Paleoism and the Traditional Britain Group
by Keir Martland
In January 1990, Lew Rockwell wrote in the magazine ‘Liberty’ on ‘The Case for Paleolibertarianism’. In this manifesto, he argued that while libertarians are often correct in their criticisms of conservatives, conservatives are often right in their criticisms of libertarians. He cites people like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, with the latter claiming that libertarians were drifting so far from conservatism that they were coming to view the “coercions of the family, church, local community and school” as almost as corrosive of liberty as that of the state.
In this paleolibertarian manifesto, Rockwell states that if libertarianism is to make any real progress, then it must do away with its “defective cultural framework”, stating that Western civilisation is worthy of praise and that social or ‘natural’ authority – like the authority of the family, the church, the local community and the school – is essential to a free society. Libertarianism’s cultural framework had become a blend of moral relativism, egalitarianism, modernism and libertinism with the modal libertarian often conflating legality with morality. In addition to the error of assuming that because X must be legal, X must also be moral, the modal libertarian had conflated freedom from aggression with freedom from social authority, tradition, and bourgeois morality.
With the rise in popularity of the Republican politician Patrick Buchannan, Rockwell sought to both put the neolibertarians right and to forge an alliance with the paleoconservative movement. The paleoconservatives were those conservatives in America who questioned the welfare-warfare state (with the Cold War over, many no longer saw the need for such a bloated state department) and saw their intellectual roots in the Old Right, a broad church of intellectuals, journalists, politicians and others who opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Old Right included libertarians such as HL Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov and so unsurprisingly, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell and the ‘paleolibertarians’ saw their chance to reach out to a brand new group.
While the paleoconservatives distinguished themselves from the big-government conservatives, the paleolibertarians distinguished themselves from what Rothbard called ‘big-government libertarians’. For instance, Rothbard warned libertarians against the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the neoconservatives and neolibertarians enthusiastically supported. Why would Rothbard, Mr Libertarian, not support a free trade agreement? He “opposed Nafta because it was a phony free-trade measure, and because it piled numerous new government restrictions upon trade, including socialistic labor and environmental controls.” In addition to this, he criticised Republicans who self-labelled themselves ‘libertarians’ only to further increase the size of the state. One such example was that of Governor William Weld, who was seen as a potential ‘libertarian’ presidential candidate for his “fiscal conservatism” and commitment to “gay rights”. On Weld’s “fiscal conservatism”, Rothbard commented “William Weld’s gesture in cutting his first year’s budget by less than 2 percent has been more than made up by his raising the budget in the last two years by 17 percent.” The typical neolibertarian was more than happy to support people like this, who claim to be ‘libertarians’ and then give evidence to the contrary. The neolibertarian was also content with the Nafta, presumably out of ignorance or stupidity.
Yet another unifying feature of both paleoconservatives with paleolibertarians and neoconservatives with neolibertarians lies within the cultural sphere. As Lew Rockwell pointed out in his Case for Paleolibertarianism, the modal libertarian or ‘neolibertarian’ was clueless on culture. This might suggest that there is a ‘libertarian position’ on culture, which there isn’t. Even so, while Rothbard made it clear that “libertarianism is logically consistent with almost any attitude toward culture, society, religion, or moral principle”, he argued that “psychologically, sociologically, and in practice, it simply doesn’t work that way.” Even though libertarian political philosophy does not prohibit the promotion of moral relativism, the paleolibertarians recognised the need for “bourgeois morality”. The anarcho-capitalist philosopher and economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe expressed this eloquently:
“This Establishment Libertarianism was not only theoretically in error, with its commitment to the impossible goal of limited government (and centralized government at that): it was also sociologically flawed, with its anti-bourgeois—indeed, adolescent—so-called ‘cosmopolitan’ cultural message: of multiculturalism and egalitarianism, of ‘respect no authority’, of ‘live-and-let-live’, of hedonism and libertinism.”
As the paleolibertarian John Kersey has said, the neoconservatives too “have created a yawning chasm where their cultural values should be” and yet there is no vacuum as “the chasm has been very ably filled by the Left”. And so there we have it; the two main unifying features of neoconservatism and neolibertarianism are a lazy attitude to opposing state aggression in the political sphere and an even lazier ‘anything goes’ attitude in the cultural sphere. Conversely, this must mean that both paleoconservatism and paleolibertarianism are united behind an opposition to statism and an at best sceptical treatment of the modern cancers of feminism, moral relativism, and egalitarianism.
With a good deal of common ground between both factions, the paleoconservative-paleolibertarian alliance was forged. It centred around the John Randolph Club, founded by Thomas Fleming (a paleoconservative) and Murray Rothbard (a paleolibertarian). As Hans-Hermann Hoppe recalls, “the JRC was a decidedly bourgeois, anti-egalitarian and discriminating society, but at the same time a society far more open and tolerant intellectually [than the Mont
Pelerin Society founded by F.A. Hayek] without any taboo-subjects.”
