A speechwriter for President Bush, Michael Gerson, has a new column critical of the Tea Party movement and the winner of the Kentucky Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Rand Paul, who is Rep. Ron Paul's son. He writes:
The tea party movement, being resistant to systemization, is resistant to characterization. But in its simplest form (and there seems to be no other form), it might be called "constitutional conservatism." It adopts a rigorous hermeneutic: If the Constitution does not specifically mention it, the federal government isn't allowed to do it. This represents a kind of 10th Amendment fundamentalism -- a muscular form of states' rights that would undo much of the federal role since Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps since Abraham Lincoln.
This philosophy has the virtue of being easily explainable -- and the drawback of being impossible. The current federal role did not grow primarily because of the statist ambitions of liberals; it grew in response to democratic choices and global challenges.
He goes on:
There is an even smaller subset of the tea party movement comprised of libertarian conservatives, representing a more developed intellectual tradition. Their goal is not just federalism but a minimal state at home and abroad. Their commitment to individual freedom -- defined as the absence of external constraint -- is nearly absolute. Taxation for the purpose of redistribution is theft. The national security state does not defend liberty; it threatens it. American global commitments are just another form of big government.
The closest this sect has come to serious political influence is Rand Paul's victory ... In an interview the day after his primary victory, Paul could not bring himself to endorse the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "I think there's a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights -- and indeed the truth is," he sputtered, "I haven't read all through it, because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn't been a real pressing issue on the campaign on whether I'm going to vote for the Civil Rights Act." Earlier in his campaign, however, Paul explained his view that businesses should not be forced by government to adopt anti-discrimination rules. Because he is a libertarian, Paul is unable to embrace some of the largest moral achievements of recent American history.
Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government. Their objective is not the correction of error but the cultivation of contempt for government itself. There is a reason libertarianism has never been -- and likely will never be -- a national political force: because too many would find its utopia a nightmare.
This is an important debate and one that will probably never be satisfactorily resolved. Libertarian conservatives and traditionalist conservatives have existed in an uneasy alliance or tension within the Republican or center-rght political camp for decades, as discussed by both R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s recent book and Ryan Sager's book.
I'm more sympathetic to libertarianism than Mr. Gerson is, but he gets credit for raising the issue. Just for the sake of discussion, let's leave Rand Paul out of it for a minute, and even leave the foreign policy stuff out of it, because I think there is a libertarian case for, if you support freedom and small government at home, doing what America can within reason to support freedom and small government abroad.
Let's try to address Mr. Gerson's points one at a time. First, the idea that Constitutional government is "impossible." If, as he suggests, the point of departure from it was Franklin Roosevelt, how can it be "impossible" if we tried it for the first 150 or so years of our country's history and it worked pretty well? Second, "democratic choices" can only override the Constitution by amending it, not by ignoring it or violating it. That's why the Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional even if they were passed by a democratic majority.
Second, the Americans With Disabilities Act. Mr. Gerson seems to view it as one of "the largest moral achievements of recent American history." Readers of Walter Olson's City Journal article, "The ADA Shakedown Racket," will likely come away with a different view. That doesn't make Mr. Olson or City Journal or some business owner who doesn't want to spend tens of thousands of extra dollars on exactly the right ramps and bathrooms but is perfectly happy and willing to help any customer who needs it immoral.
Third, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One can agree with Mr. Gerson that desgregation and the civil rights movement were one of the largest moral achievements of recent American history without backing the proposition that federal law should have gone beyond requiring desegregation in government facilities such as public schools and the military or even federal contractors to the point of requiring, as it eventually did, quotas and set-asides and minority voting districts and bilingual education. The libertarian argument goes that if a business is going to turn away customers because of their race, the business will lose revenue from people of color and, in a country full of tolerant people, the business will also lose revenue from people of goodwill who stand in solidarity with people of color. Eventually, the racist businesses will go out of business, and the tolerant businesses will prosper, just based on the working of the free market. Now, you can argue that the suffering and injustice of segregation would have been unneccessarily prolonged by allowing the free market to handle it rather than by addressing it with government action. But I think the "moral achievement" of desegregation was less the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the law itself but the grassroots and largely religious social movement that got the law passed. Remember, the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education came in 1954, ten years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It wasn't the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that made segregated public schools illegal; it was the Constitution, and it was the "democratic choices" of the Southern states -- the same "democratic choices" Mr. Gerson is so eager to praise while scoring Constitional conservatism in the early section of his essay -- that were trampling the Constitution.
Fourth, consider Mr. Gerson's claim that libertarians are not for limited government, they are anti-government. This is more an accusation about a state of mind than some kind of empirically provable point, but the two views aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. If you don't like or trust government, it'd make sense that you would want to limit its powers and keep it as small as possible.
Finally, take Mr. Gerson's claim that libertarianism has never been a national political force. Obviously, it depends how you define libertariansism, but I just don't buy it, starting with the American Revolution and running all the way through the Reagan revolution and what Grover Norquist calls the leave-us-alone coalition.
Disclosure: I followed the Kentucky Republican primary only from a distance but probably would have voted for my college classmate Trey Greyson in part on the basis of the Cheney and Mitch McConnell endorsements. But that's exactly my point: you don't have to be a lockstep Ron Paul supporter who follows the Cato Institute line on foreign policy to support the idea of constitutional, limited government that respects individual liberty or to reject the idea that the Americans With Disabilities Act was one of the largest moral achievements of recent American history.