Bleg: on matters economic, what distinguishes conservativism from libertarianism?

The comments to Darwin’s recent post on Ross Douthat’s pro-life column reminded me of a question I’ve had for some time, and I’d like to hear from TAC contributors and commenters in its regard: is there a difference between conservative and libertarian perspectives on economic policy? Or is the distinction between conservatism and libertarianism found in other areas of public policy? I tend to think that there is in fact a difference; I think, for example, of the proposal advanced by Ramesh Ponnuru and other bona fide conservatives for a sizeable child tax credit ($5k, if memory serves), but such a policy proposal would seem to be antithetical to libertarian principles (and in fact numerous libertarians disagreed with Ponnuru on the grounds that tax policy ought not be used to further any specific agenda).

If there is in fact a difference between conservative and libertarian perspectives on economic policy, my follow-up question is this: what is the nature of the difference? (Even though I do see a difference, I don’t know the answer to this question.)

As noted in the title, this is a bleg, not an argument… I’m curious what others think.

42 Responses to Bleg: on matters economic, what distinguishes conservativism from libertarianism?

  • If we are talking philosophically, I would point to Russell Kirk, who rarely ever discussed economics (insofar as I’m aware). The libertarian, on the other hand, seems to me to be preoccupied with economics and monetary policy.

    One instance in which Kirk did opine on economics was his essay on Wilhelm Roepke, who favored, according to Kirk, the “economic humanism of the Third Way.” That’s a big difference in theory, anyway.

  • “is there a difference between conservative and libertarian perspectives on economic policy?”

    Yes, but this question cannot be answered without clarification of terms and geography. First, our political geography is British-American and the usage of terms in this geography is different from everywhere else (in effect, we do not use them properly). The Australians have it more proper: the party of the right is the Liberal Party because of its economic (classical) liberalism and its coalition (disparate) social policies; the party of the left is Labour.

    In the U.S., both parties are “liberal” – the GOP strongly tends toward right-liberalism (Freedom!), mostly in economic terms, and the Democrats strongly tends toward left-liberalism (Equality!). Libertarian thought is very much in the liberal camp, although we tend to (awkwardly) use “liberal” to mean “statist” or “corporatist.”

    However, right-liberalism and libertarianism are in the coalition of the “Right”, although these strands of thought are not “conservative.” In fact, capitalism et. al. is really quite radical, and Ayn Rand (who hated libertarians and conservatives, by the way) called herself a “radical for capitalism.”

    Much of “conservative” opinion today is not truly conservative – it is Wilsonian (look into Ronald Pestritto for this very strong case) and liberal (despite the semantic confusion). Basically, Pat Buchanan is right.

    As for your question on economic policy, we answer yes because a conservative properly understood (seperate from other members of the coalition of the Right) views culture and human capital, for example, as more important than the details of economic structure for the advance of material prosperity.

  • I think that libertarians tend to be more pure in their support of the free market economic policies than are conservatives. Most libertarians, for example, would say that we should get rid of the FDA, privatize all the national parks, etc., whereas my guess is that such ideas would make the typical conservative nervous.

    To some extent this may just be a consequence of their being so many more conservatives than libertarians. Self-described conservatives are about 40%, libertarians are about 1%. If you are generally in favor of economic liberty but think allowing unlicensed doctors or whatever is going too far, you’re probably going to call yourself a conservative rather than a libertarian.

  • Good insights jonathan.

  • BA,

    Would you say that there is some principle(s) underlying the conservative perspective? My initial impression of your comment is that you’re saying that libertarians are more philosophically consistent… both groups hold to the same principles, but conservatives don’t see those principles through to their logical conclusions as do libertarians.

    JJ,

    I agree with your comments… I was using “conservative” in the American sense, even though it isn’t technically accurate. I think your final ‘graph is key… perhaps we might say that conservative economic thought doesn’t operate in a vacuum but takes culture & human capital into account.

  • Libertarians seem to be a lot more philosophical than general conservatives– they figure out what their planks are and stick to them; conservatives tend to have more general principals.

    It seems like Libertarians, when they have to opposed views, will reason them out and discard one of them; conservatives tend to have more of a web of views.

