(Read Part I.)
During the 1920s, then, the emerging individualists and libertariansâ€”the Menckens, the Nocks, the Villards, and their followersâ€”were generally considered Men of the Left; like the Left generally, they bitterly opposed the emergence of Big Government in twentieth-century America, a government allied with Big Business in a network of special privilege, a government dictating the personal drinking habits of the citizenry and repressing civil liberties, a government that had enlisted as a junior partner to British imperialism to push around nations across the globe. The individualists were opposed to this burgeoning of State monopoly, opposed to imperialism and militarism and foreign wars, opposed to the Western-imposed Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, and they were generally allied with socialists and progressives in this opposition.
All this changed, and changed drastically, however, with the advent of the New Deal.
So begins the tremendous fourth chapter in Rothbard’s newly released book, The Betrayal of the American Right.
For many libertarians, the story of how the Old Right grew in reaction to the New Deal is beyond familiar. Or, at least, that most basic understanding is common. But in Betrayal we get a much clearer and telling picture than the one-sentence narrative gets across. Having explained the background of this movement as a mostly anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-big business, anti-prohibition, antiwar group of thinkers — some of whom, to give some context as to their role in the culture war, were even more radical on social organization, religion, and family issues than some of today’s paleolibertarians — Rothbard moves on to the Revolutionary (or, depending on your point of view, counterrevolutionary) New Deal, during which the ideological turmoil and confusion, the chaos on left and right, the constant shifting of alliances and fundamental alterations of political labels all make today’s neoconization of the American right look like a non-event by comparison.
Imagine having just been the bitter enemy of Herbert Hoover’s corporate state, his Reconstruction Finance Corporation, his latent Wilsonianism, his protectionism and prohibition agents. Then comes along FDR, a man who actually campaigns on a more libertarian platform than the Republican (some “Old Rightists” even supported him at first). FDR wins and, aside from prohibition and maybe trade policy, begins to accelerate America’s descent into domestic collectivism.
The true libertarians saw in FDR another Hoover, another Wilson, another major enemy of liberty with perhaps a greater agenda than any of his predecessors. But much of the left, the antiwar radicals, the socialists, the populists, the anti-prohibitionists lined up to support his crusade against fear itself, his war on the Great Depression. As his policies continued to destroy American wealth and liberty, suddenly conservatives such as Hoover and even some big business shills begun not to look so bad.
This is truly something difficult to imagine. The war on terror is the only analogy I can think of in my own life, whereby an ideological movement became split and realigment began to take shape. And some other parallels then emerge: Just as there was some risk in joining forces with the more prudent corporatists and conservatives in opposition to the fascist New Deal, so too in recent times have we seen the problems with alliances with both left and right.
But the New Deal was a domestic program. Could such a program shake things up so much in the future? We will see.
The New Deal appears to be the last major economic overhaul that was astutely seen by most of its radical critics to be a move toward economic consolidation, monopoly, and empowered big business. As the New Deal itself began also to coopt the left with its unionism and welfarism, and as the free market movement began to reshape as a reaction to the left and egalitarianism, the American opponents of big government at home would soon lose some of their most trenchant and important critiques of domestic leviathan.
We must never forget that, as classical liberals, we have a role in seeing the connection between state power and privilege. Will the anti-corporatist left ever again return to its pre-New Deal roots? We can only hope so, especially given that the entire mainstream conservative movement today, even the Reaganites, would never think of upsetting or overturning the New Deal.
The New Deal certainly was a defining era, not just for American libertarianism but for American liberty and the entire political world. I fear, however, the Old Right remnant had it even worse when the New Dealer decided to take his project beyond the water’s edge. Next time: My reflections on Rothbard’s treatment of the Old Right and World War II.