April 28, 2021 Reading Time: 9 minutes

A seminal book of essays has been published by the American Institute for Economic Research. It collects a huge range of mighty essays, speeches, and debates from the Cold War period of US history. They were delivered at the Philadelphia Society, an organization founded in 1964 for the purpose of fostering discussion and debate between two factions of what is commonly called the “right” (I do not accept that designation). The title is Conversations on Conservatism, edited by Marcus Witcher, Blake Ball, and Kevin Hughes. 

The book is a treasure of historical-ideological documentation. Covering the period 1965 through 1982, it provides a remarkable look into some of the most important postwar debates, centering in the midst of the political tumult of the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the draft resistance movement, the Nixon impeachment, the rise of the welfare state, and so much more. Their objective was to hammer out principles in the interest of saving the cause of freedom from many encroachments. Writers here are among the most influential voices within this sector of opinion at the time: Milton Friedman, William Buckley, Robert Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, Frank Meyer, George Stigler, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Don Devine, and many more. 

I’ve kept delaying a review of this book because it contains so much about which to write, to the point that a proper review would have to be very long. Instead, I’ve decided just to make some small notes on a few of the contributions. 

It might seem like a luxury during our crisis times to revisit the old debate between conservatism and libertarianism. The two have long been united in favoring limits on government, while disagreeing on practical and philosophical details. Regardless, neither proved capable of stopping the lockdowns, the worst peacetime policy fiasco of our lifetimes and longer. For some reason that will be up to historians to figure out, neither philosophical system stepped up in a robust way during 2020 to oppose the unthinkable. 

I will provide one of many examples. One might have expected that National Review, with a long history of preaching limited government, would have spoken out passionately in the early days of the lockdowns. Instead, editor Rich Lowry spent the publication’s reputational capital on a very aggressive argument for lockdowns. He was hardly alone. In the early days, the list of silent voices, and many approving lockdowns, from both camps was long indeed. As the year has dragged on, many conservative voices have indeed been raised against lockdowns, finally.

One wonders what went wrong. I don’t have the answers. Did the intellectuals and pundits fail to consider what government can and cannot get away with in the event of a new pathogen? Were they just outgunned, outsmarted, or just browbeat by media hysterics and fake science experts claiming that neither individual rights nor the Constitution matters because of a virus? 

The end of the Cold War might have drained these “movements” of their passion. The Iraq War led to a huge split based on irreconcilable positions on the place of American power. Possibly the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle diminished the influence of these intellectual pockets even further. Surely making a contribution was the disruption of intellectual life following the rise of Trump, and the way in which his brutal form of politics tempted so many to believe that there was an easy answer out there in the form of a charismatic leader with executive power. 

In light of all of this, and the sad state of things today with the pushers of social-democratic technocracy weiding near-hegemonic control, this book provides a refreshing look back at what a vibrant, intelligent, and passionate alternative looks like. 

The introductory matter by the editors is invaluable for setting the context. The first essay in the book is the one that left the strongest impression on me. It is simply called “Liberalism” by Milton Friedman, a speech delivered February 26, 1965. The title alone speaks to the confusion. This is a book about conservatism and libertarianism but here Friedman works mightily to refurbish what it means to be a liberal: “A person who believes in individual freedom as a central problem in social organization.” 

“As I see it,” he says, “our belief in freedom rests fundamentally on two pillars. One is the belief that the individual is the ultimate entity in the world and society. And the second, which I think is very much more relevant to our dialogue or discourse, is humility.”

By humility he means keeping in mind that one might be wrong, which is precisely why real liberals should resist deploying state power to stamp out that which he or she does not like, much less cobbling together central plans purportedly designed to cleanse the world of evil, inefficiency, inequality, injustice, disease, or whatever other excuse one generates. This is his best case against coercion; that is, the possibility that we could be wrong about the problem and the solution and thus should eschew state impositions.

Humility is not the same as ignorance. The humility to which he refers is rooted instead in a scientific outlook, not the pretended infallible science of the CDC but actual respectable science: 

This is a general problem in science. In science, we must always keep in mind the possibility that we are never absolutely certain, that there is a margin of doubt. But yet, there are some things we know a lot better than other things. There are some things we have a good deal of confidence in. So my emphasis on humility is not an argument that we are ignorant or that we cannot predict the consequences of change, but only an argument that we must keep in mind the possibility that we may be mistaken. And hence, we ought to be very, very careful in trying to impose our views on somebody who is of a different mind.

If we are inclined to think of Friedman as a econo-technocrat himself, he makes clear that his views on the free market are much broader, closer to those of Ludwig von Mises or F.A. Hayek:

A second point I wanted to touch on briefly is to call attention to the fact that the free market as a device for reconciling cooperation with freedom is far broader in scope than we ordinarily think. There is a strong tendency to think that there is somehow an economic sphere of life in which the free market is an appropriate means of organizing activity and getting people to cooperate together with one another, and there is another sphere of life where some other technique has to be adopted. And all I want to emphasize is that what we mean by the free market is simply a system of voluntary cooperation which applies in a very broad area.

Nor is the free market the same as the interests of the business community:

The two groups of people…seem to me, in general, the greatest enemy of a free society. On the one hand there are the businessmen. They are the great enemies of free society because almost every businessman is in favor of free enterprise for everybody else, but against it for himself. On the other hand, the intellectuals, strange to say, are often against the free enterprise society, because they are in favor of it for themselves and against it for everybody else.

It is a common claim of conservatives that for society to function properly, one needs a common set of values. Friedman doesn’t entirely disagree but he clarifies that these values themselves need not be imposed or constructed by intellectual or even religious systems but rather emerge from freedom itself. 