    A major difference I see between libertarians and conservatives on economic matters is “what are allowed to be economic matters”– I’ve seen (personally initiated) indentured servitude, prostitution, organ selling, etc, defended on libertarian grounds. More philosophically pure– if you have the right to make a contract (limited to yourself and your stuff) then….

    It’s a little tough, because it’s not really black-white, and the terms aren’t perfectly agreed on– I’m a conservative that’s largely libertarian, even in some realms where other conservatives feel we need to build more morality, but in some places I do support “social engineering.” (I hold that a political collective should act to promote the highest quality citizens it can, thus it should promote self-sufficient families, thus tax disincentives to have a parent at home should be avoided. ) Some libertarians hold we should have a tax carefully designed to be totally neutral, although that’s a bag of cats in itself.

  • In all seriousness, the economic alternative to libertarianism in the GOP is corporatism. It is also the leading economic philosophy of the Democratic Party. The dividing point presently between the two camps is that Republicans tend to favor economic security being provided to labor via the government (at whatever level) and the Democrats tend to favor it being provided to labor through business owners via regulation. An example of the former is increasing the child tax credit. An example of the latter is taxes on businesses that don’t provide adequate health coverage to their employees. On the think tank side of the equation, I think the GOP is clearly libertarian driven. There are also demographics within the GOP where libertarian economic thought is more persuasive, and I think that owes to the fundamentalist nature of economic libertarianism.

  • Basically, Pat Buchanan is right.

    Ah blow mah noze at yew!

    is corporatism. It is also the leading economic philosophy of the Democratic Party.

    Whatever it is.

  • My initial impression of your comment is that you’re saying that libertarians are more philosophically consistent.

    I would say that’s right, though I don’t necessarily view it as a criticism of conservatism.

  • I would say that’s right, though I don’t necessarily view it as a criticism.

    But isn’t the consequence of that that on economic matters, conservatism is (at least somewhat) arbitrary, or even unprincipled in the literal sense?

  • Conservatives are libertarians on a diet. I don’t think most libertarians would oppose an increased child tax credit. Children make your poorer. Most libertarians aren’t opposed to helping the poor through tax credits. I think the split is deepest in the area of moral behavior. Prostitution, gambling, sodomy, statutory rape, organ sales, drugs… Of course, it’s complicated by countless exceptions. Is harsh drug laws really a conservative position? Was William F. Buckley not a conservative? Justice Thomas said he would repeal anti-sodomy laws. St. Thomas Aquinas defended legal prostitution. It seems like most conservatives couldn’t care less about gambling.

  • But isn’t the consequence of that that on economic matters, conservatism is (at least somewhat) arbitrary, or even unprincipled in the literal sense?

    Not necessarily. I think it comes down to conservatism sometimes being more behavioralist than rationalist. The places where conservatives differ from libertarians on economic policy are often place where the conservative argument is along the lines of “yes, but people are used to this other approach” or “perhaps, but people don’t tend to understand it that way”. This may be less philosophically principled, but that’s in part because conservatives are holding to a different principle that things should not change suddenly and that there is a value to doing things in the way that people have come to expect and understand them.

  • I think (“Opinion is not truth.” – Plato) that the libertarian paradigm is closer to pure economics in that its economics policy (seemingly) would be more free of moral “pulls” and other agendae.

    Economics does not, generally, factor in moral, charitable, or political power (buy votes) considerations. It is concerned (theory and purity – nonexistent) with rational behavior in an economic unit’s own best interest assuming the player is typically motivated and has access to adequate information to make an rational “economic” decision that is in its best interest.

    Libertarians oppose laws against prostitution and narcotics not (I hope) on moral grounds, but because they lead to excessive governmental power, less liberty, etc. Conservatives (probably really Wilsonians, I guess) may more likely support morals in laws.

    Labels. Labels. I can’t tell you whether I am a conserv or a libertarian. It depends.

    One thing I agree with liberts: tax laws should be solely written to raise needed revenue not to advance agenda or narratives. Point of information: the $1,350 Federal income tax personal exemption (had been $600 for decades) would be over $10,000 if it were indexed for inflation.

