Some Differences & Similarities Between Libertarians and American Conservatives

(Let me explain to non-American readers at the outset that by "conservative" here I mean American conservative -- one who supports, among other things, the classical liberal tradition in America of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, private property, free markets, and a very limited role for the national government -- as opposed to classical European conservatism or paternalistic monarchism.  In the U.S. (at least) over the past 50-75 years or so, the term "liberal" was stolen by regulatory New Dealers and welfare statists so that the political term "liberal" now means roughly the opposite of what it once did in England.   In the United States, the term "liberal" tends to mean someone who favors dependency on big government while a political "conservative" in general favors independence and individual responsibility.)

Although libertarians and American conservatives may seem very similar, and are generally very similar on most issues, there are some differences which distinguish them from each other. While conservatives favor LESS of the kind of statist interventionism we have now -- less regulation, less taxation, less government spending -- the libertarian, while agreeing with the conservative that less is better, ultimately favors a DIFFERENT KIND of political system as the ideal toward which to strive, and not just less of what we have today. What libertarianism calls for is not only less of what we have now in terms of the tax-and-spend regulatory welfare state, but an across-the-board policy of laissez faire, to be imposed on all levels of political government (but of course especially on the national government which has grown so much in intrusive power at the expense of the states and the individual citizens) by constitutional law based on the principle of individual rights of person, liberty, and property.

So, from this perspective, the difference between conservatism and libertarianism is not one merely of degree or extent but of the kind or nature of the system that is seen as the ideal or ultimate goal. Libertarians strongly agree with conservatives in wanting less government (taxes, regulations, controls, spending, bureaucratic agencies, etc.) over our private affairs and market relationships, but libertarians do not want to stop at some arbitrary point of "less" and want to go on to eliminate, as far as is possible, all coercive interferences with the lives, liberties, and properties of peaceful people, leaving government only its proper coercive functions, under the policy of laissez faire, of combating domestic criminals and external enemies. Conservatives -- although they certainly advocate much less government intervention than "liberals" want over peaceful peoples' lives -- nevertheless do not go all the way to a pure laissez faire position as do libertarians. Libertarians see themselves as being more consistent to principle as they draw a sharp, clearly-defined line between the proper activities of government (i.e., protecting the rights of peaceful people by combating crime) on the one hand and when it goes beyond those proper functions and instead uses its coercive powers to initiate violence against peaceful citizens, thereby violating the rights it was set up to protect.

For example, many or most conservative Republicans want only to "balance the federal budget" -- a laudable goal in itself since it would presumably halt the increase in the National Debt on which American taxpayers are forced to pay enormous interest charges. But, libertarians want to go beyond merely "balancing" the federal budget. After all, what difference does a balance budget make if it is "balanced" at increasingly high levels of statism (of federal spending and taxation) that the taxpayers must carry on their backs? Wouldn't it be better (less statist) to have an unbalanced budget of $1 trillion than a balanced budget of $2 trillion in federal spending? Furthermore, recognizing the enormous harm that government spending, taxes, and regulations do to the economy and the massive violations of the rights of peaceful people this involves, what libertarians really want is to cut government down to its proper functions -- which would mean eliminating most of the Federal Government's currently existing departments, agencies, programs, controls, and spending levels. Where Republicans often speak of wanting to cut the rate of growth of government spending and taxation, libertarians want absolute reductions in the size and reach of government -- by abolishing whole departments and agencies (not just rearranging government employees). While acknowledging that President Bush's tax cut is good as far as it goes, libertarians want to use a gigantic meat ax to cut federal spending and taxation down below levels sustained in previous years or even in decades past, and keep cutting as much as possible to rein in fedgov to its minimal proper functions. By contrast, most conservative Republicans, especially after they get elected to Congress, are too timid to ever suggest something that radical.

Another example: Conservatives are against waste in government programs. Libertarians agree that Congress should implement the cost-cutting proposals of the Grace Commission as a good start, but they take the position that the best way to eliminate the waste in a federal program is to abolish the federal program altogether, and return the tax money funding that program back to the taxpayers from which it was taken so they may spend or save it as they see fit.

