Freedom Conservatives and Liberty Conservatives

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 9 2014 4:53 PM

Freedom Conservatives and Liberty Conservatives

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I think I'm more of a freedom fighter than a liberty lover...

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Buzzfeed's Ben Smith has laid a marker and defined two groups of conservatives: Freedom conservatives (think George W Bush) and Liberty conservatives (think Ron Paul). This seems to have riled the left side of the blogosphere and the liberty-minded conservatives alike. ("Something of a mess," says Daniel Larison.)

They are largely wrong and Smith is largely right. The existing taxonomy of the conservative movement is a mess. You see groups like the Club for Growth, founded in the Clinton years, defined as "Tea Party." You see people like Rep. Justin Amash, described as "libertarian," then wrongly assigned with left-wing social views. Yet since at least 2008, when he founded the Campaign for Liberty, Ron Paul's followers have called themselves "the liberty movement." The major political action group: LPAC. The youth group: Young Americans for Liberty. Cato's youth group is Students for Liberty. That binds together the "Kochtopus" and the Paul side in a way almost no other distinction does.

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Here's Smith on those people:

Liberty Conservatives look, first of all, to America’s founding documents. They are deeply skeptical not just of the contemporary government but of 20th-century government action — their favorite texts include revisionist histories of Herbert Hoover and arguments that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t do much about the depression. They embrace the civil rights movement, but their intellectual forebears fought it. They are now focused on rolling back elements of the 20th-century welfare state. 

Yes. Meanwhile, the hawkish, Reaganite youth group is (and has always been) Young Americans for Freedom. Michael Goldfarb runs the Center for American Freedom (a parody of the Center for American Progress); I am friends with Goldfarb and have drank in the company of the "freedom posse" of hawk conservative journalists. Nobody wants to be labeled, hence the sputtering, and the clearest differences in these definitions are the ones related to foreign policy. But they're a hell of an improvement on what we had. (If I see FreedomWorks referred to one more time as a "Koch group," instead of a group founded to reject the influence of the Kochs...)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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