Libertarians Aren’t Part of the Conservative Movement

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg at the debate

TheAmerican Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a debate between Reason Magazine Editor Matt Welch and National Review Editor-at-Large Jonah Goldberg last Wednesday. The question posed was, “Are libertarians part of the conservative movement?

Unfortunately, the debate wasn’t much of a debate. Welch began by stating that he agreed with Goldberg “a significant amount on policy questions, tactics, and even on this question.” The rest of his opening statement described reasons “why we’re having this conversation,” which didn’t seem to address the question. He conflated the “Republican Party” with the conservative movement, an interpretation with which many conservatives would likely disagree. He talked about the Republicans “bleeding market share,” and people learning “independence from political tribes.” But it’s hard to see how that relates to whether libertarians are part of the conservative movement.
Worse, from my perspective, it was as though Welch had no idea what libertarianism, both asa movement and a philosophy, is all about. First, he kept referring to “libertarianvoters,” and who libertarians would vote for, as a proxy for the “libertarian movement.” Yet the most salient feature oflibertarians—probably as much as their hatred for government or love forliberty—is their cynicism about politicians and the political process. Mostlibertarians just don’t vote. Some don’t vote out of principle, but most simplysay, “What good would it do? Who would I vote for?” For this reason, the “libertarianmovement” has always been mainly an intellectual movement. Economic and socialideas that find their way into major party politics often have libertarianorigins that aren’t acknowledged. 
Second, as Goldberg rightly noted, you couldactually argue that conservatives are part of the libertarian movement,philosophically and historically. In fact, as he rightly points out, “you can’tremove the libertarians from conservatism and leave conservatism standing,” and also, “libertarianeconomics is conservative economics.” Yet Welch did not pursue this point: basically everything good about conservatism is borrowed from classical liberalism, including its ideas about community. Conservatism isbastardized libertarianism, drawing the boundaries of government power wide enough to,as Goldberg put it, maintain a “culture of liberty,” which has always seemed to mean “conserving” the good as well as the nasty parts of our culture–including our intolerance, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and authoritarianism.

Reason’s Matt Welch

Third, in his closing, Welch said, “I justwant to know what you are going to do about Medicare, Medicaid, social securityand military spending and how are you going to get rid of this $1.4 trilliondeficit in a way that makes any kind of sense…. This is really the issue, the most important issue… everything else is kind of asideshow.”


Sincewhen is the issue for libertariansgovernment spending? Libertarianism is about power, the breadth of government coercion in human affairs, notjust its nominal magnitude. “Government spending is the symptom” has been the mantra of the libertarians, the symptom of too much power. Libertarians care about arcaneconcepts that have no dollar values at all like “peace,” “liberty,” “dueprocess,” “equality under the law,” and “the rule of law.”  Not kidnapping and torturing foreignersprobably won’t cut the deficit much either. Similarly, if President Obama cutsmilitary spending by switching to a drone army, or cuts the federal housingbudget by forcing businesses to provide free homes, this will not satisfy libertarian concerns about those policies, even if it is fiscally conservative. An efficient empire or police state, while implausible, would placate conservatives while failing to address the fundamental issue of limiting government power.

Eliminatingpower isn’t the main concern for Goldberg and conservatives—their main concernis how the power is used. Goldberg’s joke about the drug war, or his disdainfor military “isolationism,” or his reference to government “maintaining aculture of liberty” expose a philosophy that has little principled basis forlimits on power.
Finally, Welch never made the most importantpoint of all in this debate, that libertarians are part of the conservativemovement to the extent to which they share common cause with them. On a broadrange of issues, however, it’s obvious libertarians are actively hostile toconservative causes—civil liberties, religion in public life, right-to-die, equal right forgays, immigration, drug prohibition, privacy, and war to name a few. Goldberg laughed at the idea of a “libertarian foreign policy,” but most libertarians recognize that war is the state’s largest and most violent social engineering project.

Welch, as he might admit, was probably not the right libertarian to argue this point. As a reformed liberal, he may not have much considered the fundamental relationship of conservatism and libertarianism. Goldberg has, and it showed. Goldberg clearly believes that libertarians are part of the conservative movement because the issues on which they disagree aren’t that important to him, as his jokes about isolationism and the drug war indicated. Will libertarians have more influence on conservatives than on liberals? It’s hard to see how they couldn’t, as they share the stated goal of smaller government, but to say that libertarians are part of the conservative movement just isn’t true. Libertarianism is a separate movement with a distinct philosophy and values that conservatism does not share. To act as though it were a form of conservatism would demote it to junior partner in the right-fusionist alliance (where conservatives would like to keep it), but it would not make it true.

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the founder and editor-at-large of The Skeptical Libertarian. He writes on issues relating to science, skepticism, and economic freedom, focusing on the role of evolution in social and economic development.