Bridging the Conservative-Libertarian Impasse
By Bryan Caplan
A puzzle inspired by last night’s debate: Conservatives and libertarians were almost equally likely to praise “liberty.” You’d think this shared value would facilitate a constructive dialog. But it didn’t – not even for the subset of “economic liberty.” Why the impasse?
My best explanation: For libertarians, to believe in liberty is to believe in massive rollback of the state. For conservatives, to believe in liberty is to oppose further expansion of the state (at least in the economic realm). For conservatives, “liberty” means defeating Obamacare. For libertarians, “liberty” means separation of health and state – which means abolishing even ultra-popular programs like Medicare.
From a conservative point of view, conservatives have every right to the banner of liberty. After all, whenever they argue with liberals about economic policy, it’s liberty they’re trying to defend. From a libertarian point of view, in contrast, conservatives have no right to the banner of liberty. The U.S. already has a ton of government programs and regulations, and conservatives appear to accept – or even support – this statist quo.
Of course, conservatives might have the more reasonable position. Maybe economic policy is currently roughly optimal, so liberals are wrong to favor further expansions in government power, and libertarians are wrong to favor massive rollback. But even if this were so, conservative rhetoric is confusing. Indeed, conservatives’ own rhetoric needlessly makes them sound like hypocrites: If Obamacare is such an awful violation of individual liberty, why don’t you oppose Medicare, too? Well?
How can this rhetorical impasse be bridged? Maybe it’s impossible, but I’d like to propose a deal:
1. Instead of swearing allegiance to “liberty,” conservatives should say something like, “Economic liberty is more important than liberals realize, but much less important than libertarians think,” then explain where libertarians go wrong. The textbook list of market failures is the obvious place the start.
2. Libertarians should stop complaining about conservative hypocrisy, and focus on conservatives’ now-explicit critique of the dangers of excessive economic liberty.
P.S. Hope to see you at Capla-Con this weekend. Afterwards I’ll be on vacation for two weeks, so expect low volume.