The Intellectual Absurdity Of Libertarian-Conservative Fusionism

The libertarian movement finds itself immersed once again in a debate over strategy and where, exactly libertarianism fits in to the American political milieu. Specifically, I’m referring to the ongoing debate about “fusionism” that is perhaps best typified by the May 2013 exchange of essays over at Cato Unbound, which I recommend that everyone who is concerned about the future of what some people have started to call “the liberty movement” read. In it’s most basic form, fusionism refers to the idea that libertarians ought to ally themselves with the conservatives as a way of advancing their ideas. Implicit in this position is the idea that libertarians and conservatives have enough ideas in common to form a coherent political alliance, and that the differences are minor enough that the political alliance can be maintained without one side being subsumed into the other and rendered a virtual nullity.  Most specifically, I would argue that this is the danger that libertarians face in any alliance with a conservative movement that is far more numerous and political powerful, and one of the many reason why any argument in favor of fusionism should be viewed with deep skepticism.

The most important thing to remember in dealing with the entire fusionism debate is that, contrary to Ronald Reagan’s famous quote in a 1975 interview with Reason Magazine that “the very heart of  conservatism is libertarianism,” there are and always have been significant differences between conservatives and libertarians when it comes to basic political philosophy.Where conservatives place significant value in the preservation of “tradition” and generally stand against the idea of radical change, libertarians generally advocate a political philosophy that stands in direct challenge to the status quo, rejects the idea of tradition for tradition’s sake, and emphasizes the primacy of the individual over the group, whether that group be the “traditional family,” the church, or the state. On some level it’s hard to see how conservatives and libertarians can be compatible with each other on any level given their significant core differences.

Even getting beyond the core differences, though, the similarities between conservatives and libertarians are far less obvious than might seem at first glance. For example, it is often stated that libertarianism is basically a mixture of “fiscal conservatism and social liberalism,” meaning that libertarianism is a blend of conservative economic policy and “liberal” social policy on issues such as personal freedom. However, as Jeremy Kolassa pointed out in his initial essay during May’s Cato Unbound debate, there are significant differences between libertarian and conservative views on economics and government fiscal policy:

[W]hat about economics? Surely we can agree with conservatives there. But let’s be honest, Jonah Goldberg was incorrect in saying that Friedman, Hayek, et. al were the Mount Rushmore of conservative economics. Conservative economics is more aptly described by the term “trickle down”: By giving tax breaks and subsidies to corporations and those at the top, the wealth will flow downward and lift the boats of those at the bottom. But that is not increasing freedom or limiting government, it is merely tilting society in the direction of one group rather than another.

That’s not libertarian. A libertarian economic policy would be to eliminate all the subsidies given to businesses, give the tax breaks to everybody, and knock down the barriers that prevent newcomers from setting up businesses. Libertarianism is universalist, not top-down.

This highlights the major difference between “libertarian” and “conservative” economics. Libertarians are pro-capitalism. Conservatives are pro-business. While they sound similar, these ideas are emphatically not the same and never could be. Through the means of creative destruction, capitalism frequently tears down and destroys established businesses. Conservatism, however, in its quest to maintain the status quo, steps in to prevent this. The best example? 2007. If conservatives were truly pro-market, they would have never passed TARP, but they did and bailed out the banks. That’s a conservative, not a libertarian, economic policy.

If conservatives and libertarians can’t even really agree on economic policy, then where’s the basis for the alliance?

Perhaps my biggest problem with fusionism in its current incarnation, however, is the extent to which it demands that libertarians silence their criticism of their so-called conservative allies in the name of “unity.” Even if one accepts the argument that libertarians and conservatives are on the same side when it comes to economics, there is no denying that there are significant differences between the two sides on many issues. The most obvious, of course, are social issues such as gay marriage, the drug war, pornography, and, for some but not all libertarians, abortion rights. In addition to that, it’s generally the case that libertarians have a far more restrained view of what proper American foreign policy should be than conservatives do, even in today’s era where conservatives suddenly seem to have become anti-war when the war is being led by Barack Obama. Based on those differences alone, the idea that libertarians and conservatives are just two sides of the same coin is clearly false.

