Thursday, May 10, 2007


Libertarianism and Conservatism

A.C. has an outstanding post over at Volunteer Voters regarding the differences between libertarians and conservatives that stemmed from libertarian John Stossel's speech last night in Nashville for the conservative Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

(I had very much wanted to attend the event, but a) I live in Knoxville, not Nashville and b) a high-profile Blount County case in which I was heavily involved came to a head yesterday.)

A.C.'s post gets to the heart of the matter - libertarianism and conservatism are certainly different, with both having common enemies (liberalism, communism, socialism, anarchy, etc.). Where A.C. and I differ is whether each "Right" entity could carry the day on its own. Perhaps I am too optimistic - formed by reading too many of Ronald Reagan's writings and my salvation in the Holy Trinity - in believing that conservatism could save America from the bureaucratic nightmares that stifle freedom, innovation, and growth in the rest of the world. I certainly agree with A.C. and Stossel that libertarianism cannot win out on its own.

But that begs the question: does each group have to go it alone?

The answer all boils down to whether conservatism and libertarianism have enough common threads to bind the two to victory. It is my position that they do if each side can make a few concessions in regards to ticking off each other. Conservatives have to realize that the core of libertarianism - freedom from all, especially institutions like government - is not that different from conservative values. The problem with libertarianism from the conservative perspective is that it doesn't know where to draw the line - because there is no line. Libertarianism breaks down in the eyes of conservatives when the question is presented as to who has the greater right, the habitual rapist's right to rape or the victim's right to be free from rape? Conservatives solve this type of problem by instituting values (as seen through legislation or social mores) that maintain social order.

However, the point is that one only runs into these problems with libertarianism when one arrives at the fringes of libertarianism. The core is still solid and attractive to conservatives.

A similar problem lies with conservatism from the eyes of libertarians, and that problem is where the beliefs tend to come from - religion. Libertarianism doesn't find much purpose with religion, as liberty and desire trump restraint and social conscience. The conflict comes with religions that are evangelical (which would be the majority of religions and nearly all cults that sometimes get lumped in with valid religions) and wish to apply their values on society - even at the basic level of "murder is wrong." Thus, libertarians like Neal Boortz constantly pick fights with Christians, as libertarianism feels threatened by any restriction in personal liberty, whether well-intentioned, for the purposes of social order, or not well-intentioned, through the desire for power and world domination.

Therefore, in order for a marriage of libertarianism and conservatism to work, conservatives have to realize that libertarianism works most of the time in the same manner as conservatism, until you arrive at fringe situations through a slippery slope. Libertarianism has to realize (as Stossel does) that it is at this point that libertarianism loses public support and gets marginalized. Thus, it greatly assists the cause of libertarianism to focus on its core and not on the fringe hypothetical situations (decriminalization of behavior, not limited to but including drug use, for example), not only for keeping conservatives as an ally but for public acceptance as a legitimate ideology, away from the "scary margins."

By the same token, conservatives have to tone down the rhetoric that directly insults libertarians. As with the above concession for libertarianism, this should help conservatism with the public, as well. Speaking as a conservative Christian, where conservatism loses ground with the middle of the political perspective is when it tunes up the rhetoric that spawns whispers of a growing movement towards a theocracy. A great deal of the problem here is that the wrong voices are being heard the loudest, and those voices are being labeled by a liberal media as the voices of conservatism. (In much the same manner that we paint liberalism with the faces of their worst elements - Ted Kennedy, Al Sharpton, George Soros - liberals do the same with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who are both good men but sometimes deliver sound bites that are indefensible to nonbelievers and only hurt the cause of conservatism.)

The blueprint for success for conservatives, as with so many other items, has been laid by Ronald Reagan. Go back and watch his speeches during his presidency. Read his writings. The man spoke of God and the Almighty, of divine Providence, regularly. However, no offense was taken as it is when some current politicians speak of faith. Conservatives need to actually learn from Reagan, not just throw out his name every election cycle in the hopes of winning brownie points with the base. (An analogy would be actually receiving an education compared to being granted a diploma. There is a difference, although the two are not mutually exclusive.)

If libertarians can stick to their core, mainstream beliefs while eliminating the fringe that marginalizes their movement, and if conservatives can realize that they need to be more like Reagan and not use their faith in an offensive manner, and if both sides realize that they are stronger together with a greater chance for success than they are apart working individually, then the marriage of conservatism and libertarianism could work.

If that doesn't or can't happen, then libertarianism will maintain its status on the margins of American politics and conservatism will continue to rally against the growing tide of socialism and liberalism in this country.

Unlike some, I don't see certain doom for conservatism if the marriage with libertarianism failed. I still think conservatism can win in the long run because it meshes with what is believed to be the founding values of America - freedom from tyranny, the power to make your own destiny, an economic environment that allows for success, leadership, strength in our people and not in our government, liberty to worship God, a strong work ethic, a bit of arrogance and jingoism, and an innovative spirit that knows no bounds on Earth or beyond.

