TCS Daily

Rifts and the Right

By Philip Klein - February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

In his call for more libertarianism within the conservative movement, Ryan Sager is right to argue that conservatives, "can't survive by religious extremism and tax cuts alone." But by the same measure, libertarians will make no progress with conservatives if they ignore the importance of values.

Sager's description of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference as a place where "evolution is a wild hypothesis" is neither accurate nor constructive. It is unfair to begin an article with a mocking tone toward social conservatives and end by arguing that these same conservatives should reach out to libertarians.


As an economic conservative and social libertarian, I would also prefer more Republicans who support reforming Social Security while opposing a ban on gay marriage. But it is problematic to suggest from a purely political standpoint that deemphasizing religion would benefit Republicans. Whether libertarians like it or not, cultural issues most likely did more to reelect President Bush than enthusiasm for Social Security reform.


This does not mean that libertarians who want to influence conservative thought should throw their hands up in despair. A debate that has echoed in conservative and libertarian enclaves on the Internet over the past few days has focused on the rift between the two groups, but there is a common ground to be had. To achieve this common ground, libertarians must acknowledge that values are important and conservatives must push to remove government from the values debate.


Libertarians should realize that it is not, by definition, a contradiction of limited government principles to suggest that the erosion of traditional values has had adverse effects on American society. In fact, the existence of a culture that fosters shared values is essential to a free society.


Libertarians argue that drug use and distribution should be decriminalized, the airwaves should be free of regulation and it should be easier for immigrants to cross the borders. This raises legitimate concerns that society would face increased challenges in sustaining itself. How would society handle the problems associated with drug use and addiction? How would we discourage children from replicating the violence and depravity that is glorified in popular culture? How would we make sure that young children and new immigrants learn to appreciate the ideas about liberty that are embodied in the U.S. Constitution?


Without turning back to government, the only realistic way to combat these obstacles would be through families, some shared cultural norms, religious institutions and charity organizations -- in short, many of the things that social conservatives have been talking about for decades.


The problem with social conservatives lies not in their ultimate goal of strengthening families or in their belief that religion has an important role to play in society, but in their means of getting what they want. If conservatives believe in small government, they can't make an exception on social issues.


Almost every major "values" issue originates from the government being overly involved in areas it shouldn't be in. The debate over stem-cell research is spurred by government involvement in medical research. School prayer is controversial because parents are denied control over their education dollars.


It is hard to understand how conservatives who believe that government is ham-handed at regulating the economy would believe that it can prudently regulate something as personal as the family. Supporters of the Federal Marriage Amendment have not demonstrated how defining marriage as being between a man and a woman would decrease divorce rates or otherwise protect families. If two men get married, it does not prevent a heterosexual wedding, nor does it make a heterosexual couple that is mulling divorce reconsider.


Libertarians may think that religious hate-mongers dominate the conservative movement (one would get that impression from reading Sager's piece). But there are reasons for optimism. In his article, Sager points out that a representative of the Log Cabin Republicans who argued against the marriage amendment was booed at CPAC. I was at the conference as well, and on the flip side, when the same representative lamented that Republicans had become the party of Washington, he was applauded. Furthermore, the winner of a 2008 presidential straw poll conducted at the conference was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who favors civil unions and is pro choice.


The mere fact that this annual gathering had speakers who represented different viewpoints on issues such as gay marriage and immigration reform demonstrates that conservatives are willing to debate. Libertarians and conservatives share a common interest in getting the government out of people's lives while preserving the values on which this country was founded.


Philip Klein, a former reporter at Reuters, is a writer living in New York. His opinion articles have also appeared on the online edition of The American Spectator and Brainwash.


TCS Daily Archives