of Marxian terror. The problem is more fundamental: what do the intellectuals unleash that they cannot control? 

What does national conservatism say about economics, which is to say, what about freedom in the commercial sphere that pretty well encapsulates everything materially meaningful in your life, from your access to health care to the well-being of your children? The conference largely rejected it. Leaders polled attendees on the question of national industrial policy — meaning protectionism, antitrust, and centralized economic planning in the tradition of the two Roosevelts — and the results were decisive: 95 for and 51 against. Speaker after speaker inveighed against the free market and capitalism. It was a decisive turn against libertarianism in all respects. 

A more historically accurate way to understand this movement is as a branch of anti-liberalism.  It’s not unfair to call this movement statist; most attendees would likely admit that. E.C. Harwood would describe this as a counterrevolutionary movement against the revolution. 

The Trump phenomenon is the political context here. It’s hardly unusual to observe intellectuals scurrying to stay relevant in light of political change. But there’s more going on here. Nationalism is on the rise around the world. It’s caught many people intellectually off guard.

For now, the most important step is to gain an understanding of this strange ideology of right-wing collectivism and what it means for the free society. We need to understand the ideas behind it all (and this is true also for those who find themselves tempted by alt-right ideology). These ideas need to become real in our minds and thereby recognizable even when its adherents aren’t giving salutes to dictators or trolling on Twitter. We need a crash course in what I think is most accurately called right-Hegelianism. We need a conception of its roots, history, and meaning.

National conservatism fits squarely in the anti-liberal tradition. It is nothing new. It grew out of a revanchist attempt in the early 19th century, beginning in old Prussia, to turn back all the ways in which the then-new liberalism was upsetting national loyalties, traditional social hierarchies, and settled religious identities. Its watchword was restriction as a means of turning back the gains of freedom. It sought not the end of religion, family, and private property but their control under a unity model of state imposition. “The state is the divine will,” announced G.F. Hegel in a principle that defines this worldview, the “mind present on earth, unfolding itself to be the actual shape and organisation of a world.”

Ludwig von Mises was a fierce opponent of this ideological predilection, writing in Omnipotent Government that Hegel ruined German philosophy for longer than a century. Mises had been fighting left-collectivism his entire career. But when the right-collectivists showed up in Vienna, he was forced to flee his home for Geneva. Once he was safe in the United States in 1940, he went to work almost immediately, reconstructing the intellectual history and meaning of what was called fascism and eventually became Nazism.

The book appeared just as the war was ending. Here Mises reveals the economics, politics, and cultural appeal, as well as the conditions, that led to the Nazi rise. He deals very frankly with issues like nationalism (on which he experienced a change of mind from earlier in his career), trade, race, market integration, Jewry, discrimination, class resentment, imperialism, demographic control, trade, and the core illiberalism of rightist collectivism.

What you get out of this book: Mises will train your intellectual instincts to make sense out of what might seem like chaos around you. You will see patterns. You will see connections. You will see trajectories of thought and where they end up. In a strange way, then, the result of the book is to create a calming effect. It makes sense of the whole complicated mess. The book is also infused with an amazing and powerful passion that could only come from someone with his brilliance and direct and personal experience with the problem at hand.

F.A. Hayek the Anti-Fascist

My next choice in a tutorial on right-collectivism is the most famous book that few today have read. It came out the same year as Mises’s book. It is The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek.

The usual interpretation of this book’s core message — that the welfare state brings about socialism — is incorrect. What Hayek actually argues is that socialism takes many forms, styles, and shades (red and brown, or left and right) and every variation results in the loss of freedom. You can believe you are fighting fascism with socialism and end up with a fascistic state, or you can fight socialism with fascism and end up with an authoritarian socialist state. He demonstrates that these really are false alternatives, and the only real and sustainable alternative to dictatorship is the free society.

Here again, Hayek had a profound personal interest in the outcome of the great ideological struggles of his time and understood them very well. He too was driven out of his home by the Nazi threat and landed in London, where the academic scene was dominated by Fabian-style socialists who imagined themselves to be great fighters of fascism. Hayek shocked them all by calling them out: the system you want to manage society will actually bring about the very thing you claim to oppose. 

In other words, the book is not as much about the reds as it is about the browns and the threat that this way of thinking poses even to England and America.

In the course of his argument, he offers a basic tutorial in the functioning of freedom itself, which can never mean “rule by intellectuals” or “rule by intelligent social managers” but rather refers to the knowledge-discovery process that characterizes the choices of individuals in society.

John T. Flynn the Anti-Fascist

The year 1944 also saw the publication of one of the greatest but least remembered attacks on fascism ever written: John T. Flynn’s As We Go Marching.

Flynn was an amazing writer and thinker who came out of the anti-New Deal movement of the 1930s. This is his best and most scholarly work, with a full biography of Mussolini and a rich examination of fascist ideology. He provides the best list of traits of fascist politics I’ve seen. The message, in the end, is about how every warring state adopts fascist forms, with a specific accusation directed against Washington, D.C. In some ways, his message is similar to Hayek’s but more tactile and focused.

Three years after the above books appeared, Mises wrote a large essay that provides a one-stop shop for all things political that Mises had learned during his life. The manuscript grew and grew until it became a book that appeared in 1947: Planned Chaos, now included as part of The Best of Mises. It’s a masterpiece, one that bears reading and re-reading throughout your life.

I’ve looked far and wide for another essay from the period that directly connects Nazi experiments with American eugenics and failed to find one. Mises saw that relationship and called it out in several amazing passages. Directly relevant here are the sections on fascism and Nazism in particular. In brief form, he explains the roots of the terror in intellectual error.

