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.