Conservatives, Libertarians, and Civil Rights History

To follow up on Ilya’s post below, it’sworth noting that the post-World War II politician of national significance probably most beloved by libertarianish types (libertarianism was not a self-conscious movement until recently) was Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft, of course, lost the Republican presidential nomination to Eisenhower in 1952. The conservatives who eventually founded National Review supported Eisenhower, because he was an enthusiastic Cold Warrior. The more libertarian types supported Taft because he wasn’t, and because he more generally was not completely at peace with the New Deal, as Eisenhower was. The split between the Eisenhower and Taft supporters led to the demise of the first major post-war conservative intellectual journal, The Freeman (which eventually continued as the house organ of the Foundation for Economic Education).

Another dividing line between Taft and Eisenhower, though it had relatively little political salience at the time, is that Taft was an enthusiastic supporter of civil rights, whereas Eisenhower was at best lukewarm. Taft’s support for civil rights was in the great tradition of northern classical liberal Republicans going back to the 1850s. One of his most enthusiastic supporters was the African-American conservative/libertarian writer, Zora Neale Hurston.

The Taft-Eisenhower battle illuminates the fact that the more libertarian-oriented conservative tradition was civil-rights friendly. The more traditionalist National Review crowd, which took over the conservative movement, was not. Yet more reason for conservatives to be more abashed about claiming that their position on civil rights makes them superior to libertarians, and, for that matter, for some of our commenters to be a bit more circumspect about reading classical liberals out of the modern civil rights movement.