Editor: I have omitted considerable text from the beginning of this article, which contains much on Ludwig von Mises which we’ve seen many times.
What exactly did the conservatives want? National Review described itself as standing athwart history shouting, “Stop!” As time went on, “stop” became “slow down,” which in turn became, “We’ll join you in five minutes.”
Conservatives bought foreign interventionism hook, line, and sinker. And with the obsession with conserving came, eventually, a reconciliation with the status quo. Important conservative leaders began to describe Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nemesis of the Old Right, as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
It had been a mistake from the beginning to adopt the word conservative, and an even greater mistake for libertarians to consider themselves conservatives.
F.A. Hayek’s aversion to this term is well known, thanks to his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Murray noted that in the days of the Old Right no one called himself a conservative. And why should he? The Old Right had no interest in conserving the institutions of the America of their day. Those institutions were to be overthrown.
Less well known is how Mises felt about being called a conservative. And even though by culture, temperament, dress, and manners Mises gave the impression of conservatism, he too considered the term a misnomer. When Yale University invited him to speak as part of its “Conservative Lectures” series in 1954, Mises declined. “To conserve,” he said,
means to preserve what exists. It is an empty program, it is merely negative, rejecting any change…. To conserve what exists is in present-day America tantamount to preserving those laws and institutions that the New Deal and the Fair Deal have bequeathed to the nation.
Today the conservative movement is in shambles. Its constituent parts are at war with one another. Nobody can figure out what constitutes a “true conservative.” And the ease with which Donald Trump sailed to the GOP nomination laid bare this astonishing fact: the seemingly formidable array of magazines, think-tanks, and pressure groups that constituted the conservative movement, none of which could stop him, had been paper tigers all along.
The decline of conservatism has been accompanied by a tremendous growth in libertarianism. That growth has been the combined result of a huge number of young people who became libertarians immediately, never having passed through a conservative stage, as well as a considerable stream of refugees from the conservative movement, where many libertarians finally realized they didn’t belong.
…And frankly, libertarianism is something new under the sun. It’s true, of course, that we have intellectual forerunners: the nineteenth-century individualist anarchists, the French liberals like Frederic Bastiat, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists like John Locke, and groups like the Levellers and the Late Scholastics, at the very least.
But a consistent and systematic approach to the world that takes liberty as its non-negotiable foundation? There frankly was no such thing until the twentieth century. Even the heroic figures who came before us, with the occasional exception like Gustave de Molinari, did not consider the possibility that so many state functions they took for granted could be provided within the market nexus they otherwise admired.
For a brand new philosophical school, and one that most people encounter only in caricature at the hands of media, intellectuals, and political figures who despise it, we’re doing extremely well.
Our views are the opposite of what the ruling classes want to hear, and the opposite of the superstitions those classes labor to spread among the public.
There are millions of us now. We have a greater ability to reach and educate people than ever before, and thereby increase our numbers still more.
Libertarians of the future will look back on this period in history and wonder why so many of us were so glum. This was when the explosion in growth occurred, and we were too busy comparing ourselves to Democrats and Republicans to see it.
As libertarians we know that a lot of news the public thinks is good is actually not so good, whether it’s the passage of destructive legislation with pleasant-sounding names, or economic news that sounds positive but in fact indicates bubble conditions. We are skilled at finding hard truths beneath the saccharine surface of state propaganda.
But when it comes to the growth of our movement and the spread of our ideas, by any reasonable standard the news is all good. Let’s recognize that, and build on it.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and editor of LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Against the State: an Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto.