Skip to comments.The Conservative-Libertarian clash: Values and the free society
Posted on 05/12/2003 1:22:04 PM PDT by JURB
Conservatives and libertarians are often allied against common enemies: the growth of the redistributive state, the assault on private property, the denigration of the free market and various socialist plots large and small. Ron Paul, Walter Williams, Jacob Sullum, Stephen Chapman and Charles Murray have seen both labels applied to them and have had their written work appear in the flagship publications of both movements. The Cato Institute is variously described as a conservative and libertarian think tank.
A reminder of this overlap could be found in the reaction to a brief item on the Drudge Report suggesting that libertarian talk show host Larry Elder might run for office as a Republican ?there were libertarians, including some at Reason magazine's in-house blog, who wondered why Elder would desert the Libertarian Party and conservatives surprised he wasn't already a Republican.
But occasionally the underlying ideological distinctions between libertarians and conservatives surface. Some tried to highlight these differences with regard to the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, but professed libertarians like Brink Lindsey and Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit fame emerged as staunch interventionists in contrast with a resolute antiwar right typified by such publications as The American Conservative and Chronicles. Despite the diversity of opinion both among those who describe themselves as conservatives and those who describe themselves as libertarians, a number of post-9/11 policy disputes ? the USA PATRIOT Act, the use of the military to spread democracy, various military campaigns in the war on terror, the Bill of Rights and privacy in an age of terrorism ? have increasingly separated many mainstream libertarians from large numbers of conventional conservatives.
Nevertheless, libertarian writers are still published in conservative newspapers, magazines and websites. Libertarian policy institutes are still mined for pro-market talking points by conservative commentators. Jonah Goldberg still refers to libertarians as operationally being members of the political right. What has kept many, perhaps most, libertarians operating within the broader right is the fusionism championed by the venerable conservative magazine that employs Goldberg, National Review.
Conceived by the late political theorist Frank Meyer, fusionism posited that in the American Republic, libertarian means could be used to achieve traditionalist ends. Want the traditional family to thrive? Stop subsidizing illegitimacy through federal welfare payments. Want children to grow up to be faithful and law-abiding? Stop funding the left-wing propaganda being dispensed by public education programs. The synthesis was imperfect ? some Kirkian traditionalists and Strausian conservatives continued to be outspoken about their differences with libertarians, Rothbardian libertarians in particular were never co-opted by fusionism ? but it allowed for libertarians and conservatives to work together and share such common heroes as F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman and Peter Bauer.
Meyer's fusionism was always fine as far as it went, but it began to break down when confronted by two different factors: Some conservatives were perfectly comfortable using the state to promote their values; some libertarians cared nothing for traditional morality and in fact regarded any concept of shared values as collectivist nonsense.
This split was evident during the recent Bill Bennett gambling flap. Libertarian criticism of Bennett in light of the Newsweek and Washington Monthly revelations equaled and perhaps exceeded left-liberal criticism in intensity. The former education secretary and drug czar was an unrepentant drug warrior and leading force for using the federal government to promote traditionalist conservative objectives. But libertarian criticism was not limited to Bennett's designs for the state: many were clearly put off by his propensity to judge lifestyles, criticize individual choices and espouse limits on personal appetites. It was these attributes of his moralizing persona as much as his stance on drugs and other public policy issues that made libertarians rejoice in the knowledge that he ? at least arguably hypocritically ? indulged in some vices of his own.
Even before the Bennett story broke, there was an article by Stanley Kurtz on gay marriage attempting to address some of the libertarian arguments, which was followed by a cacophonous ? and largely unfavorable ? response by some of the leading libertarian voices of the blogosphere. What was truly remarkable about the ensuing debate is that traditionalist conservatives felt Kurtz's arguments had convincingly carried the day while his libertarian critics found them self-evidently absurd. Both sides simply talked past each other. But it is important to note that the libertarian objection to Kurtz's piece was not always confined to his partial defense of Sen. Rick Santorum's thoughts on sodomy laws or even his insistence on state involvement in the institution of marriage. Some libertarians explicitly rejected his call to shared values and social conventions.