    My children make me more wealthy (my not pure economic rationalization: the lower net worth is worth it!). It’s the AMT that’s making me poorer.

  • “Unprincipled” is generally for moral matters, not philosophical ones. Yay, English not making sense. It might apply, but that would be a whole ‘nother debate on if we define political philosophy as morality, rather than being influenced by morality, then we’d have to decide which philosophy was the correct one.

  • The places where conservatives differ from libertarians on economic policy are often place where the conservative argument is along the lines of “yes, but people are used to this other approach” or “perhaps, but people don’t tend to understand it that way”.

    I would disagree with this. I don’t see folks like Bruce Bartlett forwarding such an argument. There are a number of Republicans that don’t believe Libertarian arguments are sound on the merits. It was Nixon after all who said, “We’re all Keynesians now.” For better or worse, mainstream Republicans are willing to accept the three-part division of labor, owners, and government. Libertarians generally do not accept this division.

    However at the think tank level, I can’t think of any conservative think tanks on economic policy that aren’t libertarian. In as much as that is the root for the formulation and dissemination of ideas, that will continue to push Republicans further into the libertarian camp.

  • I think there are many areas where libertarians and conservatives can and should agree ideologically and economically.

    I think personal responsibility is probably the most important point of agreement, since it goes hand in hand with individual liberty.

    The Austrians do not represent ALL libertarians but it is a very influential school of economic thought. And if you really read their material, what emerges at the end are a set of rather common-sense and, I dare say, conservative propositions and values for ensuring economic health: saving, spending wisely, investing rationally, not living beyond one’s means, respecting the private property of others, not going too deeply into debt, and so on.

    They contend that much of our economic problems stem from policies and practices that disincentivize these practical and sensible economic behaviors and encourage the opposite, such as the constant expansion of the money supply. It removes the discipline of competition and the threat of failure. It encourages and rewards bad investments, reckless spending, disregarding other’s needs, and so on.

    Implicit in Austrian theory, then, are conservative values in the truest sense of the word, values that few if any self-identified American conservatives would reject. Even Pat Buchanan wouldn’t reject them :) This is why I think American libertarianism and conservatism get along on one level. For in the end, and whether they know it or not, a libertarian society would depend heavily upon conservative values to maintain itself. Moral degeneracy promoted by the liberal left is nothing but a different kind of slavery.

  • I would disagree with this. I don’t see folks like Bruce Bartlett forwarding such an argument. There are a number of Republicans that don’t believe Libertarian arguments are sound on the merits. It was Nixon after all who said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

    I would distinguish here between between conservatism and the GOP. I don’t believe either Bartlett or Nixon would have described themselves as conservative (Barlett used to self-describe as a libertarian; not sure if he still does).

  • saving, spending wisely, investing rationally, not living beyond one’s means, respecting the private property of others, not going too deeply into debt

    Are they against wife beating too?

  • There is an element of philosophical conservatism in the conservative political movement. There is also an element of libertarianism. To the average political conservative (which is what we’re talking about), libertarianism functions more as a critique, a warning that even though a policy may promote a good thing, an incremental increase in government is something to be leery of.

    The conservative and the libertarian differ on their priorities. For a conservative, lower taxes are good because they encourage pro-growth, pro-society behavior. For a libertarian, lower taxes are a good in and of themselves. The libertarian’s goal is freedom. The conservative’s goal is a good society, which (he believes) history has shown him can best be achieved by a free and moral people.

  • Ok, definition time.

    Libertarianism: let us refer to Charles Murray (his book is What it Means to be a Libertarian) and Brian Doherty (his book is Radicals for Capitalism, by far the best history of the movement in the U.S.). The definitons presented in these works are NOT conservative, but they very much ARE of the “right” coalitions of politics, which is unfortunately called “conservative.”

    For example, Doherty: “By extending individual liberty into radical areas of sex, drugs, and science (no restrictions on stem cell research, cloning, or nanotech), libertarianism is the most future looking of American ideologies.”

    There are many such other sentences, and the author knows more about the subject than just about anyone else. Conservatives would NOT extend individual liberty, present no restrictions, be forward looking in this way, and would not consider itself an ideology.

