The Conservative Missionary
By Bryan Caplan
I had a blast at Wednesday’s Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Debate at Cato. It’s great to see students who care enough about fundamental ideas to publicly argue about them. Some attendees would have preferred a more focused topic, but I would have just slightly tweaked it to: “Why Libertarians Should Be Conservatives/Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians.” Persuading skeptics is usually more engaging than merely defending your position. If I were on the conservative team, here’s the opening statement I would have delivered.
Why Libertarians Should Be Conservatives
Liberty is an extremely important value. Unfortunately, most libertarians act like it’s the only value that really counts. There’s a lot more to life than liberty: Happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and even survival. Sophisticated libertarians will naturally object that liberty is great for all of these other values, too. Often, they’re right. But not always. Liberty and these other values sometimes conflict, and there’s no reason why liberty should always prevail.
Let’s start with the area where libertarians and conservatives have the most common ground: economic policy. Libertarians have convincingly shown that free markets are underrated. So far, we agree. But there’s more than a kernel of truth to liberal complaints about the conflict between markets on the one hand, and prosperity, equality, and common decency on the other. We have a lot more government intervention than we should. But just as liberals exaggerate the benefits of government, libertarians exaggerate its defects. Judiciously halving government’s role in the economy is reasonable. Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not.
Outside of economics, libertarians make the same basic mistake. But here, they’re not alone. Many liberals also downplay the conflict between personal freedom and other values – and libertarians compound their error by being even more absolutist. Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies. Would I ban alcohol? No – there are plenty of responsible users. But I do favor many existing government policies that try to limit the collateral damage of alcohol – age limits, sin taxes, licensing, and maybe even rehab programs. I’m open to the argument that marijuana deserves comparable treatment, but unlike libertarians and many liberals, I think we should cautiously modify existing laws instead of abolishing them willy-nilly. If marijuana legalization proves a resounding success, we can talk about harder drugs in two or three decades.
I see the same problem with immigration policy. A few liberals – and many libertarians – literally advocate open borders. I recognize that immigration is the greatest foreign aid program in human history, and I sympathize with the plight of would-be immigrants in the Third World. Most immigrants – legal or not – are nice people. But open borders is crazy. It seriously risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. I’m very open to more cost-effective and humane ways to deal with the negative effects of immigration. But as long as immigrants are eligible for government benefits, hurt low-skilled native workers, and vote, the only people we should readily admit are the highly-educated and clear-cut humanitarian cases. I’d put Haitians in the latter category. Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable, but asking Haitians to starve in post-earthquake Haiti is a disgrace.
Finally, let me turn to foreign policy. Here again, liberals engage in much wishful thinking, and libertarians compound their errors. Modern warfare is terrible. Most of the people the United States kills in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are innocents. If there were some way to spare them and successfully fight our mortal enemies at the same time, I’d strongly advocate it. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to do so. Muslim terrorists really do want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and they’re happy to use fellow Muslims as human shields to do it.
I know, they “only” murdered 3000 people on 9/11, but the distribution of terror has a long right tale. Slightly better planning by the terrorists could have multiplied the deaths by a factor of 10. The next big attack could easily be bigger by a factor of 100. And if you think Americans “overreacted” the first time, wait and see what they’ll support the next time around. Liberals and libertarians who impede decisive action now are probably paving the way for worse things to come – a downward spiral that makes World War I look benign by comparison. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the sad world we live in.
Don’t get me wrong. I treasure the libertarian contribution to modern political thought. Where would conservatives be without libertarian economists to expose the defects of government intervention? Libertarians are a valuable conscience on the conservative shoulder, asking us, “Why not freedom?” But in the real world, there are often good reasons to respond, “Here’s why not.” Sometimes in all good conscience, we must admit that the effect of liberty on other important values is too costly to pay.
P.S. “Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians” is coming Monday.