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Can Libertarians and Conservatives Coexist? An Interview With Charles C.W. Cooke


You can’t go far these days without running across someone describing themselves as a libertarian-leaning conservative. In his new book, “The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s FutureNational Review’s Charles Cooke proposes a philosophical and political framework that fuses conservatism and libertarianism into a cohesive and effective political brand. The Federalist talked to Cooke about how divisions on the Right over issues like abortion, gay marriage, immigration and foreign policy can be overcome—and how conservatarianism might be the future of the Republican Party.

The Federalist: The fusionist idea has been bouncing around since the dawn of the modern conservative movement. How did you come to the idea of writing a manifesto for conservatarians?

Charles Cooke: The two halves of the title fit together quite nicely, I think. The conservation part is reactive. I have heard people since the Bush administration explaining routinely what they are not. Many did not want to be described as ‘conservative’ and many did not want to be described as ‘Republicans,’ but few were unwilling to go as far as to suggest they were ‘libertarian.’ You hear this a lot: people say, ‘I am conservative when I am around libertarians and libertarian when I am around conservatives.’ I wanted to find out who these people are and what they want and why they are confused. But I also wanted to offer my own explanations as to how they can co-exist and where I think they can go with these instincts and these ideas. And how the various factions on the Right could coexist.

The Federalist: Is there a politician out there now that embodies the philosophical outlook of conservatarians?

Charles Cooke: It’s a difficult question because there are so many factions on the Right, you can get a lot of traction by appealing to any one of them. As such, there doesn’t seem to one candidate who is fits the bill. The closest person is probably Rand Paul.

The Federalist: My sense of Paul is that he too often betrays a paleo-libertarian instinct that, in the end, will probably turn off most conservatives that lean small “l” libertarian.

Charles Cooke: I agree. I think the connections to his father will also damage him. And, you know, it’s a good question but in some regards it misses the point. This is supposed to be a way of changing the minds of voters. The very notion that Americans would be putting all of our stock in one person in the executive branch is in and of itself a problem. Because that is how we now discuss politics.

The Federalist:  Focusing on a single person is a lot easier for voters who aren’t generally very knowledgeable about specifics.  Most voters have a difficult time uncoupling process and policies. Liberals, especially these days, conflate them because outcome is what really matters. So, I imagine, your argument is more difficult to sell than most contemporary political outlooks, precisely because it is built on that distinction.

Charles Cooke: Exactly. Republicans have swept Congress and they have swept the states and they are making changes in the states, whether we like it or not. And yet, all we ever talk about is President Obama. I go on television and I start talking about the changes in the country’s political makeup since 2008, and people keep saying, ‘But Obama won. But Obama won.” And Republicans fall just as easily into this trap: they act like their candidate is going to go to Washington and he’s going to shake everything up and use his power to fix the country. We have to stop.

This isn’t an argument on behalf of a Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Rick Perry, or whoever you like, but on behalf of civil society. Whichever of them gets in there, those who put them there, and those who are in the other branches of government, and the other levels of government, need to be exerting enough pressure so that the executive does not feel the need to become an emperor. I accept that is an extremely long-term project and fraught with difficulties, because the incentives of politics are to pretend that you are a savior. Which politician is going to run on the grounds that ‘I don’t have an idea on any of these things, it’s all up to you’?

The Federalist: Yet I think it’s fair to characterize your book as optimistic.

Charles Cooke: It is. But the reason for that is that I think it’s going to become more and more obvious to people that they need to fracture power. Not because I think individual politicians are going to relinquish power voluntarily, but because there are so many long-term incentives for it. The first thing is that young people are just used to customizing their lives. They are used to Facebook. They are used to their cell phones. They are used to building their own computers.  Yet they are routinely asked to vote for the DMV. They haven’t rebelled against that, but there will come a point where that sort of homogenization starts to irk them.

The second point is that there is such a generational divide on the Right on hot-button questions – especially around drugs and gay marriage – that the Republican Party is going to have to find a way to bridge them. One of the ways it can do that is by embracing the federalism I’m talking about in the book.

