Paleoconservatives Need Better Critics
Recently Michael Lucchese at Law and Liberty joined National Review’s Bobby Miller and prominent Twitter intellectual James Lindsay in publicly criticizing Gottfried’s work. The occasion for the first two men is the recent publication of A Paleoconservative Anthology, edited by Gottfried and filled with contributions influenced by his work.
Lucchese and Miller smear Gottfried and other paleoconservatives as “right-wing Marxists.” Why? Gottfried admitted that paleoconservative scholars like Sam Francis “felt no reservations about taking ideas from Marxist sources if they explained social developments [they were] studying at the time” and even appreciated Lenin’s effectiveness in creating and leading an ideologically driven movement. In this, Gottfried once again finds common ground with Rothbard, which explains why the paleoconservative and paleolibertarian intellectual leaders established the John Randolph Club in the 1990s.
In an address delivered at one such meeting, Rothbard outlined a “Strategy for the Right,” stating that “the proper course for the right-wing opposition must necessarily be a strategy of boldness and confrontation, of dynamism and excitement, a strategy, in short, of rousing the masses from their slumber and exposing the arrogant elites that are ruling them, controlling them, taxing them, and ripping them off.”
This sort of approach offends the sensibilities of modern-day conservatives who prefer as their guiding lights William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. In the eyes of Lucchese, Buckley and Reagan’s brand of conservatism, “rooted in a reverential devotion to the Constitution, a healthy appreciation of the free market, and a vigorous anti-communism,” can claim to its credit “protecting the Constitution and defeating the Soviet Union,” which resulted in “stunning electoral success.”
While Ronald Reagan’s electoral victories cannot be contested, the effectiveness of his brand of conservatism certainly can be. As Rothbard noted in his obituary of “Reaganomics,” this alleged champion of the free market increased the federal government by 68 percent, generated the largest peacetime budget deficit in American history at the expense of average Americans, and failed to deliver on core promises such as reining in the regulatory state and restoring the gold standard. In doing so, the legacy of Reaganite conservatism was carried on by Republicans like Paul Ryan, who was comfortable publicly quoting free market advocates like Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek while supporting the growth of regime intervention when it came down to crafting policy.
As far as “protecting the Constitution” goes, the force that continues to draw minds to scholars like Gottfried, Francis, and Rothbard is precisely the breakdown of political norms and the escalation of political warfare. America’s federal government is larger than ever, actively promoting culturally leftist perversions like child mutilation, mandating medical decisions for Americans, and constructing an elaborate public surveillance apparatus that can spy on any citizen that regularly uses a phone, computer, or bank account. Of course, it was Buckley that suggested that Americans needed to accept a tyrannical state at home to fight one abroad, and the heirs of his brand of conservatism continue to find new foreign enemies that can be used to justify these abuses.
Right-wing critics of Buckley’s legacy are comfortable stating, as Gottfried does, that “the crisis of the West is real.” Lucchese contends this is simply an “ideology of despair.” He also suggests that paleoconservative attempts to capitalize on these anxieties are a political dud, pointing to the failure of Blake Masters’ Senate campaign (the fact that Masters was heavily outspent, that he was running against a popular incumbent, and that there was a massive failure of voting operations on the day most Republicans decided to vote is not mentioned). While Lucchese points to Brian Kemp’s successful campaign for governor of Georgia as a victory for his preferred brand of throwback conservatism, he also ignores Ron DeSantis’s much larger victory in Florida, even though DeSantis’s approach to politics has earned Gottfried’s praise.
Of course, any measure of short-term electoral success should not be confused with an effective attack on the regime, as Reagan’s legacy demonstrates. While Lucchese suggests that his favored conservative leaders “preferred Washington and the American Revolution to Lenin and the Russian Revolution,” the reality is that any victories of twentieth-century conservatives have failed to prevent an America that is arguably as far from its early republican roots as is modern Russia. Long gone is the Angloliberal respect for property rights, meritocracy, and Christian virtue. In its place is a civil rights regime, guided by a destructive progressive ethos of deference to state-credentialed experts and driven by an egalitarian agenda Rothbard identified as a revolt against nature.
James Lindsay suggests that America’s current state is the fault of Marxism. Gottfried sees it as the natural consequence of modern liberalism, which abandoned its original foundation of property rights and biblical morality in favor of a social democracy armed with civil rights–imposed cultural egalitarianism. Unfortunately, most modern “classical liberals,” like Lindsay, have made peace with this intellectual decay. To classical liberals like Lindsay, the solution to the woke modern Left is not a repeal of the twentieth century, which Rothbard advocated, but rather a cultural reset to a pre-woke America. Destroy the modern creation of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) financial guidelines and academic diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) departments but keep in place the basics of the modern civil rights regime—maintained by a reasoned sense of secular liberal impartiality.
