Constitutional Conservative or Libertarian?

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of The Future of Freedom, a publication of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Libertarians — those who believe that violence is proper only in the defense of person or property and who believe that people have the fundamental right to do anything that’s peaceful — have an image problem, according to some “libertarian-leaning” conservatives. Although those conservatives claim to espouse many libertarian viewpoints, they prefer to shy away from the term “libertarian” and instead call themselves “constitutional conservatives.”

Now, the issue here is plainly a philosophical one, and not a matter of linguistics. Although the specific adjectives one uses to describe his political philosophy are irrelevant alongside what he actually believes, they do make a philosophical statement about one’s political views.

Consider, first of all, conservatism. Although some libertarians may have said and done some things in the name of libertarianism that they had no business doing, I think it is conservatives who have not only an image problem, but a real philosophical problem as well.

I have written a few times that the very heart and soul of conservatism is war. Patriotism, Americanism, and being a real conservative are now equated with support for war, torture, and militarism. I stand by my assertion.

An amendment (no. 232) last year to H.R. 1, an appropriations bill that included spending for the Department of Defense, would have limited the use of funds for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to $10 billion “to reduce the funding for Afghanistan sufficiently to leave enough funds to provide for the safe and orderly withdrawal of our troops but not funding for ongoing combat operations.” Only 7 of 239 Republicans in the House voted for it. The ones who voted against the amendment are the same Republicans in the House who boast how conservative they are.

But it’s not just Republicans in Congress who are war-crazy. The conservative faithful who listen to conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, read conservative magazines such as National Review and the Weekly Standard, support conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, attend conservative meetings such as CPAC’s in Washington, D.C., and generally support anything the Republicans in Congress do that is pro-war, pro-empire, or pro-militarism.

But the trouble with conservatism goes much deeper. As Lew Rockwell, chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, has written,

The problem with American conservatism is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than [sic] risk losing one soul to heresy. It has never understood the idea of freedom as a self-ordering principle of society. It has never seen the state as the enemy of what conservatives purport to favor. It has always looked to presidential power as the saving grace of what is right and true about America.

It is indeed strange that “libertarian-leaning” conservatives think it is libertarians who have the image problem.

I recognize that there are some conservatives who love liberty, loathe Republicans such as George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, and oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them call themselves “constitutional conservatives” because they are realize that mainstream conservatives have departed in great measure from the Constitution. Some might also say that they are “libertarian leaning,” but — for whatever reason — shy away from the term “libertarian.”

Unlibertarian Constitution

I’m all in favor of following the Constitution, but definitely not in every respect. There are some things in the Constitution that, while obviously constitutional, are certainly not libertarian. There have been things in the Constitution that were decidedly unlibertarian but have since been changed by an amendment, such as the protection of slavery and Prohibition. Those changes are a good thing. However, there yet remains the power of the federal government to tax with or without the Sixteenth Amendment, as Sheldon Richman has shown in a series of articles in Freedom Daily (August–October, 2006). The federal government, in the “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”), assumes that it has the legitimate power to take Americans’ private property. The purpose of the taking and the payment for the taking are irrelevant if the owner doesn’t want to sell.

Conservatives sometimes, and rightly so, criticize Congress and the president for going to war, as the United States has done many times since World War II, without a constitutionally required declaration of war. But would a declaration of war against Iraq and Afghanistan have made those unjust and unnecessary wars more just or more necessary?

And then there are the ambiguous clauses in the Constitution such as the “general welfare” clause, the “commerce” clause, and the “necessary and proper” clause. In the early years of American history, a national bank was said by some in Congress and by the Supreme Court to be justified because of the “necessary and proper” clause. And most recently, in 2009, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that the constitutional justification for Obamacare was the “commerce” clause.

A major problem with conservatives is that most of their talk about the Constitution is just a lot of hot air. Just look at the empty promises, grandiose claims, vain assurances, and blatant lies in the House Republican “Pledge to America.” Does anyone actually take seriously anything the Republicans say about the Constitution in their pledge? Does anyone think for a minute that the statement in the pledge about requiring “each bill moving through Congress to include a clause citing specific constitutional authority upon which the bill is justified” will actually prevent any unconstitutional legislation from being passed? And who received the “Defender of the Constitution Award” at last year’s CPAC conference? It was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Still another problem is that conservatives who claim to revere the Constitution generally hold not only to some nonlibertarian opinions, but to some unconstitutional ones as well. Constitutional conservatives should unequivocally oppose the war on drugs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to or control of education, all welfare programs, all federal regulations, and most federal departments and agencies. That would include not just the “liberal” CPB and NEA, but the whole alphabet soup of federal departments, agencies, commissions, corporations, administrations, and bureaus such as the EPA, NASA, CPSC, ATF, SEC, TVA, FEMA, and FCC. When was the last time a conservative congressman, politician, talk- show host, pundit, think-tank, magazine, or writer called for the wholesale elimination of any of those bureaucracies because it is unconstitutional?

Constitutional conservative or libertarian? When it comes to the questions of individual liberty, peace and nonintervention, free markets, personal freedom and responsibility, and limited government, only one philosophy really measures up.