The third reason, I think that culturally we are on a collision course. The fact of the matter is that in 1960 there were big problems in America, but you didn’t necessarily know which candidate you were going to vote for – was it John Kennedy or was it Richard Nixon, why do you care? You also didn’t know who your neighbor would vote for or who people in your town would vote for. But politics aside, you were more like those people. That’s no longer the case. This is my favorite example … the hipster in Portland, Oregon and Baptist in Mississippi have nothing in common and yet they live under the same flag.  So we have a choice. We can cry ourselves to sleep every night when the president of the other party is in power. Progressives hated George W. Bush. And they were devastated by his re-election. And conservatives hate Barack Obama, and they are devastated by his re-election. But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The more divided we become, the more it’s going to be that one can only feel happy when the right person is in the presidency or in the Congress. That is preposterous. Eventually, there will be a push, I hope, to reclaim power locally. And voters will accept local variation rather than try to stomp it out.

They are used to building their own computers.  Yet, they are routinely asked to vote for the DMV. They haven’t rebelled against that, but there will come a point where that sort of homogenization starts to irk them.

The Federalist:  Or something else can happen. If you have a Congress that is increasingly conservative and a Democratic Party that is increasingly Progressive, then nothing will really ever get done. This appeals to me in theory. But then you have an executive branch –  which in contemporary politics sets the national agenda –  that views process as an obstruction and so it abuses its powers. You have courts that undermine local control and solidify D.C.’s power. Isn’t that just as likely a scenario as federalism winning the day?

Charles Cooke: It is possible. You are describing gridlock absent a sustained constitutional crisis. And when nothing happens locals tend to kick into gear.

The Federalist: Sure, but take this executive – and I’m not proposing that Republicans have been much better – who intervenes in the states’ business quite often, either by coercing them to participate, bribing them to participate or suing them to participate. Or, sometimes, just ignoring the law when it suits him. On immigration. On health care. On religious freedom. And on drug laws, as well.

Charles Cooke: But I think the pot example is on my side. And I accept this criticism; I think it’s a good one. But the pot example is precisely the sort of bottom-up pressure I’m talking about. Colorado and Washington get together and legalized marijuana and then they realize, oh, oh, there are these federal laws, backed up by this hideous Raich decision, and it contradicts the will of our voters. And now there is more pressure on the federal government than there has been in a long time. Indeed, Bill Bennett is writing books making a defensive case against marijuana. Why is he doing that? Well, he’s doing that because the tension between the federal and state government is pushing for a decision in a way that we haven’t had in a long time.

The Federalist: Another sticking point in the relationship between conservatives and libertarians is foreign policy – not only because there’s a legitimate philosophical disagreement, but because the electorate is mercurial. For a few years, Republicans were more noninterventionist, and then things happen. And when things happen, Americans become more inclined to drop bombs. Is there philosophical guideline conservatarians can follow?

Charles Cooke: There is and I don’t think libertarians will like it. My explanation of Barack Obama’s election and his foreign policy, as it has been stated, is that he was not interested in foreign policy and didn’t need to be when he came into power. What I mean by that is that America was engaged at the time of his election in one of its historically normal and customary holidays from intervention. Now, the country was set up on a principle of non-interventionism and a desire to stay out of empire and to stay out of European wars. That was virtuous, I think, and possible for most of American history. But it is not anymore. And so when you see this yo-yoing between where we were in 2008 and where we are now – I think this morning 62 percent of Americans want to send troops to fight ISIS – that is, in my view, the realization of the voting public that since 1945 America has been the indispensable nation. And that we don’t have much of a choice about our role in the world. It’s one thing to be non-interventionist in 1880 and, indeed, it was another one to be on 1918, which was the last real anti-interventionist moment. Well, Vietnam was, but the Cold War overshadowed it.

In 1945, the British, overnight, handed the baton to the United States. And the liberal nation or force that undergirded the national order and was replaced by the U.S., which broadly had the same aim: free trade, security of commerce, the use of the seas for global communication, business, and travel and not for fighting. So I empathize when they go towards that early old republican conception of America’s role in the world. I emphasize with the force that brought Barack Obama’s foreign policy into existence. But I think the world has changed.

cover.conservatarianThe Federalist: There has to be limits to how we conduct ourselves abroad. Obviously, each situation is different and these limits are often arbitrary. But I frequently hear people explain that they don’t mind bombing the bad guys but they have no appetite for nation-building. 

Charles Cooke: It’s difficult to establish limits. The basic principle is this: There will always be a most powerful nation in the world and when America steps backward it invites others to fill the void. Sometimes, in the case of the British Empire in the 1930s, the retreat means that some terrible, strong nations will arise. Sometimes it means the edges of international diplomacy will get a little frayed. If we believe, and I do, that there has to be a nation, it has to be the United States. And the United States has to stay stronger than everyone else.

To the first point, that currently levels of defense spending, although they might be able to be thinned a little bit, are a response to America’s new role in the world, and that there would be sincere costs with changing that role. What do you do with the power? That’s a tricky one. I think Iraq was a mistake and I think it’s possible that Ronald Reagan would not have gone into Iraq. You have this hero on the Right who is credited, often reasonably, with ending the Cold War. He was not an interventionist but he did believe in American power. Putting out fires is the only way of putting it. If you’re going to have a very powerful nation, it’s going to make mistakes sometimes. But to trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater strikes me as silly

The Federalist: Obviously social issues are also the center of serious disagreements on the Right. In your book, you reject the ‘get government out of marriage’ argument. Is it because it’s not feasible, or because you have ideological objection?

Charles Cooke: I think with government the size that it is and the role that government plays at all levels, I think it is a semantic game to suggest getting the government out of marriage.

The Federalist: Well, it’s semantics to us perhaps, but to, say, an orthodox Catholic marriage is a sacrament and allowing government to concoct a new meaning corrodes the value of that institution for them. And I imagine that marriage will be far more important than federalism to many of those people. If we don’t look to government to sanction marriage, that argument goes away to some extent.

Charles Cooke: What you presented is the best argument, but I don’t think it’s likely to prevail for two reasons. First, and Justice Kennedy never stops pointing this out, to an extent what those who are suing for equal recognition want is the imprimatur of the state. You and I don’t seek that. Libertarians at heart, we’re not particularly interested in what the state thinks of us, or our religious views, or lack thereof, or the way we behave. We don’t care. Indeed, sometimes, we would prefer the state not to have an opinion at all. But that doesn’t seem to be how people who file amicus briefs feel. The notion that the state would refuse to positively sanction a marriage between two men or two women is animus in and of itself. And I am not remotely convinced that those passionate about that will accept it that after all of this time the reaction from those who opposed gay marriage is to say, ‘Let’s not have the government involved in this at all.’ Secondly, I’m not convinced that we are able to replace marriage with a series of private contracts without inviting all the same disputes under a different name.

The Federalist: What about the broader concerns social conservatives have regarding the foundations of a strong civil society? What about the slippery slope argument surrounding gay marriage? How long before evangelicals are coerced to bake cakes at gay weddings or go out of business? Even if social conservatives accept federalist answers as a means of survival, it’s impossible to believe that progressives would have respect for process.

Charles Cooke: Well, I would say that traditional conservatives have no better friends on the question on conscience. If there should be any coalition in modern American politics that is ironclad, it should be that one. The real fight on the question of gay marriage is not over marriage anymore; that one has been lost. For better or for worse, the public opinion has reached a tipping point. The court is almost certain to rewrite the Fourteenth Amendment and pretend that it means something it doesn’t.

That is to say the new problem is Brendan Eich. The new problem is Elane photography in New Mexico. And if libertarians can’t make their argument in favor of conscience rights and religious liberty to those conservatives, then they are hopeless. In my view, this is going to be the great struggle of the next 20 years, socially – preventing the question of gay marriage of morphing overnight into question of whether it is acceptable for anyone to disagree.

The Federalist: In the context of your book, abortion is more complex in that there really is no libertarian position, though most big “L” libertarians probably take a pro-choice position. How do you approach the issue?

Charles Cooke: That’s a tricky one because it is not a social issue in quite the way that we use the term generally. And “social issues,” as I write about in the book, is not a particularly useful phrase because the supposed uniformity of thought simply doesn’t exist. What do we mean about drug legalization? We mean the state getting out of the market, essentially. Not prohibiting someone from growing marijuana. Not prohibiting someone from selling marijuana or from possessing it or ingesting it. Gay marriage is completely separate question–which parts of civil society should government recognize and codify.