But again, the question arises - why should conservatism go it alone if it needn't travel that solitary path?

Only time and logistics will tell.

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Libertarianism breaks down in the eyes of conservatives when the question is presented as to who has the greater right, the habitual rapist's right to rape or the victim's right to be free from rape?

What?! In all the years I've defined myself as a libertarian, I've never thought of myself as a champion of rapists.

I'm afraid that I don't quite see where you're headed.

Libertarianism doesn't find much purpose with religion, as liberty and desire trump restraint and social conscience.

Again, I'm afraid you've woefully mischaracterised Libertarianism in an effort to make Conservatism appear more appealing.

As an evangelical Christian I see Libertarianism as the last best hope for the Church. Our moral governance is to come from Christ, not the government. It is a woeful mistake to confuse the two.
Kat -

Without making this resemble one of those honors seminars I dreaded in college, the fringe problems with libertarianism of which I refer are what happens when the ideals of libertarianism slip into what is known as "negative liberty" (which was coined by either Berlin or Mill, but was heavily discussed by both) and eventually the paradox of utilitarianism.

Ironically, it's how libertarianism backdoors into classical liberalism.

RE: religion - I should have distinguished classic libertarianism versus the "strain of libertarianism" that recognizes natural law theory. The natural law theorists (like Locke and Hobbes) certainly derive the ideals of rights (and thus liberty) from God (as through Biblical or Divine Law), but I would argue that in doing so they depart so significantly from classical libertarian thought that they cease to be libertarian at that point.

But this is starting to sound too much like those seminars, so I'm stopping at this point. :)


Interesting post.

I'm a big fan of Mill, and I think the conflicts that arise between conservatives and the national Libertarian Party, for example, or many people who self-identify as libertarian like Boortz has less to do with political philosophy and more to do with practical politics. Mill had no problem with authority per se. He had a problem with the use of coercive force (particularly when wielded by governments) to compel individuals to abandon their will even when they bear any and all risk of the consequence of acting on their will. So to Mill rape and military conscription, for example, are the same crimes: someone is forcing an individual to act against his/her will. Incidentally, I believe Mill would support government authority (mainly through deterrence via a judicial system) to protect individuals from being victimized by these crimes.

I think the problem arises when libertarians try to argue that the Utopian ideals outlined by Mill and others should be instituted immediately. This often appears politically impractical to the point of being absurd. For example, Mill's ideas about individual liberty applied to individual adults, not children. In Mill's Utopia parents would raise their children to value their health and avoid the risks of intoxicating drug use, even though the government would not coerce adults into abstaining from drugs. In Mill's Utopia drug use would be at least as rare as today, but without the overhead of law enforcement. This is not so different from Christian ideas about how children should be raised or the ideal Christian society. However, as soon as libertarians argue for legalizing all drugs immediately, they loose all commonality with conservatives. But I think this is because legalizing drugs is politically unpalatable and not necessarily because there's an irreconcilable philosophical inconsistency between conservatives and libertarians.

But then again, I'm not sure I entirely understand what the word "libertarian" applies to. In my view, Mill was a classical liberal, and there's a more or less straight line of decedents between Smith, Mill, and eventually Hayek and Friedman in the 20th century. The word libertarian was invented later, and I suspect it's adoption was supported by socialists in academia who began calling themselves liberals; steeling the name from its rightful owners.

Daniel Walker
Both A.C. and you have pointed out what I have said for years and years and years and it is just now getting into the heads of a few folks who don't understand political pedigrees: Libertarianism and conservatism are not the same. Edmund Burke (the father of modern conservatism) was most emphatically not a libertarian. It should be noted that most of our Founders saw Burke as the British politician they would have accepted as Prime Minister in order to avoid a break with Britain. Burke was the voice of America in Parliament-and he was an Irishman.

So many conservatives do not know or appreciate their philosophical, spiritual, and political heritage.

There are several logical and factual problems with your post, all starting with the mis-characterization of libertarian philosophy, at the fringes or otherwise.

To start with the most extreme comments, no libertarian would support "a rapist's right to rape". That is absolutely absurd. In fact, quite the opposite. Moreover, libertarians don't care one way or the other about your religion. Why would they -- they support individual freedom of choice, i.e. liberty.

I wonder whether your comments are deliberately provocative, to make your "conservative" case stronger, or if you just don't know the facts.

If I could sum up the libertarian philosophy in layman's terms, my right to do whatever I want ends when it interferes with your right to do the same. Pretty much everything that a libertarian believes follows from this simple idea. You mind your business, I mind mine.

So, given that rape is a violent act against another person which violates their rights and restrains their liberty, it would be seen as a crime (although less for "moral" reasons than because protecting my individual rights is seen as paramount, and there is no muddy gray middle ground here).