The Terrible History

And this takes us directly to the hidden history of demographic planning in America. No understanding of right-Hegelianism and its implications can take shape without grappling with this weirdly hidden history.

Why is it so hidden, and why has it taken 100 years to finally deal with the scandal that nearly the entire American ruling intellectual class was consumed by eugenic ideology for many decades before World War II? I suspect the reason is embarrassment about what happened. In particular, progressives do not want to talk about this.

Eugenics is an inevitable outcome of any form of identitarianism that focuses on race and geography, as the alt-right does (the alt-left is the same!). If you can’t control the “anarchy of human reproduction,” all bets are off. In some ways, controlling birth is the first order of business for any form of rightist totalitarianism. That means: racism as an ideology and a statist tactic for managing the social order.

I’ve always been intrigued about the young boys on the streets shouting racist slogans and trolling people on Twitter, imagining that they are so politically incorrect. They have no idea that they are actually adopting the views of the entire American ruling class from a century ago that built the state they claim to hate. Indeed, most Americans know absolutely nothing about this history and how it was absolutely central to the building of the invasive and ubiquitous state that emerged out of the Progressive Era.

Progressivism Is Racism

The most important tutorial is Thomas Leonard’s explosively brilliant Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (2016). This book (packed with footnotes that will keep you busy for weeks) documents how eugenic ideology corrupted the entire social science profession in the first two decades of the 20th century. Across the board, in the books and articles of the profession, you find all the concerns about race suicide, the poisoning of the national bloodstream by inferiors, and the desperate need for state planning to breed people the way ranchers breed animals. Talk about hidden history!

Now, you might say: these are Progressives, not rightists! It’s true, and that speaks to Hayek’s point about red and brown being the inevitable expressions of factionalism with any single movement. The core point is that the word “progressive” here is ridiculously wrong. The Progressives themselves can be divided between right and left varieties, but they were all reactionaries against the emergence laissez-faire in the 19th century that drove such explosive demographic changes. It's one of the great ironies of intellectual/political history how the Left and Right blend into a single oppositional force to the free society. 

This next book deals directly with this problem. It was a formative book for me personally because it answered a question I had long entertained but never answered. The question is this. Why was the free society overthrown so quickly and with such decisiveness and in such a short time, even though we were then surrounded by the evidence of the success of the free society? It’s long been a mystery to me.

Snobbery and Statism

The answer is provided by John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (2005), which reveals a side to upper-class intellectuals in the UK that you didn’t know existed. They despised the free market, not because it didn’t work but because it did work. It was displacing the old aristocracy, transforming the cities, bringing the masses new consumer products, and transforming class relations. And they hated it. In other words, the revolt against laissez faire was fed by snobbery, and that led to the most extreme solution justified in the name of eugenics: the extermination of inferiors.

To see how this played out in the U.S., have a look at the harrowing and horrible evidence marshaled in Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (2003, 2012). It shows how eugenics was central to Progressive Era politics. Laws requiring sterilization claimed 60,000 victims, but that was just the beginning. The entire nature and purpose of the regime changed in the direction of comprehensive social planning, a movement that is simply impossible to comprehend without realizing that eugenic and racist (and, inevitably, misogynistic) concerns were the driving force.

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2009) covers much of the same territory. It is an outstanding book that will continue to pay high returns for decades. The book is marred, however, by the author’s incessant desire to blame everything that went wrong on the “Left” and the “liberals” (talk about a misnomer!). His refusal to acknowledge the broadness of the eugenic movement and its diverse ideological expressions — which were fundamentally conservative in motivation — makes the whole book come across like some partisan attack. If only he had admitted that the revolt against laissez-faire took on many colorings, the book would have made a much more powerful statement for freedom and against statism in all its forms.

Right-Hegelianism also takes religious forms. It begins with a small sect that believes its religion has been unbearably corrupted by modernity and seeks out ancient texts as guides to reconstructing it in a purer if forgotten form. The results depart from the organic development of the faith in question to embrace a rationalist reconstruction.

It has great leaders that build a movement focused on some great restorative act that involves coercion and the invention of a rationale for every manner of immortality. Such movements have popped up in the 20th century within varieties of religious expression, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Magic, and Occultism. The strange guide here is Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.

That’s the main list, the books that open up a new world of intellectual exploration and shine so much light on where we are today. More valuable still is reading the original works of these thinkers, from Johann Fichte to Friedrich List to John Ruskin to Madison Grant to Carl Schmitt and beyond. The loathing of liberalism is never more obvious than when experienced from the author's own hand. This is the best way to get into their heads and understand (and thereby combat) their worldview. 

Before you accuse me of smearing the national conservatives of ghastly baggage of the past (just as the Left refuses any talk of real-life Marxism), let me be clear that many people at this conference who write for the journals have every good intention, and have no interest in the darker aspects of nationalism’s history. 

And yet: the real problem with nationalism is that it is an empty slogan crying out to be filled with some substance — something, anything, that can cause it to mean something in practice. It could be religion. It could be race. It could be lineage. It could be geography. It could be language. Whatever the specifics, the goal and means always ends up the same: loyalty to the state or else. A nationalist ideology will make you part of some collective whether you want it or not, because this is what is good for you, your personal wishes be damned. 

The American Right isn’t fully absorbed into the nationalist ethos yet, but it is making huge strides in this direction. The time to resist is now. But there will be no successful resistance without a broad view of the threats we face. That requires some serious study. Then the next step is just as important: develop a new vision of a society that manages itself without imposition and management from the fanatics on either side of today’s political spectrum. 

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages, most recently The Market Loves You. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn