This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. One commenter from an earlier post said, in part:
While I believe in liberty as much as anyone, I do not consider myself a libertarian. I do not call myself a conservative either (I refer myself as a traditionalist) because I do not agree with much of what goes by the name “conservatism” these days.This seems to be a common complaint. I’ve even said before about libertarianism that “I do not like to use the term because ‘libertarian’ has such varied meanings in today’s political culture.” Why is it people are so shy of these labels? It is because our modern political society interprets the labels not as philosophical traditions that are elements of our worldviews, but a set of very specific public policy prescriptions, candidates and personalities with which we obviously must agree. If one says they are conservative, what someone could think is that they have a worldview that favors a smaller government with an emphasis on inalienable rights in the tradition of people like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and Edmund Burke, tempered by the need for individual virtues such as honesty, civility, prudence and industry, which as Adam Smith believed, can only fully be developed by freer markets. What people actually think when one labels themselves conservative is that they probably listen to Rush Limbaugh, like Sarah Palin, quote Ronald Reagan, vote straight-ticket Republican, and don’t want anyone touching their guns or pay checks. They assume to know how a conservative is going to vote, what a conservative is going to say, and while they may guess correctly on particular cases, they fail to understand or appreciate the deeper philosophy that informs those positions. Similarly, if one says they are libertarian, what someone could think is that they have a worldview that favors beginning with free markets, placing an emphasis on increased individual action and responsibility in the tradition of people like Frederic Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Haslett, and likely values natural rights as understood by people like John Stuart Mill and even Ayn Rand. What people actually think when one labels themselves libertarian is that they probably do drugs, they rabidly support Ron Paul, and they are antisocial isolationists who think America’s foreign policy should mirror their social lives. They assume that libertarians would rather be contrarians and not actively engage the political process. While they may guess correctly on particular cases, they again fail to understand or appreciate the deeper philosophy that informs those positions. When people are actively engaged to the point that they care about the differences between conservatives and libertarians, they are probably thinking of the first definitions. They probably recognize the leading philosophers, and can appreciate the similarities and differences between conservatives and libertarians. Most people do not fit into this category though. Most people will make assumptions based on labels. This, in my opinion, has greatly damaged the debate about conservatism and libertarianism. While we want to talk about how conservatives and libertarians treat Jeffersonian philosophy or the morality of taxation or trade policy, the rest of the political community looks at us and says, “but conservatives like Sarah Palin and libertarians like Ron Paul.” Conservatives and libertarians both need to focus on defining our philosophies by our masthead ideas, and not simply our standard-bearers before the labels make our debate irrelevant.