McCarthy on Red Toryism

Daniel McCarthy has some interesting thoughts on Phillip Blond’s ideology “Red Toryism” in the latest American Conservative. Red Toryism sounds a bit like what James Q. Wilson and others have called “populism”: an ideology favoring tight regulation of the market combined with conservatism on social issues. As something of a virtue libertarian, McCarthy actually has sympathy for the concept, at least if it is operationalized as distributism and a relatively benign “hearth and home” social ethic. But a concept that may have some value in Britain would have vastly different implications for America, he says:

What happens if one injects an uncompromising critique of rights, individualism, and liberalism into [the United States’] national machinery? The product may not be Red Toryism, but more executive secrecy, deficit spending, war, torture, and disempowerment of civil society. No wonder, then, that for all our national-greatness conservatives laud Benjamin Disraeli, they never sound like Tories. They are instead in the tradition of Caesar and Napoleon, of mass democracy and militarism.

I’m a bit more skeptical of the concept’s utility even for Britain (it’s odd to blame liberalism for the British surveillance state, when politicians there have been mouthing “broken society” mantras for decades), and I would prefer to draw a bright line between promoting decentralization of wealth and strong social responsibility through voluntary social action and using the machinery of the national state to enforce them. Nevertheless, I think libertarians too often ignore some of the good intuitions that both socialists and conservatives have about capitalist modernity.

7 thoughts on “McCarthy on Red Toryism

  1. Jason, I agree with you that socialists and conservatives may well have useful insights into our social and ethical lives, and that some libertarians may have very little useful to say about such things. Doesn’t that suggest that we need to distinguish between our policy or legal prescriptions and the motives or rationales for them? I suspect that many socialists have really noble motives and are deeply mistaken about the institutions that can advance their ends. I’m pretty sure this is true of lots of conservatives as well. And I can agree with other libertarians on such prescriptions despite deep disagreement over what kinds of lives are best for us to live, if we are free to do so. In fact, I’d think the fact of such disagreement is one of the most powerful rationales for liberty.

  2. Well said Mark. I really wish I’d run into you earlier. As I’ve tried to tell libertarians for years, libertarianism is merely a political theory – not a full theory of the good.

      1. Ha ha! Indeed.

        Now, I think where some debate comes in is in assessments of how the current social order is “distorted” by deviations from the “ideal” political theory. So for instance you can have Kevin Carson’s anti-capitalist mutualism and Ayn Rand’s view of big business as a persecuted minority under the same libertarian tent.

      2. Right. So on the one hand, we could say those differences might reflect differences in the underlying rationale for libertarianism. On the other hand, it makes a difference in how we construe those differences! They might be descriptive differences in predictions about what sort of society(ies) would emerge under libertarian principles. Those kinds of differences would seem to me to be well-worth exploring. But they might also be normative differences, about how to think of political/legal norms themselves. There it seems to me harder to see a wider divide, since I’d think that would be about what would be constitutive of the libertarian tent to begin with.

  3. Do you think the major libertarian institutions have become less and less amenable to conservative (in terms of ethics) libertarians, or at least increasingly populated by libertarians with greater hostility to community, traditional values, etc.? Or has a healthy pluralism been cultivated or at least maintained?

    1. I suppose I think things are getting better, if for no other reason than that there are now available lots of libertarian voices. Not only does that mean there can be a division of labor in the development of ideas that there wasn’t before, but it also means that the divisions are more likely to emerge in discourse. All of which seems to me promising. But maybe I’m reading selectively. (Check that: I’m sure I am!) Is your assessment different?

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