When conservative politicians are trying to get the votes of libertarians and “libertarian-leaning” Republicans, they often tout the supposed affinity between conservatism and libertarianism. They claim that there is a conservative and libertarian confluence of thought on many issues. They maintain that because the real enemy of conservatism and libertarianism is liberalism, conservatives and libertarians stand on common ground. Conservatives are not averse to using libertarian rhetoric to portray themselves as advocates of libertarian principles. They often recite their mantra of the Constitution, private property, the free market, individual liberty, and limited government — as if they actually followed the Constitution, believed in the inviolability of private property, desired a free market in everything, believed in the freedom of individuals to do anything that’s peaceful, and wanted a government limited to anything but one controlled by conservatives.
Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) is a conservative icon. Conservatives revere him as they revere the Constitution. They consider Reagan to be one of the greatest American presidents in history. And as the late president’s son, Michael Reagan, has pointed out, “Conservatives love to drop my father’s name and try to find candidates that act and think like he did.” Conservative Republicans who want to sucker their fellow Republicans to get their votes often call themselves Reagan conservatives or Reagan Republicans. Even some libertarians romanticize Reagan.
In addition to using libertarian rhetoric and reciting their phony laissez-faire mantra, conservatives are also fond of quoting what Reagan said during an interview with Reason magazine back in 1975:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals — if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
Reagan also said he believed that libertarianism and conservatism were traveling “the same path.”
Yet, the path Reagan trod was anything but libertarian.
As a two-term governor of California, Reagan presided over a state budget increase from $5.7 to $10.8 billion. He was a tax cutter in some areas (property tax) but a tax raiser in others (sales tax). He introduced withholding to the state income-tax system. Under his administration, government funding for primary and secondary public education increased 105 percent, government support for junior colleges increased 323 percent, and government grants and loans to college students increased 900 percent. Reagan overhauled the state welfare system, reducing total welfare caseload, but also raised benefits by 30 percent and increased administrative costs. He vetoed legislation to reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor and signed legislation to sharply increase penalties for drug dealers.
As president, Reagan is famously remembered as a tax cutter. But, again, he was also a tax raiser. He supported the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit; eliminated “loopholes” that allowed taxpayers to hold on to more of their money; and increased corporate income taxes, Medicare taxes, Social Security taxes, and capital gains taxes. He also began the practice of taxing Social Security benefits.
The Reagan record is anything but fiscal conservatism. During his tenure, federal expenditures increased by more than 60 percent, spending on education increased by 68 percent, and health-care spending increased by 71 percent.
Reagan’s deregulatory policies have been grossly overstated. During the 1980s, the Code of Federal Regulations increased in size by roughly 20 percent. Reagan also increased import barriers and quotas and expanded the agricultural subsidies.
And even though he said in a 1981 speech that “government’s first duty is to protect people, not run their lives,” he didn’t practice what he preached when it came to drugs. Federal spending on law enforcement, prisons, and the war on drugs greatly increased, as did incarceration rates. Reagan signed legislation reinstating civil asset-forfeiture laws and mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.
His support for gun rights is mixed. And as Reagan’s budget director David Stockman tells us, “Reagan tripled the size of the U.S. defense budget based on a totally phony neocon claim that the Soviet Union was on the verge of military superiority and nuclear first-strike capacity.”
Doesn’t sound like Reagan’s conservatism was too libertarian.
What, then, is conservatism? Ask a hundred conservatives and you may get a hundred different answers. In his book The Conservative Mind, first published in 1953, conservative godfather Russell Kirk (1918–1994) listed and described “six canons of conservative thought” that he considered to be a summary of themes common to conservative thinkers:
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.”
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.
- Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.
- Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.
In the chapter “Ten Conservative Principles” in his 1993 and last book, The Politics of Prudence, Kirk said that the canons in The Conservative Mind differed “somewhat from edition to edition.” He also mentioned that in his 1982 anthology, The Portable Conservative Reader, he offered “variations upon this theme” of his canons. In The Politics of Prudence, Kirk presented “a summary of conservative assumptions differing somewhat from my canons in those two books of mine.” In introducing his new “ten articles of belief,” he said that they “reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays”:
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.
For a more recent description of conservatism, we can consult the 2006 work American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Here are some brief excerpts from the entry on “conservatism”:
Conservatism is a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.
Conservatives are attached, not so much to any particular regime or form of government, as to what they believe are the requirements for a good life for all peoples. In the American context, conservatives defend the ordered liberty established by the Constitution and the traditions and practices on which that constitution was built.
