What Exactly Is a ‘Conservatarian’?

No one seems to know what the new buzzword means.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) attends a press conference with House Republicans on proposed greenhouse gas standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency September 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Emma Roller
July 16, 2014, 5:50 p.m.

This week­end, Sen. Rand Paul will head­line a “con­ser­vatari­an” con­fer­ence in San Fran­cisco. So, just what is a con­ser­vatari­an? Hard to say.

The con­fer­ence, called Re­boot, is sponsored by a group foun­ded by three young Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives-turned-tech en­tre­pren­eurs. The event, or­gan­ized by a group called Lin­colnLabs, is sponsored by Gen­er­a­tion Op­por­tun­ity, a branch of the Koch broth­ers’ polit­ic­al net­work that tar­gets young voters. (They’re the group be­hind those Creepy Uncle Sam ads.)

Lin­colnLabs was star­ted in 2013 by three Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives, who left the Belt­way for Sil­ic­on Val­ley as a way to re­cruit tech tal­ent to the right side of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum. Gar­rett John­son, one of Lin­colnLabs’ founders, formerly worked for Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Richard Lugar of In­di­ana. And des­pite be­ing one of the first people to use the term, let alone or­gan­ize a con­fer­ence around it, John­son is cagey about what ex­actly makes a con­ser­vatari­an.

“My full-time fo­cus is not fig­ur­ing out the ideo­lo­gic­al ten­ets of con­ser­vatari­an­ism,” John­son told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We are not fo­cused on talk and the­ory. We’re fo­cused on ac­tion and res­ults, and that’s something that really sep­ar­ates Wash­ing­ton, D.C., from Sil­ic­on Val­ley.”

Lin­colnLabs is try­ing to tap in­to the net­work of more liber­tari­an-minded tech en­tre­pren­eurs who pop­u­late Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the Bay Area. And it’s work­ing — they’ve at­trac­ted sup­port from Alex­is Ohanian, a Red­dit cofounder and a part­ner at the ven­ture-cap­it­al firm Y Com­bin­at­or. In 2012, For­bes de­clared Ohanian — a vo­cal op­pon­ent of on­line reg­u­la­tions — “may­or of the In­ter­net.”

The Re­boot con­fer­ence this week­end will fea­ture speeches from Paul and Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, along with re­cor­ded missives from Bush and Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er. Co­in­cid­ent­ally, Net­roots Na­tion — a con­fer­ence for lib­er­al blog­gers and act­iv­ists that grew out of the web­site Daily Kos — is also hap­pen­ing this week­end. But John­son is quick to stress that un­like Net­roots, Re­boot is a tech con­fer­ence, not a polit­ic­al one.

“In polit­ics, ar­gu­ments win the day,” John­son said. “In Sil­ic­on Val­ley, to the greatest ex­tent pos­sible, data and met­rics settles the ar­gu­ment. We’re fo­cused on be­ing res­ults-driv­en. We’re fo­cused on ac­tion that’s meas­ur­able rather than just rhet­or­ic.”

Over the past year, Lin­colnLabs has hos­ted “hack­a­thons” in cit­ies like Miami and Chica­go, gath­er­ing tech-minded at­tendees to work­shop data-driv­en solu­tions to is­sues like on­line vot­ing, lan­guage learn­ing in schools, city plan­ning, and gov­ern­ment trans­par­ency.

Lin­colnLabs isn’t the only con­ser­vat­ive group try­ing to make head­way in Sil­ic­on Val­ley. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce — the largest pro-busi­ness lobby in the coun­try — just opened its first ma­jor of­fice out­side of Wash­ing­ton in San Jose. Its task: to con­vince Sil­ic­on Val­ley en­tre­pren­eurs that their ideo­logy aligns with the cham­ber’s agenda, and to lobby on their be­half. “The U.S. Cham­ber’s agenda IS the tech­no­logy agenda,” a pro­mo­tion­al bro­chure in­sists.

“Our job is to tell the story that busi­ness is the an­swer, not the prob­lem,” Dav­id Chav­ern, the cham­ber’s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent and pres­id­ent of its Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Tech­no­logy & In­nov­a­tion, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “And this eco­sys­tem out here in the Bay Area is the per­fect evoc­a­tion of that.”

But that could be a tall or­der for the con­ser­vat­ive Cham­ber of Com­merce. On one hand, des­pite be­ing one of the fast­est-grow­ing en­tre­pren­eur­i­al hubs in the U.S., Sil­ic­on Val­ley re­mains polit­ic­ally lib­er­al. And cul­tur­ally, Sil­ic­on Val­ley may be squeam­ish about the type of in­sti­tu­tion­al power the cham­ber rep­res­ents. The cham­ber ad­vert­ised its new headquar­ters with an il­lus­tra­tion of Pres­id­ent Taft — who in­spired the cham­ber’s cre­ation in 1911 — wear­ing Google Glass. (U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce)

“I do have some brand is­sues to get over,” Chav­ern said. “The cham­ber is viewed as part of the es­tab­lish­ment, and if you’re in the tech sec­tor you’re used to think­ing about dis­rupt­ing the es­tab­lish­ment.”

Dav­id Boaz, the ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of the liber­tari­an Cato In­sti­tute, agreed that the fisc­al con­ser­vat­ism offered by the cham­ber will be a harder sell in Sil­ic­on Val­ley com­pared with oth­er busi­ness hubs.

“There are a lot of busi­ness people in Sil­ic­on Val­ley who aren’t in­ter­ested in play­ing the Wash­ing­ton game, and they see the Cham­ber of Com­merce as the stuffy part of the Re­pub­lic­an Party and the cronyist part of busi­ness,” Boaz told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I don’t know wheth­er the cham­ber lob­by­ists in Cali­for­nia will go around in shorts and T-shirts, but they may very well re­lax their dress code from what I’m guess­ing it is on H Street.”

But even Boaz — the lead­er of the premiere liber­tari­an think tank in the coun­try — had nev­er heard of the term “con­ser­vatari­an,” and threw some cold wa­ter on the idea that this type of liber­tari­an­ism is a nov­el idea for Cali­for­ni­ans.

Which brings us back to the ori­gin­al ques­tion — is “con­ser­vatari­an­ism” a new, tech-minded branch of liber­tari­an­ism, or is it the same old philo­sophy with a shiny new buzzword? The term seems to be just an­oth­er ad­di­tion to the lex­icon of polit­ic­al fla­vors — are you a techno-uto­pi­an, a Ran­di­an ideal­ist, or a run-of-the-mill ni­hil­ist?

“Liber­tari­ans have been on the cut­ting edge of tech­no­logy for 30, 40 years,” Boaz said. “Liber­tari­an­ism was strongest in Cali­for­nia back in the late ‘70s when tech­no­logy was get­ting un­der­way there. At this point I think we’re past the early ad­op­ter stage of liber­tari­an­ism. You can no longer be really cut­ting-edge by be­ing a liber­tari­an.”

Boaz poin­ted out that in 1978, Ed Clark — a liber­tari­an can­did­ate for gov­ernor of Cali­for­nia — won an im­press­ive 5 per­cent of the vote. Des­pite los­ing, Clark went on to run for pres­id­ent two years later. His run­ning mate? Dav­id Koch.

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