There are good conservative "supply side" economists who seem to share the libertarian demand for lower taxes, but some supply siders seem to suggest that they are calling for cuts in the rate of taxation only because they believe by so doing it will increase revenue to government in the long run by producing a larger tax base. Libertarians object to this rationale for manipulating tax rates, insisting that the aim of proper fiscal policy should NOT be to maximize revenue to the government but rather to keep cutting taxation down to the lowest level necessary for conducting the legitimate functions of government, and (ideally at least) ultimately supplanting the practice of confiscatory taxation with a system of non-coercive revenue devices. The issue, to libertarians, is the basic right to keep what one earns -- not dangling a supply-side carrot in front of workers and businessmen so they will work harder to increase the tax base in order to perpetuate the bloated welfare-warfare state.

Part of the difference between conservatives and libertarians stems from differences over what should constitute "crime"; conservatives, like many classical 19th century liberals in general, believe government should be used to prevent "harm" to others or harm to society. Libertarians see this as ambiguous; the term "harm" may be interpreted in many ways. By contrast, libertarians would restrict the organized powers of society (government) to combating crime -- and would restrict the definition of crime, basically, to the initiation of the use of coercion (violence, fraud, physical force) and in this context "coercion" or "violence" is broadly but clearly defined by the following three-part definition:

"Coercion" (or "violent force") is an act by a human or humans against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which is his own (his own person or property). It means for someone to take, use, meddle with or otherwise do something to the body or property of another human being without the permission or against the will of that other human being.

This definition of "coercion" or "violence" is based on the libertarian understanding of the principle of individual rights of self, liberty, and property of peaceful people and presupposes a social context, a volitional (human) context, and an ownership or proprietary context.

There are two kinds of coercion: initiatory coercion (the use of coercive force against someone who has not committed a coercive act against anyone) and retaliatory coercion (the use of coercive force in retaliation against someone who has initiated the use of coercion against someone).

It is the initiation (start) of the use of coercion (initiatory violence) that all libertarians oppose on principle, and this professed position sets them apart from all others.*(*I say professed position because not all those who profess to be libertarians are consistent in their adherence to this non-aggression rule or even attempt to avoid using government intervention to get special privileges at the forced expense of others. I even know some self-described "LeFevrians" who did not hesitate to use the political interventionism of bankruptcy to get out of their accumulated indebtedness to several creditors. But most libertarians do make a sincere effort to live according to their professed principles and at least try to avoid, as much as is practicable in our current mixed system, using government intervention to initiate coercion against the person or property of others.)

Libertarians oppose the initiation of the use of coercive force, by anyone (individual, group, or government agent) as a matter of principle since it violates the self-ownership or property rights of innocent human beings (those who have not initiated the use of violence against anyone). The vast majority of libertarians, like the vast majority of conservatives, favor the proper and righteous use of coercive force, according to rules of due process, to defend against or justly retaliate against criminals, i.e., those who have been convicted of violating the rights of someone by initiatory coercion.* [*There are a few libertarians who take an essentially pacifist position, eschewing retaliatory as well as initiatory violence in the spirit of Robert LeFevre and Andrew Galambos.]

The above definition of "coercion" (or violent force) covers everything from direct physical violence such as assault and battery to commercial fraud (a much more indirect but very real use of coercive violence) and includes such criminal acts as murder, rape, trespassing, burglary, kidnaping, shoplifting, and slavery, as well as such activities as legitimate arrest, detention, and incarceration of criminals by a proper government. It clearly does not include purely voluntary relationships -- relationships in which the will of each participant coincides (agrees with) the terms of the relationship. Notice that it does NOT include such "seemingly violent" games as football or hockey in which the players participate on a voluntary basis. The libertarian definition of "coercion" or violence also does not include non-threatening suggestions or persuasion, or attempts at persuasion, through mere communication, such as in billboard advertising or television commercial spots.* [*It is important here to keep in mind that a person's rights pertain only to what is his own. This means that if the market price for real estate which he owns drops, he may be disappointed, but the real estate owner's rights are not being violated since he does not own the market price (which is a product of social factors of market supply and demand), only the real estate itself. If, however, someone goes onto his property and does something against his will or without his permission, such as dumping pollutants on it, then that would be a coercive violation of his rights and he would have the right to demand proper government action against the trespasser.]

