Conservatism and the New Libertarianism

If you have been paying attention to the political mood in the United States lately, you have probably noticed the sudden propagation of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and stickers. This paraphernalia reflects a shift in the modern conservative movement to a greater focus on the individual, which in turn has led many to embrace libertarianism.

Nowhere is this newfound love for libertarianism more noticeable than in the neo-con’s fascination with Ayn Rand. Let’s face it—nobody who really understands Rand’s philosophy takes her seriously. Rand, who was Russian but immigrated to America at a young age, was deeply troubled by a sense of growing collectivism in the world which was especially manifest in her motherland. She reacted so completely against communism and collectivism that she literally wrote a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Humanity, she believes, would be happiest if we lived entirely free of dependence on others.

One of her earlier works, Anthem, is set in a time when the words “I”, “Me”, and “Mine” have completely fallen out of use. It was in fact a crime to speak them. However, the main character is able to escape, finally finding his long lost freedom. Having rediscovered the use of I, he lets loose: “My hands…My spirit….My sky…My forest…This earth of mine….” In the words of author Yann Martel, “You know you’re in trouble when someone claims to own the sky.”

And he is right, isn’t he? Rand takes such an extreme position against collectivism that it is absurd. At the heart of almost every religious teaching is a sense of abandoning the self in pursuit of a higher good. And behind the story of every individual there is a family, a community, friends, that were essential to that character. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Rand does not find much respect among those who understand her ideas.

But why this fascination with libertarianism, equating it with conservatism? Conservative columnist David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times, laments this fascination: “Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin—on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization—in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.” Institutions to help cure the ills of society? That sounds more like a leftist idea than a conservative tenet.

Why is that? I personally believe that isn’t enough to lament over the radio every day that families are under attack. If the government or other institutions can help reverse the trend of moral decay, why not let them? And why not get involved in the community to see what can be done?

Sadly, this sense of community has been largely ignored among the conservatives today. In fact, where I am from in Arizona, the Democrats consistently vote for more power to the communities, while the Republicans do not. Today’s GOP seems enthralled with the federal scene, frantically waving their respective flags. It has never been “in” to be involved in local politics. A march on Washington will always be more romantic than a march on your mayor’s house. For this reason many are well versed in national politics but seem to have a hard time knowing the workings of the local government.

Case in point: Glenn Beck is planning on organizing a march on Washington on the same date that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The difference between King and Beck? (Besides the obvious vastly different political ideology.) King not only spoke and marched in Washington, but he fought for economic and social justice in communities. When he was killed in Memphis, he was there supporting a strike by the workers. In other words, he realized that it is in communities where change can take place.

And I believe that even Obama, this Hitler/Stalin figure that is detested by so many on the right, is a communitarian at heart. David Brooks says, “Obama emphasizes the connections between people, the networks and the webs of influence. These sorts of links are invisible to some of his rivals, but Obama is a communitarian. He believes you can only make profound political changes if you first change the spirit of the community. In his speeches, he says that if one person stands up, then another will stand up and another and another and you’ll get a nation standing up.”

I only hope that conservatives can find their sense of tradition and community, stop this Ayn Rand nonsense, and work towards non-partisan intelligent solutions to the problems we face today. Conservatives are partly right in that the federal government can be corrupt and terribly inefficient. But so can the state government, and so can the local government, and so can churches and schools and sporting events. Point is, we need institutions and we need communities to build the type of social structure that will not let the corruption stand and will intelligently seek solutions to inefficiency.

So please take your “Don’t Tread on Me” stickers and flags and sell them. Your money could be put to use elsewhere in your community—in the schools, orphanages, rehab centers, or a hundred other places. Take your pick.


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