Libertarianism vs Conservatism
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Libertarianism versus Conservatism
by Dr. Jason Sorens
There are two ways to define 'libertarianism': philosophical and political. The philosophical definition refers to a theory of natural rights, which holds that it is necessarily wrong to interfere coercively with voluntary exchange and private acts. (There is another philosophical definition that refers to a belief about freedom of the will, which I do not address here.) The political definition refers to the ideology of small government, free markets, individual liberties, peace, toleration, and decentralization. Political libertarians need not be philosophical libertarians; for example, Milton Friedman is a utilitarian, conceding in principle that big government could be justified if it maximized social welfare, but arguing that in practice, free markets are best.
There are some common misconceptions about both philosophical and political libertarianism. Neither variant requires that respecting others' rights be the sum of morality. Libertarians can, and usually do, maintain that people have obligations to be charitable to each other, although some of these obligations should not be enforced legally. Libertarianism also does not require treating children and adults the same. A libertarian could easily maintain that adults do not enjoy a positive right to provision and do enjoy a right to be left alone, even when they pursue self-destructive behaviors, but that children have both more and fewer rights than adults - more rights to positive provision (shelter, food, education), and fewer rights to be left alone (no right to buy or use drugs, for example). Libertarianism takes no position on abortion; like most Americans, libertarians are split on abortion because they are split on the question of whether and at what point fetuses enjoy rights.
In my experience, many pro-life conservatives would consider themselves 'libertarian' were it not for the abortion issue. Once they learn that there are pro-life libertarians, they are happy calling themselves 'libertarians' rather than 'conservatives.' Many 'conservatives' realize that there are serious problems with their ideology, but do not realize that there is an alternative.
The first problem with conservatism is that it has been hypocritical in power. Under unified Republican control of the federal government, discretionary non-defense federal spending has risen faster than it did under Clinton (and such spending actually fell under Reagan). Bush and his allies in Congress have: 1) helped vitiate federalism through No Child Left Behind mandates; 2) imposed steel tariffs; 3) undertaken nation-building in Iraq; 4) created a new entitlement program (Medicare prescription drugs); 5) helped protect incumbents and restrict free speech through campaign finance 'reform'; 6) increased agricultural subsidies; 7) expanded the role of the FCC in regulating 'decency'; 8) passed the 'Patriot Act,' which ends judicial review of certain kinds of federal subpoenas and criminalizes speech about such subpoenas. If one really believes in conservative principles, one should probably vote Democratic (or better, Libertarian) in federal elections.
The second problem with modern conservatism is that it is internally incoherent. Modern conservatism comes out of the 1950's anticommunist movement. On the one hand, it proclaims respect for the Constitution and for the system of limited government devised by the Founders; on the other hand, it celebrates an aggressive U.S. foreign policy and a powerful bureaucracy that gives the federal government the resources to intervene, through aid or invasion, in any part of the world. The use of congressional 'authorizations of force,' rather than declarations of war, is a post-World War II innovation, not envisioned by the Constitution. The Constitution also does not explicitly sanction contributions to international lending agencies such as the IMF, foreign aid, and the use of IMF loans or foreign aid to strong-arm countries into accepting U.S. policy, nor does it authorize covert operations either to prop up or to topple leaders of different countries. Another quintessentially conservative policy, the War on Drugs, is not sanctioned by the Constitution. If alcohol prohibition required a constitutional amendment, so should drug prohibition. From a strict-constructionist standpoint, the Constitution does not authorize other conservative nostrums, such as federal aid to 'faith-based organizations.' You get the picture.
Conservatives have two choices. Either they can admit that like their alleged adversaries on the left, they are essentially revolutionaries who would like to use the federal government as a tool to engineer society to their specifications, or they can admit that they do not wish to force society to conform to any particular pattern, that they do take constitutional strictures seriously, and that their guiding principle is respect for individual rights. If they take the latter course, they are really libertarians rather than conservatives, as that term is understood today.
Jason Sorens received his doctorate in the Yale Political Science Department and is now a lecturer in the department. He also founded the Free State Project (www.freestateproject.org).