This approach, common among modern “classical liberals,” a label best understood as a way to distance oneself from contemporary trends on the left and right, fails to identify the degree to which the modern Left’s hold on power is sustained precisely by this underlying civil rights framework. This fact is why paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives both warned decades ago about the basic incentives of a social democratic state able to reward a growing collection of targeted demographics with political privileges.
Government has been used to create a phony set of “rights” for every designated victim group under the sun, to be used to dominate and exploit the rest of us for the special gain of these cosseted groups. . . . On and on the assault grows: and in every case government, technocrats, official “therapists,” and the malignant New Class grant themselves and accredited victim groups ever-increasing power to exploit, dominate, and loot an ever-dwindling group of: middle-aged, white, English-speaking, Christian, and especially heterosexual male parents. Culture war? It was launched decades ago and liberals were almost into the mopping-up stage before the oppressed finally woke up.
This was written in 1992 in response to the Clinton administration, which Lindsay still believes the Right hates for “manufactured” reasons. In Lindsay’s view, the paleolibertarianism promoted by Rothbard and Lew Rockwell in the ’90s, with its focus on the restoration of a property rights-driven order and respect for cultural conservatism and the role of the church, is “clearly hostile” to his form of “liberalism.” He also critiques Rothbard for being “very . . . religious,” a criticism that would confuse those familiar with his biography but might have pleased his Christian wife, Joey.
Lindsay was less charitable to Gottfried’s analysis of wokeism, dismissing him as “an idiot.”
These recent jejune critiques of paleoconservatism do not, however, mean that there are no stands against common paleoconservative orthodoxy deserving of a hard pushback. While the John Randolph Club allowed for important cross-pollination between paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians on issues of strategy and other complimentary interests, the clash on economic points is one that continues today. Prominent paleoconservatives leaders like Francis and Pat Buchanan dismissed the value of “dead Austrian economists,” a quip that lives on through the occasional remark by Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon.
The result has been a blind spot of favoring various forms of protectionism, antitrust regulations, and other economic interventions wielded by the federal regime to reward those willing to do its bidding and to punish non-compliant firms—just as Progressive politicians always intended.
The new interest in paleoconservatism from young right-wingers has other intellectual organizations trying to leverage “populist” criticism of “libertarianism” to push their own programs that share this same rejection of free markets in favor of aggressive economic interventionism. American Compass has recently released an ambitious policy program to “rebuild American capitalism,” which seeks to promote a neo-Hamiltonian agenda for the twenty-first century.
Interestingly, the policy handbook‘s chapters on the question of “What Happened to Capitalism?” and the broader topic of financialization lack any mention of monetary policy or the role of the Federal Reserve. Ignoring the role of the regime’s capture of money and banking, championed by the leaders of the economic nationalist tradition they are seeking to revive, in the subsidization and cartelization of America’s corporate class allows the American Compass project to justify their preferred attacks on laissez-faire capitalism.
Ultimately, it is the battle over the regime’s capture of money and banking that is necessary to eliminate the economic incentives that have allowed the ideology of the state to capture the financial power of nations.
It is worth noting the differences in the stated goals of paleoconservatives and of the economic nationalists of American Compass. Paleoconservatives often voice a desire to protect the provincial life of rural and agrarian societies in the Jeffersonian tradition. Modern economic nationalists, in contrast, favor more ambitious plans for national industrial power and are far more comfortable in cosmopolitan company.
The embrace of what Hans-Hermann Hoppe has referred to as “social nationalism” will only serve as a continual threat to the goals of the paleoconservatives, maintaining a financial system that rewards economic size and ideological alignment with Washington, undermining small business owners in American towns and smaller cities, and eroding the income and savings of Americans not in a position to ride the speculative booms and busts created by Federal Reserve policies. Economic nationalists, by contrast, will always be incentivized to abandon conservative culture war issues to better direct the existing federal machinery toward their own preferred brand of centralizing economic reforms. To reverse the triumphant of modern progressivism, what is needed is radical reactionary respect for a private property society and the role of civic, ethnic, and religious institutions that can flourish without the challenges of a rivalrous social democratic state.
This would require rejecting the modern civil rights legal regime, something modern Buckleyite conservatives, Lindsay-style liberals, economic nationalists, and modern “postliberals” such as Patrick Deneen are not interested in. In contrast, this has long been a point of agreement between paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians.
To seriously threaten the regime, one must attack it at its roots. This is why we must take matters of economics as seriously as matters of cultural decline. More paleoconservatives would do well to follow the example of Paul Gottfried and pay those “long-dead Austrians” respect.