Conservatives’ rejection of liberals’ claims that they may, if only given the political power, reshape individuals into more caring, healthy members of richer communities rests in part on an appreciation of the importance of private property and free markets. These social institutions serve as important bulwarks of individual and group initiative against state planning.
Conservatives believe that there is a natural order to the universe, governed by a natural law that gives mankind general rules concerning how to shape their lives in common as individuals. The natural law is not a detailed code, spelling out how men should act in every possible situation. But it provides general guidelines prohibiting acts such as murder and indicating the central importance of moral decency (best summed up in the Golden Rule) and of institutions, like the family, in which alone decent character can be formed.
One of the problems with conservatism is that it has no coherent, consistent (or concise) definition or description. In “Ten Conservative Principles,” Kirk remarked, “The diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era.” That is why George W. Bush could say during a CNN interview in 2008, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” And that is why he could remark the next year at the unveiling of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, “I went against my free-market instincts and approved a temporary government intervention.”
The problem with “American conservatism,” as concisely summed up by Ludwig von Mises Institute chairman, Lew Rockwell,
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 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.
Contrast conservatism with the simplicity of libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political philosophy which says that people should be free from government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, make their own choices, engage in any economic activity for their profit, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Libertarianism is the philosophy of nonaggression, whether that aggression be theft, fraud, the initiation of nonconsensual violence against person or property, or the threat of nonconsensual violence. The initiation or threat of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, even when done by government. Aggression is justified only in defense of one’s person or property or in retaliation in response to aggression against them.
Libertarianism has nothing to do with one’s lifestyle, tastes, vices, sexual orientation or practices, traditions, religion, aesthetics, sensibilities, social attitudes, or cultural norms. It has nothing to do with libertinism, greed, selfishness, hedonism, licentiousness, nihilism, moral relativism, egalitarianism, antinomianism, anarchy, materialism, or utopianism. It is neither naive about human nature nor inimical to organized religion. It neither disdains tradition nor rejects moral absolutes. Libertarianism is not low-tax liberalism, and a libertarian is not a conservative who is socially liberal.
Libertarianism has everything to do with individual liberty, private property, free markets, free enterprise, free exchange, individual responsibility, personal freedom, free association, voluntary interaction, freedom of conscience, free expression, and peaceful activity — as long as those things don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Conservatism and libertarianism
So, is libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism”? Is the basis of conservatism “a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom”? Do conservatives have an “appreciation of the importance of private property and free markets”? Do “conservatives defend the ordered liberty established by the Constitution”? Are libertarianism and conservatism traveling “the same path”?
Perhaps the best way to see whether those things are true is by simply looking at what conservatism and libertarianism say about certain issues. Here are twenty-five of them, some general and some specific — enough to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that conservatism and libertarianism are not brothers, cousins, or related in any way.
Conservatism says that the government is entitled to a portion of every American’s income through taxation. Libertarianism says that taxation is simply government theft, and that all Americans should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor and spend their money as they see fit.
Conservatism says that Social Security should be “saved” so that future generations of the elderly can be supported by the young. Libertarianism says that Social Security is an intergenerational, income-transfer, wealth-redistribution welfare program that should be abolished.
Conservatism says that the defense budget should be increased and tied to the nation’s GDP. Libertarianism says that the defense budget should be decreased and the military used for defensive purposes only.
Conservatism says that the government should prohibit people from selling their organs both while they are alive and after they are dead. Libertarianism says that your body is your own and, alive or dead, you should be able to do whatever you want with all or part of it.
Conservatism says that the government should take money out of the pockets of American taxpayers and put it in the hands of corrupt foreign governments and organizations in the form of foreign aid. Libertarianism says that because it is not the proper role of government to give out any foreign aid, the decision to give money to foreigners should be an individual one, and no country should receive foreign aid from the U.S. government in any amount, at any time, for any reason.
Conservatism says that the government should expend resources, arrest, fine, or imprison people for growing, manufacturing, buying, selling, using, or possessing drugs it has deemed to be illegal. Libertarianism says that the war on drugs is a war on freedom and that government has no business being concerned about the commercial, medical, or recreational use of drugs.
Conservatism says that most federal gun laws, including the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, should be retained. Libertarianism says that the federal government has no authority whatsoever to pass any laws that relate in any way to weapons, ammunition, waiting periods, or background checks.
