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Conservative vs. Libertarian: A Futile Debate?

It’s no secret that the conservative-libertarian divide has become starker in recent years. Some blame Ron Paul. Others credit YouTube. But regardless of the source, the ideological disputes between the two philosophies are far from resolved. That’s what I learned at last night’s Heritage vs. Cato intern debate. Attended by hundreds of interns, the debate is quickly becoming a popular annual affair in the District, as an increasing number of people—youth especially—view libertarianism as an alternative to what’s seen by many as an increasingly liberal conservative movement.  Throughout the debate, participants addressed several topics—drug policy, foreign policy and border security. Each side also presented an apology for their philosophy in an attempt to convince the audience of their intellectual superiority. But in the end, it was not either side’s arguments that I found most convincing, but the creeping suspicion that the debate was—and is—totally futile. It had nothing to do with the format or participants—this particular debate was efficient and well-organized, and the participants were intelligent and eloquent. But without an expressed agreement on some basic first principles—something these debaters never established—neither side will ever get anywhere. This shortcoming became most apparent when the interns debated the role of government in promoting virtue. While Cato and Heritage held differing (and predictable) views on the issue, it was obvious that the two sides were not debating the same thing. Indeed, virtue was never defined, and statements about what is and is not virtuous were packed with unqualified presuppositions that the debaters seemed to expect just went without saying. But the definition of virtue is far from universal. Indeed, even the claim of prostitution as a social ill—which Heritage alleged without qualification—is disputed, especially among libertarians. Likewise, Cato’s claim that doing drugs represents an exercise of basic liberty did not address the question of whether an irrational addict is really a free person—something conservatives often deny—deserving of the right to raise children or sign a contract. Of course, I did not expect this debate to solve the conservative-libertarian dispute once and for all. But I did hope for a more thorough examination of the underlying beliefs of both political philosophies. Indeed, without examining our most foundational beliefs about life and human nature, we shouldn’t expect to solve any dispute—political or otherwise. As historian Herbert Butterfield wrote, “our interpretation of the human drama throughout the ages rests finally on our interpretation of our most private experiences of life, and stands merely as an extension to it.”