If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals -- if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is."
-Ronald Reagan, Reason magazine interview, 1975

* * *

The unpleasant fact of the matter is that liberals have always worked harder at politics than conservatives. Some on the right like to joke that going to work actually takes a lot of time out of the average day. That, while a bit too clever, does hit on an economic kernel of truth.

If you're deriving your income -- or a substantial subsidy -- from government, chances are you're going to organize around a movement that keeps the checks coming. If, on the other hand, what it takes to fund these various programs takes only a portion of your annual revenue, you're probably less likely to be as motivated.

So notwithstanding that top marginal tax rates approach 50 percent when you add up all the components of the modern welfare state, what the next conservative revolution needs is a potent dose of philosophical incentive.

Enter Ron Paul and the libertarians.

In last weekend's state convention, Ron Paul was awarded 12 of the 13 delegate slots, with U.S. Michele Bachmann -- who has endorsed Mitt Romney -- getting the other when one Paul delegate stepped aside.

Consequently, more than a few establishment Republicans are aghast that the Paulites have outorganized, outhustled and outworked their entitled brethren in the GOP.

But there's a simple reason for this: They're motivated. Not just by a nation on the precipice of a financial cliff, or by a central bank oblivious to the next asset bubble. No, these are byproducts of a failed status quo.

The next great conservative reincarnation is rooted in a Reaganesque philosophy that's willing to defend liberty for liberty's sake (in fact, you may recall the same internecine battles within the GOP during the Reagan Revolution).

Paul, whose son Rand said last week that his father's race was all but over, represents a growing movement that endorses free-market capitalism not because it produces prosperity, but because it is the only economic system that embraces the morality of freedom. That tends to excite people.

As Reagan himself warned in his famous 1964 address for Barry Goldwater (another outspoken libertarian), "A government can't control the economy without controlling the people and ... when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose."

Welcome to Obamacare, everyone.

So what's the fight about in the GOP? Paul is decidedly prolife and believes, as most traditional conservatives did prior to the judicial activism of the 1960s, that the most vexing of social issues -- from drugs to marriage -- ought to reside with the states.

The problem is, in a nutshell, war.

Whether it's the "war on terror" or the "war on poverty" or the "war on drugs," there's always another one coming, and it always enlarges state power. Michael Gerson, a former presidential speechwriter under George W. Bush, derides Ron Paul's "unbalanced emphasis on individual choice," as though Republicans should be for less of it.

You'd think after 40 years and trillions of dollars, pundits would surely understand the dangers of confusing a crime and a sin. Then again, you'd think that "big-government conservatives" like Gerson would have long ago given up the pretense of being anything but the liberals they really are.

And instead of criticizing Obama's escalation in Afghanistan and his questionable use of unmanned aerial drones, the GOP presidential field -- save Mr. Paul -- seemed all too eager for a new overseas military commitment every month. But do rank-and-file Republicans really think they can win a general election with a foreign-policy platform of: Iraq and Afghanistan -- you ain't seen nothing yet?

War really is the health of the state and is joined at the hip with big government at home. Though simplistically labeled isolationism, opposition to foreign-policy adventurism has long been a GOP tradition.

Even after the bombs dropped at Pearl Harbor, Sen. Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, wrote to his wife, "I am very pessimistic about the future of the country -- we are certainly being dragged towards war and bankruptcy and socialism all at once."

While World War II thankfully defeated the Axis Powers, it also gave us the Office of Price Administration, the War Production Board and the National War Labor Board -- all precursors to today's command-and-control economy.

Prof. John Willson of the conservative Hillsdale College has pointed out that New Dealers eagerly geared up for battle because "what happened between 1941 and 1945 was an expansion of the national state so vast as to be irreversible."

Defeating the radical elements of Islam is surely warranted, but understanding war (and foreign aid) as state interventionism writ large ought to make it a last resort for limited-government Republicans.

Intelligence and special-forces operations are one thing, but vast, decadelong military campaigns are quite another and fall squarely within the province of 20th-century Democratic -- not Republican -- orthodoxy.


Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. weeknights on KTLK Radio, 1130-AM.