So, this leads us to the inherent flaw of modern fusionism. People who consider them libertarians are expected to join conservatives in their vehement, and often insane when expressed by people like Michele Bachmann and Allan West, criticisms of the left, and they are also expected to keep their mouths shut when it comes to criticism of their so-called conservative allies when they advocate policies that clearly violate libertarian principles. That’s not an alliance, it’s surrender. If libertarians stay silent while conservatives continue to push continually absurd arguments against marriage equality that advance hateful and bigoted stereotypes about homosexuals, for example, then they are essentially abandoning their principles in favor of short-term, and likely quixotic, political gain. There is no value in keeping your mouth shut just so you can be part of the political “Cool Kids Club.”

None of what I’ve said here should be taken as a rejection of the idea that libertarians should reject the idea of temporary alliances with people on the right to advance specific issues. There are plenty of such issues where conservatives and libertarians can find common ground to push through policies and make progress on the local, state, and federal levels, and coalitions have always been a part of politics in the United States.  However, there’s a difference between coalitions and surrender, and it’s clear to me that fusionism demands nothing more than abject surrender from libertarians and expects them to become little more than the lapdogs of conservatives. Well, we’ve tried that one before, my friends, and it didn’t work. We’d be foolish to try it again.

On a final note, I’d like to note that conservatives aren’t the only ones at fault here. One of the major problems with libertarianism is that, in many ways, it is not a coherent philosophy but rather a hodgepodge of different philosophies that have united under the banner of libertarianism. Among our ranks there are minarchists, Hayekians, the Mises crowd, fans of Milton Friedman, utilitarians, Christian libertarians, anarchists, and anarcho-capitalists. Given that the general principles of libertarianism are still very much in the minority in the United States, perhaps its inevitable that people who clearly have their own deep philosophical differences. However, the lack of a core philosophy is, arguably, one of the biggest weaknesses of libertarianism. I intend to address that issue in a future post.

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  • Ed

    “Among our ranks there are minarchists, Hayekians, the Mises crowd, fans of Milton Friedman, utilitarians, Christian libertarians, anarchists, and anarcho-capitalists. Given that the general principles of libertarianism are still very much in the minority in the United States, perhaps its inevitable that people who clearly have their own deep philosophical differences….”

    What an absurd objection. ANY movement more substantial than a personality cult could be described the same way. What is the left but an alliance of similar interest and ideological groups? Unions, Fabian socialists, environmentalists, Marxists (with their own dozens of splinter groups), homosexuals, coroporate statists…..

    The basis of commonality can start with the 10th Amendment. I dont know a libertarian of any stripe that wouldn’t agree (to at least some extent) that power at the state level is preferable to power at the national level. The SoCons and libertarians can agree to fight out stuff like homosexual marriage and abortion at the state level.

    Ed

  • smokedaddy

    If anything, I’d describe myself as a conservative with strong libertarian leanings. But the problem I have with the Libertarian wing is, ironically, their intolerance when it comes to the views and aspirations of their potential allies whether Social Cons or simply fusionist cons. Having extensively read Reason and Cato over the years, this appears to me to be motivated not by rational thought, but as a result of a deep immaturity rooted in a High School mentality of not wanting to be seen hanging with the wrong crowd. These wannabe’s are so intent on being seen as cool or respectable by the in crowd in media & Hollywood that they throw their brethren under the bus at the slightest pretext. I don’t see this on the part of the SCs or most of the regular conservatives, mostly, I think because they do NOT crave the approval of their betters on the left. This is true even with regards libertarian’s views of the Tea Partiers, though not completely. Its as though even though mom is giving you 90% of what you say you want in the form of constitutionally limited government, you just gotta make fun of the way she does her hair. Ridiculous.

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  • http://blog.BennettAndBennett.com Mark W. Bennett

    I dont know a libertarian of any stripe that wouldn’t agree (to at least some extent) that power at the state level is preferable to power at the national level.

    I wouldn’t. The proposition is by no means self-evident. Arguably, a distant seat of state power is preferable to a local one. Empirically, states put many more people in prison for things that shouldn’t be crimes than the feds do.

