Right hooks, left crosses

Healy.JPGGetReligion doesn’t normally take notice of obscure right wing fisticuffs, but I’m going to make an exception because I was one of the dogs in the fight, and because the fight ended up in The Boston Globe.

On Wednesday, February 23, I took part in an America’s Future Foundation roundtable at the Fund for American Studies building. The title was “Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”

As the ad copy put it, “Arguing to keep the marriage together will be W. James Antle III of the American Conservative and Jeremy Lott of the Cato Institute. Amy Mitchell of the American Spectator and Nick Gillespie of Reason will take the side of divorce.”

The debate was moderated by colleague Gene Healy (pictured). He told me after that he had a heck of a time not jumping in.

The way Cathy Young frames it in her Monday column for the Globe, the tension on the panel was between secular, tolerant libertarians and government-boosting, finger-wagging social conservatives. That tension was there, but I believe it was not the important fault line in the debate.

In his post-debate summary, Healy noted that

In the course of debating whether conservatives and libertarians should stick together, it became clear that there was no fundamental agreement about the definitions of conservative and libertarian. In Jim Antle’s telling, a conservative is someone who champions family, faith and freedom against the forces of centralization, whether red-team or blue. I don’t think I’m being unfair to say that in Amy Mitchell’s account, it’s someone who roots, roots, roots for the red team.

Nor was there much agreement about what it means to be a libertarian among the libertarian panelists. Jeremy Lott saw no inconsistency between libertarianism and moderate social conservatism, so long as it’s not enforced by the state. Nick Gillespie, on the other hand, argued that a monomaniacal focus on the state left out some important aspects of liberalism. He rejected the notion that libertarianism could be limited to the realm of political philosophy. At one point, he noted that we were dramatically freer than we had been decades ago, because, among other things, in 1970 it was difficult for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel together. Afterwards, I wondered what the hell that had to do with libertarianism, and a friend cracked that I must have skipped the part about hot-pillow joints in Locke’s Second Treatise.

Former boss Nick Gillespie and yours truly came to blows over precisely what libertarianism is. I picked up on a statement that he had made on a television chat show recently to the effect that “Libertarianism isn’t just about government. It’s about expanding choices,” and said, Oh no it isn’t.

I insisted that libertarianism is and always has been a philosophy of government. It’s about distrusting the state and attempting to limit it, draw it back, check its excesses. I pointed out that the first entry in the book The Libertarian Reader is a selection from the Bible, where the high priest Samuel tells the people the horrible things that would come their way if they decided to have a king.

My debate partner Jim Antle insisted that, in the political arena, libertarians who chose to go it alone would be remembered as a bunch of ineffective “hipster-posers,” which drew a few laughs.

I gave myself over to the difficult task of selling social conservatives to libertarians. I argued that the “modern religious right as a mass political movement began not with Roe v. Wade but with Jimmy Carter’s ham-fisted attempts to interfere with private Christian schools.” People forget that a lot of the millions of freshly registered conservative Christian voters who put Reagan over the top in 1980 saw their collective political involvement as what we might call a “defensive action.”

I didn’t skirt difficult issues such as abortion, but I cautioned against dividing voters into economic conservatives and social conservatives. For some, such as GetReligion’s own Terry Mattingly, the division is there. But for most churchgoing, right-of-center voters, I argued,

Religious conservatives may not hold to the canons of libertarianism as laid out by Murray Rothbard or even Charles Murray, but the instincts are there. They understand the virtue of thrift and they don’t want the government to spend like a drunken Democrat either. They want a less oppressive tax burden just as much as we do. And George W. Bush would not be pursuing Social Security privatization if James Dobson and Franklin Graham objected.

So there you go. Outraged readers may now proceed to call me a selfish hedonist in the comments threads.

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  • W Harris

    When it comes to the red state side of things away from the think tanks of the Bo-Wash corridor, I think you need to add a third element, that of populism. This is the common thread that unites the social conservatives and libertarians together.

    This populism is at once anti-elitist, giving it that libertarian twinge (the pick-up truck v. the SUV if you will), and holds to “traditional values” of family, God and country — our social conservative side.

    Another side to the issue may be the non-issue of it all: organized social conservatives, or at least the Evangelical side are pretty solidly middle class, and so react pretty favorably to the moralistic economic claims (e.g. the bankruptcy legislation, tax programs etc). I suspect the key word above for me would be that of “organized” as there is plenty to suggest that the religious community may not share the same social values as some of their Evangelical leaders (see the article above on Bp Chaput).

