Conservatives and Libertarians

I am a conservative, but consider myself to be very close to a small-l libertarian. Whatever the theoretical differences between these viewpoints, I think that in contemporary America two practical distinctions are fundamental. The first relates to the limits, and the second to the purpose, of libertarian policies.

Bill Buckley got to the essence of the first distinction 25 years ago in an interview with Reason magazine in which he said that he “shares about 90 percent of the views of most libertarians”:

Now if, for instance, a society feels that its attachment to that society is substantially vitiated in virtue of the toleration, let’s say, of a movie based on a comedy treatment of Dachau, it tends to lose self-esteem. And to the extent that it loses self-esteem, it stands in danger of reducing that which is its principal resource in matters of emergency. An America that hates itself cannot possibly defend itself against the Soviet Union or anybody else.

…I’m talking about morale. A morale is not the kind of stuff you see at a football game. I’m talking about a morale in the sense of urging you or me voluntarily to make sacrifices for the survival of something we cherish. Now if we don’t cherish it, then we’re not disposed to make any sacrifices.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, but enemies spring eternal, and if we alienate the affections of our own society we will be unable to defend ourselves. Until the world settles into an endless commercial peace, we must accept some limits on lifestyle and economic freedoms in order to retain the social cohesion necessary to meet inevitable external threats.

Unfortunately, I can’t rely on Bill Buckley’s eloquence to delineate what I believe to be the second key distinction, namely the Libertarian movement’s misapplication of libertarian ideas.

A central insight of Hayek, Popper & Co. was that our ignorance of human society runs deep. We need the experimentation of an open society not only because different people often want different things, but even more importantly because we’re never sure what works. I generally support, for example, a high degree of legal toleration of behavior that I find personally objectionable. I recognize, though, that others believe that what I think should be tolerated goes too far and threatens social cohesion, or what Buckley called morale. How do we resolve this impasse?

The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of contemporary Libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people for this moment in time, but wrong for others or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules.

Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.

We live in an imperfect world. Ironically, given the deeply anti-utopian orientation of Hayek and Popper, contemporary Libertarianism has veered off into increasingly utopian speculations disconnected from the practical realities that ought to animate it. At the same time, the Conservative movement has become increasingly ideological about enforcing moral norms. Both could learn a lot from re-engaging with one another.

(cross-posted at The Corner)