Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Conservatism vs. Libertarianism

“If Congress can regulate this (private use of marijuana) under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.” 
-- Justice Clarence Thomas
Lately a lot of people are identifying themselves as conservative/libertarian or some similar formulation.  Me included.  Hardcore libertarians scoff at such notions.  Modern-day conservatism is only slightly less repellent to a libertarian than the bald-faced thievery of liberalism.

How do you want your statism, Republican or Democrat?

Despite rubbing shoulders at tea parties, there is an inherent tension between conservatives and libertarians. 

Here is the crux:  Conservatives and liberals in the political arena are merely two flavors of statism.

Property rights is a key concept of libertarianism
You and your possessions are your own property and no one, not even a government, can tell you what to do with them so long as you are not harming others.  This stems from an understanding of Natural Law.  For a pretty good explanation, read this short article:  A Society of Criminals.

Republicans, like Democrats, use the coercive power of the federal government to violate our natural rights

The founders established the the Federal Government to guard our God-given liberties.  Reading The Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, will give you a good idea of what a government based upon natural law looks like. 

Republicans and Democrats have turned it upside down
In their world, your rights come from them (to own a gun, to get married, spend money on political campaigns).  The state can confiscate your property and give it to others (redistribution via taxation).  And the state can criminalize your private activities (drug use, sodomy, distilling spirits, starting a church in your home).  All fundamental violations of natural law.

Constitutional Conservatism

Jacob Sullum laments that constitutional conservatism is still just a theory...
Yet conservatives ... tend to forget their principles when they hold the reins of power. The most conspicuous signatories of the Mount Vernon Statement include several conservatives who are famous for using the federal government to advance their moral agendas, even when there is no constitutional authority for such crusades.

When Congress sought to stop people from drinking, it recognized that amending the Constitution was the only legitimate route. Nowadays it does not hesitate to suppress vice and compel virtue, at best throwing in a boilerplate reference to interstate commerce by way of justification. 

By enlisting the federal government in their moral crusades, conservatives [...] sanction the idea that the federal government can do whatever the Constitution does not explicitly forbid, as opposed to the Framers’ vision of a federal government that can do only what the Constitution explicitly allows.
Human laws not rooted in natural law are a capricious form of control and a violation of fundamental human rights

This is especially true today; our US body of law has reached such a critical mass that the people can't begin to comprehend it all.  More insidiously, government manipulators can selectively enforced these incomprehensible statutes, producing a coercive system of reward and punishment.
In the eyes of a libertarian, a conservative who cannot restrain himself from using the power of the federal government for his own extra-constitutional agenda is no better than a liberal.


Fredd said...

I am loathe to disagree with you, Silverfiddle, but here goes:

Libertarians and libertarianism's basic rub with me is that they leave precious little room for morality in many cases. Their screed is 'if your behavior does not harm your neighbor, it's nobody's business,' or something very near this sentiment.

Post the 10 Commandments, and libertarians will disagree with 7 of them:

1. Thou shalt worhip no other God than me: nope, nobody's business whom anyone should worship according to libertarians.

2. Thou shalt make no graven images: nope, since nobody is harmed in anyone making graven images, libertarians will blow this one off.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain: no again, taking the Lord's name in vain harms nobody.

4. Thou shalt not break the Sabbath: again, nope. Libertarians disagree that anyone should be prohibited from working on any day they choose, as long as nobody is harmed.

5. Honor thy father and mother: Yet again, libertarians would blow this one off, no harm in disparaging mom or dad, since its a family thing and of no consequence to society at large.

6. Thou shalt not murder. Finally, a Commandment that the amoral libertarians can follow.

7. Thou shalt no commit adultery: libertarians would probably argue that if no one found out about the affair, nobody is harmed, and they would likely blow this one off as well.

8. Thou shalt not steal: another one that libertarians would agree with, as stealing certainly harms the victims of theft.

9. Thou shalt not commit perjury: two in a row that libertarians agree with, rather rare, but since perjury certainly harms the perjured, this one is OK.

10. Thou shalt not covet: coveting is fine with libertarians, as long as they don't act on their desires and commit theft (one of the three commandments libertarians agree with).

