We are the only site on the web devoted exclusively to intellectual conservatism. We find the most intriguing information and bring it together on one page for you.

Links we recommend
Link to us
Free email update
About us
What's New & Interesting
Mailing Lists
Intellectual Icons


Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll - A Reply
by Samuel Silver, Chairman, Toward Tradition
12 October 2003

A response to Susan Lee's editorial in the Wall Street Journal which discussed how conservatives resort to government to force their ideals upon society, whereas libertarians prefer a society devoid of objective ethical values. What she didn't say is that most of those on the right - including the "religious right" - prefer a limited government and think the government is a dismal failure when it comes to making solutions.

Are conservatism and libertarianism mutually exclusive? Or is it possible to pursue traditional cultural and ethical values within the framework of a libertarian political philosophy?

Susan Lee, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, has written an intriguing essay on American Conservatism, titled Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll where she contrasts libertarianism and conservatism. Her basic distinction is that conservatives by nature resort to government force to impose their ideals on society, while libertarians do not care for “normative questions” and therefore desire a free society devoid of objective ethical values.

“Conservative thought proceeds from absolutes, hierarchies and exclusivity. Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness--although, admittedly, this tolerance comes from indifference to moral questions, not from a greater inborn talent to live and let live. Conservatives favor tradition and communitarian solutions, and resort to central authority when it serves their purpose. Libertarians value individual creativity and are invariably against central authority.”

She states, “Libertarians do not concern themselves with questions of ‘best behavior’ in social or cultural matters”. This is not necessarily true. Libertarians are often explaining the difference between libertarian political philosophy and a libertine, hedonistic cultural/ethical philosophy. One may agree with Milton Friedman that drug laws are inappropriate in a free society without accepting drug use as acceptable behavior.

Contrary to the impression conveyed in her article, many libertarians in fact have very “conservative” moral and cultural concepts of the “good society.” Most derive these from religion, but some are based on atheistic and objective ethical systems such as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism – hardly a hotbed of relativism.

The crux of the matter is not whether libertarians or conservatives hold objective moral positions, but how they choose to influence the community and society to accept these positions. The choice is coercion through the use of politics and governmental actions or non-coercion. As libertarianism is based on the concept of the non-initiation of force, the libertarian position is to use non-coercive forms of education and persuasion, competing in the marketplace of ideas. In a free society, the public culture should be the result of the voluntary associations of individual citizens. Outside of the basic moral principles upon which the country was founded (Judeo-Christian values in the case of the U.S), the government should not define society. Therefore, people who share a vision of a moral public culture required for a good society must accept responsibility to teach and promote their vision in the marketplace of ideas.

Ethical beliefs do not require political, i.e. governmental solutions. If one believes in free will and personal responsibility, then forced morality will result not in an ethical society, but a totalitarian one.

It is true that historically many “conservatives” would resort to “central authority when it serves their purpose,” but libertarian ideas have convinced a growing number of traditional conservatives that government is no better at legislating morality than running the post office. This helps explain the growth of organizations such as Toward Tradition founded by Rabbi Daniel Lapin and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty founded by Rev. Robert Sirico. Both of these organizations pursue the middle path of promoting conservative moral and cultural positions within a libertarian political framework.

Now, this is not to say that conservatives or even libertarians would not attempt to force their moral and cultural ideas on others. After all, we are human and will often take the path of least resistance when afforded the opportunity. Liberals and leftists do it on a regular basis! This is a constant problem of any free society and is no different than the continuous attempts by big-business at one end of the spectrum and environmentalists at the other from attempting (all too often successfully) to improperly use the government monopoly on the legitimate use of force to serve their special interests.

This obviously raises the question of the role of religion in society, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” argument. Unlike humans who are born morally “tabula rasa,” with a clean slate, the United States was not created “tabula rasa.” The unifying principle of this country’s founding was a religious faith in a divine Creator and the freedom of each individual to practice his or her religion (or no religion) without interference from the government. The founders believed that religious faith, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, provides the objective ethical basis needed for a free society to properly function. As such, religion should not be banned from the “public square.” The government, as defined in the First Amendment and explained by its author James Madison, must remain neutral between various sects of religion, but is not required to remain neutral between religion and irreligion. In the wise words of Thomas Jefferson, so frequently and erroneously presented as an atheist, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God”?

It is ironic that most secular Liberals fear the Christian Conservatives and Orthodox Jews of the so-called “religious right” because they fear these religious “fanatics” will impose their values on the rest of society. Most of those on the “right” in the U.S. hold limited government as an ideal. They understand all too well the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of government when used for purposes other than defending its citizens against force and fraud, both domestic and foreign. These are the people that want strict adherence to the limits on the Federal government imposed by the U.S. Constitution. Their instinctual tendency is toward freedom and away from government solutions. The irony is that most of those in fear are collectivists who have no qualms about using government to impose their unrealistic, utopian, and self-righteous ideals on others. They attribute their love of the use of collective force to their political opponents who generally operate from a completely different premise. That is why, for example, they cannot fathom that Attorney General Ashcroft, with a long-standing belief in limited government, is not the “cartoonish” threat they make him out to be.

But make no mistake. This middle path is not an easy one. A free society is inherently unstable, which is why Jefferson instructed us that, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This vigilance requires those with strong moral convictions to have confidence that in the long-term they will win in the marketplace of ideas without resorting to the use of force.

Samuel Silver is Chairman of Toward Tradition, working to advance our nation toward the traditional Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation. . He is an Orthodox Jew and retired businessman living in Atlanta, GA.

Email Samuel Silver

Send this Article to a Friend