Monday, August 20, 2012

Why Libertarians need Conservatives and Vice-Versa

I am a church-going social-conservative libertarian. That may sound like a contradiction, but I have thought through my beliefs, but never really articulated why these beliefs aren't contradictory. I probably can't do this subject justice in one post and may expand it over time. I was a registered Libertarian from the mid-70s until 2008, so I might explain why I think libertarians need conservatives, first.

Libertarians value liberty, of course and set of values, that by themselves lack adequate moral glue to bind society together. A world in which libertarian values prevail could only survive if civil society supported the social norms of a conservative world-view. Such a view might hold that the individual has a larger duty outside of oneself. The self is not the highest end, nor the most important societal construct. Haidt discusses this in his essay on why people vote Republican, in his discussion of his time in India. Libertarians may desire a society in which conservative norms are not enforced by the government, but the norms are necessary. More on government later.

The other reason is that libertarians will never form an outright majority unto themselves. Although this is my opinion, Jonathan Haidt's research points to this result as well. Libertarians share with liberals that they don't hold as broad a spectrum of moral values as do conservatives. As a result they will probably not achieve a majority status (nor will liberals). Only by allying themselves with the least statist leaning groups between left and right can libertarians achieve the freedom and small government that is their goal. Some libertarians take a different view, and desire not only a government that doesn't invade the bedroom, but a society that takes no moral view of what happens there as well. That is unrealistic and counter-productive. We know that family disintegration due to absent fathers is the key predictor of poverty in the western world. Restoring social norms would go a long way towards reducing the demand signal for welfare and prisons, two key components of big-government.

It is less obvious that conservatives need libertarians, but they do. First, their votes and energy are necessary to do battle with the forces of statism. On any individual issue, the pressure for government to "do something" often seems compelling. Only a firm adherence to principles, which libertarians seem better equipped to do, can beat back these impulses. Second, conservatives forget at their peril that the use of government to achieve their desired social ends usually ends badly for them. From the death of the church because it was identified with the monarchy in old Europe to Republicans becoming identified as the party of big government before the 2006 elections, marrying conservative social ends to the coercion of big government has been a loser. Further, funding big government conservative programs undermines the principled arguments for limited government.

The tension between the two perspectives often plays out in the non-economic issues. Three examples.

Immigration. The libertarian argument is that free movement of people is important for freedom and economic prosperity. Conservatives argue that open borders will undermine the rule of law, and allow those who don't share our values to weaken the nation's commitment to limited government. Further, both libertarians and conservatives suspect a desire on the part of the left to increase welfare rolls and the overall dependency rate by allowing vast amounts of new immigration. My solution: Secure the borders to champion the rule of law, have a vastly increased guest worker program to allow free movement of labor, but limit the path to citizenship of the guest workers.

Marijuana. Conservatives view the abuse of alcohol and many other drugs are symptoms of societal ill. Condoning their use weakens society because drugged up and drunk folks act stupidly and harm others. Libertarians know that prohibiting their use results in black markets, violence and money flowing to criminals. My solution: Legalization; but it is up to we the people to establish that in civil society drunkenness and druggedness are not acceptable.

Gay marriage. Libertarians don't want to interfere with people's right to make their own arrangements for love and economic union, so gay marriage isn't a problem for them. Conservative objections primarily rely on tradition and religion. However, these arguments are legitimate. Government sanctioning gay marriage yields it protected status. Some time ago I took grief for telling a young gay man that I objected to gay marriage because it infringed on my freedom of speech. That post still has this blog's record for most comments. Events since I have made my point, as Chick-Fil-A's vilification showed. My solution: Government out of the marriage business. I would like to see churches draw up marriage contracts and record marriages as they once did. If people want to just live together, fine by me. And if gays wish not to be married in church, but draw up a civil contract that lays out the marriage agreement, that should be their right. But I shouldn't be forced to acknowledge that they are married if I don't want to.

That's all for now, I hope to expand this article into a longer post.


  1. Great points, and you express my view of key topics of the day.

  2. Great post, B-Daddy. Link forthcoming.


  3. Mut, Dean, LCR, Thanks for the comments and linkage.

  4. Sounds like we need to a member of LA (Libertarians Anonymous), I principle. And that's the problem. The principles of L are great, but yet they can't create a following, or win elections. The why of that is the problem. Let's imagine a perfect world where the Arabs and the Israelis are getting along and liberty is running amok. Sooner or later, usually sooner, one mans 'liberty' becomes another mans infringement on his 'liberty' is inevitable. Meaning, sooner, rather than later we are out there drawing new lines re-defining liberty. Also, eventually, among all you people practicing liberty, many will fail, and become homeless, poor, sick, alone...because they were very liberal with their dollars while practicing their version of liberty, that we now have a problem that needs solving. It's easy to say, 'Hey, let them starve, they had the same freedom I had to make wise choices'. That is until, those people are sleeping on our front lawns and knocking over 7-11's to eat, infringing on our liberty again.

    It could be said, and I'd likely agree, that if the Founders were alive today, they'd be Libertarians, excepting maybe the Adams/Hamilton wing. Also it could be well argued our Constitution is just that, at it's core, a Libertarian we are.

    Marijuana: The path you propose is like walking on the edge of a razor. Hey, let's all agree bad stuff is legal, we'll just all agree to be responsible with the bad stuff, and not let it interfere with our civil society. Sounds like Lennon saying all we gotta do is 'Give Peace a Chance'. Do you really believe that could ever happen? Bad stuff is bad, and the more bad stuff we allow, the more bad stuff happens to our civil Xanudu we've created.

