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Millennials rumble: Conservatives debate libertarians at CATO

Screengrab from Cato Facebook

Hundreds of Washington D.C. interns and young policy enthusiasts attended the Cato Institute’s annual libertarianism vs. conservatism debate on August 3. In it, interns hashed out many issues which divide young millennials on the right. These included American foreign policy dominance, drug legalization, and security versus privacy.

The debate featured two conservative interns from the Heritage Foundation, the largest funnel for the conservative movement, and two libertarian interns from CATO, the world’s premier libertarian think tank.

The debate focused on one broad question: Is libertarianism or conservatism the superior political ideology?

Ellen Rogers, a student from King’s College in New York, and Meridian Paulton from Patrick Henry University represented the conservative side. The libertarian side featured John Konicki from Vanderbilt University and Jack Brown from the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. Charles C. W. Cooke, Editor of National Review Online, was the moderator.

The conservative interns tried to find common ground where possible, while the libertarian interns aimed to draw a greater distinction between their ideological differences.

Paulton defined libertarianism as viewing liberty as an end in itself and conservatism as viewing liberty as “a means to human flourishing.” She emphasized that liberty mixed with prudence produced an environment for humans to flourish in their communities.

Brown, in his opening statement said “conservatism is filled with inconsistencies.” He went on to reference conservatives’ penchant for small government except in matters of foreign and social policies. “Their philosophy puts everything they hold dear in jeopardy if they lose one election,” he added.

The libertarians repeatedly argued that while conservatives rightfully criticize top-down progressivism on fiscal policy, their use of big government to preserve social norms has enabled progressives to use the same means for their ends when they gain power.

On foreign policy, the libertarians derided massive defense spending, arguing that it is unnecessary for security. Rogers reminded the libertarians that the debate was not over budget numbers, but over whether the United States should be the world’s dominant military force. She said that if the U.S. ceased to play that role, China and Russia would fill the void.

Brown countered that many of America’s allies pin China, geographically speaking, so the U.S. should rely on them to step up and defend themselves. He also argued that European nations have not been paying their fair share for defense; if they did, the United States would not view Russia as such a large threat.

The debate also turned to the issues of drug policy and privacy. While they made clear that they oppose drug legalization, the conservatives did not defend the way that the U.S. government has fought the drug war.

Paulton made a preemptive argument to the oft-repeated libertarian claim that drug use is not a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle because it harms no one but the user. She pointed out that unlike alcohol, heroin use goes straight to the bloodstream and cannot be used for recreational purposes without jeopardizing others.

The conservatives defended the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the National Security Administration’s (NSA) existence as well as methods, arguing that they keep Americans safe. Paulton said that unlike libertarian mischaracterizations, the NSA cannot look into meta data without a warrant.

The last 20 minutes consisted of questions from the attentive audience.

Daniel Lauer, an intern at the Capital Research Center said he describes himself as a conservative, but that Konicki’s answer to a question about the opioid epidemic was the best he ever heard from a libertarian. Konicki explained why he believes opioid addiction is a problem for civil society to solve rather than the government.

Andrea Vacchiano, who interns at The Daily Caller said she thought “both sides did a good job” and that “it highlighted how much overlapping libertarianism and conservatism have at the end of the day.”

While both conservatives and libertarians are right-leaning, the differences in opinion can often cause contentious debate. This event, on the other hand, showed just how much the right has in common, and how disagreements can be handled in a civil manner. If only the rest of the world could handle political discussion as well as these young interns did the other night.


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