Thoughts On The Libertarian/Conservative “Alliance”

Over at Liberty Pundits, Melissa Clouthier argues that libertarians and conservatives are natural allies:

Libertarians want the government to bug out. Conservatives want the individual to empower himself. Libertarians believe in rational self-interest. Conservatives believe help and charity come from a giving heart–not from the government’s pointed gun.

Their motivations might be different, but their desired outcomes are the same. When Big Government Republicans talked about compassionate conservatism, they implied that conservatism is mean and harsh. They believed that they cared because they wanted to give people something for nothing.

They cared with other people’s money. I can be very generous when I’m writing checks off of someone else’s checking account. And boy do they all feel generous. But we are all paying the bill. And maybe some of us would pay for some of these things anyway. Americans are a very generous people. But many things are useless or worse, actively harmful and the government has no business being in that arena.

Conservatives and libertarians have much in common. Libertarians need to get over their God issue and actually see their friends in the conservative movement. They need to see the Restoring Honor rally for what it is: a call for personal responsibility and living free as an individual (which means being free to live with consequences and not expect someone else to bail them out).

And conservatives need to ignore the libertarian drug and sex obsession and see the small government, fiscally responsible desires in the libertarian movement.


The small government strains coming from these two groups naturally work together. Both true conservatives and libertarians distrust big government in all its forms whether the party is Republican or Democrat.

While I don’t doubt Melissa’s sincerity, I think what she misses here are the facts which seem to establish that that the conservative/libertarian “alliance” is really just a marriage of temporary convenience.

For better or worse, victory for conservatives means victory for Republicans. You can make distinctions between small-government fiscal conservatives and “Big Government Republicans” all you want, but the truth of the matter is that conservatives cannot succeed unless the Republican Party as a whole succeeds, and that means allying with and often voting with “Big Government Republicans.” Now, personally, that doesn’t bother me on some level. I”m willing to take an Olympia Snowe or a Mike Castle if it means Rand Paul is part of a Senate Majority. However, if you look at the history of the GOP as a whole, it’s hard to find any example from recent where the party was truly responsible for a reduction in the size, scope, and power of the Federal Government. It happened during the Reagan Administration, but even those modest gains have been reversed over the past decade, thanks mostly to a Republican President and Congress. So, on some level, libertarians and conservatives who hitch their star to the GOP are selling their souls and accepting the reality of short-term, temporary gains rather than long-term change.

More importantly, though, there are fundamental differences between libertarians and conservatives that make any kind of an alliance one of mere convenience rather than anything permanent. The great Frederich von Hayek outlined some of those differences in his 1960 essay Why I Am Not A Conservative (note that when Hayek uses the word “liberal” he is referring to it in it’s classical, principally British, sense of a belief in free markets and individual liberty, not the modern sense):

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,”[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.


The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies. Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy. So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth.

This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

The truth of Hayek’s observation can, I think, be found in the history that has passed since he wrote those passages fifty years ago. Except on the margin’s the march of the state has continued unabated regardless of which party was in power and regardless of whether the President was a (modern) liberal or a conservative. Ronald Reagan, as I noted, did little to reverse either the New Deal or the Great Society and Republicans, who campaigned on eliminating the Department of Education in 1980, turned around made it even more powerful when they finally achieved long-sought-after goal of a Republican President and Republican Congress.

Moreover, when it comes to certain aspects of government, conservatives have proved themselves as willing to increase the power of the state as their liberal opponents. The National Security State is largely a creature created by Republicans, and the PATRIOT Act, passed without even being read in the panic that ensued after the September 11th attacks, is now being used by law enforcement to go after people who have no connection to terrorism at all. Privacy from government surveillance and intelligence gathering is fast becoming a myth, and neither conservatives nor liberals seem willing to do anything about it.

And then there’s the issue of the social conservatism aspect of modern American conservatism. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, sexual privacy, or individual automony there are fundamental philosophical differences between libertarians and conservatives that become more apparent once you look past the agreements on fiscal policy.

So, yes, on a temporary basis, libertarians and conservatives have common ground at the moment. But it’s very small common ground and I don’t expect any “alliance” to last very long given past history.

