Libertarianism for Conservatives: A Primer

“If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” – Ronald Reagan

It’s difficult for me to believe, but I have been a libertarian for nearly half a decade. That’s difficult to believe because, on the one hand, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long and, on the other hand, because I can’t believe I didn’t become a libertarian sooner.

My path to libertarianism was a long one, probably longer than it needed to be. I grew up in a fairly typical conservative home, in a family that voted Republican, listened to Rush Limbaugh and dutifully laughed at Clinton/Gore (Commie/Bore) jokes.

After I turned 18, I rushed out to vote for Republican candidates. I voted for George W. Bush in 2004 (and, if not for a car breakdown on my way to the polls, I would have in 2000 as well). I voted for Mitt Romney in the 2008 Republican primaries and John McCain in that year’s general election. In college I was the outspoken Republican kid in class. At work, I was the annoying conservative guy who took liberal insults to Republicans way too personally. I still got my news and analysis from conservative talk radio – Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity – and from online outlets like Townhall.com.

But something happened along the way. I always had nagging questions in the back of my mind about why I said I believed in liberty in some areas, but didn’t follow that principle in all of them. So beginning around 2006, I began to investigate what I said I believed in. I started reading books about history, economics and the Constitution, all in an effort to help me explain why I could believe in a principle and still make exceptions to it.

What I found out, of course, is that I couldn’t. The more I understood the philosophical foundations of liberty, the more I saw that I was a poor proponent of it. Given the ultimate choice of embracing liberty without exception and retreating back into the hypocrisy of my former political positions, I chose liberty. That is, I chose libertarianism.

Now, the interesting thing about libertarians is not how unique my conversion to libertarianism was, but rather how overwhelmingly common this story is. The great majority of libertarians I know came to libertarianism from the political right. The fact that so many conservatives have adopted libertarian political principles is interesting, and it leads to a logical question: is there something about conservative conceptions of government that find their fulfillment in libertarianism?

Many on the right would scoff at such a notion, just as they scoff at libertarianism in general. For years, conservative pundits have derided Ron Paul, the most recognizable libertarian in America, as a crazy man. Limbaugh has described Paul’s ideas as coming from “kookville.” And even though the term “libertarian” became mildly popular among right-wingers in the wake of President Obama’s election, modern conservatives still see a wide chasm between the fundamental principles of conservatism and libertarianism.

However, given my experience – and the experiences of fellow libertarians – I don’t think this is true. I can honestly say that I became a libertarian precisely because I was a conservative. Because I used the language of liberty and had preexisting skepticism about government, the transition to libertarianism was, in my mind, the logical step from rhetoric to principle.

So in order to explain why I believe libertarianism to be the natural conclusion from conservative assumptions, I will be investigating several issues in the coming weeks and will show how the libertarian position on them is consistent with – and sometimes the perfection of – the conservative position. These will include topics like drugs, war and immigration.

Labels & Definitions

Before we can dive into this discussion, we first need to define what conservatism and libertarianism are, since political labels are notoriously imprecise. While these terms can be defined in many ways, for the purposes of the upcoming articles I will be using the following definitions.

I am defining conservatism as the standard set of beliefs about government that predominates on the political right. Specifically, these are that government is inefficient at best and oppressive at worst, that it will always seek to extend its own power over people and that smaller units of government and even non-government institutions in society – like the family and church – are necessary to the preservation of freedom.

For libertarianism, I will be basing my definition on the classical liberal tradition (calm down, conservatives, it’s not that kind of liberal). This definition essentially carves out the protection of individual rights as the only role of government. Frederic Bastiat articulated this position by writing,

“The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties…”

In my definition of libertarianism, then, the only role of government will be to prevent people from aggressing against each other – from violating someone else’s right to life, liberty or property – or to provide penalties for their doing so. There are ongoing debates within libertarianism about whether this definition goes too far or not far enough. In my opinion, however, this is the starting point for libertarianism. Anything more begins to violate fundamental libertarian principles.

So with those definitions in place, this will be my task: to show how the underlying assumptions and principles of conservatism are consistent with libertarianism. In doing this, I will also show how a departure from libertarian principles in these matters is not a conservative phenomenon, but a liberal one – a move not to the right, but to the left.

In the end we will ask ourselves if conservatism is compatible with libertarianism or if it is fundamentally opposed to it. Whatever the answer to that question, what should be apparent at the end of this series is that the current state of conservatism does not stand as a bulwark against government oppression. Instead, it actively facilitates it. Only by embracing libertarianism can conservatives consistently support the principles of freedom they so often espouse.