Thursday, October 8, 2009

Conservatives & Libertarians

One of the questions of political theory bugging me a lot lately is the compatibility (or incompatibility) of conservatism and libertarianism. This is of particular interest to me because I consider myself a conservative, but conservatives and libertarians generally get lumped together in America as "the right" or "the Republican party." This classification isn't completely inaccurate, of course. For example I belong to a student group that advertises itself as "conservative/libertarian." However, this classification does tend to obscure some fundamental differences between the two groups.

So, what are these differences? Well, that's one of those big questions that gets very complicated very fast. Nevertheless, Hunter Baker, writing at First Things, has managed to put together a relatively concise, and I think quite accurate, summary of the main differences between conservatives and libertarians. In other words, follow that link and read the article for yourself!

But, if you want to cheat and get a very quick summary from me, here it is. The main difference between conservatism and libertarianism, according to Baker, is that libertarians believe that the state should exist for the limited purposes of keeping the peace and creating a legal environment in which commerce is allowed to do its thing. Conservatives, on the other hand, are essentially Aristotelian and believe that the state should enact laws that promote human flourishing in more ways than just securing peace and encouraging the economy; conservatives believe that politics has something to do with a transcendent order. This difference explains, for instance, why many (probably most) libertarians support gay "marriage": Gay "marriage" isn't a threat to peace and isn't a threat to prosperity, so why should the state forbid it? Conservatives, on the other hand, see gay "marriage" as fundamentally at odds with a broader notion of human flourishing rooted in a transcendent order, and thus can be regulated by the state.

The example of gay "marriage" also raises the question that libertarians will always ask conservatives when it comes to moral regulations: What's to stop the state from becoming a busybody poking its nose into everybody's life? Is there any line we can draw to prevent the state from becoming a moralistic tyrant? Baker doesn't raise this question, but it's worth considering for a minute.

The key distinction to make here is that the state can encourage moral behavior, but it will never be able to redeem us from sin. Any time the state crosses the line from encouraging moral behavior to attempting to redeem us from sin, it has gone beyond anything conservatives would countenance. It may not always be a clear distinction, but then again these things never are perfectly clear. The important point is that conservatives acknowledge the transcendent order, unlike libertarians, but also recognize that the transcendent order cannot be realized perfectly, unlike utopians. Or, in the immortal terminology of Eric Voegelin: Don't immanentize the eschaton!

(Finally, this essay by Russell Kirk just came to my attention. Kirk, recently discussed by Aaron, compares a coalition of conservatives and libertarians to "a union of fire and ice," and gives at least six reasons for that conclusion. Warning: Libertarians won't like it.)
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