But abortion is a question of life and death. Do you believe an unborn child is alive and, if so, what protections should it be afforded and what force should be used to protect it? So, when it comes to convincing conservatives that federalism is the best way forward for them but also for the country, and indeed convincing everyone of that, you are going to have some issues that are easier and some that are more difficult. I think abortion is harder because you accept that a life is a life in Wyoming you probably have to do so in Utah.

The Federalist:  Immigration is another topic that’s been tough to bridge. Your position is that we have to rethink immigration laws and start bringing the sorts of people we want – depending on vocation or cultural background – that enhance the country. Probably not a position libertarians would love, either.

The citizenship in the U.S. comes with a test. We don’t just willy-nilly let people in. We make sure they are familiar with the precepts of the political system and with some American history.

Charles Cooke: For different reasons progressives and libertarians are suspicious of the immigration process as a constructive tool for wielded by the state. Progressives think that borders are imperialistic and they have historical objections – many believe the United States was stolen. Libertarians don’t like government deciding who may come in and who may not and if they see it as means of controlling economics. I have more sympathy with the libertarian objection.

But my starting point is that unless we are going to get rid of all borders, the main purpose of a nation-state is to permit those within it to run their affairs as they see fit.  It seems to me that the role of the existing polity is to decide who can join it. Now, the U.S. is more than an economy. It is a nation whose government is, on paper at least, committed to the protection of certain ideals. The Declaration of Independence informs the Constitution, the Constitution lays out what government must do, and the vote is an extremely powerful means of changing the values and the nature of the country. Therefore, deciding who you want to allow to in your society who can later change the way that you live is a significant responsibility. My view is that countries such as this one are a lot more fragile than we think, they are a lot more exceptional than we think, and merely opening the gates and permitting millions – it would probably mean tens of millions – needs to be properly considered very carefully.

The citizenship in the U.S. comes with a test. We don’t just willy-nilly let people in. We make sure they are familiar with the precepts of the political system and with some American history. We make sure they know what the Bill of Rights contains. And we do that for a reason. We wish to hold on to America as it existed.

The Federalist: Of course, if civic knowledge was truly vital to preserving American life, we would be testing citizens before they vote – and the majority of them would probably fail that civics test.

Charles Cooke: Well, the answer to that is that we’re supposed to do that in public schools. We have a public-school system in the United States and the purported aim of it, though I am not convinced by that, is to create citizens who are informed. And because most foreigners would not have been through American civics, we give them a test. The presumption is that they are catching up to those who are native-born, and that they are being furbished with enough information to wield their votes and influence responsibly. And this is the one area I think the state has a role to play. Thomas Jefferson was worried about this in the eighteenth century. How do you get hundreds of thousands, millions of immigrants, from other countries and imbue them with the principles of the new nation – a new nation that was different then and different now. Well, you do it with an immigration system. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

The Federalist:  Maybe idealism about American freedom is not as strong as we think among voters. A lot of people claim that we are in a libertarian moment, but my position is that what we’re seeing is only incidentally libertarian. A lot of people want to legalize pot because they want pot to be legal, not because they care about individual liberty in any broader sense. It’s seems to me that voters mostly love freedom when it comports with their position. Is that too cynical?

Charles Cooke: I do not think what wins the day for my brand of federalism would be abstract agreement with my premises. I think what will win the day is that the country is increasingly intellectually diverse. I don’t care about diversity in the way it is usually used, that’s just a nonsense term. But intellectually and politically and ideologically we are a more divided and fractured country than in 1960. There are consequences to that.

And it is bizarre at the exact moment the United States has become so customized, if you like, the government in Washington has become too homogenized. Insofar as your hypothetical pot legalizer recognizes that live and let live is a constitutional way forward, it will be because he wants his state to be able to pass decriminalization bill but the federal laws counteract it. But that’s not bad thing. Being able to say to him that Paul Ryan’s position, which bridges the gap nicely between the nos and yes, is the federal government should get out. But if you are a Wisconsin legislator you can vote no. But the Colorado [legislators] can vote yes without fearing that its citizens risk prosecution. Pointing out to him that, that gives him what he wants and that’s the way the country should be set up, is a teachable moment, to borrow a phrase. And I think across the board this is how America will have to work in the future. And I think this is how the Right will have to work, as well.