Sunday, December 05, 2004

Libertarianism and Conservatism

Timothy Sandefur said this in a recent post:

...As I argued just the other day, libertarianism is a variety of liberalism. Its primary concern is with the liberation of the individual. Conservatism, properly understood—I mean, real, honest to god conservatism of the Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet variety—is nothing like this. It is about the stability of society....

...Some large libertarian segments, most notably Reason magazine, have simply given up on the right wing, and are overtly courting the left, hoping that social issues will draw the left into greater embrace of economic freedom. I’m really not sure whether that strategy will work—I think the left is as resolutely hostile to individualism as the conservatives are—but do we really have anything to lose?...

I've been pondering that question, because I am rather a Hayekian, whereas Mr. Sandefur is an Objectivist. (Libertarianism is a big tent, isn't it?) I, too, am concerned with the liberation of the individual -- but I view a stable society as a necessary condition of liberation. Stability helps to ensure that we keep the liberation we've gained as individuals, without sacrificing other values, such as the prosperity we enjoy because of somewhat free markets and the security we enjoy because we remain resolute about fighting criminals and terrorists.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much stability. For example, a society that frowns on actions that do no harm to others (e.g., a white person's trading with or marrying a black person) and then uses the government to bar and penalize such actions is not conducive to liberty.

But efforts to secure personal liberation can be destabilizing, and even damaging to "liberated" groups, when "liberation" proceeds too swiftly or seems to come at the expense of other groups (e.g., the use of affirmative action to discriminate in favor of blacks, the insistence that marriage between man and woman is "nothing special" compared with homosexual marriage). For, as I said here, "[t]he instincts ingrained in a long-ago state of nature may be far more powerful than libertarian rationality."

Where does that leave libertarians? Well, it leaves this libertarian rather more sympathetic to conservatives, who are more reliable than leftists about defending life and economic liberty. As I said here:

...Social freedom has advanced markedly in my lifetime, in spite of rearguard efforts by government to legislate "morality." Government control of economic affairs through taxation and regulation has advanced just as markedly, especially under Democrats.

In sum, libertarians may be repulsed by the moralists who have taken over the Republican Party, but that moralizing, I think, is a lesser threat to liberty than regulation and taxation. For that reason -- and because Republicans are more likely than Democrats to defend my life -- I'm not ready to give up on the GOP.

When I say "defend my life," I mean on city streets as well as overseas.

So, yes, in answer to Mr. Sandefur's question, I think libertarians have a lot to lose by throwing in with leftists. And they probably have nothing to gain that won't be gained anyway, as society proceeds -- in its glacial way -- to liberate individuals from the bonds of repressive laws.

Why should libertarians make a Faustian bargain with the left to achieve personal liberation -- which, with persistence, will come in due time -- when the price of that bargain is further economic enslavement and greater insecurity?