Thursday, December 26, 2013
Are libertarianism and conservatism totally different?
We occasionally see some rather poorly informed claims to the effect that libertarianism and conservatism are totally different -- e.g. an article by Walter Block here. I think therefore that a little clarification is required. The truth can be very simply put: Libertarianism is ONE ELEMENT in conservative thinking. More precisely, Libertarians and conservatives share an attachment to individual liberty.
Libertarians are in some ways like Leftists. Leftists tend to have very simple formulas for what is wrong with the world. Ask them and they will say: inequality, poverty and (more amusingly) intolerance. When you realize that leading Leftists are usually well-off and are totally intolerant of dissent, you can see how uninsightful and oversimplified leftist reasoning is. And aside from being mostly poor, libertarians are like that too. They oversimplify enormously: Get government out of the way and a new Eden will dawn.
Conservatives, on the other hand see everything as complex. They see that there can be other influences on human welfare than freedom. For instance, when a country seems threatened by foreign aggression (as Britain was in WWII) a conservative may see national security as an important consideration that may need balancing against individual liberty - hence conservative governments may introduce a whole range of "wartime measures" that reduce the liberties of citizens to some extent. Conservatives try to balance competing principles.
Another revelatory case is immigration. Since libertarians dislike governments and their restrictions, they usually favour open borders. If libertarians had their way, most of Mexico would end up in the USA. But conservatives see other issues as being involved -- such as pressure on welfare programs and other systems, and the importation of the dumb political ideologies that have kept most of the Americas South of the Rio Grande mired in poverty. What the immigrants have in their heads is important, not just the fact that they are a person. And conservatives also see it as a matter of property rights. If I have the right to say whom I will have living with me in my own home, surely groups of people (nations) also have the right to say who will live among them?
Libertarians also tend to ignore genetics. When proposing remedies for poverty, Leftists will say: "give the poor more money" while libertarians will say "Give the poor no money". Neither system will usually be practical so conservatives tend to say: "The poor ye always have with you". With no ideology to explain everything, conservatives can simply accept reality. As one of Britain's most prominent Conservatives recently said, some people are equipped mentally to do well and some are not. Leftists usually cry "racism" when genetics are mentioned so the conservative response is usually implicit rather than explicit these days. That people are born different underlies a lot of conservative thinking even though it can be risky to say that out loud.
Similarly with homosexual "marriage". Leftists see it simply as an equality issue, libertarians see it simply as a liberty issue while conservatives see it as impacting on many other things -- such as morality and the family and a general devaluation of marriage.
So conservatives try to align their thinking with the complexity of reality while libertarians have a "one size fits all" explanation and solution for all problems. Conservatives value liberty but don't think it is the answer to everything. And the only liberty Leftists value is your liberty to do what they say
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).