  • Ed

    Smoke,

    I find myself in near total agreement with your observations on libertarians – of whom I consider myself one.  Too many are terribly reluctant to be seen siding with unhip conservatives even when their alleged belief system would seem to dictate it.  They’re more concerned with holding positions that Bill Maher or Jon Stuart wouldn’t consider uncool.
     
    Take homosexuality for example.  It should be of no consequence to a libertarian that a person is anti-homosexual so long as he isn’t proposing government actions against hoosexuals.  If the Boy Scouts don’t want to accept them, or some preachers want to call them names, the only true libertarian response is that freedom of association allows the former and freedom of speech the latter.  This is the sort of issue on which you can distinguish between someone who truly values liberty as an ideal and someone who is merely liberTINE.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being libertine – I’m a libertarian after all.
     
    Ironically the sort of “libertarian” who joins the leftist choir in denunciating those who hold Politically Incorrect beliefs strengthens the hands of statists.  I can’t imagine why a libertarian would be in the denunciation business except to denounce statism and its horrible manifestastations. 

  • MingoV

    It’s ironic that recently there was a push for a libertarian-left wing (I won’t call them progressives) fusion because there is (supposedly) agreement about human rights and freedom. This is more of a farce than libertarian-conservative fusion. The left-wing believes that privileges are equivalent to freedoms or rights. It also believes that only the government can grant and protect privileges; thus, the more privileges, the bigger the government.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    I dont know a libertarian of any stripe that wouldn’t agree (to at least some extent) that power at the state level is preferable to power at the national level. The SoCons and libertarians can agree to fight out stuff like homosexual marriage and abortion at the state level.

    It is just as intolerable that individual rights are proscribed at a state or local level than at a national level. One of the most important aspects of Supreme Court jurisprudence on the 14th Amendment is the “incorporation doctrine” — the idea that States can’t take away rights that the federal government cannot take away.

    When it comes to rights, I don’t want to leave it up to the states. That’s what gave us Jim Crow. Hell, prior to the Civil War, that’s what gave us slavery. When it comes to *expanding* rights, I’d much rather it be decided that those rights be expanded at the federal level and the incorporation doctrine dictate that states can’t contravene the more lenient federal policy.

    As a specific example, I know that both Conservatives and libertarians cheered the McDonald v. Chicago decision — expanding the incorporation doctrine to the 2nd Amendment. That could be something that you suggest might be ‘battled at the state/local level’, but when it’s the RKBA, wouldn’t you agree that even a state or a city shouldn’t have the power to take that right away from you?

    These are, of course, the “negative” powers of government — the government’s protection of your negative liberties.

    I would, of course, agree that most positive* power is preferable at the state or local level. I.e. if the government is aiming to “do” something, then I would prefer the decisions be made as close to me as possible, and with the greatest chance for “exit” of the jurisdiction where they act. When it comes to government taxation, government action and programs, having “50 laboratories across the land” experimenting and competing against each other is a good thing.

    But not when it comes to protecting rights.

    * (Note I use “positive” here not in the sense that I approve of these government actions, merely as a descriptive term for when the government “does” something as opposes to “restricts” something.)

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Ironically the sort of “libertarian” who joins the leftist choir in denunciating those who hold Politically Incorrect beliefs strengthens the hands of statists. I can’t imagine why a libertarian would be in the denunciation business except to denounce statism and its horrible manifestastations.

    I usually try not to denounce those who hold politically incorrect beliefs. I denounce those who I believe hold bigoted beliefs. I do this not because I am a libertarian or libertine; I do this because I am human.

    I *do not ever* advocate for censorship of bigotry, I *do not ever* advocate for government punishment for bigotry, and I *do not ever* advocate that private organizations should be forced to accept/cater to people who they do not want to. Whatever my personal beliefs about bigotry, I do not want government to get in the business of enforcing political correctness, because I know where that leads. Thus I reserve the right to criticize others as a human, but as a libertarian I *do not* wish to enact my personal criticisms with the force of law.