There is a place in our society for moral behavior, and giving the power to the government to enforce morality is not tyranny, it's good government. Of course, when judgement calls are made in the name of morality, and they encroach on reasonable liberties, then society has a responsibility to remove from power those whose judgement is shaky.


Christopher - Conservative Perspective said...


I tend to agree with your position as laid out and each could be expanded on further as to leading to 'harming others' or society as a whole down the line if left unfettered.


I would agree there are indeed statists in both parties and even desscriptions but see them emanating more from democrat/liberal/republican camps rather than conservative. Never the less this is why we need new blood on Capitol Hill.

Leticia said...

To some degree I can support a libertarian, but I cannot condone the hippie mentality that rejects culture and traditionalism.

Snarky Basterd said...

Yeah ... and Ron Paul would be the perfect pResident to have during a global war with Islam.

I'm going to have to disagree with you and say that RINOs are Statists, but Conservatives are Constitutionalists (at least the real ones are).

Me? I'm a friggin' Democratic-Republican.

Finntann said...

Fredd, you're scaring me. As a conservative, a Christian, and a libertarian it would seem to me from your example that the only acceptable morality is yours or your interpretation of it. This is the realm of despots and fanatics. It is interesting that you chose to use the 10 commandments as your basis to condemn libertarianism, for I as both a Christian and libertarian support and believe in them, however would not, nor do I believe the founding fathers would (for they had the opportunity) advocate for them being cast as federal law.

Who's interpretation of graven image do you use? Would you ban Eastern Orthodox iconography? Or is that okay? Are you so puritanical as to ban the crucifix like some of our Islamic brethren?

Nor as Leticia said do I "condone a hippie mentality that rejects culture and traditionalism". Honestly I would say that perspective is more of a 'political correctness' which devalues the cultural traditions of western civilization upon which our great society is based.

Like Republicans and Democrats, Liberatarians range widely across the political spectrum from minarchists to anarchists to constitutionalists. I think if you examine them closely our founding fathers were more libertarian than anything even faintly resembling either the modern Republican or Democratic parties.

If you are curious about what a conservative libertarian-republicanism is all about, check out the Republican Liberty Caucus site, particularly the Statement of Principles and Positions at RLC dot org

I have to say Silverfiddle hit the nail on the head with this one.


Silverfiddle said...

Thanks for the assist, Finn. Fredd is good people, as are all our fellow conservative bloggers.

Fredd: As Finn asked, who's morality? What if Muslims gained a plurality and pushed their morality?

A more libertarian government as laid out in the constitution is very hospitable to traditional values and even Christianity.

"Congress shall make no law ..."

It's a free marketplace of ideas! A truly constitutional government would tell the ACLU to go to hell when they tried to shut down a valedictorian for invoking God in her speech. It's her right!

And I am quite confident God can survive without help from the government. Indeed history suggests that government getting in bed with religion spells the demise of the latter, and sometimes the former.

"Render unto God that which is God's Render unto Caesar..."

Fredd said...

Finn: I think my comment stands and speaks for itself, as I knew that libertarians would chafe: libertarians don't like the Ten Commandments, but the rest of us are OK with them. The libertarian conservatives are the ones that are costing the GOP majorities. 'Rockefeller Republicans' currently rule the roost, but us 'Bible Thumpers' still insist on some Christian morality in the party, and let the chips fall where they may.

Silver: our founding fathers were Christian, and based our founding on its morals. Their morals our OUR morals. It's who we are, and Islam will never prevail in America.

Silverfiddle said...

@Fred: "our founding fathers were Christian, and based our founding on its morals. Their morals our OUR morals. It's who we are, and Islam will never prevail in America."

I agree with every word you said. Finntann has a point: The founders had a chance to cast these belief as federal law and chose not to.

The Constitution is actually based upon Lockean natural law, which accommodates agnostics, atheists, deists, Christians, Jews...

It recognizes our rights transcend any man or group of men, regardless of where you think they come from. The vast majority of our founders believed they came from God and were Christian, but chose not to form the republic so narrowly.

Having said that, they would be appalled at how the feral government has unconstitutionally shut down the free expression of Christianity at every turn.

I firmly believe that given an even playing field (or even uneven) Christianity prevails every time.

Finntann said...

