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Aug 6, 2018

The Significance of the Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Intern Debate

The annual event throws the differences between libertarian and conservative thinking into sharp relief.

Which is the superior political philosophy: libertarianism or conservatism? This question animates a vigorous and closely-watched annual debate between Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation interns.

Many people are confused by the concept of a “libertarianism vs. conservatism” debate: Isn’t libertarianism just a fringe form of conservatism? What’s there to argue over, really? The debate even prompts anger from some who view libertarians and conservatives as natural allies. They ask, “Why fight each other when we could be fighting ‘the Left’?!”

The prevalence of those attitudes is the reason why it’s important for libertarians to debate conservatives and distinguish libertarianism from conservatism.

Libertarianism is not a form of conservatism. The differences between the two political philosophies are meaningful and lead to drastically different ideas about public policy. It is important that people come to understand that, since libertarianism suffers from its association with conservatism. All who care about the future of liberty should be concerned about misunderstandings and misperceptions that undermine our cause.

Libertarianism Is Not Conservatism

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that regards individual liberty as the prime political value. As David Boaz has written, libertarians believe “that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.”

A charitable characterization of conservatives would say that they, too, value individual liberty. But unlike libertarians, conservatives readily subordinate liberty to other values, like tradition, security, religious faith, and a particular idea of order—a return to “the good old days.”  A more critical characterization of conservatism would note that nativism and nationalism often, at the very least, coexist comfortably with conservatism.

What, then, are the policy implications of these two different political philosophies?

Libertarians support free trade and free immigration. Conservatives, on the other hand, often extol the virtues of the free market in their rhetoric, but, in practice, succumb to protectionist and restrictionist arguments.

Libertarians oppose the Drug War and, more broadly, the criminalization of all other peaceful conduct. Conservatives have defended the criminalization of many peaceful things that they regard as being vicious to society.

Libertarians are skeptical of foreign military interventions and advocate restraint. Conservatives are much more confident that the U.S. can and should achieve its international ambitions though military force.

This list could go on and on, but the above examples should suffice to convey the point that libertarianism is not a species or offshoot of conservatism. Libertarianism is a distinct political philosophy with a deep commitment to individual liberty. While conservatives’ rhetoric often gives the impression that they share a similar commitment to liberty, even a cursory examination of conservative policy preferences reveals that liberty is just one of several values that might prevail in the conservative’s mind.

Why It Matters

As my colleague Grant Babcock has argued on this site, libertarianism is hampered by its association with conservatism, and it would behoove libertarianism to “extricate itself from conservative entanglements.” One important aspect of this extrication is facilitated by open debate with conservatives.

The case for “fissionism,” as Babcock calls it, is especially strong if one considers Americans’ evolving political attitudes. Americans—and to an even greater extent, young Americans—are increasingly supportive of immigration, a restrained foreign policy, drug legalization, gay marriage, and gay adoption rights. They value their privacy, they’re worried about mass incarceration, and despite a recent uptick, they’re much more skeptical about the death penalty than they were ten or twenty years ago. From a libertarian perspective, these are all positive developments.

Paradoxically, however, these changes also pose a significant problem for libertarians: Conservative and libertarian rhetoric on some issues—fiscal issues, especially—can sound very similar. Both groups are vociferous in their opposition to tax hikes, excessive regulation, unrestrained spending, unsustainable entitlement programs, and so forth (whether or not libertarians and conservatives actually agree on these issues is another matter, but that’s beside the point).

Insofar as these rhetorical or substantial similarities cause libertarianism to be conflated with conservatism, libertarianism’s appeal will suffer—in part, ironically, because of the progress of some libertarian ideas! In the American context, voters often feel that they must choose between one of two “bundles” of policies—the Republican/Conservative bundle and the Democrat/Progressive bundle, the red and the blue. If things like “low tax rates,” “fiscal discipline,” and “pro-market sentiment” are thought to be part of a “red bundle” of ideas that also includes criminalizing marijuana possession, an aggressive foreign policy, harsh anti-immigrant measures, and opposition to legal gay marriage, all advocates of economic freedom—especially libertarians—should be worried. Their ship will be sunk by the weight of the increasingly unpopular social stances that have been bundled with their economic positions.

I do not mean to overstate my case. There are a host of reasons why many people correctly understand the libertarian perspective and reject it anyway. That’s a difficult and eternal challenge for defenders of liberty. But if someone rejects the philosophy of liberty because he associates it with illiberal ideas, shame on us, the libertarians, for failing to do the comparatively easy work of explaining who we are and what we believe. If we cannot reach the low-hanging fruit—those who would side with us, if they understood us correctly—how can we possibly tackle the far more difficult task of convincing those who disagree with us?

We owe it to the cause of liberty to distinguish libertarianism from illiberal ideologies that potential new libertarians find repugnant.

Join the Debate

Libertarianism and conservatism are distinct political philosophies with fundamental differences. For the future of liberty, it is important that the differences be illustrated and understood. With that in mind, I hope you will tune into the “Libertarianism vs. Conservatism” debate on August 9th.