Paul Gottfried, a member of the John Randolph Club from the conservative faction of the ‘paleo-alliance’, recalls that at one meeting in the early 1990s, Murray Rothbard delivered what he now calls a “legendary” speech:
“With the inspiration of the death of the Soviet Union before us, we now know that it can be done. With Pat Buchanan as our leader, we shall break the clock of social democracy. We shall break the clock of the Great Society. We shall break the clock of the welfare state. We shall break the clock of the New Deal. We shall break the clock of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and perpetual war. We shall repeal the twentieth century.”
However, it was not to be – perhaps it really was too good to be true. Now that I have briefly explained both the reason for the term ‘paleolibertarian’ and its meaning in the eyes of the original paleolibertarians themselves, I will now come to the decline of the paleo-alliance in its birth country.
In 2002, Lew Rockwell wrote on his website an article entitled ‘What I Learned From Paleoism’. Already, the title of the article suggests a sort of finality as if paleoism has happened and is no longer happening. While he still says that “the paleocons helped draw us to thinkers that left-libertarians had tossed out like Robert Nisbet, John Taylor, John Randolph” and that “they reminded us that the love of liberty isn’t just an abstract political theory but a real history and tradition rooted in America” and even further concedes that “we paleolibertarians had our failings…when it came to history and culture, they [the paleoconservatives] could run circles around us”, the blame is laid with the paleoconservatives, for the most part for their “erroneous views on economics”. Hans-Hermann Hoppe came to this conclusion and put it rather more bluntly: “This, then, was the ultimate reason for the breakup of the libertarian-conservative alliance accomplished with the John Randolph Club: that while the libertarians were willing to learn their cultural lesson the conservatives did not want to learn their economics.”
A comprehension of Austrian school insights into economics would have easily prevented Pat Buchanan from devoting so much of his energy to his economic nationalism. As Rockwell said, “Pat began to wield enormous influence on the right. This took one main form: turning people who should have known better against free markets, capitalism, and free trade. He went from being a candidate libertarians might support to becoming the anti-libertarian.” Naturally, this meant that he lost the support of Austrolibertarians such as Rothbard, Rockwell and Hoppe. It also taught Rockwell to “Never trust a politician to represent, much less speak for, an intellectual movement.” From the paleoconservative side of the alliance, Paul Gottfried concludes that “The weaknesses of the paleo side eventually came to show: excruciatingly limited funding, exclusion from the national media, vilification as “racists” and “anti-Semites,” and finally, strife within their own ranks. In retrospect, this was all predictable, although for me it was hard to grasp how totally the fall came when it did.”
Now, then, from the above one would assume that the neo versus paleo distinction is only applicable to the United States. I think not. This distinction – between big government libertarians/conservatives and radical libertarians/conservatives and between egalitarian libertarians/conservatives and anti-egalitarian realist libertarians/conservatives – definitely, definitely, definitely does apply in this country. In the neo corner, you have the Conservative Party and its various affiliate think-tanks and research groups, both unapologetic apologists for varying degrees of statism and egalitarianism, and in the paleo corner you have the Libertarian Alliance and the Traditional Britain Group, both committed to a defence of truth, life and property, and civilisation itself.
‘How can a libertarian be a reactionary, a conservative, or a traditionalist?’ This is the question which the modal libertarian cannot bring himself to answer. The simplest answer is that England has a very long history of libertarianism and to defend that tradition is to defend libertarianism itself. In defence of the term ‘reactionary’ for libertarians, I would like to say that there is a sense in which no true libertarian is a radical. What we want established in Britain is not something fundamentally radical, but instead something which is natural. We want to return, rather, to a pre-state society, a society where all relations were voluntary and not exploitative, all authority was natural and not artificial, and where all power was economic and not political. This natural order has existed in our past and it only could exist in those times when the “coercions” of the family, church, community, etc. were at their strongest.
And so, the reactionary libertarians and radical conservatives, the paleos of both kinds, have broadly the same aims. Furthermore, the paleolibertarians need the paleoconservatives and the paleoconservatives need the paleolibertarians. A conservative society cannot exist under an oppressive state just as much as a libertarian society cannot exist in a cultural and moral vacuum.
It would seem, then, that a new paleo-alliance may be emerging, but this time it can be one which will have the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past. Not only this, but this English paleo-alliance could be exactly that: an English one. Yes, the Old Right and the original paleolibertarians had the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but the English paleolibertarians have, among many others, John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Lord Acton, Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple, Sean Gabb, and John Kersey. All true-born Englishmen, committed to a defence of private property and traditionalism, should attend the Traditional Britain Group’s day of seminars in March.