Today marks not only the first day of the year and of this blog’s “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property)” but, fittingly, the 100th anniversary of Barry Goldwater’s birth.
If, as I suspect, the defense of property (being a rather abstract thing) must sometimes be yoked to broader and more popular political movements, the attempt over the past fifty years or so to make capitalism a fundamental principle of conservatism and of the Republican Party was a very reasonable one, even if the effort may now be fizzled. An early high point in the history of that gambit was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.
That year the Republican platform was so explicitly pro-free enterprise and anti-big government you’d think Ayn Rand wrote most of it. Goldwater lost bigtime to the architect of much of our subsequent big-government despair — Lyndon Johnson — but inspired a generation of later activists, to whom much of the credit goes for whatever success America’s had in avoiding European-style social democracy, at least until roughly now. (Would that the “Barry” taking office as President in less than three weeks were as skeptical of government as Goldwater — and that the outgoing president were as well.)
Goldwater was so free-market that it may not even be fair to call him a “fusionist,” the term for those who try to blend traditionalism and markets in order to broaden the Republican coalition. Despite some odd recent attempts (including a National Review Online article) to make Goldwater out to be a twenty-first-century-style “social conservative,” Goldwater was concerned almost exclusively with shrinking government at home and battling communism abroad. When he lamented declining public morals, he wasn’t talking about some imagined excess of anal sex or what have you but rather the more practical sorts of problems — such as burglary — that make it difficult for people to function in the marketplace (crime went up about eightfold in the 60s and several cities were set afire by rioters, though now they’d have us believe it was a groovy, groovy decade). Crime-fighting is, of course, a kind of social conservatism (if you want to call it that) that any good free-marketeer can respect, especially when it means preventing property crimes and physical attacks on other’s bodies rather than, say, using SWAT teams to attack pot growers.
Anyone who thinks of Goldwater as a social conservative in the current, moralistic sense must at the very least explain why he talked so proudly of his family’s connections to bootlegging.
But lest we get too misty-eyed with reverence, it’s worth noting the story of one veteran of that 1964 campaign I know, anarchist law professor Butler Shaffer. Looking to the future with optimism back then, he asked a prominent campaign advisor which government departments he thought Goldwater would likely eliminate first, to which the advisor replied, approximately, “You don’t think he’ll really do those things, do you? That’s just stuff you say to fire up the troops.”
Shaffer gave up on the Republican Party — and eventually even on voting — forty-five years ago. Was that too soon or was he ahead of his time, sparing himself decades of frustration? Discuss!
And luckily, as if having lunch with Dawn Eden and a priest (among others) today weren’t conservative enough, I’m scheduled to dine with someone tomorrow who’ll be the perfect person with whom to discuss such questions: not the author of Conscience of a Conservative (which was ghostwritten for Goldwater by L. Brent Bozell Jr., while some of his writing was ghosted by the anarchist left-libertarian Karl Hess, not that you heard the confused neocons mention that too often over the past eight years) but rather Don Critchlow, author of The Conservative Ascendancy (a title that sounds a bit poignant these days). For this opportunity, I must give thanks to my visiting medieval historian friend Christine Caldwell Ames, herself the author of the Inquisition analysis Righteous Persecution…and perhaps the least conservative person mentioned in this blog entry (despite her mind being full of medieval Catholic history), which may tell you something about my acquaintances, at least on alternating days.