    Conservatism: there is no good definition. But it may be defined by its philosophical opposition to libertarian, right-liberal thought.

    My view of conservatism as a matter of definition:
    Conservatism is opposition to all forms of political religion. It is a rejection of the idea that politics can be redemptive. It is the conviction that a properly ordered republic has a government of limited ambition. Conservatism has to do with social order; it recognizes that the sufferings of the underdog are not caused by the fact that some have managed to rescue themselves from their predicament. It is anti-utopian and against the view that what is human should be measured in terms of wealth or power. Conservatism originates in an attitude to civil society, and it is from a conception of civil society that its political doctrine is derived.

    This is set against ideology and towards sentiment and disposition, centered in the family.

  • Libertarians may be more likely to remove from economic policy: agenda, charity, morality, hysteria, narrative, philosophy, political power play, superstition, etc.

    Would a libertarian foreswear any connection with a central planning/collectivist government? Posse comitatus . . .

  • Johnathan,

    I JUST bought and began reading the same Doherty book. But let’s look at this.

    “Conservatives would NOT extend individual liberty, present no restrictions, be forward looking in this way, and would not consider itself an ideology.”

    Can we make a distinction here between values and laws? Because there is a movement within libertarianism, paleolibertarianism, mostly associated with the Austrian school, that does not VALUE unrestricted sexual liberty, drug abuse, or these technologies that tamper with the foundations of life and nature. It simply argues that in most cases, the state’s intervention will do more harm than good, or that in others, that it has no right to intervene at all.

    Take sex, for instance. What ought to be punishable with regards to sex? Should we be locking people up for adultery or fornication? For homosexual acts? I think most conservatives would say no, we shouldn’t. Should we be throwing pornographers and their customers in jail? Again, I think a lot of conservatives would say no. I think you could even say the same thing about prostitution.

    And what about drugs? Again, I don’t value drug use as a positive good. I think it makes losers and criminals out of people. But should anyone be thrown in prison for possession, or for selling in small amounts, of marijuana? Absolutely not.

    As for the other issues, I think Doherty ignores the fact that there are a lot of pro-life Christian libertarians, most prominent among them, Ron Paul. The pro-life position can easily and even more consistently be defended on libertarian principles. Rand and Rothbard do not have the final say in this matter.

    All of that being said, I agree that libertarianism is not conservatism. They’re two different things. But they overlap in many important areas and have a lot to offer one another. If conservatives become less enthusiastic about foreign wars and filling up the prisons with victimless lawbreakers, and libertarians become less enthusiastic about sexual libertinism and scientistic futurism, the collaboration could become even more fruitful. And this will depend upon each recognizing what the other values, and valuing it as well: libertarians valuing a measure of order and stability as the requisite for dignified and human liberty (as opposed to something animalistic and depraved), and conservatives valuing liberty to live, work, worship and raise their children as they see fit.

    I think the key principle, then, they both need to work on and understand mutually is freedom of association.

  • Joe,

    You are correct that paelolibertarianism has much in common with Buchanite (post-1990, when he turned on libertarianism) popular thought, the rough outline of traditionalism in our American context (back to Kirk and then Burke) that I would consider conservatism. Rothbard even wanted to claim Burke as an offshoot anarchist, and he made a good case! And I know we have discussed Ropke in this vein as well.

    I would submit, however, we must make distinctions of human anthropology. What is the fundamental unit of society? Is one more likely in writings to answer the “individual”, or the “family”? Does one use the language of “personhood” and “community” as set against the state? If so, I do not consider them a libertarian, but instead as a member of the loose coalition of traditionalists, loose because our very founding was infused with radicalism and utopianism, full of the Puritans and Locke. But it was also full of the Greeks and Cicero and anti-Whig sentiment – a giant mixture that set the foundation for our current confusion of terms.

    Good discussion, more later to better directly your points.

  • Conservatism: there is no good definition. But it may be defined by its philosophical opposition to libertarian, right-liberal thought.

    Let’s see. Marxism is opposed to libertarian, right-liberal thought. Therefore Marxism is conservative. Left-liberalism is opposed to right-liberal thought. Therefore left-liberalism is conservative. And so on.