The tensions that have frayed the National Review fusionist consensus do in part reflect ideological differences that can never completely be bridged. But some of the arguments at the root of the conservative-libertarian schism are counterproductive even from the perspective of the side of the debate advancing them.
Government at all levels, and the federal government in particular, can never function primarily as a morals police and will never be an adequate guarantor of traditional values. The state is not inherently conservative. The state can only grow and support itself by extracting wealth from the private economy; excessive growth, even when self-styled conservatives are running it, can only come at the expense of civil society (including what in today's parlance we refer to as "faith-based institutions"), the family and the community. The state can uphold individual rights and prevent people from aggressing against others; it cannot make people internalize virtues in the same was as other life-changing institutions that need room to grow unfettered by government.
Just as conservatives must remember the limits of government, libertarians must understand the importance of virtue. A free society rests in part on shared values, including a common understanding of the intrinsic value of each individual and the obligation to respect others' rights. It is not inconsistent with a regime of minimal government to judge, shun and exclude certain conduct while to affirming, upholding and exhorting certain other conduct. In fact, under this regime the power of real community becomes even more important. A belief in individualism does not mean ignoring the reality that human beings are relational creatures, who live together and form their understandings of the world around them together rather than in total isolation from one another. It is thus important how they live together. The ability to live peacefully together is vital to a free society and may be supported by the moral and cultural framework of that society.
This of course does not solve every policy debate that may divide conservatives and libertarians. Just because something is immoral does not mean that it should be legal; just because something is legal does not mean it is moral; just because some people reject the moral code that has been historically shared by a particular society does not mean that everything that violates this code should be legal.
In my own politics, I am a conservative-libertarian hybrid. I happen to believe both in the traditional understanding of marriage and that sodomy, prostitution and private adult consensual sex generally should be legal. I believe society can and should, through law as well as custom, affirm the two-parent, marriage-based family as the ideal without criminalizing other arrangements and throwing people who live differently in jail. There is plenty in that grab bag of positions to invite disagreement from all kinds of conservatives and libertarians; specific policy positions can be debated.
What is important is a common understanding presupposed by Meyer's fusionism. Edward Feser, a teacher of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, once offered the following description of this understanding in an outstanding essay published on libertarian Lew Rockwell's website: "If I had to sum up the common moral vision of libertarians and conservatives, I would say it is a commitment to the idea of the dignity of man." As Feser went on to note, libertarians tend to emphasize the fact that this means the individual cannot be used as a means to another's end while conservatives tend to emphasize conformity to a moral law that reflects this special dignity. But each emphasis in its own way reflects a belief in the uniqueness of humanity and the inherent value of the individual.
It is because of this belief that in the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada conservatives and libertarians, for all their differences on many issues, have so often collaborated in a crucial task: Conserving a society with a tradition of valuing individual liberty.
Some conservatives, such as Santorum and Bennett share a political philosophy that does not oppose government's intrusive interference in private behavior to regulate morality. I would argue, at some risk of giving offense, that these views reflect a growing tension in American 'conservatism' that has resulted from the great increase in Catholic political conservatism here.
While the Puritans certainly regulated private as well as public morality, there has been a strong move away from that view in Protestant thinking over the past 250 years. The general Anglo-American worldview based on Protestant roots is strongly Lockean and emphasizes individual liberty. While for most it doesn't extend to the sort of libertarian views you seem to have (and which I often, but not always, share), claims of privacy and individual liberty are not alien to those reared in this tradition. Separation of Church and State is a distinctly American Protestant notion.
The modern conservative Catholics, of the Santorum and Bennett stripe, and I would also include the odious Pat Buchanan, stem from the European Catholic conservative tradition of the Counterreformation, the Inquisition and the 19th century cri d' coeur of the papacy against the modern world and classical liberalism. On a fundamental level, those men really don't believe in a right of privacy (whether constitutionally grounded or grounded in some natural law theory) and don't really believe in the separation of church and state. The believe in compelling people to be good, rather than preaching at them to be good.
I don't mean to suggest that Catholicism is the problem, rather that there is a strain in Catholic thought that is manifesting itself and which is not good for the Republic.
Substitute any political/relegious sect in the above.
Libertarians believe in repealing ALL drug laws, even for minors.
