Libertarianism Does Not Preclude Conservatism

This article has two purposes.  The first is to define what exactly is entailed by libertarianism, broadly defined.  The second is to make the point that conservatism need not adopt an antagonistic opinion toward libertarianism -- as the latter is a branch of law that is quite compatible with the former.

Libertarianism is quite simple, and not even deceptively so.  It consists of only three tenets or, as Sean Hannity might refer to them, core principles: (1) adherence to the non-aggression principle (NAP), (2) laissez-faire capitalism, and (3) the institution of private property -- the third tenet being presupposed by the second and the second tenet being a direct consequence of the first, which, not coincidentally, is the principal tenet of libertarianism.

The NAP holds that it is illicit for one to engage in either the initiation of aggression or the threat of the initiation of aggression.  So the intentional taking of an innocent person's life (murder), liberty (enslavement), or property (theft) would be considered anathema to this tenet.  What's more is that libertarianism maintains that not only individuals, but also institutions (say, government) must adhere to this tenet.  And, as an aside, adherence to this axiom does not constitute pacifism: aggression is licit under libertarianism, provided only that it is in response and in proportion to any aggression initiated by another person (or group of people) against the individual (or group) initially aggressed against.

That's it.  There is nothing more that is essential to libertarianism.  Every policy is subject to analysis guided by the three above-mentioned tenets.

Now that we know of what libertarianism consists, it seems appropriate to address what is too often and wrongfully regarded as the two gulfs separating conservatism from it: social issues and foreign policy.

Social issues are really ethical issues.  Must every libertarian be pro-choice or support gay marriage?  No, not at all.  As David Gordon has pointed out, one need not be a social liberal to be a libertarian.

Libertarians For Life, a political group with a scientific and philosophical rather than either a pragmatic or a religious opposition to abortion, believes that evicting a fetus from its mother's womb (aborting it) is a violation of the NAP, or, in any event, that it is a disproportionate response to any aggression supposedly initiated by the fetus against the mother's property (her womb), and that, therefore, it is illicit.  There is also this thoughtful pro-life private property rights theory on the subject.  One can be a libertarian and be pro-life.

What about gay marriage?  As far as most conservatives (including myself) are concerned, there can logically exist no such thing.  Marriage possesses a natural teleology; it is not simply whatever anyone says it is (an ashtray is not food simply because somebody eats it).  However, just because someone calls a circle a square does not mean that this illogical declaration should be deemed illegal; illogical declarations, in themselves, do not aggress against anyone.  Two gay individuals incoherently referring to their union as a marriage is not a violation of the NAP.

So, then, a libertarian believes that the state should recognize gay marriage?  Hardly.  Libertarians believe that the state has no business setting the terms of a marriage contract -- that, other than enforcing disputed contracts, government has no place in marriage.  Libertarians believe that the traditional marriage of one man to one woman is not so flimsy as to need the sanction of government to make it significant.  Traditional marriages have existed in the past without official government recognition, and, without official government recognition, they would still exist in the future.  One can be a libertarian and be a proponent of traditional marriage.

So, it seems, the free-market, limited-government, and ruggedly individualist characteristics of conservatism are consonant with libertarianism.  And, keeping in mind the above tenets of the latter, so too are the pro-life and traditionalist characteristics of the former.

However, there exists another so-called gulf, apart from ethical issues, that, if not satisfactorily addressed, would work to separate conservatives from libertarians: the gulf of foreign policy.  But, after some examination, I contend, this is no gulf at all.

As noted above, and I submit this as uncontroversial, conservatives value both a strong national defense and a limited government.  And such is not contrary to libertarianism: the NAP dictates a libertarian foreign policy of "mess with me and you get messed with."  Such a foreign policy does not preclude a strong national defense.  However, the current military situation of the United States, stretched far and wide across the globe, does preclude a limited government.  That is to say, the United States cannot have both a limited government and its current state of worldwide military involvement.  It can, on the other hand, have both a limited government and a strong national defense.  The libertarian view on this issue is simply the conservative view consistently applied; it is one that makes a just distinction between national defense and militarism.  One can be a libertarian and support a strong national defense.

The purpose of this article has been, simply, to assuage any conservative hostility toward or wholesale dismissal of libertarianism.  It is entirely possible for each to recognize their common ground and to bring the fight to the real threat: out-of-control spending, high-taxing, rule of law-flaunting, bailout-granting, redistributive, big-government, nanny-state collectivism.

Sean Parr is an enemy of constraint.  He can be contacted at

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