Conservatism’s friendly, occasionally strained relationship with libertarianism.
Pussies, not pansies. But the higher powers tell me Ann Coulter is allowed saltier language than our headline writers.
If you missed it, Coulter appeared on John Stossel’s Fox News show last week to discuss libertarians, and specifically why she wasn’t one. Asked about the drug war, Coulter exclaimed, “You libertarians and pot!” Pressed by Stossel, she added, “Look, this is why people think libertarians are pussies.”
The video quickly went viral and sparked an internet discussion on the merits of libertarianism. Nick Gillespie of the decidedly libertarian Reason.com pinned the p-word to his coat: “It may not have the rhetorical power of ‘I am Spartacus!’ but I’m happy to declare ‘I’m a pussy!’” Glenn Beck discussed how he was coming around to the idea of “maximum freedom” before blasting the libertarian movement for being too exclusive. Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, then wrote an open letter to Beck, questioning the radio host’s libertarian street cred.
Verbal warfare between conservatives and libertarians feels strange since, over the past two years, the two groups have often marched shoulder-to-shoulder against the left’s statism.
Libertarianism saw a bubble of interest in 2008 thanks to the Ron Paul Revolution, the pack of libertarian activists who gathered behind Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. After years of both political parties neglecting individual liberty in favor of war and breakneck government growth, libertarianism suddenly seemed a fresh alternative. The Tea Party, which sprang up in opposition to Obamacare in 2009, is regarded as a conservative movement. But many of its ideas found voice for the first time with Paul’s presidential campaign, leading Joshua Green to dub Paul the Tea Party’s “intellectual godfather.”
This created some intellectual shifting on the right, as many conservatives became more libertarian in their outlook. A CBS News poll taken in November 2011 found that nearly half of Republicans thought that the Iraq war wasn’t worth it. And many conservatives are increasingly uneasy about the Obama Administration’s civil liberties abuses and endless drone strikes.
Libertarianism, then, acted as a third path for disgruntled conservatives, allowing them to maneuver around the government activism of both the Bush-era Republicans and Democrats. Were it not for the Ron Paul-inspired Tea Party, Republicans never would have found their way out of the political wilderness in 2010. And as the economy crashed and debt piled up, libertarianism seemed a rational solution. Rolling back government is, to borrow one of the commentariat’s most grating phrases, an idea whose time has come.
Libertarianism and conservatism are often grouped under the same tent. The most consequential definition of modern conservatism came from political philosopher Frank Meyer, who saw it as a fusion of traditional and libertarian values. But while Meyer rapped thinkers like Russell Kirk for not putting enough emphasis on individual liberty, he also called on libertarians to admit the existence of an “organic moral order,” defined not by government, but by God, community, and objective truth.
There are, then, crucial distinctions between conservatism and libertarianism that stretch down to the most theoretical level. Libertarians tend to see politics as a dichotomy between the free individual and the oppressive government. The purpose of state power is to protect the individual’s rights, nothing more.
Conservatives believe in individual freedom too, but see it as a product of order. People can be free, but they’re not born that way as Jean-Jacques Rousseau surmised. Instead they become free under the architecture of good institutions that educate men and tamp down their worst impulses. These institutions include families, churches, and local communities. They also include what Edmund Burke called “little platoons” and Alexis de Tocqueville called “voluntary associations” – the local groups and organizations that provide our lives with structure. When this structure, along with Meyer’s “organic moral order,” start to recede, big government creeps in to fill the void.
This leads conservatives to examine not just the relationship between the individual and his government, but also the body politic as a whole. Is it healthy? Does it strive for virtue and elevate our best values? Russell Kirk, citing Eric Voegelin, argues that our great political division “is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other: instead, it lies between all those who believe in a transcendent moral order, on the one side, and on the other side all those who mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.”
This distinction can be seen on many social issues. While libertarians almost always select the position of individual liberty, conservatives tend to weigh that against the cost to civil society. Thus libertarians tend to favor marijuana legalization not to accommodate their “liberal friends,” as Coulter puts it, but because they see it as an individual choice, while many conservatives worry it will make civil society more indolent and expensive. The line is even more emblazoned on prostitution. Libertarians see no reason why a woman shouldn’t be able to sell her body. Conservatives might point to Amsterdam, where legalized prostitution has led to a degeneration of public morality, as well as unintended consequences like human trafficking and organized crime.
To illustrate the distinction further, consider Ayn Rand, the thinker and novelist lionized by many libertarians, and her view of the family. Conservatives consider the family to be perhaps the most precious unit of civil society and a necessity for individual freedom. Rand saw forced familial relations as a shackle on the individual. In Atlas Shrugged, she portrays steel tycoon Hank Reardon’s family – his cloying wife, his scolding mother, his leech of a brother – as an irritating obstacle to his success, “an unreality that would not become real to him” for whom he feels nothing but “the merciless zero of indifference.” Elsewhere Rand derided “the worship of the family” as “merely racism” and something that “places the accident of birth above a man’s valor and duty to the tribe above a man’s right to his own life.”
Many conservatives would shudder upon reading those quotes. So why have so many of them flirted with libertarianism and even embraced Rand?
Because, given our current problems, these differences seem abstract. Our most immediate political issue is a rampaging federal government burying its citizens in debt. This gives conservatives common cause with libertarians. We may have different philosophical foundations, but right now our houses are on the same side of the street. And when Republicans set our garage on fire, libertarians helped with the hoses, muttering acerbically.
They’re not pussies. They’re allies and they’ve been right about a lot. But there are differences between us and we should make sure we understand them.
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