Thursday, May 26, 2011

Conservatives vs. Libertarians

I like AlfonZo Rachel, even if I disapprove of such liberal use of capital letters in the middle of his name, but I wanted to address the fallacy in his latest polemic, embedded herein. It's a good piece, worth watching for his take on Herman Cain as leader vs. representative. Trouble starts at about the 5 minute mark, though. Let's watch:

Money quote:
A libertarian is just a liberal who doesn't have a love/hate relationship complex with capitalism.
Whoa. That'd be like a libertarian saying "a conservative is just a liberal who's hung up on using the power of the state to control your body instead of just your money."

Which, come to think of it, a lot of libertarians do say. (These days you have to add an addendum that liberals want to control your body, too, just with regards to fat, salt, smoking, condoms and healthcare.) The irony is that this statement comes after a talk about getting ideas outside the conservative tent and is followed up with a rant on how libertarians want to claim to be conservative.

I've never, ever met a libertarian masquerading as a conservative. (OK, I haven't met Ron Paul, but he might qualify, though he's more masquerading as a Republican than a conservative.) In fact, what I see more is conservatives masquerading as libertarians, because the conservative cachet is mega-uncool, while you can be libertarian and still get invited to liberals cocktail parties. (I believe this is because liberals rightly perceive libertarians as no threat. But a lot of Tea Partiers are libertarian, and we know how liberals feel about them.)

Now, there's always been a grain of truth to the argument that libertarians really just want to engage in whatever vice they're saying the government shouldn't be meddling in. Some libertarians do just want to smoke their dope in peace, in-between whoring around and playing online poker with their winnings from their stock portfolio.

Whoops. See what I did there? Conservatives get all uptight because libertarians don't want the awesome power of the state used to shoot someone 71 times while "liberals" get all uptight because libertarians want to let people do what they want with their money. One says "How dare you do what you want with your body!" while the other says "How dare you do what you want with...", well, actually, anything at this point. Your body, your money, all your property—all of this is fair game to the modern "liberal". (I keep putting "liberal" in quotes because, remember, our Founding Fathers were all liberals back when the word meant libertarian. Co-opting the word "liberal" was the greatest trick the communists ever pulled.)

But let me get back to Zo, here. His next argument seems to be that you can't legalize drugs, prostitution and abortion without an entitlement society. There's no doubt that the two go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways, but it's the entitlement that makes destructive lifestyles not only possible but not even particularly unpleasant (financially).

This is where his argument really falls apart. What he (and other social conservatives) tells us is "Government is terribly ineffective in the economic arena, but it's oh-so-important in the social arena." Both are indefensible positions. One reason that social conservatives need to start (and are, in fact) trending more libertarian is because the government actively undermines their positions.

Government power cannot be used to strengthen the values that so-cons love, because government power is inherently self-serving, and the government hates the competition that socially conservative values rest on. Government is pro-abortion, anti-religion, anti-family, pro-casual-sex, pro-euthanasia, anti-culture, etc., etc., etc.

If conservatives don't trust the government to handle poverty, education and the economy, why on earth should they trust it to handle their most sacred values? (Conservatives actually did trust the government with education, long ago, and look how well that worked out.)

The exact same powers used to enforce conservative morality are used to justify "liberal" views of morality. Huckabee is much hated by some conservatives because of his fat kid initiatives when he was governor. But there was nothing illogical about what he did. If you start from the premise that the state must pay for children's health care, the logical conclusion is that the state must also have the power to dictate the activities of those children that impact their health. (That is, all of them.)

 Is Huckabee a conservative? Why is it okay to regulate temperance and lust but not avarice and gluttony?

There are more bad arguments, but see if you can connect the thematic tie between Zo's arguments and most "liberals'":

  • We're going to have to have more government intrusion, he argues, to enforce alimony and child support with all the broken families. Well, no, the Libertarian solution would be "You made a bad choice with whom you chose to have a child with. Deal with it."
  • "To a libertarian, real freedom means being able to use drugs if you want to. Really?" He goes on to explain how awful drug dependence is (and says that alcohol is bad enough). Well, yeah, Zo: Really! The libertraian argument isn't that "drugs are good" it's that "government is bad". 
  • The black market, he says, won't go away, it'll just target minors. Honestly, the true libertarian argument here is: That's why they have parents. But assuming that's too extreme, he doesn't explain why it wouldn't be easier for drug enforcement wouldn't be easier if the various agencies involved only concerned themselves with minors. (I did smile at his notion that rich kids are "ripe for the pickin'". Sorry, dude, I grew up around rich kids and they never had any trouble getting drugs and never, ever, ever got into legal trouble.)
  • Weirder, he then says these drugged out kids are going to want abortions paid for by the state. Well, they wouldn't go looking for it if it weren't possible to get them, Zo. (Also, being pro-life is not necessarily incompatible with libertarianism.)

Did you see it? Fiscal conservatives argue that people need the freedom to fail economically. Businesses need to fail. People need poverty as a motivation to improve their lots in life. Propping up bad ideas smothers good ideas.

This is no difference socially. People need to have the freedom to fail with their lives. (This is where social conservatives come in, as I'll explain at the end.) Trying to protect people from their failures also limits their possibility to succeed—and in the case of social issues, grants the government near omnipotence.

In the end, Zo conflates thinking drug use is good with wanting to decriminalize drug use which is exactly like "liberals" conflating conservatives objection to social programs to conservatives being for the problems those programs are meant to solve. Against Social Security and Medicare? You hate old, sick and disabled people. Against welfare? You want widows (these days "single mothers" as if that were a condition visited on women randomly) and orphans to die.

I know that some libertarians posit that the country would magically become nearly utopian if government got out of all of our lives. They even point to the first century of this country's existence as proof that you don't need all these vice-laws and their attendant limitations on freedom.