    It seems to me that if most people in a society who call themselves conservative believe X, saying that X is not conservative is a non-starter (it would be like saying that it was wrong to call oranges “oranges” because the word “oranges” really refers to bananas).

  • Black Adder, well, I could have been more precise in that opposition to right-liberalism (especially the elevation of an abstracted freedom) is one way to define conservatism, but certainly incomplete. The point is that the etymology of conservatism has less to do with ideology and much more to do with places, people, and circumstance. I don’t disagree with your point but it didn’t address my intended argument.

    Joe, Doherty does ignore the details of socially conservative libertarians like
    Ron Paul, but with very good reasons: they are not that common, they are not that loud within the movements, and philosophically, they are out of step with much of the movement. At many levels, this does not matter that much and can lead to a lot of agreement, particularly with regard to an increased and re-oriented federalism away from centralized power and away from Wilsonian adventurism. But it remains that the strongest currents of libertarianism is socially permissive, either by direct belief or by a consequence of their ideas (ie being for the overturn of Roe but against state restriction of a woman’s “freedom”).

    You are correct that the pro-life position can easily and even more consistently be defended on libertarian principles, but the above problem remains – will a libertarian advocate for the sort of severe state-level restrictions we would advcate for? I doubt it.

    And Rand and Rothbard are libertarians mostly by influence – Rand really did despise them, and Rothbard was quite a bit more ideologically “interesting” than a lot of LP types (who are themselves only part of the movements also).

    Finally, conservatism and libertarianism do overlap in many important areas and have a lot to offer one another. I agree. But they will always be fundamentally at odds, and the reason is human anthropology. The individual is not the basic unit of society, and society is a thing which exists.

  • The conservatism we speak of is a political group of the USA, holding to the notion that what we had before worked pretty well– Christian world view, classic morality, lack of powerful government forces, trust people to mostly take care of their own interests, keep predators at bay on the lowest possible level, asking for help from the next level up is something you do only when it’s a MAJOR thing.

    Not being a philosophy like Libertarianism, it’s a lot harder to define– ever try defining “Catholic” to someone? Go past “in communion with Rome” and you’ve got issues, because a lot of it is history. (Trust me, I’ve tried it– compare with “agnostic” and get real headaches.)

  • I believe that while both libertarians and conservatives favor free markets, conservatives insinuate a much greater prudential component into the calculus. Libertarians favor free markets as a matter of philosophy — they believe individual freedom to be the penultimate good. Conservatives agree that individual freedom is a good, but do not regard it as penultimate. And while conservatives favor free markets because freedom is a good, they acknowledge competing “goods” which must also be considered. That calculus also takes into account the perception that free markets tend to produce superior economic and social results, something with which libertarians generally agree but consider irrelevant since the only value they deem worthy of measure is the degree of individual freedom. A case in point would be public education. True libertarians oppose public funding of education, believing that each family should be responsible for raising and educating its own children. They would hold to this belief even if you convince them that a high percentage of families would fail in this regard and society generally would be worse off without an educated citizenry. This is because their calculus is entirely philosophical rather than partially prudential. Accordingly, they favor a voucher system over a public school system simply because it adds an element of freedom for individual families and is therefore closer to their philosophical ideal. Many conservatives also favor a voucher system, but only because they believe they work better than public schools — a prudential conclusion. If public schools could be shown to do a better job overall than publicly funded private schools, conservatives would largely favor a public school system over a voucher system notwithstanding the loss of market freedom. In such a case libertarians would still favor the voucher system simply because it allows for greater market freedom, which is a necessary component of their penultimate value.

  • is there a difference between conservative and libertarian perspectives on economic policy

    I think that depends on whether the perspective is normative (out of which distributional questions arise) or the perspective is positive (on the pattern of economic phenomena and the likely implications of adopting policy x, y, or z). I think the answers would be;

    1. Yes; and
    2. Not a systematic difference.

  • Johnathan,

    “Joe, Doherty does ignore the details of socially conservative libertarians like Ron Paul, but with very good reasons: they are not that common, they are not that loud within the movements, and philosophically, they are out of step with much of the movement.”