So, from the libertarian perspective, government should not meddle in the private affairs of a peaceful citizen between himself and his own property, nor should it interfere, either to help or to hinder, in the voluntary (market) relationships of peaceful people. The only sphere of human activity in which government ideally should have any legitimate concern or involvement at all is that in which someone violates the rights of another by initiating or threatening to initiate the use of coercion in violation of the rights of person, liberty, or property, or in facilitating the ultimate resolution of disputes involving property boundaries and conflicting claims. In other words, libertarians would limit government to thwarting and retaliating against crime and to protecting the nation's borders from external invasion or threat. Local police, courts, and national defense. Peaceful citizens should be left alone as much as possible. There would be no laws restricting what peaceful adults could do with their own persons and properties, whether it be take vitamins, drink beer, smoke pot, ingest rat poison, pierce ones belly button, or even commit suicide. Personal vices would not be treated as criminal acts that the government should control. There would be other institutions in society -- from the family and the church to specialized professional counseling services and "dry-out" clinics -- to help people with their personal vices. And, in the interpersonal realm, market exchanges would no longer be regulated by government. Peaceful adult citizens, both male and female, would be free to sign contracts and would be legally responsible for paying what they have agreed to pay as their debts to others. Government would not be used to police peoples' voluntary choices, whether they be foolish or wise, in the kinds of market exchanges they would enter into. Barring fraud (which, again, is an indirect form of violent force or "theft through deception" and therefore would be properly prosecuted by a libertarian government), the market maxim of caveat emptor ("Let the buyer be wary!") would be a lesson that all consumers would learn to heed in the absence of government intervention. Only outright violence and fraud would be banned by law from human relationships; all others would be permitted as far as government and the law is concerned. It would no longer be government's role to regulate, punish, or subsidize capitalist acts between consenting adults. This is the meaning of laissez faire.

But many conservatives are bothered by this strict policy of laissez faire which libertarians advocate. Many conservatives believe that the force of government and the law should not only be used to combat crime, but also to ban or regulate some personal vices of which they disapprove, such as drug abuse or gambling -- much in the same spirit that most "liberals" want to ban or regulate or tax such activities as gun ownership, cigarette smoking, driving SUVs, trying unorthodox alternative health treatments (laetrile, enzyme therapy, etc.), or certain kinds of private discrimination of which they disapprove.

By contrast, libertarians maintain that a forced morality is a contradiction in terms -- that, in order to be fully moral beings, adults must be fully responsible for their chosen actions and have the freedom to fail as well as to succeed, to make wrong choices as well as to make right decisions. The idea of allowing peaceful (non-criminal) adults of sound mind to have the freedom to choose what vitamins they may ingest or what drugs their doctors may prescribe -- in the absence of a political regulatory agency such as the FDA -- is scary to many conservatives as well as to many liberals. Libertarians are willing to let adult people take their own chances as long as they pose no threat of violence against the life, liberty or property of others and as long as they assume full responsibility for the consequences of their chosen actions and not force other people (e.g., the taxpayers) to bail them out if they get into trouble. This means no more tax-funded "welfare" to women who bear children out of wedlock. And it means no more government subsidies or loan guarantees to major banks or other big businesses that get into financial trouble. Most conservatives would tend to agree with libertarians on these last examples, but often balk at going all the way to an across-the-board policy of laissez faire which would allow peaceful adult citizens to assume full responsibility for their chosen acts and the consequences thereof.

Some conservatives, such as William Bennett, are enthusiastic supporters, for example, of the "War on Drugs" because they believe adult citizens need sort of a "morality safety net" to keep them from doing wrong things in much the same sense that New Deal/Great Society "liberal" Democrats demand the welfare state's financial safety net in the form of programs to subsidize those members of society who are defined as below the official poverty line in income. Many conservatives believe sincerely that using police officers and government courts to police the use of certain kinds of mind-affecting drugs will make people morally better than they would be otherwise. Government becomes sort of an in loco parentis chaperone for adult behavior.