Libertarians believe in open borders.
Libertarians advocate the childs authority to declare himself an adult.
Every Libertarian site is linked to a NORML site
Every NORML site is linked to a Libertarian site
(see post #8)
Please show me the link from The CATO Institute to NORML.
I really do not have a problem with this sort of analysis, except for one point. It falls into the trap of those who would divide us, by assuming that Conservatives & Libertarians are two separate, and ideologically consistent--if not disciplined--movements; that these movements come together and fuse, or certainly cooperate on many levels.
While those who adhere generally to certain mental bents, which may be described as one or the other, do indeed have many beliefs in common and often do work together; the fact is that there is no such thing even remotely resembling a monolithic body of Conservative thought, or a monolithic body of Libertarian thought. Indeed, the idea that there really could be such a thing is absurd in the context of the many roots of traditional American culture--what I would refer to for the sake of this reply only, as the "Old American Diversity." What is Conservative in Virginia is not necessarily Conservative in Maine, etc.. By the same token, Libertarians in some States are virtually indistinguishable from Conservatives--the Jeffersonian tradition being profoundly Libertarian, yet now the Conservative tradition of the South and much of the West.
Personally, as an exponent of the doctrines of the Founding Fathers, which were certainly Libertarian in comparison with what we have in Washington--and Columbus--today; I find all attempts to divide Conservatives and Libertarians to be counter-productive. That does not mean that individuals will not commit themselves to particular causes that reflect their deeply held beliefs--and individual Conseratives will sometimes fight with other individual Conservatives and/or with individual Libertarians. But that is only what it should be in a free and reflective society. Let us not magnify those differences out of all proportion, or lose sight of the pathetic course that most politics has been taking throughout the past Century, with the exception of the Reagan victory in 1980. We need both Conservatives and Libertarians who support the Conservative ethos of traditional America, to regain the initiative.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
Libertarians are against the very existence of government schools, so your argument is moot on that point...
Okay, but the article did not mention, I believe, the Libertarian Party.
The Cato Institute is NOT a Libertarian site.
I like "classical liberal", although it sometimes causes confusion.
You are either ignorant of what a libertarian is, or doing a good imitation.
The LP was not mentioned in the article, I believe.
One need not be a statist to be a faithful Catholic.
You are either ignorant or did not read. The post I replied to said they switched to the "L"ibertarian side.
I know better than you what is a Liberatarian.
Really? What would you call them?
You're not very familiar with the Cato Institute, are you?
I'll guarantee you there's something in the LP platform for eveybody to dislike.
The open borders idea is suicide in today's context. If you take it in the context of a truly libertarian society, with all the planks of the platform fully in place and operating, it makes a lot more sense.
The platform is absolutist. It is not gradualist. That's one the reasons it scares the heck out of, or pisses off, lots of people.
From their site.
How to Label Cato
Today, those who subscribe to the principles of the American Revolution--individual liberty, limited government, the free market, and the rule of law--call themselves by a variety of terms, including conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, and liberal. We see problems with all of those terms. "Conservative" smacks of an unwillingness to change, of a desire to preserve the status quo. Only in America do people seem to refer to free-market capitalism--the most progressive, dynamic, and ever-changing system the world has ever known--as conservative. Additionally, many contemporary American conservatives favor state intervention in some areas, most notably in trade and into our private lives.
"Classical liberal" is a bit closer to the mark, but the word "classical" connotes a backward-looking philosophy.
Finally, "liberal" may well be the perfect word in most of the world--the liberals in societies from China to Iran to South Africa to Argentina are supporters of human rights and free markets--but its meaning has clearly been corrupted by contemporary American liberals.
The Jeffersonian philosophy that animates Cato's work has increasingly come to be called "libertarianism" or "market liberalism." It combines an appreciation for entrepreneurship, the market process, and lower taxes with strict respect for civil liberties and skepticism about the benefits of both the welfare state and foreign military adventurism.