    Not that loud? Ron Paul has been arguably the most successful libertarian presidential candidate to date, and his campaigns have drawn tens of thousands of people towards libertarian ideas – such as myself (though I don’t agree with him on everything, and no one should agree with anyone on everything).

    I mean, who remembers Harry Browne? About as many people who remember James P. Cannon, and the same types too.

    Social libertinism is really quite damaging to the libertarian political cause. How many people out there agree with the basic points of the laissez-faire agenda, and even oppose American empire-building, but are completely turned off by the depravity that is lauded by libertarian types? It may fit philosophically, but it doesn’t seem necessary. Libertarians will never dominate the political scene – they have to choose between fostering the cause of economic liberty by siding with conservatism, or fostering sexual depravity by siding with the Democrats. They choose the former 9 times out of 10 because they know, deep down, that sexual libertinism has only created a situation where millions more have become dependent on social services, and that families are a if not the primary source of economic and even intellectual independence from the state.

    And I firmly believe that you can’t be a consistent political libertarian if you aren’t a metaphysical libertarian, and you can’t be a metaphysical libertarian if you don’t believe in God, and you can’t believe in God and celebrate amorality and depravity. In short, you can’t believe in freedom without some sort of restraint.

    Of course most people don’t care about consistency, I get that. But I think a perfectly coherent libertarianism that takes morality seriously on a philosophical and cultural level is possible and necessary. I need to write the book on it.

  • Mike,

    “True libertarians oppose public funding of education, believing that each family should be responsible for raising and educating its own children. They would hold to this belief even if you convince them that a high percentage of families would fail in this regard and society generally would be worse off without an educated citizenry.”

    This seems to be a sort of unwarranted generalization. Don’t libertarians support private schools, school choice, and the like? Why would they limit themselves to families?

    The core political-philosophical belief of the libertarian is that social arrangements ought to be voluntary. So if families want to fund private schools to educate their children, that is perfectly acceptable. They oppose public education because a) it is paid for by forcibly redistributing wealth, b) it is often compulsory, and c) it indoctrinates children with statist ideology. Educational institutions that do none of these things but which are not homeschools are possible and they exist.

  • Maybe I misunderstood, since vouchers pay for private schools. But even so, vouchers are far from the only non-statist alternative. You could have private schools that simply charge people for their services, and costs could be lowered in the same way they are in any other market – through competition. Or you could have employers starting up schools to educate future employees.

  • As I’ve said before, I don’t think anyone (or at least, very few people) is purely and consistently 100 percent liberal, conservative, libertarian, or any other political category. There always has to be a balance among these ideas in our public policy; the only question is where or in what direction the balance should be. Also, the balance needs to be adjusted depending on time and place — what “worked” during the Depression or World War II or the Baby Boom era won’t necessarily work the same way today.

    I seem to remember C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity writing that because we have fallen away from the ideal God created us to aspire to — the natural moral law — there will inevitably be parts of Christ’s teachings that don’t appeal to us, and we will always pick and choose the parts we like and claim that they are the entirety of Christian social teaching.

    He also said that if we ever did encounter a 100 percent “Christian” society, it would (by the standards of 1940s Britain, at least) appear to be very “liberal” or progressive in some ways (i.e. its insistence on helping those less fortunate and sharing one’s goods) but very conservative and old fashioned in others (for example, in its insistence on obedience to all lawful authority and — which Lewis admitted even then would be extremely unpopular — obedience of wives to husbands).

    Needless to say, Catholic social teaching is “all over the map” from a political spectrum point of view in that it is not consistently liberal, conservative or libertarian. And that is what we should expect.

    If the libertarian ideal is for all social institutions to be purely voluntary and privatized, then a “pure” libertarian would insist that all public schools, libraries, parks, transportation, infrastructure, and social services be abolished and replaced by private enterprise or else cease to exist. Government would be responsible only for national defense and law enforcement, and maybe some infrastructure like public roads, but nothing else.

    The odds are that only a tiny minority of people will ever want to take it that far and privatize everything. However, a well-organized and articulate libertarian movement might be able to persuade a significant number of people to privatize at least some functions now assumed by government. In this way, the balance of power between government and private enterprise is adjusted.

