Conservatives and libertarians should be natural allies but often find themselves at odds with each other. While agreeing on most liberty issues, small government, low taxes, etc. they clash on moral issues. Libertarians often seem to be left-wing libertarian, not exactly disguised liberalism but too close for comfort. The news that many Democrats are voting for Ron Paul in open Republican primaries, along with Ron Paul’s absolute nutty ideas on foreign policy, reinforces that perception.
Libertarians see conservatives as wanting to legislate morality. To be fair, it must be admitted there are conservatives who fit that description. But they are a minority and lack the power to make their desires a reality. The perception that Republicans and especially conservatives want to legislate morality is driven not by facts but by political propaganda of the Democrats and their allies in the media. At present the alliance between the media and the Democrats is trying to convince Americans that conservatives and Republicans in general want to outlaw contraception, a claim so ridiculous conservatives run the risk of making the erroneous assumption that the public is too smart to fall for it. It takes a large amount of gullible credulity to believe that opposing a mandate on some people to pay for other people’s birth control devices is tantamount to outlawing contraceptives, but if Republicans assume the public is not so credulous they may fail to properly respond to this absurd claim.
The truth is that today’s conservatives believe that individual liberty and traditional morality are the necessary conditions for human happiness to flourish, but that matters of personal morality should not have the force and effect of prohibitive law. While most would agree adultery is immoral only a fool would want a law against it. On just about every purely moral issue conservatives understand the folly of legislation as the means to promote it.
I understood this principle as a college freshman upon first reading these words from Milton’s Areopagitica, written in 1644:
Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work. If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could then be due to well-doing, what gramercy to be sober, just or continent?
Many there be that complain of Divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress; foolish tongues! When God gave him reason he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing.
Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue? They are not skillful considerers of human beings who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin…
In an attempt to reconcile for myself the difference and conflict between conservatism and libertarianism I usually say I agree with libertarians 80% of the time, but the other 20% of what they believe is disgusting. It is disgusting they do not agree with Milton, that “Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth.” Milton preached against legislation, but was agreeable to the concept of “persuasion alone.” Persuasion is not punitive. No one is forced to agree to be persuaded. It is their own conscience, if anything, that may apply force.
Unlike Milton, libertarians are not satisfied with persuasion against vice and in favor of virtue, they consider mere persuasion, even by example it seems, every bit as loathsome as legal prohibition. If libertarians support liberty it too often is the opposite of ordered liberty and closer to anarchy. They seem bent on tearing down the moral structure of society with their calls for open borders, gay marriage, illicit drugs, abortion on demand as just another form of birth control, and their apparent desire to leave the country exposed to terrorism and other forms of aggression from foreign enemies. Would libertarians have ended slavery? I doubt it.
Libertarian Conservatism is as close as I can get to Libertarianism, and there’s still that nagging distrust that one might have of a blood relative with a criminal record. Timothy Carney in his column today at the Washington Examiner, offeres a simple, and to my mind, brilliant way out of this dilemma. He says, “the moral law should guide our personal actions, and individual liberty should guide our political decisions.” Those few words would solve it completely for me. Libertarians have been saying something that might seem to be similar or even identical to some, but it is in fact entirely the opposite. Libertarian belief would be more accurately stated this way: “Your moral principles are entirely your own and personal, don’t even think of trying to impose them on anyone else.” This way of looking at traditional morality negates it entirely. In the libertarian realm as stated this way there simply is no such thing as traditional morality, no moral principles we all agree on, and persuasion is not benign. Persuasion is just an another attempt to impose your personal morality on others.
If libertarians would adopt Carney’s statement the conflict between conservatism and libertarianism would disappear. Dan Mitchell calls Carney’s statement, Carney’s Fusionist Theorem.