    It's why I've said many times, probably here also...Conservatism will always lose in the long run. Conservatism is hard, liberalism is easy. Libertarianism, at it's core is Liberalism. Let me do what I want, if you don't like it..too bad...if I fail at me. That may not be what you or I would say, but we are the 2 most noble men in the world. Do you really think Libertarians that have failed at life would turn away a Social Security check?

    That is why, IMHO, Libertarians don't roll into the GOP, because the only way to maintain a free society is to draw lines that distinctly clarify what is good, noble, beneficial, moral and decent for society, and what isn't. You need Conservatism to have the guts to draw that line, hold that line and defend that line. Libertarians can't.

    Anyway, I could go on, but this can best be solved over a pint or 2 of Guinness.

  5. Brian,
    Good post!

    Steve, Libertarianism is Liberalism at it's core?! Granted, I won't turn down a Social Security check, because I am forced into paying into the corrupt program and will need my pennys on my dollar.

    The problem is the liberal genie is out of the bottle. The Libertarian principle of immigration has been corrupted by the expense of un-entitled handouts.

    Your Guinness is my sister in law's reefer. Who are you to decide what is bad stuff? Soda is bad, lets tax it, plastic bags are bad, let's ban them. People need help, tax everyone to help. Then put wasteful, greedy, corrupt politicians to distribute the money. This is how we get there. The road to hell is paved with this type of crap.

    Yes the Constitution is a Libertarian Manifesto! And, yes, here we are. But that is because we have strayed so far. I like gridlock. It means no one is passing more taxes and regulations.

    I was in an argument with a co-worker last election who declared Obama was not a socialist. I told him they both were socialists, just a matter of degree.

    The TeaParty has dramatically changed the Republican landscape, and has Libertarianism at its roots.

    Road Dawg (aka kent)
    PS, get my number from Bdaddy, I am in Placentia often and would enjoy seeing you again

  6. An excellent post. Thank you very much for writing it.

    I think your focus on social norms and society at large is a good one. I'm libertarian in part because I think social norms are far more important and powerful than regulation at ensuring positive outcomes. I also think that an overriding government is a social evil for several reasons.

    As a political philosophy, libertarianism makes extremely modest demands. Enforce contracts, punish criminals on behalf of their victims, and protect a narrowly-tailored set of negative rights. Everything beyond that is not the role of government, but rather of the personal and social spheres.

    Where I disagree with you is that I don't think that there's a single stable state for society. Human social mores change rapidly and, since they emerge from human interaction, they tend to serve human ends. I have a great deal of respect for some aspects of conservative morals, but some I find personally unconscionable. The beautiful thing about libertarianism is that it allows both of us to pursue our own path and form our social connections. People are naturally attracted to stable, well-functioning social systems, and libertarianism best allows those to flourish.

    So I personally think that libertarianism is not only a political and economic good, but a social one as well. Under a libertarian system, healthy social systems from conservative Christian families, to Sikh communities, to areligious sports clubs, to closely knit music scenes can all proliferate unimpeded and people can benefit from joining whichever ones they choose.

    (For an excellent contrast of the social ills under tyranny, I strongly recommend Josef Skvorecky's "Talkin' Moscow Blues" about trying to be a Jazz musician on Communism in the USSR. It's mostly about music under tyranny, but the corrosive social effects of fascism are on wide display.)

    As for your three individual topics, those are great choices. Here's my brief response on each:

    Immigration: Opening borders is both an economic good and a social good. From a practical stand point, immigrants tend to be harder working and more law abiding than native born citizens. It's also an ethical good, since allowing third world workers to come to America to participate in our economy does more to lift them out of poverty than a life time of foreign aid in their home countries.

    Drugs: The drug war has been the source of some of the greatest erosions of civil liberties in the past 50 years. It has served as an excuse to hamstring the 4th amendment, burn billions of dollars on failed drug policies, and put almost 1% of the US male population in prison at some point in their lives. Drug prohibition (just like alcohol prohibition before it) is the source of a huge amount of crime and violence. In short, drug prohibition is much more corrosive to the social fabric than drugs could ever be.

    Marriage: While we disagree on the gay marriage aspect of this, we definitely agree on your solution. Marriage should be a personal decision between the couple and, if applicable, their church. Get the government out of the marriage business.

  7. Thanks for all the comments. I didn't expect this much debate.
    Steve, I don't think that conservatism will lose if its seeks its ends through libertarian means.
    Road Dawg, we may have to wait for a fiscal collapse before people see it your way, but time will tell.
    AMB, I agree that there is not a single stable state for society, but there are a limited number of stable states (like quantum states for atoms). These are based on how well the social norms work within the framework of human nature. Hayek discusses how social norms and morality evolve as you suggest, but unlike the leftist, he argues that some cultures are in fact more successful than others. It seems observable that societies in which traditional notions of family have broken down, (see poor and working class England today for a non-racially tinged example) are prone to unsuccessful social malignancy. I agre with your sentiment that in libertarianism, these healthy social systems can be successful. One of my points, however, is that libertarian society is insufficient by itself for these sorts of groups to arise and create social norms, hence the dependence of libertarianism on conservative social values; which I think Steve alludes to.