  • Dan Crawford

    “Jimmy Carter’s ham-fisted attempt to interfere with private Christian schools” seems a rather simplistic description of what happened. Racist purposes were served by the “private” schools. You may think that they were within their “rights”, but it might have been somewhat more informative to at least suggest that there was a substantial public policy issue involved. Frankly, I think Roe v. Wade is more to the point you want to make, but if you think “private Christian schools” rings your chimes, go ahead.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    My experience with Libertarian candidates and apologists is that it is primarily an anti-authoritarian philosophy of life. Government is the Big A that most Libertarians talk about, but God, Church and Scripture are other Bigger A’s that they seem hell-bent on thumbing their noses at. Libertarianism is ultimately a celebration of human freedom with the pedal to the metal, and I don’t see much inclination or interest among Libertarians in a freedom that is placed in submission to the authority of God. In that respect, they are separated by a great gulf from God-fearing folk of any other political persuasion.

  • Stephen A.

    Having “instincts” towards liberty does not make one a Libertarian. Conservatives can work for greater freedom and lower taxation without the Libertarians’ destructive social baggage.

    I know it’s hard to generalize about libertarians (insert “herding cats” metaphor here) what with the “screw others” Randites in one corner, the gun-hoarding anti-government types in another, the pot-smokers who want to legalize sex with children in another and the “relative” moderates in yet another – all the while fiercely denying that they are in the same square box. But the fact is that Libertarianism is in no way akin to traditional conservatism.

    On the issue of definitions, they are all-important to this argument. However, like most other cults, Libertarianism muddies the waters about the true meaning of words in order to sway the orthodox. Libertarians, for example, employ word like “freedom” and “liberty” to recruit conservatives, since we generally believe that the fewer restrictions from government, the better. But of course they mean no such thing to Libertarians. They mean instead the very thing youÂ’re afraid weÂ’ll come to recognize it as: an end to all economic and social restraints in society (i.e. laws) and eventually, an end to society, replacing it with individual libertinism.

    Social conservatives will have nothing to do with promoting a lawless society – one in which all things are ‘right’ and nothing is ‘wrong’. And no amount of soothing talk about a “less oppressive tax burden” will bamboozle social conservatives into adopting that value system.

  • DK

    Is that a beer by Mr. Healy’s hand?

  • http://www.ecben.net Gillimer

    It has been a while since those days at the, uh, elbows of Chairman SEK and the other “freedom fen”, when NEW LIBERTARIAN NOTES was still NYU LIBERTARIAN NOTES. But my understanding is that the libertarian focus is not TheState, but “coercion”. (Witness the “Pledge”.) It does not matter whether “force or fraud” is coming from TheState or “private actors”.
    Of course, I now hear the ghost of John Campbell snapping “Define ‘coercion’!” There is a persistent thorn on the ReligionLaw list who posts nonsense about “coercive speech”– and apparently takes the line that “People who advocate X will not be saved” is “coercive”, but “If Bush is reelected, rape will be legal!” is not.

  • ECJ

    A man is indeed more free than he was 50 years ago – if we consider freedom to be the absense of restraint. He can desert his wife with impunity. He can abandon his children without cost. Who is there presently to call him to account? Why in fact should he be called to account in any case? Libertarianism has no answer. It has no conception of how to induce a man to behave with virtue should such behavior conflict with his self-interest.

    And does it matter? Well, let’s examine Europe where people have decided to “exercise their libertarian freedom” to not have children over the last 50 years – the better to spend their money and time on themselves. And the result is a coming demographic implosion. Europe’s birth rate started falling in the mid 50′s, crossed below replacement around 1970, and has been hovering well below ever since. In the not to distant future, we are going to observe up close one of two events 1) a real-life demonstration of what happens when economic models which presume population growth meet up with the reality of population decline or 2) the Islamisization of Europe as they import people to make up for the labor short-fall. If you want to see angst, go ask the Swedes about their opinion of the later possibility.

    Whether the marriage between conservatives and libertarians can be saved is not really relevant. There aren’t enough true libertarians to matter. But libertarian attitudes toward virtue are endemic in this culture, and if left unchecked, will take us down the same road as Europe. There isn’t any free lunch. Behavior has consequences. Just because you want to be free of constraint, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should be.


  • http://bunniediehl.worldmagblog.com Bunnie


    Thank you for your efforts to separate libertarianism from its libertines.

    I find it odd that folks like Nick Gillespie think our philosophy is rooted in the allure of key parties.

    Sad, really.

  • Stephen A.

    Bunnie: Libertarianism perhaps NEED NOT mean libertinism, as your blog hopefully suggests, but it does currently in many of its forms.

    Your blog’s analysis of what being a liber is “these days” seems right on target, though I understand your frustration with that definition.

    Trying to separate libertarianism and libertinism will take a lot of philosophical acrobatics, since the two are natural bedmates, and libertarians seem easily seduced into libertinist thought.

  • Stephen A.

    I should probably post what I was quoting, since I realized it was from an old (Dec 04) posting:

    “What is being a libertarian these days other than praising butt-sex, advocating for heroine-injection and gleefuly hating God? It’s become, under the guidance of sacred shrine centers Cato and Reason, a dogmatic religion of hedonism. Juvenile attempts at criticizing religious thought is it’s corporal divine worship.

    Again: libertarian need not mean libertinism. Sheesh.”