  • Eric Dondero

    Look in the mirror fellow Libertarians. Why does government grow under Republicans? It’s not their fault; it’s ours. We don’t lift a g-damned finger to help out our conservative friends when they are being bashed mercilessly by the liberal media and Democrat elected officials for being “Meanies,” who want to take away Grandma’s Social Security check.

    Look at 2005, when Bush proposed partial privatization straight from a friggin’ Cato Institute policy paper. Did we Libertarians rally behind him, and cheer him on? Did we defend him against ruthless attacks by the liberal media?

    Hell no! We bashed him even more, accusing him of not going far enough.

    Enough of this stupid-ass Blame Republicans crap for the growth of government. WE LIBERTARIANS ARE THE ONES TO BLAME. Unless we defend our Conservative friends, and the Republican Party we wil never, ever advance the cause of Liberty.

  • http://n/a chuckasomas

    @Eric Dondero
    Well said!

  • Doug Mataconis

    Look at 2005, when Bush proposed partial privatization straight from a friggin’ Cato Institute policy paper

    And when he faced the slightest bit of resistance from Congress he ran away with his tail between his legs like a frightened puppy. If you’re going to propose an idea like that, you need to have the balls to take the heat that’s going to come with it. Bush didn’t

  • cbjr

    “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

    – G.K.Chesterton

  • Barry Klein

    Play politics to win…Here is how:

    This is a free market strategy that has one first working to make local governments more humane before working to make them smaller. This game plan lets activists reap victories that are either consistent with goals of free market advocates or actually shrink the governmental footprint. The short term successes are stepping stones to more fundamental issues that would push local jurisdictions down the path to smaller government. The key idea is to move quickly when a scandal breaks that puts a local unit of government in disgrace. These moments create openings for reformers to craft policy responses that take the moral high ground with which few would disagree and then build coalitions for change.

  • Norm

    I say again until we do away with the spoiler effect we will continue down this serpentine road to serfdom. Our election system enshrines the two party system where both parties run after the Alvin Green voters abandoning their principles along the way.

    I see no change until there is a paradigm shift to a ranked balloting system that stops the practice of voting for the lesser of two evils. Until then this systemic problem will continue to divide conservatives (the anti-liberals) from the libertarians (the pro-freedom). You want them to get together? Work for IRV!!!

  • Ayn R. Key

    Dondero thinks that Republicans fail to implement small government because Libertarians don’t do enough to help Big Government Republicans. It is deeply ironic.

    As long as Republicans show they do not deserve our support, there is no reason to give it to them.

  • Procopius

    Why does D. Mataconis pretend to fret over reversing such landmark, massive legislation as the New Deal programs and the PATRIOT Act, when he spent such a large amount of energy in making his position on state nullification known?

    So what’s supposed to be the only avenue available to make these historic changes, other than a Con-Con?

  • Michael Fraley

    You might be correct in saying the “it’s very small common ground”, but I would say that there is in fact a larger common ground that lies “in the middle” (it pains me to say that, since all sorts of alarms immediately go off). I say this because I believe, based on the Constitution, the early writings of the Founders, and a reasoned approach to the current state of this world (ok…again the alarms), that the only truly sustainable position for this Republic lies in that middle “common ground.”
    I don’t believe it’s all that complicated: most power and government activity needs to be brought back to the individual states, where it rightly belongs. The various cultural issues need to be settled at the state…drug laws, morality laws, etc. Some states will tend toward licentiousness, some toward prudishness, but that was the nature of our early Republic, and that was the intent to allow the safest and most sustainable balance of individual freedom and exercise of law.
    I think you’ll find more and more conservatives identifying with limited central government as a central tenet…over national security and cultural issues. This is what is driving the tea-party movement.
    However, like it or not, this republican experiment was successful beyond the imagination of the Founders…so much so that our nation has driven two centuries of world prosperity and become the preeminent superpower. That means we are a target and hence, our security and standing require the international entanglements that you perhaps disdain. We have no choice…BUT, that is not card blanch for mischief around the world – nation-building and the like.
    So, I would agree with Ms. Clouthier’s analysis, and say there is a very natural place for alliance, if the focus is to begin shrinking the federal government, begin to move all non-Constitutionally mandated activities to the states, and start to sever the connection between the central State and the individual.