So the big story on the right today is that Gov. Chris Christie has leveled a blast at libertarians, in particular his potential 2016 primary rival Sen. Rand Paul:
“This strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought. … You can name any number of people and he’s [Rand Paul] one of them,” Christie said at a panel of Republican governors in Aspen, Colorado.
Set aside for the moment the proximate cause of this schism, which is narrowly about the argument over NSA surveillance, but involves larger arguments inside the right about foreign policy that go all the way back to the Taft years. This split has its roots in basic differences of principle between libertarians and isolationist conservatives on the one side, and internationalist conservatives and the dreaded neoconservatives on the other. A second but no less important aspect of this split is the philosophical and political argument between the authority of tradition and community (Nisbet, Kirk, etc.) versus maximum individual liberty (Friedman, etc), or between “order” versus “liberty,” or “virtue” versus “licentiousness.” In this respect, Gov. Christie’s blast can be seen as merely a Jersey shore version of Russell Kirk’s famous attack on libertarians as the “chirping sectaries” (PDF file) of the right. (UPDATE: See Robert Nisbet’s classic short treatment of this subject in this essay.)
National Review’s Frank Meyer famous attempt at “fusionism” between these rival and incompatible strains of conservative thought was ingenuous and arguably successful in the political practice of Ronald Reagan. Reagan once said that “libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism,” but he was also plainly able to embrace and convey traditional conservative principles and sentiments as well. He was able to hold the right together better than any Republican since.
One thing different about today is easy to make out: the traditionalist-libertarian argument was carried out 50 years ago by Russell Kirk against Murray Rothbard, or Paul Weyrich against Milton Friedman (who squared off in a famous debate in 1982 at the Philadelphia Society). Now it’s between potential contenders for the presidency. To some extent this reflects the success of the right over the last 50 years in becoming a potent political force. But when the practical stakes become this much more real, the theoretical harmonization of the seminar room and learned journal starts to break down. It reminds me of fusion energy: theoretically possible, but as a practical matter extremely difficult or unsustainable.
Hence it now seems to me that conservatism today is closer to quantum physics than fusion energy: just as in quantum physics—where it is a core proposition that you cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time—today’s quantum conservatism represents an instability in which it is impossible to settle on the position (Tea Party or establishment? Security or absolute privacy? Populism or sobriety?) or what will generate the most momentum for the right at the same time. Each seems to cancel out the other to some extent.
So we’re waiting for our political Einstein to discover the dark matter that will make it all hold together for 2016. Why not? After all, we’re told that much of practical politics depends on dark arts anyway. . .