A Conservative's Practical Guide to Challenging Libertarianism

Libertarianism is the political equivalent of an orange.  No sooner does one taste of the orange than he discovers both its sweetness (the flesh) and its bitterness (the white pericarp).  So it is with libertarianism, with its mix of social conservative appeal and unacceptable liberal implications.  Yet despite that, libertarianism remains a tempting political force with an ever-increasing number of followers.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, libertarianism appears to be merely a hodgepodge of eclectic policy positions, with no internal consistency.  For example, on the one hand, it advocates lower taxes, smaller government, and strong property rights.  So far, that is appealing to conservatives.  But on the other hand, it also supports gay rights, legalizing recreational narcotic drugs, and permitting prostitution, all of which are anathema to the social right on moral grounds.

So how does one make sense of this?

What is important to understand is that libertarian thought is not, in fact, a hodgepodge -- its individual policy positions are not eclectic, but rather consistent with its central theme of individual liberty and personal freedoms.  This central theme is very attractive to conservatives of all stripes, yet no true conservative will concede that libertarianism is superior to conservatism.  At the same time, the conservative often has trouble articulating the need for social values in the face of an ideology so apparently (and even nominally) freedom-centered.

To win the argument with Libertarians, social conservatives must first understand, and then clarify, their views on why small government must remain small, while at the same time seeming to intrude (as liberals are fond of saying) into the bedrooms of private citizens.

This conservative argument is not ready-made.  There is no one-liner that can encapsulate it.  Indeed, many a social conservative stumbles around in embarrassment for an answer to the libertarian's strongest arguments.   He knows that his social-conservative principles are correct.  But the conservative shield seems insufficient to ward off the piercing logical arguments of (what can seem to be) a hybrid of liberal and conservative thought -- the best of both worlds.

Yet while the argument for social conservatism is not simple, it is strong -- indeed, much stronger than the cases for either liberalism or libertarianism.

It is not simple because social conservatism is a product of the values that have shaped our nation and our Constitution for thousands of years.  To take a religious analogy, Western culture has been about freedom since the exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt.  But it has never been about license -- freedom from slavery under Pharaoh did not evolve into freedom to worship the golden calf.  To use a secular analogy, freedom of speech does not include the freedom to commit fraud.

For freedom is not merely a right; it is also a responsibility.  With the freedom from tyranny comes the duty to do good.  Were it otherwise, the Declaration of Independence might well eliminate the words "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and substitute instead "permitted by their government to exercise certain negotiable rights."

Without acknowledging that human rights come from the Supreme Being, one concedes that all human rights are conditional upon the current structure of power, the particular fad of the moment.  Subjective rights are not rights at all, but merely temporary, revocable privileges.

To recognize that human rights come from God is to affirm that there is a God, and that His commandments are not subordinate to the whims of men, but instead are absolute and eternal.

In short, the written Constitution embodies the highest ideals of thousands of years of Western civilization and culture -- but, crucially, it does not replace them.  This is why John Adams wrote that "[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

If the Constitution could stand apart from the centuries of context which gave rise to it, then it could be imposed upon any nation, with exemplary results.  But it is clear from history, and from current events as well, that no document can transform an unjust nation into a just one.  No embodiment of ideals can save a people who do not share those ideals.  Were it otherwise, the U.S. Constitution could have been forced upon the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and today they would be shining examples of religious freedom.  Sadly, they remain dark examples of religious intolerance and sectarian brutality, where women are oppressed and free speech is stifled.

It is vital then, to understand and embrace not only the written words of the Constitution itself, but also its underlying values.  Those indispensable words are but the edifice which rests upon an equally indispensable moral foundation.

To be sure, there is much room for debate as to which social conservative values should be enshrined into written law and which should not.  It is wisely said that morality cannot be legislated; to this effect, for example, the religious foundations of the Constitution must never be twisted so as to institute a state religion.  But neither must those foundations be undermined with imported values that contradict the Constitution.

For it is also true that immorality can indeed be legislated, and many laws do just that.  Forcing landlords to rent to unmarried couples, forcing professional photographers to accommodate homosexual weddings, and requiring pharmacists to supply abortifacient drugs are just a few examples that come quickly to mind.

In the near future, licensing of brothels, clean injection centers for drug addicts, and a requirement that grade schools teach homosexual propaganda will likely be enacted.  To varying degrees, they already have been.

Libertarian thought provides no reliable remedy to the social poisons that society is ingesting.  Its values may be those of freedom, but they are also the values of the golden calf.

Libertarianism has much to recommend it.  But a poison lurks within it, and only clear thinking can save us from that.