Conservatism says that the government should take money from those who work and transfer it to those who don’t by means of unemployment benefits. Libertarianism says that unemployment insurance should be private and that government has no business paying people for not working.
Conservatism says that laws prohibiting discrimination against someone because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin should be enforced and that no one should legally be able to refuse someone service, entrance, or membership on account of those things. Libertarianism says that all discrimination laws should be repealed because they destroy the rights of private property, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, free enterprise, and freedom of contract.
Conservatism says that the government should establish overtime rules and a minimum wage if it is not too high or burdensome to small businesses. Libertarianism says that those things should be negotiated between employers and employees on an individual or group basis without any government involvement whatsoever.
Conservatism says that the government should have refundable tax credits so that “the poor” can get a refund of taxes that were never withheld from their paychecks. Libertarianism says that refundable tax credits are a form of welfare and that the government should never issue a tax refund in excess of what is withheld from paychecks.
Conservatism says that government should take money out of the pockets of American taxpayers and use it to give out grants for scientific and medical research. Libertarianism says that all scientific and medical research should be privately funded and conducted.
Conservatism says that the government should take money from some Americans to feed other Americans by means of food stamps or school breakfasts and lunches. Libertarianism says that all food aid should be private and voluntary and that the government should have nothing to do with feeding students, the poor, or anyone else.
Conservatism says that the government should regulate some, and prohibit other, forms of gambling. Libertarianism says that all gambling laws should be repealed because they are gross violations of individual liberty and property rights.
Conservatism says that the government should take money from some Americans to educate the children of other Americans in public schools or by means of educational vouchers. Libertarianism says that the government should have nothing whatsoever to do with schools, education, teachers, student loans, testing, or standards.
Conservatism says that the United States should continue its military alliances with many countries around the world and come to their defense if necessary. Libertarianism says that the United States should not make entangling alliances and should observe a foreign policy of strict neutrality.
Conservatism says that the government should take money out of the pockets of American taxpayers to explore space and conduct experiments on a space station. Libertarianism says that all space exploration and experimentation should be privately funded and conducted.
Conservatism says that the government should take money out of the pockets of American taxpayers and use it to provide disaster relief in foreign countries. Libertarianism says that because it is not the proper role of government to provide disaster relief — even to its own citizens — the decision to provide disaster relief to foreigners should be an individual one, and no country should receive disaster relief from the U.S. government in any amount, at any time, for any reason.
Conservatism says that the United States should have an interventionist foreign policy and police the world. Libertarianism says that the United States should have a noninterventionist foreign policy and mind its own business.
Conservatism says that the government should provide the poor and farmers a safety net. Libertarianism says that the government should not give or lend money to, or subsidize the poor or any particular group.
Conservatism says that the United States should maintain an empire of troops and bases around the world. Libertarianism says that all foreign bases should be closed and all U.S. troops brought home.
Conservatism says that “the rich” should pay their “fair share” of taxes by paying a higher percentage of their income to the government than “the poor” or by forgoing certain deductions, exemptions, and credits that the government grants to them. Libertarianism says that a progressive tax system is Marxist and that neither “the rich” nor “the poor” should be taxed on their income.
Conservatism says that the government should take money out of the pockets of Americans who “have” and redistribute it to other Americans who “have not” by means of WIC, TANF, Section 8 rent subsidies, SSI, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Libertarianism says that the welfare state is immoral because taking resources from people to give to those in need is not a noble act of charity but engaging in theft, and that all charity should be entirely private and voluntary.
Conservatism says that the government should make and enforce laws against victimless crimes. Libertarianism says that there is no such thing as nebulous crimes against nature, society, or the state, and that every crime should have a tangible and identifiable victim.
Conservatism says that the government should take money from some Americans to pay for the health care and health insurance of other Americans by means of SCHIP, Medicaid, and Medicare. Libertarianism says that the government shouldn’t subsidize anyone’s health care or health insurance and that the government should have absolutely nothing to do with either one.
What are we to conclude from this comparison between conservatism and libertarianism but that conservatism is merely one of many varieties of statism? Indeed, the very heart and soul of conservatism is statism. Conservatism deems it completely appropriate for government to punish people for engaging in peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions it doesn’t approve of and to take people’s resources against their will and transfer or redistribute them to others as it sees fit. Ronald Reagan was wrong. There is an incontrovertible divide that exists between conservatism and libertarianism. The two are following opposite paths. It is libertarianism alone that desires less government interference, less centralized authority, and more individual freedom.
This article was originally published in the May 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.