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Don’t miss Henry Olsen’s trenchant observations about the Republican party’s current internal conflicts. The lines of argument currently being deployed by “conservative” activists against the GOP “establishment” are remarkably similar to the lines deployed against the conservative candidacy of Ronald Reagan by the 1980 Libertarian party ticket (Ed Clark and David Koch):

The Libertarian challenge then was based on the idea that conservative outsider Ronald Reagan, much less the dominant GOP establishment, represented “‘no change whatsoever from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats.”  For these Libertarians, opposing Ronald Reagan was crucial to changing the course of America, even if a strong Libertarian effort resulted in Carter’s re-election.

The question, then as now, is whether freedom and republican virtue can be squared with the existence of safety net programs and some version of the modern regulatory state. Reagan said yes, and conservative leaders like Arthur Brooks (“One of the things, in my view, that we get wrong in the free enterprise movement is this war against the social safety net, which is just insane. The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society”) continue to say yes. Libertarians, then as now, say no, and this remains the most important difference between them.

I think Henry’s totally right about this in terms of the historical facts. For good measure, I also share his sympathy for the conservative side of this argument—though not generally for the GOP establishment leaders who are its most politically relevant advocates.

However, let me issue a challenge. It is a purely political challenge, apart from the moral and intellectual merits of the issue. I want to be clear that I issue it not because I want to dislodge Henry from his position, but because I’m not immediately able to think of a good answer to it, and I hope and expect he can do a better job than I can of answering it.

No matter how many times the conservatives reaffirm that they are not trying to dismantle the safety net or remove all economic regulations, the narrative—even among many of our allies, as you can discover by reading First Thoughts on a regular basis—is always, always, always that economic conservatives are radical libertarians who want to dismantle the safety net and remove all economic regulations. Our inability to break through this bogus narrative has reached a point where it is worth asking whether the incompetence of conservative spokesmen is an adequate explanation. Our libertarian friends would argue that our inability to establish a stable conservative-but-not-libertarian position in the national culture is a sign of the incoherence of our principles, a sign that our attempt to reconcile freedom, an entrepreneurial economy, and human dignity with the safety net and the regulatory state is just an attempt to have our cake and eat it, too. Why are they wrong? Why are we unable to convince anyone that we believe what we in fact believe, if it is not (as I think it is not) the incoherence of our position?

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