TCS Daily

Saving the Marriage: Conservatism and Libertarianism

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 16, 2005 12:00 AM

A few years ago, I wrote an article discussing the ways in which libertarians and conservatives have common cause on a number of policy issues -- and how the Blogosphere can work to bring libertarians and conservatives closer together. Along somewhat similar lines, we have seen articles by people like Kenneth Silber who have discussed the fusion between libertarian and conservative ideas, and Stephen Stanton, whose analysis of "South Park Republicans" helps further identify people who are comfortable as libertarian-conservatives -- people like me.

My status as a libertarian-conservative is why I took interest in a recent debate concerning whether the libertarian-conservative marriage that has existed since the Cold War could be saved. Writer Cathy Young -- who also describes herself as a libertarian-conservative -- argues that unity on the Right can and should be maintained with an ongoing partnership between libertarians and conservatives. Young makes a number of excellent observations in support of her argument -- pointing out that just as anti-communism united libertarians and conservatives during the Cold War, so should anti-Islamic fundamentalism unite the factions in the present day. She aptly critiques the extremes of both factions -- extremist libertarians for their refusal to abandon their foreign policy isolationism in the midst of a war against terrorist groups and a soft power/hard power campaign to assist in the spread of liberty and democracy, and conservatives for their unfortunate tendency towards "nanny-statism" on a number of social issues. As Young points out, much of the domestic policy agenda of the Bush Administration's second term -- including tort and Social Security reform -- should find a receptive audience in both libertarian and conservative camps.

I would add two extra reasons for libertarians and conservatives to stick together. The first has to do with the structure of the American political system -- which contains a whole host of attributes that should unite libertarians and conservatives. The second has to do with the fact that if the factions split, they will be able to wield less political power.

Let's consider the first argument. The Constitution of the United States promotes -- if one wishes to consider it in honest fashion -- a vision of limited government. It promotes the principles of federalism, which when respected entail the devolution of power to state and local governments. The Congress of the United States is limited in its ability to craft legislation by the enumerated powers found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment helps create a greater presumption of liberty in the realm of individual rights, and the Tenth Amendment further solidifies the Constitutional commitment to devolution of power to the state and local level.

To be sure, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have been severely curtailed by various Supreme Court rulings throughout the decades, as law professors like Randy Barnett have pointed out. But merely because a Constitutional principle has been submerged does not mean that such a principle cannot be revived. And libertarians who naturally embrace Constitutional principles that lead to greater personal liberty and smaller government can ally with conservatives who also embrace those principles and wish to -- you guessed it -- conserve them for future generations in fighting to restore the lost Constitution, as scholars like Professor Barnett rightly advocate.

Barnett also best makes the argument in favor of a continued collaboration between libertarians and conservatives for the purposes of augmenting each faction's political power. As Barnett aptly notes, via the creation of a Libertarian Party, libertarians have prevented themselves from gaining influence in either the Democratic or Republican parties. As noted above, libertarians and conservatives can and should find common cause on a number of key policy issues and fundamental political principles, so if libertarians wish to enhance their political strength, they should find a natural home in the Republican Party. Their entry should be welcomed by conservatives who sense the creation -- at long last -- of a governing political majority that will displace and eclipse the remnants of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal majority, and who should look for any and all opportunities to expand that coalition. Each side, therefore, has an interest in courting the other and furthering the historic political partnership with one another.

This is not to say that there are not real differences between libertarians and conservatives on a number of issues. There are, and it is foolish to try to sweep them under the rug. I am a passionate advocate of speaking about and debating those differences as much as possible so as to better inform and enlighten the body politic at large, and so as to increase the body politic's ability to pick out the strengths and weaknesses of each doctrine, offer constructive feedback and criticism, and perhaps help further the creation of a philosophical consensus on the Right. At the same time, differences ought to be kept in perspective, and we should remember that many of the arguments between libertarians and conservatives are the natural result of discourse among members of a large coalition. Merely because coalition partners have differences with one another is no reason to disband the coalition. No one should expect the Right to be a monolith, and one need not find it to be a monolith as a prerequisite for finding that a governing coalition exists on the Right. What matters in the end is whether libertarians and conservatives have more substantive issues uniting them than they have issues dividing them. There are a whole host of reasons to believe that they do.

It is worth noting the comments of one prominent libertarian-conservative Republican leader on the issue of making common cause between libertarians and conservatives:

        "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism 
        is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is 
        a misnomer for the liberals -- if we were back in the days of the Revolution, 
        so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would 
        be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government 
        interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and 
        this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

        "Now, I can't say that I will agree with all the things that the present group 
        who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I 
        think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are 
        libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government 
        at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. 
        There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government 
        to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest 
        man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure 
        that we don't each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. 
        But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and 
        conservatism are traveling the same path."

The conservative Republican who said these words was Ronald Reagan. While his comments are thirty years old, they are still applicable to the debate we are having. We shouldn't forget them.



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