The Imprudence of Big-L Libertarians

Currently Cato Unbound is running a series of essays on the state of conservative-libertarian Fusion, specifically evaluating whether these two philosophies can maintain their increasingly fractious alliance in this emerging era of Rand Paul. Since Pocket Full of Liberty is a blog that features the voices of libertarians and conservatives interested in winning and advancing liberty, this aligns neatly with our interests. As such, I am compelled to respond to Cato Unbound’s project.

The lead essay is a wonderfully-worded, carefully considered piece by Jacqueline Otto  (who, as nearly as I’ve been able to discern, has no relation to our own Amy Otto). Jacqueline Otto touches on history and tradition in her piece and makes a valiant attempt to reconcile the religious right & the liberty-minded with a discussion of the merits of free enterprise and limited government.

If we don’t stand together, she asks, how can we defend freedom? 

If your primary interest is maintaining a working coalition to combat the seemingly inexorable march of the Leftist State, then perhaps you should stop with Otto. As is often the case, professed big-L libertarianism is the less conciliatory and more rigidly dogmatic party. Jeremy Kolassa, who appears to be a big-L libertarian, begins his response to Otto with a description of the conservative-libertarian alliance as an “unequal treaty,” wherein libertarians are told to “sit down, be quiet” and tow the line. Sadly, as he fleshes out what I am sure was intended to be a coherent argument, he becomes more puerile. The entire essay has the tone of a rebellious libertarian teenager chafing under the oppressive yoke of conservative parents who Just. Don’t. Get. It.

Take for instance, his reductive assertion that

As the name suggests, libertarianism is about liberty, specifically individual liberty. Conservatism, on the other hand, is about conserving as much of the past as possible, and having as little change as possible. Libertarians are excited about the future and the changes that await us, in technology, society, culture, and in many different fields. Conservatives, on the other hand, just shudder.

While it is true that I etched this essay into a clay tablet and sent it to my libertarian editor to be transcribed into her Glowing Devil Box for you heathens to read it, I must protest Kolassa’s mischaracterization. Conservatism isn’t about fearing the future — it is (partly) about learning the lessons of history. As Otto says, “the process of trial and error known as civilization has worked out a lot of errors.”

Apparently libertarians of Kolassa’s stripe disagree with the merits of that point.

In his discussion of economics, Kolassa runs headlong into the major problem of pure libertarianism, which is its remarkable impracticability outside of one’s freshman dorm room. He takes issue with “trickle down” economics, but fails to address any successful real-world libertarian policies for the reader to use as a point of comparison. Libertarianism may be universalist in scope, as Kolassa alleges, but it is certainly does not have universal appeal — as reality seems to attest.

Social issues are a place where big-L libertarians and conservatives obviously diverge. Kolassa contributes to this debate by reminding us that a conservative views the world essentially as a group project while the libertarian is more self-interested. This is a key difference between the two camps and cannot be ignored. Peter Wehner touched on this point in a recent article, referencing the “ancient insight [of] how we do not live in isolation, that we are part of a continuum[.]” This concept seems to have been forgotten – or willfully disregarded by many of strident participants in today’s discourse.

If I wanted to put it more fairly, I might say that the religious right have shown a willingness to use government as a way to shape society according to their values and libertarians prefer that value-shaping be done on the lowest possible level — local, personal, or perhaps not at all. There’s a word for this, subsidiarity, that the essayist may have found if he had taken the time to do so. Big government conservative views — such as those held by Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and (to a lesser degree) former President George W. Bush — are out of step with the times.

But so too are Kolassa’s views. The American people are not interested in a government that doesn’t do anything for them.

Sadly, Kolassa’s flirtation with a real point ends too quickly since, again, he retreats to a reductive description of socially conservative views. He says in reference to gay marriage that social conservatives support “relegating [gays] to second-class status.” While misconstruing the views of one’s ideological opponent may provide a convenient straw man, it doesn’t do much to advance one’s own argument. There are many reasons to oppose same-sex marriage; a desire to relegate certain citizens to second-class status is not an animating principle for the conservatives I know.

While citing prominent libertarians such as Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jeff Flake as the harbingers of the coming Libertarian Age, Kolassa neglects to mention that all these men share rather obvious pro-life and socially conservative views. Mike Lee is against gay marriage, as is Flake. Rand Paul is strongly pro-life. If these are the men who can “reach out and actually talk to people,” then as an economic and social conservative I’m doubly encouraged.

Kolassa advocates for formalizing the rift between these divergent groups so that libertarians might stand on their own. If libertarians made common cause with liberals where their views aligned –  so be it. Never mind that experience shows that for every supposed “liberty” lefties claim they want to protect, they effectively trample another. Perhaps Kolassa views sexual libertinism as a fair trade for eroded religious liberty, but I don’t. And who is to say that big-L libertarians won’t be treated just as poorly by their new liberal friends?

“Give us the abortion stuff and we’ll talk about closing down the Department of Education next session.”

Bonne chance.

What I’d like to submit to Kolassa, and those who align with him, is that Fusionism is mainly to the benefit of the libertarian element of the coalition — not the conservative one. Libertarianism as a pure ideology has limited appeal with the electorate. It’s a spice, not the main dish. By plucking at the frayed lines holding this coalition together, and becoming “political opportunists,” Kolassa and his confreres risk ejecting themselves from the big tent. The collapse that Rand Paul and Mike Lee (as well as Ted Cruz) are so valiantly trying to prevent. How do big-L libertarians plan to rein in the excesses of government if they abandon the only friends they really have?

Lest I sound too dismissive of all libertarians in the main, I want to stress that conservatives need libertarians to be successful. I share Jonah Goldberg’s opinion that there should always be a libertarian in the room asking the question, “Is government really the best way to handle this?” That impulse is essential to a workable, appealing, and freedom-focused political message. There are many, many libertarian thinkers out there doing good, thoughtful work to stem the tide (or advance the ball, however incrementally). But if big-L libertarians like Kolassa seize upon this moment of prominence and overplay it to score cheap points against “backwards” social conservatives, they will be left out in the cold.

So it falls to you, dear reader: is Kolassa (and to a larger degree, big-L libertarianism) out of step? Or has your humble author misread the political entrails?

Discuss in the comments, and feel free to contact me on Twitter @neal_dewing to tell me off. Follow @pocketliberty too!