The Conservatarian Moment

Review: Charles Cooke’s ‘Conservatarian Manifesto’

March 21, 2015

Are American animals—including humans—inherently weaker than their European counterparts? That’s what esteemed 18th century French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon argued in his opus Histoire Naturelle. Buffon had no real evidence for this, as Charles Cooke—a British transplant to America who now writes for National Review—once pointed out. But it was, to Cooke, a fine illustration of the rest of the world’s frequent failure to understand America.

Of course, Buffon’s France also brought us Alexis De Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and Hector St. John de Crèvecœur (Letters from an American Farmer). With The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future, Cooke places himself in this latter tradition of sympathetic, thoughtful foreign observer. Writing with the wit and clarity that have earned him praise at National Review, Cooke takes a strong stand as a defender of American greatness.

He writes with the pride of an immigrant, or perhaps the zeal of a convert. Responding to Francis Fukuyama’s observation that the popularity of anti-Obamacare rhetoric "makes non-Americans scratch their heads in disbelief," for example, Cooke simply says: "Let them scratch." For him, opposition to Obamacare is evidence not of some defect in American culture but rather the pervasive spirit of liberty that has been its foremost asset.

This book also makes Cooke a spokesman for what he argues is a growing political trend in the United States: the titular "conservatarians." This merging of conservatism and libertarianism resists easy definition. Conservatarians are, in Cooke’s telling, both skeptical of certain libertarian positions—on, for example, abortion, and immigration—but also incline toward libertarianism on gay marriage and drugs. They also feel betrayed by the big-government excesses of the George W. Bush years, and detest their Obama-era exacerbation. They show both a "palpable irritation with the status quo" and an "unwillingness to go fully toward the libertarian side."

With the group thus defined, Cooke proposes how this sort of politics could rescue the country from the ravages of liberalism. His basic approach is a return to federalism, or a decentralization of power back down to the lowest possible level of decision-making. "Within reason, does it matter to you how people who live tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away choose to live their lives?" he asks. "If you call yourself a ‘conservative’ or a ‘libertarian’—or, now, a ‘conservatarian’—I’d venture that the answer should be ‘No.’ And if you routinely rail against Washington, D.C., and its excesses, I’d recommend that it should be ‘Hell, no!’"

This vision remains quite distinct from modern liberalism, which, as Cooke notes, wants its preferred social norms universally adopted and thus cannot abide the authentic diversity federalism would invite. When the left senses victory on certain issues, such as gay marriage, it "tends to regard political variation as an ill to be stamped out, not a virtue to be preserved for its own sake."

Cooke’s advice for the right is to take the opposite approach: Don’t enshrine personal morality as federal law. Rather, base your case on liberty’s merits. He cites the right’s gun debate victories as a model for success—"nothing short of remarkable, representing a salutary indication of just how effective the Right can be when it sticks to its principles, when it goes on the offensive, and when it presents a united front"—and gay marriage and drug legalization as examples of failure. Like Kurt Schlicter in Conservative Insurgency, Cooke argues that conservatives do not need to die on every hill.

What Cooke ultimately wants is a live-and-let-live framework in which people, and governments, don’t mess with each other’s business, while the federal government performs the basic yet important functions tasked to it that smaller entities cannot: In short, something like the Founding era. This is the straight line running through his support for gun rights, drug legalization, national defense, border security, and gay marriage.

Can it work? Perhaps. Cooke could be right that focus on personal morality hurts conservatives, and that they ought to preach their morals rather than fight for their federal enforcement. But the argument suffers from a problem that Cooke underplays: The hands-off federalism of the Founders was premised on a deep attachment to certain conceptions of virtue by both individuals and civil society that have fundamentally changed—many would argue, declined. Thus, for a "conservatarian" return to a healthy society where the state and society exist within their proper limits, more than political reform would be required. There also must be a pre-political, cultural revival within civil society—a revival that would have to happen, on Cooke’s terms, without government interference.

One hopes that this is possible. Otherwise, Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon might end up being right about America after all.

Published under: Book reviews