Conservatives and libertarians struggle to understand how we fit with each other’s ideological frameworks.
Most conservatives envision a sliding scale of political ideologies, with totalitarianism on the far left, anarchy on the far right, and conventional republican and democrat positions scattered in between. Libertarianism is often shoved to the right of conservatism as an afterthought. To accommodate libertarianism, many political scientists think that separate scales are needed for social and fiscal issues, such as the famous Nolan Chart and the World’s Smallest Political Quiz.
These efforts, while valiant, have left us laymen of the political debate unsatisfied. The prominence of the Tea Party has demanded an intellectual effort be made to reconcile conservatism and libertarianism.
In this attempt, Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch recently debated the question, “are libertarians part of the conservative movement?”
Goldberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Editor-at-Large of National Review Online, argues that the libertarian movement is a “part of the broader American conservative movement’s push for limited government.” Matt Welch, Editor in Chief of libertarian Reason Magazine, vehemently disagrees, holding that libertarianism is incompatible with traditional conservatism.
Welch says that conservatives are only entertaining the question of libertarian inclusion because the Republican Party “lost power,” they are “bleeding market share,” and America is “becoming increasingly more libertarian.”
Goldberg was willing to concede that “libertarianism is not part of the conservative movement except for four minor points; and they are that historically, philosophically, politically, and practically” they are the same movement.
In a similar debate printed in the August/September 2010 Reason Magazine, Goldberg calls out libertarians for their refusal to reconcile with their conservative counterparts.
At the intellectual level… economic libertarianism remains largely synonymous with economic conservatism. The Mount Rushmore of libertarian economics—Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Hazlitt, et al—quite simply is the Mount Rushmore of conservative economics.
Symbolic of the greater debate, Goldberg and Welch are talking at cross terms. While libertarians like Welch want to preserve their intellectual identity, the better question to be asked is if the libertarian movement can strategically afford to NOT be a part of the conservative movement?
Cutting ties with the conservative movement and the Republican Party could be crippling for the libertarian movement. Many young people find libertarianism through the economic giants which conservatism shares with libertarianism or through Republican elected officials such as Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.
Conversely, can the conservative movement afford to lose the libertarians? While it is understandable for conservatives to get frustrated with the rabble-rousing, free market-loving libertarians, pushing them away could mean the loss of a significant voting bloc. As Goldberg said, “you can’t pull out the libertarians and leave the conservative movement standing in America.”
The answer to both is no. While it is fine to talk about and appreciate the differences between libertarians and conservatives, in our current political climate, its clear conservatives and libertarians need each other. Such talk of divorcing the movement is a distraction from what should be our one and only focus this year – making Barack Obama a one-term president.