Charles Cooke

Conservatarian: Down with unnecessary labels

Charles Cooke of National Review is one smart cookie. His cover story on the cult of charlatan Neil deGrasse Tyson is a must-read for anyone dubious of progressivism. Like many of his polemics at Bill Buckley’s legacy publication, Cooke deftly tarnishes the idol of simple, left-wing secularists who scoff at Bible-toting bumpkins in flyover country. Truly, few things top a good takedown of a cultural icon.

With such talent, I was disappointed by the title and subject of Cooke’s forthcoming book. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the thing will be well-written and full of keen insights laced with erudite quotations. But the name turns me off. Cooke is calling the book, The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future. It sounds like a cool, promising subject brought down by a neologism that will fit shoulder-to-shoulder in an ocean of increasingly pedantic political labels.

To be sure, Cooke is far from the first thinker to utilize the term “conservatarian.” His “manifesto” seems like an attempt to pioneer its launch into the popular lexicon though. The book’s synopsis describes Cooke’s offering as a “call to arms” that can “help Republicans mend the many ills that have plagued their party in recent years.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I also don’t find anything wrong with libertarians or conservatives. From a political perspective, I easily identify with the non-aggression principle of libertarianism. When it comes to worldly matters and personal disposition, I hoist my flag with Tory conservatism. And on some issues, such as the plight of the poor, I can be a downright bleeding heart liberal.

But what’s the difference? And should it really matter what label we use?

These are questions that constantly come up when discussing political matters. Matters of governance are often talked about in terms of ideology, rather than the utility or ethical nature of the law. Balancing the budget is called a “conservative” policy. Easing punishment for drug offenders is seen as “liberal.” Rarely is public policy talked in terms of common sense. That’s because ideological labels are a tribal contest. Each has their cheerleaders and detractors, similar to professional sports. The difference is that Nancy Pelosi’s collagen-stuffed face can’t be fixed with a skirt and pompoms, and Karl Rove is about as agile as an obese penguin.

Lumping ideas into firm categories leaves out the messiness that follows public policy. Just like spouses, there is no perfect government. Logrolling exists for a reason. Democracy, whether representative or pure, is a give-and-take system. Laws come out of the legislative process with all kinds of inputs from people with varying perspectives. No policy embodies the core philosophy of Edmund Burke or Paul Krugman. Compromise is the only universal in representative government.