Although libertarians may personally agree with conservatives that drug abuse is morally wrong and unhealthy, they nonetheless reject using the police powers of government to ban or regulate what substances adult citizens may choose to ingest; libertarians see this as an inappropriate and illegitimate use of governmental authority. Government, say libertarians, is for protecting peaceful people from violence, fraud, and external threat -- not for "protecting" adults from themselves and their own choices concerning themselves. The ultimate result of shielding men from the consequences of their foolish choices is to fill the nation with fools who never are allowed to mature. This tends to breed dependency on government just as the "liberal" welfare state traps its clients into a dependent relationship to government. Libertarians therefore see conservatives who support governmental drug prohibitionism as acting like "liberals" on that issue. And, just as Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" did not really vanquish poverty in America, so too the "War on Drugs" will never be won -- even if the whole country could be made into a giant prison with policemen on every street corner (after all, there are illegal drugs in prisons). Both "wars" set in motion forces which tend to perpetuate themselves rather than solving the social problem which was the excuse for their creation. And, the libertarians try to point out to conservatives, the more the "War on Drugs" is waged, the more the criminal gangs are empowered, spurred on by the lure of black market profits to be made in drug dealing -- big money that would not exist if the drugs were not illegal. Just as with liquor prohibition in the 1920s, violent crime tends to escalate as gang wars develop over territories or as drug deals turn sour. The police may valiantly fight this "war on drugs" and this may give some an pleasing adrenaline rush and a feeling of accomplishment whenever they make a drug bust -- but it will do little to solve the problem of drug abuse or street crime in general.

Some conservatives believe that legalization or decriminalization would be seen as "society" implicitly "endorsing" drug use as OK, sending the wrong message to impressionable young people. Libertarians acknowledge that many people fail to make a distinction between what is legal and what is moral, and that there will always be some who believe that if something is legal (not against the law) it must be moral and right for them to do. But, is this attitude fully honest or believable? After all, there are activities, such as watching television or deliberately getting bitten by mosquitos, which are not against any law (since there are no laws on the books that prohibit them), but which most people will recognize as immoral or unhealthy or stupid.

In this connection, it must be kept in mind that libertarians advocate freedom to buy and use controversial substances only for peaceful adults, not children. It is perfectly rational for there to be a prohibition against the sale of hallucinogenic or addictive chemicals to under-age minors as there is today with the sale of liquor. Libertarians in no way oppose shielding children from drug abuse, but only want a way for peaceful adults to have maximum freedom and self-responsibility for their chosen actions. (Notice that in a libertarian society, there would be no government welfare system or laws forcing the taxpayers or the rest of "society" to have to pay the medical bills for, or in any other way assume the responsibility for, the self-destructive actions of an adult citizen.)

Libertarians want to disempower the criminal gangs and street punks by replacing the current black (illegal) markets run by sleazy criminals with free markets run by responsible businessmen and pharmacies. They maintain that the "war on drugs" offers only a false sense of security to those who want peaceful neighborhoods and lower rates of violent crime.

But conservatives are concerned that if people were free to use marijuana or even hard drugs, many more people than now would experiment with those substances and mess up their lives by getting caught up in drug addiction. Libertarians must admit that there is a probability that there would be an increase in drug use and drug abuse by more people, at least initially, if drugs were legalized. Even so, libertarians could argue that the number of people involved in the drug culture could very well level off or even decline over time without the current lure of "forbidden fruit" that prohibitionism has for many.

Obviously, it would be great if everyone would just say "no" to mind-altering or addictive chemicals, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to second guess how people will behave if they are free to make choices without legal penalties imposed on them. Freedom always involves risks. Libertarians acknowledge this, and there is no way they can guarantee to conservatives that more people will not ruin their lives through drug abuse if prohibition is ended.

Libertarians are willing to allow peaceful adults to take responsibility for their chosen actions as long as they do not initiate violence or commit fraud against others. This involves risking the possibility that some people, perhaps many people, will make wrong or foolish choices with their own lives. Conservatives (and most "liberals" as well) are not willing to permit that risk.

