Can Libertarians And Social Conservatives Be Allies?
There has been an interesting back and forth over the past couple days between Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner and Walter Olson and David Boaz of the Cato Institute. Carney started the exchange by writing a piece about this weekend’s protests against the Obama HHS birth control mandate. In the piece he said:
This truth needs to get out there. The media need to figure out who is imposing morality on whom. Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters. And cultural conservatives need to understand that government is inherently their enemy.
This brought a response first by Walter Olson who said after mostly touching on a recent case from New Mexico where a photographer was forced to photograph a gay marriage against their will:
As I understand it, the libertarian position is to prize religious liberty, while also disapproving the use of government as an instrument of culture war. That’s no contradiction. It’s the American way.
David Boaz then responded by illustrating how social conservatives have been recently trying to expand the state:
But what about conservatives? Are conservatives really the defenders of freedom? Carney seems to want us to think so, and to line up with conservatives “on social matters.” But the real record of conservatives on personal and social freedom is not very good. Consider:
- Conservatives, like National Review, supported state-imposed racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. (I won’t go back and claim that “conservatives” supported slavery or other pre-modern violations of freedom.)
- Conservatives opposed legal and social equality for women.
- Conservatives supported laws banning homosexual acts among consenting adults.
- Conservatives still oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.
- Conservatives (and plenty of liberals) support the policy of drug prohibition, which results in nearly a million arrests a year for marijuana use.
- Conservatives support state-imposed prayers and other endorsements of religion in public schools.
I won’t crucify conservatives on segregation because that issue was decided nearly 50 years ago. Most current conservative activists weren’t alive or politically active then and it does frankly come off as a cheap shot. Conservatives have also come a long way on legal and social equality for women. But conservatives still have a long way to go, on many other social issues in order to shed their prejudices towards statism and social engineering.
Having said that, Tim Carney has laid the groundwork towards a revived libertarian-social conservative alliance based on the acknowledgement that the state is the enemy of both individual liberty and virtue. In fact, you can argue that if you weaken one, the other cannot exist. Social conservatives need to understand that if you weaken individual liberty in the pursuit of virtue, you will destroy virtue as well. A paternalistic state based on “promoting the family and traditional values” will always result in the foundations of a welfare state being laid, see the various Christian Democratic parties in Europe for a clear example. Virtue survives only if people are held to account for their actions and are not insulated from the consequences of screwing up by a welfare state or by paternalistic regulations and bans on personal conduct and substances.
This is not to say libertarians and social conservatives will automatically agree on everything but there’s a much better argument for these two, morality based political ideologies based (in part) on individual liberty to align than a libertarian-progressive alliance that fails for the simple fact that progressives are committed to a enlarged state and collective “rights” as a part of their political DNA. More importantly, it won’t and shouldn’t require either side to compromise their core beliefs. Social conservatives can continue to maintain their beliefs in family and traditional values, while libertarians won’t have to compromise our strong beliefs in the defense of liberty as the political ideal. After all, it’s been done before.