And the second point I want to make, which ties this one up with what I have just been saying, is that just as a free market (voluntary cooperation) is a means of organizing economic activity, (just as it is a means of organizing thought, research, discussion) so also it is a means for building up these basic sets of values. We must not suppose that such basic sets of values necessarily come from outside, or are revealed by religion, or are imposed by somebody. They too can be the product of a free society and of the search by individuals in trying to organize their ideas and live with one another.

What follows his essay are two presentations from a more conservative point of view, to which Friedman responds with even more clarity. 

Now the main point I was trying to get out of my own brief remarks was that the tendency to regard the free market arrangement as exclusively economics is, I think, a very unfortunate and misleading one. And nothing could have illustrated it more than [Stan Perry’s] remarks, because it is a very interesting phenomenon. If you ask yourself the question, “What societies put the greatest emphasis on economic life in a narrow sense?”, there is no doubt about it. It is the non-free market societies. It is the socialist societies, the planned societies, the collectivist societies that devote almost all their energy and aims and strength to the problem of material well-being in a very narrow sense. And on the other hand, it is the societies which emphasize the free market that have been the societies that have produced the greatest cultural achievements, the greatest developments in philosophy and thought and art and architecture. And the reason why? Because what is called the free market approach is misleadingly thought to apply only to economics but is really a way of life that applies to the whole of man’s living and not solely to his economic area.

I’ve focused on Friedman here because it is one of the papers in the book that I found most revealing. We tend perhaps to think of Friedman and Murray Rothbard as at odds on many important matters but their respective papers in this book agree on the fundamentals: that freedom itself must be the organizing principle of society. 

Also, Rothbard’s own paper defends libertarianism against the most common complaints against it, but he too relies heavily on the liberal tradition to make his case. He invokes the thoughts of F.A. Hayek, Lord Acton, John Lilburne, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Locke, Cobden and Bright, Frederic Bastiat, and Thomas Paine – and in so doing reminds readers that it was Rothbard himself who made a major contribution to rediscovering this great tradition of thought. Rothbard’s libertarianism was neither detached nor isolated from this tradition but rather a crystallization and perhaps systematization of it. The point is that Rothbard never imagined a libertarianism sealed off from its long history in liberalism. 

Without going speech by speech, another major contribution to this book stands out. It is William F. Buckley’s, which addresses US foreign policy and the Cold War in particular. I’m a fan of Buckley in so many ways. He had a big influence on me in college. But his willingness to consider the moral and practical merit of nuclear war, even painting a picture of cities being blown up all over the world, is chilling. The first half of the essay hopes for a massive reduction in government power during the first term of Ronald Reagan; the second half imagines nuclear war as a means by which we can protect our freedoms. 

He pushes what he calls the Leningrad Doctrine: the promise to immediately destroy that city in a nuclear hellscape should the Soviet Union launch a nuclear attack. 

If the Soviet Union opted for massive nuclear war our option must be to return that hell in kind. And this option we would need to choose for so simple a reason as that we would not then have died for nothing because it is better than nothing to rid the world of such monsters as would unleash such a war. It is, I think, rather the imagination of the conservative, whose knowledge is that the permanent things, and who always has acknowledged that death is not the primary human affliction, than that of the positivists whose values are finally so pliable as to guide them not merely to sell their souls, but to grant to the purchasers dominion over the whole world—rather to the conservatives that we turn for moral guidance.

I confess that I don’t entirely understand what this circuitous sentence means but it does sound ominous. Buckley also railed against draft resistors, championed the Vietnam War, and celebrated the national security state. Two years after this speech – which seems to me to be inviting people to consider the moral and practical merit of nuclear war – the Reagan administration took a welcome turn against “mutually assured destruction” (much less imagining the viability of nuclear war) and instead toward traditional defense as well as diplomacy. Five years later, the Soviet threat vanished – without nuclear war. It was always Buckley’s position that broad demands for freedom at home must be put on hold pending the end of communism. Communism did go away, but the freedoms lost in the course of fighting it were never really given back. 

All of which speaks to the real dangers of turning government power over to a single-minded goal of eradicating some terrible evil in the world – the thing against which Friedman warned. Conservatives were tempted in this direction during the Cold War. What pertained to them then, now applies to the technocratic elites who deploy massive power to control a virus. 

On March 13, 2020, the federal government (under President Trump) issued a document that effectively abolished anything traditionally considered to be freedom in the name of promoting public health. Here we are 13 months later and we are still dealing with a fanatical desire to surrender freedom in the name of virus control – despite a complete absence of evidence that coercion over the people is doing anything to control much less suppress it. The costs have been astonishing. As Rep. Jim Jordan demanded of Dr. Fauci: “When do Americans get their freedom back?”

Which takes us back to the first essay in the book by Milton Friedman, which seeks to root the idea of freedom in a scientific humility, always raising the possibility that one might be wrong (good science never merely “trusts the science”). Humility means to possess a grave reluctance to deploy the power of the state in the service of one’s own utopian vision of a world without the stain of sin, whether it goes by the name of Communism or Covid. 

Most of the contributors to this book are deceased so we are left to speculate about what their views toward Covid lockdowns would be. I suspect most if not all would be astonished and horrified at the policy choices of this past year. These writers were not technocrats but humane and learned thinkers who focused on philosophy, law, history and economics. A principle that unites them all is the need for government never to sacrifice the liberties of the people for the sake of a grand experiment in material perfectionism – a principle we can reasonably suppose applies to pathogenic perfection as well. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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