  • Needless to say, Catholic social teaching is “all over the map” from a political spectrum point of view in that it is not consistently liberal, conservative or libertarian.

    Tangential to this, Elaine, I value the fact that CST derives from a set of principles; that’s what I’d like to see within political discourse as well, but I wonder if I might as well be tilting at windmills.

  • Part of our problem is that conservatism, as it arose in post-WWII America, became almost immediately and exclusively about opposition to communism. This was a worthy object, of course, but it allowed those who carried on as conservatives to ignore the larger issue – what, after all, is conservatism trying to conserve? So wrapped up in opposing the communist threat, conservatives failed to perceive the dangers in over-large corporations like GM and Chase; failed to effectively fight against moral disintegration; failed, in the end, to come up with a coherent world view which would allow a conservative to say, “I want a society organized thus”.

    Because of this failure of imagination we’ve got a lot of ostensible conservatives out there – well meaning to a man and woman – who honestly think that capitalism is something worthy of conserving; who fight tooth and nail against Big Government without taking a thought about Big Corporation; who have become so wrapped up in fighting the Statist liberalism of modern times that they have resigned the fight against pornography, depraved popular culture, family disintegration and the rest of our social pathologies. While not going libertarian on such matters, there is little thought among most conservatives about these issues, and the destruction being done.

    Libertarians just get it a bit more wrong – a once admirable defense of freedom has essentially become a plea to just do as one pleases. Such people really can’t see what is wrong with gay marriage, for instance – they just can’t imagine a world in which individual choices can result in societal destruction, and thus such choices are, at least in part, the business of society as a whole.

    What all this has wound up causing in practice is just what Chesterton observed about conservatism a century ago – it merely conserves liberalism (libertarianism does so, too; but on a smaller scale as there are so much fewer libertarians). The forces of the right have fought a receding battle – always thrust back from each position because there has been on the right no set of principles of where we’re going. No understanding what we want to conserve, no understanding that if we want to conserve it, we must make it anew in each generation.

    So, at bottom, libertarianism and conservatism are the same – in the sense that both are fighting a losing battle. Only just now, in this past year – and only via the TEA Party movement – have libertarians and conservatives (and then only some of them) started to develope a coherent worldview – a goal to be achieved. We’ll see how it comes out.

  • Joe,
    By public funding I meant government funding, not private voluntary arrangements. Sorry if that was not clear, especially since my comment makes no snese whatsoever otherwise.

  • Joe,
    Also, I was not suggesting that libertarians favor only homeschooling. Libertarians believe that families are *responsible* for their children’s education and can and should fulfill that responsiblilty by any voluntary arrangement they choose.

  • Mike – We’re very much in agreement about this. Modern conservatism is very Aristotelian, defining the good life in terms of individual character and quality of society. A lot of the founding fathers’ quotes you’ll see online (“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams) reflect this way of thinking. There’s an understanding of liberty as a means, or at most one goal of society.

    The libertarian sees liberty as an end. I once heard Arthur Laffer asked about Jack Kemp’s idea of urban enterprise zones. Laffer answered that any tax cut, anywhere, was a good idea. I think that’s the libertarian perspective: looking at a reduction in government as a good thing, in and of itself.

  • Exactly, Pinky.

    And I disagree with much of Mark’s post. True conservatism abhors coherence in preference to an acknowledgment of competing considerations evaluated through a prudential lens. A conservative may well believe that divorce violates God’s law but nonetheless favor its legal availablity in civil law on prudential grounds. In other words conservatives recognize certain moral absolutes, but do not believe societies can be structured around the assumption of universal observance. Conservatives do not trust those who have confident views of how a society should be organized, or especially reorganized.

  • I think on economics conservatives are simply more willing to make compromises with progressives than are libertarians.

    But this is coming from someone who believes that the terms conservative and liberal are useful only to identify very broadly with a set of political ideas.

    Sorry if this has already been said I haven’t had time to read all the comments!

  • Mike,

    A conservatism which doesn’t get coherent will, 20 years from now, find itself fighting to defend gay marriage against innovators who want polygamy legalized…and that conservatism will lose that fight, too.

  • 20 years? More like five for that fight.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .