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What's a conservatarian?

Come hear author Charles C.W. Cooke explain

By MIKE NICHOLS | March 24, 2015

The 2015 WPRI Poll of Public Opinion told us what Wisconsinites think about issues like right-to-work, Common Core and toll roads. But it also told us what Wisconsinites think about themselves. And those are, perhaps, the most interesting results of all.

Most political observers think of Wisconsin as a bifurcated state, half Republican, half Democrat. In fact, we’re trifurcated at best. Ask Wisconsinites how, generally speaking, they define themselves politically, and 28% say they’re Democrats, 27% say they’re Republicans and 27% say they’re independents. The other 18% say they’re something else, don’t know or won’t answer. We appear to be cleaved almost perfectly into thirds.

If you push a little harder, however, a slightly different picture begins to emerge. Ask those same people which party they think of themselves as being closer to, and the number of Democrats moves almost imperceptibly up to 30% while independents remain steady at 27%. Republicans, meanwhile, jump up to 36%.

A significant number of Wisconsinites, in other words, are more right than left but resist being labeled.

It would take a lot more nuanced polling to figure out why but – after reading Charles C.W. Cooke’s “The Conservatarian Manifesto” – I have a pretty good hunch.

There are, of course, certain things that define everyone on the right. Among them: a belief in equality of opportunity rather than outcome, smaller government, education reform, skepticism that government can bring about real change in society, faith primarily in local rather than national government.  

But Cooke, a writer for National Review who will speak at a WPRI-sponsored event in Madison on March 31, includes a litany of reasons lots of folks who will never be liberal are also now a little wary of being called conservative. In the eyes of many, he writes, Republicans “spent too much, subsidized too much, spied too much and controlled too much. The party abandoned its core principle of federalism, undermined free trade, favored the interests of big business over genuinely free markets, used government power to push social issues too aggressively and, ultimately, was somewhat co-opted by the Christian Right . . . Most of all, the Republican Party lost its reputation for fiscal restraint, constitutional propriety and mastery of foreign affairs.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that they are ready to cast all allegiance – and reason – to the wind and become pure and unbridled libertarians.

“The most salient criticism of the libertarian instinct – and I include my own tendencies in this critique – is that its adherents can reflexively defend anything that is said or done purely on the basis that it represents a free choice, regardless of whether or not it is a good choice,” adds Cooke.  “Thus do libertarians often ignore that crucial component of civil society: judgment. Just because something is legal does not mean that it is virtuous.”

As the title of the book suggests, Cooke thinks there is another way, a political hybrid comprised of folks who fit into neither category as well as both.

It’s an important book, maybe even an epiphany for folks on the right who are, I think, naturally far less inclined than those on the left to organize into groups and adopt communal labels. In 235 pages that veer from Bill Maher to F.A. Hayek to the rights of members of Naked-Only Vegetarian Golf Colonies, Cooke manages to both entertain and educate. And remind folks on the right – regardless of what they call themselves – what unites them.   

The book includes a few needless digressions and ends a little too abruptly. But those are minor quibbles. I can almost guarantee you won’t agree with everything, but that is much of the point. If Cooke’s talk next week is as lively as his writing, it will be more than worth the time.

You can sign up here.

 Mike Nichols is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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