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The Conservative-Libertarian clash: Values and the free society

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 12, 2003

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.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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