Silverfiddle is absolutely correct, the federal government has no business in religion, for or against. The problem lately is that many perceive freedom of religion to be freedom from religion.

That I choose to follow the 10 commandments does not give me the right to enforce "you shall have no other gods before me", who gets to decide what is 'another god' and while we are at it...which version of the bible shall we use? which interpretation? who gets to decide? you? Shall we persecute the Hindus, the Moslems, or the Jews? Or given the ever increasing numbers of Hispanic Catholics, the Protestants, Baptists, Methodists, or Mormans...well you ought to be getting my point by now.

Yeah..the Libertarian Conservatives are costing the GOP majorities...yeah right...all those middle of the road folks are flocking to the DNC because of Libertarians? If you want my honest assessment, the GOP is losing majorities because the Fundamentalist Christian Right scares the hell out of them.

I am all for morality and ethics in government, there is a common ground that we can forge that accomodates a wide variety of beliefs. Libertarianism is not in conflict with morals or religion. The founding fathers recognized that the free practice of religion from Puritan New England to Quaker Pennsylvania, to Catholic Maryland, was essential to the proper functioning of the Republic. They managed to reconcile that which in Europe wars had been fought over for centuries.

Believe it or not, Muslims are not our enemies...those who oppose the free practice of religion, those who seek to impose their beliefs on others are. Religion at the point of a sword or by federal law has more in common with those we are fighting against than our Judeo-Christian and Deist founding fathers.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!!! Fetch the COMFY CHAIR!!!


WomanHonorThyself said...

our US body of law has reached such a critical mass that the people can't begin to comprehend it all...amen my friend..!

Silverfiddle said...

To beat a dead horse...

"Rockefeller republicans" are our problem, but that crowd is definitely NOT libertarian. They are progressive, exactly what I talk about in this post.

Jay Henderson said...

Fredd obviously confuses "morality" with "government mandate." As in, if you don't want The State to enforce a moral principal, you are amoral. Let's review: our Founding Fathers were mostly Christians who knowingly set up a secular state. Lesson there. The Founders manifestly did NOT intend that The State enforce the Ten Commandments.

From a libertarian perspective:

1. The State shall not determine any person's object of worship.

2. The State shall neither make graven images, or reward or punish any person for making graven images.

3. The State shall not reward or punish any person for taking the Lord's name in vain.

4. The State shall not reward or punish any person for observing the Sabbath. By the way, very few Christians observe the Sabbath; they attend church on the Lord's Day instead.

5. The State shall not reward or punish any person for failing to honor their father or mother.

To be continued . . .

Jay Henderson said...

. . . continued.

6. The State should punish a person who murders, or attempts to murder, another person; such action by the State tends to preserve individual liberty and the rights to life and the pursuit of happiness.

7. The State should not reward or punish any person for having committed adultery. Rape, yes; pederastry, yes; consensual sex, no. Citizens have a right to privacy which The State should not violate as long as citizens do not harm each other.

8. The State should punish theft. such action by the State tends to preserve individual liberty and the right to own property.

9. The State should punish perjury because it impairs the right of citizens to resort to the court system to protect their rights to life, liberty, and property.

10. The State should not punish anyone for coveting or other thoughts not acted on. No thought police!

Fredd is wrong to conclude that libertarians agree with only three commandments. Most of us agree with ALL of them, and many of us actually practice them, rather than criticizing others for not wanting The State to enforce morality.

The problem with having The State enforce morality is that eventually it becomes arbitrary, Puritanical (i.e., alcohol and drug prohibition laws), and oppressive. You can't guarantee that The State will enforce your version of morality and in practice . . . well, just look.

Fredd said...

Thanks, Jay. I stand corrected. My only point was that libertarians often downplay morality. No, they don't throw morals (or 'family values' as I like to call them ) under the bus, but they do not emphasize them. I did not mean to say that the GOP should jam the 10 Commandments down our throats and provide legislation to punish and imprison violators of any of the commandments as determined by the state, that's ridiculous. Other than the obvious Three Commandments, of course (murder, theft and perjury).

Libertarians (or as Michael Medved astutely calls them 'Loser-tarians'), when asked the simple question: do you agree that the 10 Commandments are important in defining our republic?', they will hem and haw about the utopian aspects of each Commandment and how it affect our freedoms.

