Opinion

Why the libertarian boom is bad for traditional conservatives

Conservatives and libertarians often get lumped together. But we're not the same.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist argues that libertarians own the future. In his column, Norquist highlights "the once-impossible political shifts that have taken place over the past 30 years" and observes that the "relevant dividing line" is no longer "right versus left or Republican versus Democrat but the expansion of individual liberty versus whatever and whosoever stands in the way."

As evidence of these political shifts on individual liberty issues, Norquist cites homeschooling, gay marriage, defense of the second amendment, and marijuana legalization — all formerly controversial topics that have gone mainstream relatively recently. He makes a compelling case.

Now, it's important to note that Norquist isn't touting a move toward uppercase Libertarianism, but rather, lowercase libertarianism. It's not that people are consciously identifying as Libertarians. The Libertarian Party will remain as hopeless as ever. Instead, the idea is that the major political parties have essentially co-opted libertarian-friendly positions, which is a win for the philosophy. As Nate Silver noted a few years ago, "There have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views."

At first blush, this sounds like a positive development for the right. If it's true that the nation hasn't gotten more liberal, just more libertarian, my fellow conservatives and I ought to celebrate, right? Wrong.

Conservatism and libertarianism are not the same. There are obvious differences on hot-button issues like military intervention (libertarians tend to oppose it while many conservatives tend to favor a robust U.S. military) and immigration reform (libertarians want borders that are a whole lot more open than what conservatives prefer). And there's also the ever-present tension between freedom and virtue, between order and liberty.

Libertarians are full steam in favor of individual-liberty issues like gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization. And while not every conservative thinks these things will be the downfall of Western civilization, we do worry that emphasizing rights over responsibility and radical individualism over community might have unintended consequences. As I wrote at Politics Daily in 2011 (desktop only),

Traditional conservatives believe the rise and success of Western society was not merely a lucky accident...but rather the product of diligent work, trial and error, and human experience — and in many ways the result of Christian civilization.

...Benjamin Wiker, an author and Catholic ethicist, asserts that "libertarianism is parasitic upon Christian civilization." He means that libertarians take for granted the social order of our current society but ignore the moral foundations of that social order. This order is the product of the accumulated moral wisdom of society — a bond that is not immune to being destroyed when we become unmoored from these traditional values.

Many conservatives derive their political ideology from their faith. That can make it tricky to quickly articulate. Many liberals and libertarians, on the other hand, can explain any position based on a few words, such as "equality" and "freedom." It is dramatically more difficult to explain unintended consequences — to warn that slowly chipping away at our nation's moral foundation might, over the course of years or even centuries, undermine freedom and equality in the long run.

We're all fighting for as much equality and freedom as we can safely preserve. We just disagree about how much is too much. As historian Christopher Lasch noted, to some degree, "liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism." The same applies to today's libertarian ethos. And the question is this: How long can we continue? The answer is most definitely not forever.

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