The market-liberal vision brings the wisdom of the American Founders to bear on the problems of today. As did the Founders, it looks to the future with optimism and excitement, eager to discover what great things women and men will do in the coming century. Market liberals appreciate the complexity of a great society, they recognize that socialism and government planning are just too clumsy for the modern world. It is--or used to be--the conventional wisdom that a more complex society needs more government, but the truth is just the opposite. The simpler the society, the less damage government planning does. Planning is cumbersome in an agricultural society, costly in an industrial economy, and impossible in the information age. Today collectivism and planning are outmoded and backward, a drag on social progress.
Market liberals have a cosmopolitan, inclusive vision for society. We reject the bashing of gays, Japan, rich people, and immigrants that contemporary liberals and conservatives seem to think addresses society's problems. We applaud the liberation of blacks and women from the statist restrictions that for so long kept them out of the economic mainstream. Our greatest challenge today is to extend the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity to those who are still denied it, in our own country and around the world.
That is why the LP'ers will never succeed. They have no road-map.
Sums up my views perfectly.
Exactly. The socialists had the Fabian society that believed in slowly implementing socialist programs within the structures of government. They succeeded to a great extent.
There is a lot to be said for Fabian-style libertarianism.
Now, that's an easy one: there is a big difference between being libertarian as the Cato folks are and being members of the Libertarian Party. The former is an intellectually respectable worldview, tempered to one degree or another by pragmatism and experience. The latter is little different that when I knew the Libertarian Party people in California some 30 years ago: mostly comprised of rigid ideologues, masking their Emersonian 'foolish consistency' as logical analysis. Most of them I knew were third rate minds absolutely convinced they were first rate minds, and would have been successful except for the nasty statists. If only we were all libertarians, all would be fine and they would be philosopher-kings -- sort of trans-Randite utopians.
Dunno, don't care. I don't think the LP is particularly useful neither apparently does CATO.
Your original assertion about CATO not being libertarian is false.
Sort of like you did here: The Cato Institute is NOT a Libertarian site.
Shhhhhh....Its a secret.
You're having a hard time breaking out of the authoritarian mindset, aren't you?
The entire point of classical liberalism is not to subjugate individual dignity and liberty to politics.
(Nominally) Catholic Europe considers majority-Protestant America as a nation of prudes. While Europeans are very into economic statism, they shy away from it in some of the areas in which Bennett and Buchanan favor same.
Myself, I'm about where the author of the piece above positions himself (conservative-libertarian hybrid), and I'm a Catholic. I don't think we should criminalize certain behaviors, but neither do I think we should be forbidden by law from publicly expressing our displeasure with those behaviors, or acting on our displeasure peacefully.
But it is staffed by libertarians, many of whom have been involved in the LP at some point. Ed Crane was one of the people involved in the LP early on.
CATO had been warning that non-state players such as Al Quaeda were the primary threat to national security long before 911.
Bush I allowed the conclusion of Gulf War I to be dictated by the United Nations and the "international community". This what resulted in our stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia: The motive for the 9-11 murders.
We ended up having to go to war twice to do the job we should have completed the first time had we not surrendered our sovereignty to the United Nations. Thousand of innocent Americans and Iraqis died as a result. Now the American taxpayer must finance a complete political and economic transformation of the Middle East. We're just getting started over there. We have yet to even name our true enemies, the Saudis. You'll excuse me if I'm not awed by the brilliance of our foreign policy.
The usurpation of moral authority by government, has, in fact, brought about the moral decline we now are experiencing. An example: the public school system. It's not terribly surprising, as government is hardly the best place to look for examples of moral rectitude.
I think we do. I call myself a libertarian for lack of a better term (though the guy in the article did a good job of articulating a position very similiar to mine, and called himself a conservative-libertarian hybrid).
I do think that the Libertarian party has some flaky ideas that I don't agree with, and I do get real sick of people assuming I agree with all of it just because I use the same word (but with a different size L ::grin::) to identify myself. Witness cinFla's comments above re: "you believe in this, you believe in that". No, I don't. But I'm also not a social conservative. So what does that make me?
One term I use instead (and is in my profile) is "South Park Republican". This is a phrase I've heard thrown around to describe people of the fiscal conservative/socially moderate persuasion. Use of that tends to avoid the big/small L issue, but then people think I live in a place called South Park, instead of watching in on TV ::lol::
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.