I am somewhere to the left of the Democratic Party but, when I saw that Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater selling for $1.99 on Kindle, I snapped it up. Clearly, the market had spoken. Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by Goldwater’s speechwriter in 1960, is a classic statement of libertarian principles.
Indeed, one could easily imagine present-day Republicans repeating Goldwater’s calls to unleash the power of free enterprise and to cut “Big Labor” down to size. As an influential example of conservative libertarianism, Goldwater’s book is worthy of merciless critique.
Goldwater argues that citizens should be allowed to develop freely without constraints from the federal government. According to Goldwater, federal power tends towards “absolutism” — it grows whenever it is used, reaching into every aspect of citizen’s lives. Therefore, we should limit Washington’s jurisdiction to those areas mentioned in the Constitution, such as ensuring interstate commerce. Outside of these narrow confines, all other laws should be decided and carried out by the states.
This leads Goldwater to a surprising conclusion. If the federal government is barred from infringing upon “states’ rights,” it shouldn’t intervene to prevent local injustices — including racial discrimination. Goldwater is quite explicit that, though he finds racism personally distasteful, he also condemns moves to enforce civil rights as egregious examples of federal overreach. According to Goldwater, Brown v. Board of Education — the law which desegregated schools — marks a course that will ultimately “enthrone tyrants and doom freedom.”
While this may be an example of 1960s race-baiting, it isn’t the last time conservatives attacked federal civil rights legislation. Milton Friedman and Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son, have both come out against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Ron Paul went as far as to call it “a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract.” Of course, it is important to note that while these thinkers do not represent all conservatives, they do represent a strong libertarian strain within the movement.
Why do some conservatives promote economic liberty and states’ rights over racial equality? They suggest that these are not mutually exclusive. Thus, Goldwater maintains that “the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned.” They claim that states will deal with their own affairs and, even if local businesses refuse to serve African Americans, the market will take care of it — those are paying customers who can go elsewhere.
For all their apologies, though, conservatives drop their masks a little when they talk about civil rights. It’s not that they are racist. Institutional and overt racism simply fall below conservatives’ concern because these problems take place in a domain they believe to be spontaneous and free. Individuals, they claim, may choose their own lives as long as they are not thwarted by the state.
In reality, though, countless factors condition and constrain our decisions, ranging from the subtle coercions of communities to the grand machinations of corporations. Study after study shows that race and class background has profound effects on an individual’s economic success and well-being, clearly demonstrating that racism and economic inequality represent powers as tyrannous as any government.
Yet this group of conservatives still imagines a self-creating individual in full command of his or her own destiny. As Herman Cain recently stated, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Still, there is something otherworldly about this concept of the individual free from history or material restraints.
It is common to think of libertarians as separate from their evangelical conservative brethren, but Goldwater constantly reminds us that “man” is a spiritual being whose “most sacred possession is his individual soul.” This seems to suggest that, just as souls are all judged the same regardless of hardship or circumstance, all economic actors are given an equal chance before God and the market.
In the mystic fog of far right ideology, the individual, unencumbered by earthly limitations, determines its fate through moral deliberation. But when the state interferes with spiritual matters like nuclear waste disposal and workplace safety regulations, Goldwater argues, it prevents both the exercise of virtue and the punishment of vice.
We can see this quite clearly in Goldwater’s treatment of race. In an almost religious form of tolerance, Goldwater states that he does not wish to “impose [his] judgment” upon racist state governments but, instead, will work through “persuasion and education” to bring about an end to their bigotry. In other words, Goldwater hoped to reverse centuries of racist violence and hierarchy by appealing to the supposedly free and unbiased ethical capacities of predominantly white southern states.
As Goldwater inadvertently reveals, the notion of individual liberty is more often than not moralistic hokum, smoke and incense covering over more fundamental oppressions. We are not blank slates or free souls choosing for ourselves. To assert otherwise is to insinuate that victims of systematic discrimination and unequal opportunities are responsible for their own misery.
The reality is that the freedom provided by states rights is the freedom to oppress minorities. The liberty offered to corporations and markets is the liberty to exploit workers. The only individuals liberated by conservatism are the top 1 percent.
JORDAN CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English and a secret friend to “autocrats and ‘democratic’ Jacobins” who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.