Conservative icon President Ronald Reagan famously said, "The very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." Charles C.W. Cooke buys that view and develops the idea of conservatism and libertarianism blending together in The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future. Using common sense and providing examples from a number of different policy areas, Cooke provides a framework for reviving conservative electoral hopes and popular appeal by drawing from libertarian thinking.
As a writer for National Review, Cooke's conservative credentials are solid. As a Brit living in the U.S., he has a healthy outsider/insider perspective on American history and politics. To him, a guiding principle of conservatarian thinking is decentralization. "If there is a conservatarian ideology, its primary tenet should be to render the American framework of government as free as possible and to decentralize power, returning the important fights to where they belong; which the people who are affect by their conclusions and who are therefore best equipped to resolve them."
In "valuing the local over the national," conservatives and libertarians share common ground, echoing a federalist view. Other than those few government functions that call for broad application, such as national defense, government at the local level is best suited to make decisions. Should someone in Washington, D.C. make final decisions about the curriculum content of a classroom in El Paso? About the type of fertilizer a farmer in Omaha uses? About the price of gasoline in California?
In other area, such as civil rights, education, and government services, conservatives and libertarians can and should find common ground. Cooke discusses policies with liberty as the bottom line, with an eye toward practical application. He takes a traditionally conservative stance on abortion, as the taking of a human life, but a more libertarian position on gay marriage, asking, Why not? What's the big deal? Drug legalization, he argues, is an issue best left to state and local governance.
A mistake that libertarians make is that "its adherents . . . pretend that they are dealing with a blank slate. They are not." If you've spent time around libertarians, you will certainly agree with this point. There is a real detachment from the real world. Cooke's approach is to look at the world as it is, and apply conservatarian principles in a practical way.
Cooke is insightful and engaging, and is sure to win some converts, or at the very least, spark some thinking and conversation. I don't see many conservatives buying into gay marriage, but he makes a good point: that argument is already lost in the culture at large, and perhaps a better use of political capital would be to focus on abortion. The current system that "has not just entrenched the right of a mother to kill her child, but given institutional succor to the idea that a life is only a life if the mother says it is a life."
The Republican Party and conservatism at large has long been suffering from a lack of principled arguments in favor of smaller government and more dispersed governmental power. Although those in power, even so-called conservatives, are loathe to reverse course, one can hope that Cooke's voice will be heard among those who constantly seek to expand the power of the federal government.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!