In reality, the truth is that removing the various vice-laws would cause an uptick in the various bad behaviors they're meant to restrict. How big, nobody knows (and some data seems to suggest it might eventually go down, even, in some situations).

There can be no doubt, the removal of the various nanny policies—and I'm including the left's economic programs and the right's morality programs—would have bad consequences. Poor people would be worse off. Some people would use drugs and ruin their lives. Exploitation. Sorrow. Despair.

But that's what we have now! With a bonus that we get massive government intrusion into all of our lives. Poor people are trapped by welfare. Drug addicts are not only trapped by drugs, they might get thrown in jail for good measure. Divorce rates are enormous and somehow I'm unconvinced that legalizing prostitution would be a huge factor (free sex has never been easier to get).

Point is, while it would be worse for some, it would be better for most, because we would have the autonomy our Founding Fathers fought for.

It's not that simple, of course: The Founding Fathers had a common, fairly rigid culture to conform to. A culture that valued honor, diligence, frugality, family, God and community. What we have now is a repressive government combined with a licentious culture—which is not a recipe for survival.

Traditional values are extremely important for our survival, but social cons should note how badly it works out when the government tries to enforce them. Social cons should also note, as Zo does, that the current "anything goes" point-of-view of the culture is highly destructive, and present their alternatives in that arena.

Not the government. The society. Social conservatives need to forge the bonds that tied us together in the past—and you can't do that with laws, even if you could get the laws passed.

I've heard that kids today are having lower divorce rates than their parents. Why? Because they come from broken homes or have seen what broken homes did to their friends. I know people who swore off drugs (or alcohol, for that matter) when they saw what it did to their loved ones.

People can observe. They can learn.

What social conservatives have to realize is that the government is not their friend, and the libertarian point-of-view prevents the government from working against them—and the government will always end up working against them. A lot of groups and individuals think they can master the power of the state, but it can't be tamed—it must be minimized.


  1. Cannot find a single thing here that I would dispute. Nicely done.

  2. Great blog. I agree with most of it, especially where you're explaining the difference between conservatives and Libertarians.

    Where I differ is that I consider myself to be pro-vice and also a social conservative, mostly because I'm strongly anti-abortion. You equivocate a little there but that is the main thing people mean when they say "social issues". That and the Marriage issue. I'm also a one man one woman marriage person but pro- civil unions. The libertarian position would be to have the government completely out of marriage and most Libertarians are pro-choice.

    The main reason I'm not Libertarian, aside from not agreeing with their isolationist foreign policy is because of Children. I completely agree that adults need to fail and learn their own lessons, but children should be protected and given a chance. The government can't micro manage parenting but they can outlaw abuse and murder of children and they can try to encourage better behavior.

    Strong restrictions on abortion help protect innocent children. Laws against abuse and incest also protect children. Encouraging marriage helps more children have a better environment to grow up in and keeping hard drug addicts away from children is also desirable.

    I differ from most social conservatives in that I believe more in rewarding good behavior through tax breaks etc... rather than punishing for bad.

    If drugs and prostitution were legal, I'd want LOTS of regulation on them. Much more regulation than on normal businesses.

    All of society benefits when we have some common points of decency that are agreed upon. For example, people who never have kids benefit from living in an area that has good schools because they live in a better community with less crime and higher home values.

    I definitely think that the government does have a roll to play in social issues. I'd do it slightly different than it's done now, but I don't want to live in a Mad Max world (except for the Mel Gibson part - oh wait!).

  3. Very,very well written! Thanks for this.

  4. Hey where is the review of "The Hangover 2"

  5. Sue--

    That's worthy of its own response. I'm not going to disagree, exactly, but you do lay out the main point of contention between libertarian and (social) conservative thought.

    And the question is--well, I'm gonna address part of it in the next post.

  6. This is a very interesting post. All I would add to the main point is that we should distinguish between having government start doing new things, and continuing to perform traditional roles. As a general matter, I agree that government should not be used to enforce new SoCon fads, but it does not follow from that that we should also remove government from the spheres of regulation it already and traditionally occupies, such as by deregulating prostitution and so on. The real zone of turbulence is when an issue eludes easy categorization. For instance: Government traditionally banned abortion, but for thirty-odd years, government has been forbidden to do so. Thus, would a return to the status quo ante count as new regulation or merely a resumption of the traditional state activity? Another: Government has traditionally had a hand in marriage, so does refusing to recognize homosexual marriage qualify as a refusal to expand the government's traditional activity in the field, or does it amount to a new regulation?

    One observation to make. You've never met a libertarian masquerading as a conservative, but I have. As you point out, a lot of tea partiers are actually libertarians, but the tea parties generally claim to be representing grass-roots conservative values; the results can be surprising. I can give you a recent example. Conservatives favor law and order, and since at least the 1960s, curbing the expansion of criminal rights by activist judges has featured prominently in conservative campaigns. (Thus, cases like United States v. Leon and its progeny, which punched a gaping hole in the Warren Court-created exclusionary rule, are paradigmatically conservative cases.) Recently, Indiana's supreme court handed down a case that should have had conservatives cheering: It was a law-and-order result that protected the police against physical violence by arrestees, it was decided over the dissent of the court's most liberal justice, and it infuriated the ACLU. Tea Party types went apeshit. And that's fine: Just as I understand why liberals want pro-defendant rulings, I understand why libertarians do. It was a bit much, however, to have extremely heated invective (up to and including accusations of treason) fired at me by self-proclaimed conservatives (libertarians, in fact) when it was in fact their position that was a novel departure from the conservative position.

  7. Simon,

    Just wanted to say that's an excellent crystallization of the conservative viewpoint (and also why I'm not a conservative).


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.