One last point of clarification concerns the somewhat different ways in which conservatives and libertarians view the U.S. Constitution.  While it often seems that conservatives tend to view the Constitution as almost written by the hand of God or as an irreducible primary, most libertarians cherish the Constitution and its Bill of Rights as an important means to the end of defending individual rights -- those enclaves of freedom carved out in the Anglo-American tradition toward which government is to maintain a hands-off (laissez-faire) policy.  Many conservatives seem to base their entire argument for freedom and private property on the need for upholding the U.S. Constitution as strictly interpreted on the basis of the original intentions of the framers.  From a purely libertarian perspective, that is great as far as it goes.  It should be obvious that the American founding fathers -- especially Madison, Mason, Jefferson, and Adams -- were much closer to today's libertarians and conservatives in political philosophy than the currently prevailing "Liberal"-Left Establishment.   But libertarians do not view the Constitution as a perfect document or the "last word" when it comes to human liberty and individual rights.  While they support the Constitution and Bill of Rights as virtually indispensable documents which represent the greatest step in the history of man's climb toward greater freedom, libertarians ultimately base their positions on the issues of the day not on what the Constitution says, but on the more fundamental principles on which the Constitution itself rests -- namely, the natural principles which arise from the nature of reality and the requirements of man's nature in a social context.   Libertarians, from Jefferson and Bastiat to Rand, Rothbard, and Reisman maintain that peaceful adult humans have, in principle, rights to their lives, liberties, and properties antecedent to any government or man-made laws, and that the principle of individual rights is a true principle even if it is not recognized or is violated by either governments or ordinary criminals.  Constitutions and bills of rights are critically important codifications and explicit recognitions of those fundamental truths which underlie them; those documents do not create or "grant" rights or freedoms.

Arguing, as many true conservatives do, against this or that piece of legislation or act of government on the claim that "it is unconstitutional" works fine as long as the person or persons with whom one is arguing sincerely reveres the Constitution and takes it seriously as the supreme law of the land.   But most people in America today don't.  That is one reason why most libertarians tend to argue on principle (natural individual rights), and by using economic analysis to show the counterproductive consequences of political interventionism and socialism, rather than merely pointing out that something is "against the Constitution" or taking the Constitution as a given.  Until more people understand why the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are so important as bulwarks in defense of their freedoms, they are not likely to regain the respect for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights necessary to provide the necessary public pressure for government officials to uphold them.   (Of course, it could be argued -- as do Objectivists and others --  that because of the corruption of modern philosophy and the failure of the government schools to train students how to think properly in terms of principles, the problem is even more fundamental and the principles of individual rights, private property, and limited constitutional government must be unambiguously defended on the moral and philosophical levels as well as on the political and economic. )  For this reason, the case for individual rights of person and property and free markets must be made persuasively all the way down to their most fundamental roots in order to provide a solid foundation for constitutions and bills of rights to stand, so that they can in turn serve as guides in helping peaceful people reclaim and maintain their rights and freedoms from being trampled on.

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Overall, perhaps the major difference between libertarians and other conservatives is that libertarians advocate going much further than conservatives in cutting government down in size and scope and reducing its role in our peaceful everyday lives. But, despite these differences, conservatives and libertarians both oppose Big Government and advocate less government intervention than either the "liberal" Democrats or the socialists of the Far Left. Conservatives and libertarians are brothers on the pro-freedom American Right (in the U.S.), generally having much more in common than they do with the ultra-statist "liberal"-left. If conservatives and libertarians could cooperate more consistently on those issues on which they share common positions (which is most of them), they could balance out the lobbying and partisan pressures from the well-funded Establishment "liberal" organizations, foundations, and left-wing front groups pushing for more government. Such a conservative-libertarian coalition is greatly feared by left wingers since it would neutralize their efforts and threaten their anti-private property agenda of building fascism and socialism. If conservatives and libertarians can overcome some of their mutual suspicions -- partly fomented by ideological confusion and propaganda from the left -- their concerted efforts could be successful in rolling back some of the statist gains made in previous years which are so harmful to the nation.

The following are a few of the websites on which libertarians and conservatives work together for less government and more freedom and responsibility for peaceful citizens: