Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Libertarians and Conservatives, Part One

Yesterday I alluded to a series of articles that explored the fragmentation of thought on the right. Today I begin commenting on the some of those differences, and perhaps in the end coming to some kind of prediction as to where the conservative movement is headed.

Up to know I have not really discussed libertarians in conjunction with the right. For some time libertarians and conservatives made common cause against the liberal welfare state and communism. This loose coalition, though always somewhat contentious, began to fracture upon the ascendency of Ronald Reagan, and it seems to have been completely obliterated with the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, the break is not totally complete. The major libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, frequently works together with conservative think tanks such as Heritage and AEI. Cato researchers often appear in the pages of National Review, and generally speaking libertarians lean more Republican if pressed to pick between the major parties.

There does remain significant common ground between the two camps. In fact, for a very brief period I considered myself more of a libertarian than a conservative - but then I discovered I didn't like pot. In all seriousness, this is one issue where there is that common ground. Many prominent conservatives, especially William Buckley, seek to decriminalize, at the very least, marijuana. There does remain a greater reluctance on the part of conservatives to decriminalize harder drugs, but many seem disenchanted with the drug wars.

Our economic values are of course very similar. Perhaps it comes down to a matter of degree as conservatives seem a little more willing to accept at least a minimal amount of government involvement. But for the most part, there is not a whole lot of difference on this front.

Foreign policy is somewhat tougher to analyze. There is so much disagreement within conservatism itself (and much, much more on that in later posts)that it would seem impossible to make a comparison. From what I gather libertarians themselves have no unifying foreign policy. That said, as mentioned above, the collapse of the Soviet Union did rend the two ideological forces.

That of course leaves social issues. Most would assume that this is the area that divides libertarians and conservatives - and of course it is. But it is not as simple as conservatives being more interventionist on social issues. There is a profound schism as to the role of the state in society that quite frankly cannot be breeched, and that brings me to the argument between Feddie and Sandefur that I brought up yesterday.

Sandefur began it all with a critique of Robert Bork.
Robert Bork, darling of conservative lawyers, says American culture is such a cancer that he “almost began to want to put the [Berlin] wall back up.” Ha! Oh, what wit!

If you’re surprised by such a revolting statement, you haven’t been paying attention. Bork, like many conservatives I’ve blogged about, agrees with our enemies in this war: and his hostility to individualism and liberty is all too typical of the conservative movement.
Feddie noted, rightly, that Bork was unfortunate in his language, but was not really being seriousness. Bork's concern was "the radical individualism that pervades modern-day American culture." Further, Libertarians generally "value their individual "happiness" far more than the societal good. And personally, I think that's a sorry way to live one's life." I agree.

Feddie's final paragraph strikes at the difference in approach.
That having been said, I do not believe government can transform the heart, and I am extremely leery of governmental interference with an individual's right to engage in certain private behavior (e.g., viewing pornography, gambling, homosexual relations). There is a significant difference, however, between government and society tolerating such behavior and endorsing or promoting it (e.g., repealing anti-sodomy laws v. legalizing same-sex "marriage"). And Libertarians like Sandefur should acknowledge as much, rather than conflating the two. It is wrong to compare conservatives to "our enemies in this war," simply because we believe in preserving certain societal mores (e.g., traditional marriage). Libertarians and conservatives share many of the same public policy goals, and this type of over-the-top rhetoric is not especially helpful in advancing dialogue between the two camps.
This is a rather good summary of the conservative approach to morality. There is a limit to how much the government can regulate private behavior. Government overreach starts us down the path to totalitarianism. It of course must be granted that some conservatives are more authoritarian on cultural issues, but conservatives largely value a limited government approach. Society on the other hand can influence its members. It can shun behavior deemed unacceptable. But this is the beauty of federalism - New York can have different norms from Texas, and people can find happiness in communities that are more accepting of their values. Now there might be some role for the government in promoting those values, but only in very small ways.

That does not satisfy Sandefur. He responds to Dillard thusly:
When Dillard says that people should not “value their individual ‘happiness’…more than the societal good,” what he is saying is that your neighbors have the right to control your life and dictate to you the terms on which you may choose your path.
No, not exactly. This is a gross oversimplification of Feddie's point. Humans have the right to choose their own path in life, but they they must understand that their actions have consequences. Even private actions may have a bearing on the overall community. This is not true in all cases, but in an organic community each individual contributes to the overall atmosphere, and in ways they may not have thought of.

Also, putting the societal good ahead of individual happiness does not mean you are being controlled by the community. What it means is that individuals have a moral duty to take cognizance of their neighbors, and to act in whatever way possible to contribute to the greater good. A person can put their own selfish needs ahead of those of the community, but they must understand the potentially deleterious consequences of such behavior. It does not follow that one must necessarily sacrifice their happiness for the greater good. There is much space to act in accordance with the dictate's of one's conscience. One certainly has the freedom to take up the crackpipe, but do understand that this supposedly self-regarding behavior has consequences that touch the lives of many people.

But forget about the community for one minute. Individual pursuits of happiness may involve having sex with six strippers a day. Bully for you. Perhaps such behavior doesn't adversely affect the community, and you're getting to live the life that you deem fit for yourself. But how free are you really? This is perhaps a bit more of a theological argument than a political one, but when we engage in activities that are objectively wrong on some level, they are not necessarily always merely self-regarding.

Again, this does not mean that the state ought to regulate behavior. And no one can pretend we're all saints here on this mortal realm. But such an attitude as Sandefur casts aside eternal norms. All well and dandy, but such actions have consequences unforeseen.

But there's even more to it than all this. Tune in tomorrow.


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