The embodiment of the contradictions in the 20th century intellectual and strategic alliance of libertarianism with mainstream conservatism, Medford Stanton Evans, passed away earlier today at age 80. (Hat tip: Tennyson.)
He was a protégé of antiwar single-taxer Frank Chodorov who became a staunch defender of McCarthy — and we ain’t talkin’ about Gene.
I met him once, when he spoke at the Foundation for Economic Education a couple years back (at which time he seemed impossibly wizened, more Charles F. Muntz than Carl Fredricksen), and asked him about Chodorov. (He was also a student of Ludwig von Mises — not the Institute, the person — but even that firsthand contact through the gulf of time is less of a rarity.) Evans had warm personal memories of the man, and was appreciative that someone from my generation even knew who Chodorov was to ask about him. Needless to say, his answer avoided going into the tensions between Chodorov’s worldview and his own. And I can only imagine how appalled he would have been by my political views on other topics.
In his Q&A session, he did discuss Chodorov’s not-exactly McCarthyist take on McCarthyism — “The way to get rid of communists in government jobs is to abolish the jobs.” — which had impressed SDS’s Carl Oglesby (yes, that SDS) as a contrast to “the debased Republicanism” of the time. But Evans somehow seemed to think that this was only meant to apply to domestic government, and was thus entirely consistent with a Red-fighting foreign policy.
More generally, Evans was one of the originators of the broader mid-20th century revival of uncompromising conservatism centered around National Review. He was one of the main contributors to the “fusionist” redefining of libertarianism as coterminous with political and social conservatism. In fact, his talk repeatedly referred to the libertarian and conservative movements in the same breath.
Early movement conservatism had a surprisingly large contingent that hewed to Chodorov’s single tax views. William F. Buckley, Jr. would patiently explain his belief in single-tax views against private property in land whenever anyone bothered to ask. Ironically, that contingent never had a presence at FEE, even though Chodorov’s magazine The Freeman evolved into FEE’s flagship.
On top of that, conservatives occasionally simply veered in weird directions. For instance, Reagan staffer John McClaughry’s interest in “self-managed workplaces, neighborhood empowerment, alternative currencies, and decentralized technology” (Jesse Walker’s words); or Karl Hess’s, um, being Karl Hess. Hess might have left the conservative movement by the time he got really groovy, but he maintained that he was always driven by the same essential values. McClaughry was in the far odder position of giving a blurb, listing his then-current position of Senior Policy Advisor in the White House when Reagan was president, recommending that “Friends of cooperation, of self-sufficiency, of the household economy, of the small community, of sound money, and of a non-exploitative land tenure” read Mildred Loomis’ Alternative Americas — a book in which private interest and rent are opposed on Benjamin Tuckerite grounds. (Loomis was a protégé of Ralph Borsodi, another maverick individualist fighting singlehandedly against the early-20th century collectivist tide, though his influence from Paul Goodman to Robert Anton Wilson was in a different direction from Chodorov’s.) But as far as I am aware, Evans had no such funky side.
By the time Evans’ magnum opus defending McCarthy appeared in late 2007, it was so far out of sync with a libertarian movement weary of two terms of Republican crusading that its leading magazine, Reason, was scathing. The modern equivalent of National Review as the intellectual leadership in the conservative movement is the anti-bellicose The American Conservative, whose McCarthyist tributes are indeed to Gene and not Tail-Gunner Joe. The energy at FEE itself has long since shifted to a new generation with far more socially liberal cultural views, like Sarah Skwire and Steven Horwitz. The fading of Evans’ worldview long preceded him.