The Spectacle Blog

Rand Paul’s Libertarianism is Conservative

By on 2.11.14 | 5:32PM

Sen. Rand Paul, a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, feels compelled to square his “libertarian” sentiments with his conservatism.

“Libertarian does not mean libertine,” Paul said, addressing the American Principles Projects last Wednesday.

He clarified what he meant by libertarian:

I don’t see libertarianism as, you can do whatever you want. There is a role for government, there’s a role for family, there’s a role for marriage, there’s a role for the protection of life.

As I argued in a post last week, conservatism can partially overlap with classical liberalism, or libertarianism, but only if it sees liberty as a pragmatic goal, not a foundational one. In this case, libertarian attitudes are part of the American tradition of conservatism: belief that a distant, oversized federal government is an impossible substitute for the more personal authorities found at the state, regional, and individual levels.

Another form of libertarianism sees liberty as an absolute goal. Lifting bans on public nudity and legalizing consensual colosseum-style battles could be permissible in the extreme libertarian paradise. Paul has yet to support either. At the root of his conservative politics, freedom needs to be checked by “tradition.”

Paul is calling attention to prudential libertarian policies: reducing government waste, cutting back federal restrictions, and defending civil liberties. The battle Paul wants to fight is not between libertarianism and conservatism, but between libertarian and authoritarian approaches to governance.

How Paul defines himself is not merely philosophical quibble, but an important aspect of his likely presidential campaign. Labels and rhetoric energize voters, and terms like “libertarian” and “conservative” are no exceptions. Buzzwords can be just as useful to campaigns as can actual ideas.

“Libertarian” can be associated with abortion rights, anti-religion, and, as Paul recognizes, “libertine” behavior, all of which repel grassroots conservatives. But in reality, Paul is consistently pro-life, a Christian, and explicitly rejects the third accusation.

Paul will likely face similar charges from Republican presidential opponents, simply by drawing on the word “libertarian.” Expected contender Chris Christie has already criticized Rand Paul’s “strain of libertarianism” as “very dangerous.” Flash back to the 2012 Republican field of presidential candidates where each potential nominee tried to prove he or she was the most conservative option. Or, further back when “liberal” was deemed the “L word.”

Primaries attract high propensity voters, who tend to be the most passionate of the base. In the case of the GOP primary, these voters are most apt to be turned on or off by terms like “conservative” and “libertarian.” If Rand Paul is a serious contender for the Republican nominee, he will need to continue to prove his conservatism.

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