It's like bad mouthing Mother Theresa or Mom's apple pie when you don't stand up for the 10 Commandments. Sure, there's lots of semantics to quibble about since they were written about 3,000 years ago or so, but any GOP conservative, when asked the same question will stand with them, but will certainly state that they will not put a bill in front of the House that will fine or imprison the maker of a 'graven image', for example. To take it to that length is ludicrous, and to suggest that anyone (specifically dumb ol' Fredd) is saying that this is the logical conclusion of the 1st commandment is simply a strawman argument to be immediately dismissed by any reasonble person.

In closing, libertarianism as a philosphy is fine, I have no beefs with their philosophy as I agree with a lot of it, most of it in fact. But as a political movement Libertarians (with a capital L) are damaging to gaining conservative majorities in Congress; they align themselves with the conservative platform and siphon off genuine GOP votes for hopeless pie in the sky utopian libertarian candidates that have never won even close to a plurality of any election.

Jay Henderson said...

Fredd: There is a difference between "libertarians," small "l", and "Libertarians," members of the Libertarian Party. Libertarianism is a philosophical movement with a political aspect. Many, and perhaps most, libertarians don't think there should be a Libertarian Party. I am a small-l libertarian.

The serious damage done to the Republican Party over the past decade was entirely self-inflicted. The Republicans' current pretensions of doctrinal purity will not change or help that fact; the Republican Party is not "conservative" so much as it is the right wing of American Statism.

Finntann said...

I too am a small "l" libertartian, which is one of the reasons I referred you to the Republican Liberty Caucus instead of the Libertarian party.

To answer Michael Medved's question, as a little "l" libertarian I would say that yes the 10 commandmants are important in defining our republic, I do not object to them being posted in or on public buildings including courthouses or courtrooms. That is partly what I was talking about when I said many people confuse freedom of religion with freedom from religion.

This, like it or not, is a Western nation, based upon not only the Judeo-Christian principles of recent history, but western ideals, principles, and thought going back through ancient Rome and Greece into antiquity. To twist and warp our principals to the point at which you say the government can install foot wash basins in public buildings for Muslims but you can't install depictions of the Judeo-Christian legal principals (i.e the 10 commandmants among many others)this country was founded on is absurd.



KOOK said...

I see myself becoming more Libertarian all the time and the reason is this:

If I desire to force my concept of "morality" for instance on someone else, I must be willing to concede that they could in turn do this to me on another issue.

This concept is moderated by the Prime Directive of LIbertarian Rights : your rigths stop at the other person's nose. You cannot harm another in your exercise of your rights.

I eat meat, I want my right to eat meat protected; Others do not eat meat, I want their right to not eat meat protected. I vociferously condemn their schemes to outlaw my eating of meat, and their attempts to program MY kids to their way of thinking; but the reverse is also true. They have a right to be vegans, just not to force me to be vegan. Don't tread on me; I won't tread on you.

Anonymous said...


Your comments are surprising. I'm not sure which libertarians you are paying attention to, but most are hardcore moral realists. Probably the most common general argument for libertarianism is that if we judge people within the state by the same moral standards we apply to everyone else, most of what non-libertarians want governments to do is immoral. E.g. If I, as a private citizen, printed money for the sake of manipulating the bond market, imposed a price control on a transaction between consenting adults or hired a prostitute under false pretenses and locked her in a cage against her will for 90 days, almost everyone would see my actions as immoral. And yet most non-libertarians talk as if the same behaviors are morally acceptable when the person doing those things is acting on behalf of a government. I don't see how anyone who believes that there is one true morality for all men in all times and places can resolve this disconnect.

Of course there is also the practical concern that for centuries every government that has ever existed has had the power to interfere in the activities of consenting adults, but it has been vanishingly rare that governments have used this power in the ways that *you* want them to. Almost 100% of the time, when governments have had the powers that you think a government should have, they did not use those powers in ways that were compatible with your priorities. Unless you have some compelling reason to expect a future exception to a centuries old tendency with approximately zero past exceptions, it's inconsistent with your priorities to favor a government with any power beyond the extent generally recommended by libertarians.

(Caveat: I'm assuming that your priorities are fairly similar to those expressed by most Christian conservatives.)

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