This Is What We Believe

Conservatives and libertarians often recount a story, “perhaps a little too perfect to be actually true,” about the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a popular ideological text.

As a freshly minted Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher grew frustrated with calls within her party for moderation and pragmatism. She reportedly interrupted one such call at a party meeting, removed Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty from her briefcase, and slammed it onto the table. “This is what we believe,” she declared.

LibertyAn exemplary work of classical liberalism, The Constitution of Liberty continues to inspire self-described libertarians and conservatives alike, though Hayek’s postscript — entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative” — remains relevant even today. Hayek’s criticisms of conservatives in 1960 — among other reasons, for their support for agricultural subsidies and fear of “uncontrolled social forces” — could just as much apply to many conservatives even now in the teens of the twenty-first century.

Hayek then laments the loss of the original meaning of “liberal” in the United States. Unsure of the term “libertarian,” Hayek longs for “a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.”

Nearly forty years later, then-editor of Reason Virginia Postrel offered such a term: dynamist.

Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies is in many ways an updated account of Hayek’s defense of individual liberty, the rule of law, and limited government (with as much inspiration, as the title would suggest, from Karl Popper).

It is this book that I would slam on the desk of politicians, pundits, and policy wonks — though today I’m more likely to send them an e-mail with a link to an e-book while sitting in an Uber car.

In The Future and its Enemies, Postrel contrasts dynamists — those who welcome change and innovation through open-mindedness, trial and error, and enterprise — with stasists — those who seek to reverse, stop, or micromanage such change and innovation.

Stasists can be either reactionary or technocratic, and depending on the issue, the urge to halt change and restore the past or the urge to control change as it happens can be seen on either the political right or the political left. Sometimes these forces even unite to stifle progress on issues like immigration and trade on the national level — or right here in Virginia, to protect the state-run liquor monopoly, combining the conservative impulse to legislate morality and the progressive quest to set the “right” amount of state revenues.

Though dynamism, with its support for markets and spontaneous order, has clear implications regarding political economy, it does not limit itself to the realm of policy. It is as much an attitude as it is a philosophy. As dynamists, our instinct is to embrace (or at least allow) innovation, not question it, whether the innovation occurs in goods and services, technology, or culture.

I was reminded of these concepts last year while reading about the Republican primary election for U.S. Senate in Mississippi. Many of Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel’s positions — criticism of burdensome regulations; support for school choice; opposition to Obamacare, the ultimate stasist project — may appeal to the libertarian dynamist.

But in speeches, McDaniel demonstrated his own stasist tendencies. “Millions in this country feel like strangers in this land — you recognize that, don’t you? An older America passes away, a new America rises to take its place. We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s offensive to us,” he said in a widely-quoted speech.

As a dynamist, I don’t share McDaniel’s aversion to our present culture. Today, for instance, seven of ten Americans reside in states that allow same-sex marriage. I welcome this change and celebrate that same-sex couples now enjoy equal protection of our marriage laws in Virginia.

And as a libertarian, I also question the past he selectively remembers. An anecdote by David Boaz helps illustrate why:

The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.

The continued racial disparities in our criminal justice system demonstrate that the problems weren’t only in the past. We still have work to do to ensure the blessings of liberty are enjoyed by all, including the marginalized and disenfranchised.

Criminal justice reform is necessary at both the federal and state level. On the federal level, we will continue lobbying Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner to stop waffling and support the Smarter Sentencing Act — bipartisan legislation that will help alleviate America’s embarrassingly high incarceration rate. Here in Virginia, we are working to reform the state’s abusive asset forfeiture laws to require a criminal conviction before law enforcement can permanently seize someone’s property.

Historically disenfranchised communities and individuals can also benefit from advances in economic liberty, such as the recent victory for African hair braiders in Texas won by the Institute for Justice. Virginia generally has a business-friendly environment, but the libertarian Mercatus Center ranks Virginia as below average in occupational licensing freedom.

Ironically, one of the first actions Virginia can take to make the state more dynamic is to look to its past. Virginia has a long and proud tradition of hemp cultivation, but the plant is currently illegal to grow despite being safe, environmentally friendly, and economically beneficial. That’s why we are working to legalize industrial hemp production in Virginia and allow farmers to earn an honest living with a valuable new cash crop.

In at least one way, then, the Future Dominion may resemble the Old Dominion. But not in others. Our name contains a slight irony: There is no one way forward, no one correct way to live. However, by embracing liberty, dynamism, and equal rights, we will enable Virginians to chart their own paths forward, and our commonwealth will be all the better for it.

About the Author

Nicholas Cote is Editor-in-Chief of Future Dominion and President of Right Way Forward Virginia. Reach him by e-mail at nicholas.cote@rwfvirginia.org

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