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Libertarians and Conservatives – Neither Side Really Gets It
by Steven D. Laib, J.D., M.S.
22 October 2003Freedom & Virtue

Big “L” Libertarians aren’t the only ones who understand that government is, in the end, the likely enemy of a free society. A response to James Antle.

As W. James Antle III puts it, “The truth is out of the bag: U.S. conservatives have conceded defeat in the battle for limited government and constitutionalism and have decided to change the subject.”  I have to agree with him, but only up to a point.  If I ask any mainstream conservative whom I am likely to come across what they think about big government, invariably I get deluged with stories about how things would be better off for them, and just about everyone they know, if government could just be brought to heel.  The man or woman on the street hasn’t decided to change the subject; it is the people in office, and the Republican Party leadership who have done so.  At the same time, big “L” Libertarians aren’t the only people who understand that government is, in the end, the likely enemy of a free society. 

My involvement with the Libertarian Party began when I became acquainted with Joe Fuhrig, who was teaching economics at a number of local colleges.  He asked me to act as his campaign treasurer during his run for the US Senate against Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson and others.  As the campaign had very little in the way of funds I had very little to do, but the position offered me the opportunity to meet a fair number of people and to study some libertarian ideas at close range. 

What I found was a regular mishmash composed in large part of Ayn Rand style objectivism, Milton Freedman economic theory, almost pacifist anti-military sentiment, and an underlying current of belief that the individual always knows best for him or herself.  Government should keep its hands off so people can either succeed or go to hell in the proverbial hand basket if they so choose.  Many of the stalwarts seemed to believe that they would succeed in the end because they had all the right ideas.  It was just a matter of getting enough money and people together so that the press could no longer ignore them.  It never happened. 

Meanwhile, I began to question the sanity of libertarian theory because I was forced to conclude that it was just too idealistic and in some ways too prejudiced.  And there were incidents where I came to believe that there was a certain lack of serious thinking going on.  Once, perennial candidate Richard Boddie advised me not to earn my law degree because in so doing I was joining the enemy.  On another occasion a libertarian college friend suggested the reason America was so successful militarily in World War II was because it was relatively disarmed at the outset.  He advocated shutting down all but about ten percent of the military.  He wanted just enough to patrol the borders to prevent an invasion. 

But the connection between libertarianism and the political Left, noted by Mr. Antle, is nothing new.  In the 1980’s there was antagonism over Republican anti-drug policies and on the issue of homosexual rights.  It led some conservatives to consider libertarians more concerned with libertines than with liberties.  The Libertarian connection with conservatism may have been little more than anti-communism continuing until it lost the necessary adhesion.  Finding that they couldn’t achieve the small government aspect of their agenda, Libertarians may be more inclined to seek solace with a political Left that is willing to give them other, less significant rewards, but rewards, nonetheless. 

Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s failure to understand the need to make more than a verbal commitment to cutting government tends to go unnoticed in our capitals. The most likely reason is simply that the Party leadership realizes that it is playing to a captive audience, and can do pretty much what it pleases.  Having lost touch with the enlightenment in “enlightened self interest,” it has become more interested in gathering power, despite the dangerous effects that could and probably will result.  Meanwhile, Conservatives have become fractured into different groups; some are attempting to enforce certain traditionally libertarian beliefs, while others are just trying to be patriotic Americans reacting to the present situation as best as they can. 

Many of these left-leaning libertarians may be doing so because of their anti-military standing.  Libertarians have long stood for the belief that one should not use violence or coercion to achieve political ends.  This meshes nicely with the current Democrat Party trend to criticize any foreign military adventures, regardless of the justification.  What this attitude fails to recognize is that in today’s world we may not have much choice.  There are actually more potentially dangerous enemies today than in 1940 or earlier, and America cannot count on the oceans to protect it as in the past.  International and intercultural competition can affect the world much more quickly than many of us realize.

The rift between libertarian and conservative movements in America today appears to be the result of a failure to communicate.  Actually they have more in common than not.  Mutual success could be achieved incrementally through an alliance concentrating on more critical subjects first, then others later, as social and political mechanisms adapt to a changing society.  One could see education as a major point where these two could work together to bring about positive change through home schooling and privatization.  As public schools become less influential and socialist dogma less a staple in education both parties could be gradually strengthened.  Similarly, resurrecting states' rights as a means of limiting federal power could be an excellent starting point.  Nothing has been done on either.  Idealism on one hand and inability to compromise to bring in a needed ally have prevented the union. 

In the end American government may become its own worst enemy.  A government can become too powerful and overwhelm its nation’s ability to produce. At the same time it will likely destroying underlying patriotic beliefs that previously existed as the people come to realize that government is out for itself.  To paraphrase Chief Justice John Marshall, the power to destroy can easily overwhelm the power to create. The works of creation take time. Destruction frequently takes only an instant.  A government operating in this way can easily bleed the nation dry over time, leaving it with nothing left to govern, rather like Romulus Agustulus in 476 AD.  Right now, no one wants to recognize the problem. When they finally get around to doing so it will probably be too late, and George Santayana will have another notch in his figurative belt.  Didn’t Russell Kirk consider Santayana a conservative?

Steven Laib is a practicing attorney

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