Religion is fine too. Just don't force yours on me (as the most vocal and twisted of evangelicals are all to wont to do). Like Kat, I too am religious, and consider myself a moral person, but I don't believe that gives me any right to proscribe behaviors for someone else, such as prohibiting use of narcotics, except as it is a near and present danger to the safety of others.

In other words, I don't believe that someone should get stoned and then get in a car and drive -- this is essentially wielding a 2000 lb. weapon without the natural inhibition and discipline of self-control. Since the probability of hurting or killing an innocent person in this scenario is very high, it would be a violation of libertarian values. On the other hand, what someone does in the privacy of their home is their business. (What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.)

There are some odd and very fringe situations where even libertarians would not agree on the right answer, but that's really no different than posing any moral dilemma to a random sample of people -- e.g. a train is roaring down a track and is an imminent threat to 12 adults in a bus that is stalled on the track. There is a switch in the track that you could use to save the 12 on the bus, but the switchtrack has a baby tied to it. Would you pull the switch?

This sort of question embeds fallacious improbabilities and impossible situations, and there are easy exits (why not ask the people to get off the bus, or untie the baby?) yet most would react in horror to the thought of killing the innocent baby. In fact, neither situation would ever occur, so testing one's morals on this scenario makes no sense.

In a real scenario where a libertarian party gained control of the government, you would find that they are eminently practical people (they would never win power otherwise). The first act of government would not be to legalize drugs overnight, or prostitution, or whatever bogeyman you want to throw up. More likely they would tackle the nightmare of fiscal irresponsibility and messed up system of taxation first. Perhaps at some point, these social liberty issues would get tackled, but not without planning a transitional period. Libertarians believe in liberty, not chaos, mayhem and not anarchy. But the reality is, there are much bigger priorities to fix than these chimeras.

On the other hand, libertarians would not find much in common with small 'c' conservatives, who we generally find much too meddling, aiming to legislate morality (which we can't even define). The reality is that the average man on the street is much closer to a libertarian in their personal views, but has been persuaded through a lifetime of conditioning that this is impractical from a political perspective. In fact, in our early days as a country, we were much closer to libertarian, as are many of the countries of eastern Europe today. It is only when some well-meaning political party gets a taste of power and nibbles away at the fringes of freedom that we eventually become something other than that (e.g. socialist, as the country is today regardless of official labels).

A simpler way to explain the differences between republicans and libertarians is that libertarians are fiscally conservative (don't spend the people's money unless you absolutely have to), and socially liberal. Republicans have long since strayed from fiscal conservatism, although it is an avowed principle of the party, but they are socially conservative. Libertarians could never bring themselves to support the inevitable forays into unnecessary control of social matters, and therefore are highly unlikely to ever join with republicans on that basis alone. And, the republican party as it currently exists would have to significantly reform its policies regarding spending and taxation to win support on that issue. So basically, your suggested conjoining of the two "right" forces (as I've explained, libertarians aren't really "right wing") is a non-starter. Pragmatically speaking, libertarians may support republicans or democrats or independents or abstain from voting, because their views are not represented. Sometimes they'll even support a libertarian candidate. It really just depends on what is most important at the time.

However, I find the painting of libertarian philosophy as some weird extremist immoral view as extremely distasteful and dishonest. You ought to do more research before painting us all as social retards. Really, we're more normal than anyone who actually is a card-carrying member of the republican or democratic parties.
Daniel -

Outstanding comment! Very thoughtful and excellent identification of the reality of libertarianism.


Paulpppp -

Yes, Paul, I have no idea what I am talking about. I guess I should ask for my tuition back for the multiple classes that focused on libertarian thought - especially from UT Law and one of the country's most well-known libertarians in Reynolds - because obviously I learned nothing.

The problem with your arguments is that they are examples of libertarian principles applied to hypothetical situations with parameters set by - shockingly - moral judgments. Where except for thin air does your safety guideline come from? In fact, couldn't a Dawkins-type argument regarding selfish gene theory - which certainly is more compatable with libertarianism than a Christian perspective - suggest that such a safety guideline is actually against libertarian principles?

No offense intended, but it seems ironic that you mention the "man on the street" standard because your explanation of libertarianism seems superficial, at best. About the only proof that you have provided against my post is that such a partnership between conservatives and libertarians cannot occur because 1) libertarians are unaware of the few weaknesses in their ideology and 2) libertarians are a bit touchy when one tries to bring these problems up.


I guess I should ask for my tuition back for the multiple classes that focused on libertarian thought - especially from UT Law and one of the country's most well-known libertarians in Reynolds - because obviously I learned nothing.

See Exhibit A:

Libertarianism breaks down in the eyes of conservatives when the question is presented as to who has the greater right, the habitual rapist's right to rape or the victim's right to be free from rape?

Yeah, you're due a refund. You apparently missed quite a bit of libertarian thought if you can seriously present rape as a problem with the philosophy.

Google "non-initiation of force" sometime and see if there's something you missed that might apply to your hypothetical.
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