Libertarianism v Conservatives

Last week a debate was hosted by Students For Liberty and America’s Future Foundation in DC by a group of interns. Libertarians (represented by CATO and IJ interns) faced off against Conservatives (represented by Heritage interns) in what turned out to be a heated debate that focused more on drugs than I would have originally thought, but after some reflection I realized that drug use is actually representative of the philosophical differences between the two groups.

It really comes down to sovereignty. Libertarians generally argue that our bodies belong to us, not the state, not our parents and not some higher being. Since our bodies belong to us we should be free to do what we wish as long as we don’t harm anyone else, or as the lovely Sara Scarlett put it, “I find it both perverse and grotesque that any decision concerning what is inserted into my body is anyone else’s business but my own.” Conservatives tend to pay lip-service to this principle but argue that the state should step in if the social costs are too high.

This is where things got interesting for me. The Conservative side certainly did argue that they were Consequentialists when it came to legal drug use. Unfortunately, many Conservatives refuse to acknowledge that evidence continues to show that prohibition of any drug only transfers that drug to the black market, increases violence, increases risk and harms society more. I don’t know why Conservatives do this, it seems intellectually dishonest to claim you care about the consequences but ignore evidence that says policy should change.

If conservatives decide that the consequences is not the best argument they need to fall on two other ideas: historical and morality. If Conservatives decide it is morally wrong for people to use drugs and the government should step in, why don’t conservatives fight for alcohol prohibition. The debaters addressed this by saying alcohol has historically been a part of American life. It seems strange to me to say that history trumps morality because that would justify maintaining all sorts of evils.

I think Conservatives (at least the two in this debate) did not have a strong footing for controlling what people put in their bodies. In fact, it was this lack of philosophical grounding that led me to leave the conservative belief system that I held through most of my life.

I am perfectly willing to respect people with different views as long as they strive for intellectual honesty and try to remove hypocrisy from their own thought and action, but these Conservatives I can’t even respect. They make excuses for the status quo desperately, even when it makes them look like fools.

UPDATE: Students For Liberty posted the video of the hour-long debate, and linked to two Bryan Caplan posts, Why Libertarians Should Be Conservatives, and Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians.

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7 Responses to Libertarianism v Conservatives

  1. Anima says:

    You say that: “Libertarians generally argue that our bodies belong to us, not the state, not our parents and not some higher being.” This is not true. Libertarians merely state that because an individual is the owner of one’s body no action over can be compelled by any institution of man. Some higher being may well have a greater claim on one’s body but that claim cannot be enforced by man. It is this that allows for Libertarians to be religious, the former idea does not.

    The reason Conservatives so stringently adhere to their war on drugs is as Sara, “Conservatism is nothing more than a collection of prejudices.” It is this very intellectual bankruptcy that Sara speaks of that you have sensed “a lack of philosophical grounding.” I would have to agree with you that the Conservatives came out swinging but lost the debate.

    • Prodigal Son says:

      I will concede your first point is accurate for some libertarians. Not all libertarians are believe in a higher being and even if some higher being existed (whatever higher being means) some libertarians would claim they still don’t have claim over our bodies.

      You are dead on with your second point though. Sara was absolutely correct when making those points about conservatism.

  2. I’m a former high Libertarian Party official who left the LP in disgust in 1990, as it was being taken over by the fringe loonies. In reflections since then, I’ve fallen away from “pure,” all-embracing libertarianism, for a single reason:

    Pure libertarian philosophy gives no guidance as to where its principles are inapplicable.

    There’s no such thing as a rule that applies to every aspect of existence. The pure libertarian philosophy of inviolable individual rights is no exception, for there are cases where it demonstrably cannot be applied. In their insistence that all political decisions can be made, morally and constructively, simply and solely by reference to individual rights, pure libertarians alienate persons who find 95% to 99% of their positions exceedingly attractive.

    The major thorns in pure libertarianism’s flesh are “children’s rights,” abortion, and international relations / warfare. There, “orthodox” conservatives have the right of it. But the pure libertarian is seldom willing to concede that his guiding principle might ever be insufficient. At that point, his philosophy degenerates into a faith…and most of us already have one.

  3. Allison says:

    Dear Francis,

    You have a point. I hope that the fringe libertarian loonies do not indict the rest of us, who are perfectly willing to agree that libertarianism – like most valid and valuable theories – has its outer limits.

    You say that “[p]ure libertarian philosophy gives no guidance as to where its principles are inapplicable.” I believe theories are inapplicable where their fundamental assumptions are inapplicable. As you mention, children’s rights do not fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. This is because libertarianism presupposes autonomous, (relatively) rational actors – a category that children do not and should not fall into.

    • Aaron says:

      To concur, I would point out Jeffery Friedman’s paper on Popper, Hayek, and Weber, and what ‘uncertainty’ really means. It’s especially relevant to argue that all of life, including science itself, is a discovery process, and remind us that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.

      A realistic libertarian will admit that our philosophy, like all others, isn’t capable of being a prescription for a better world. Instead, it’s best considered as a description of the human condition; guiding principles to be weighed and balanced against each other, usually but not always, to arrive at a result that is an improvement over the status quo. As such, it must be constantly open to the challenge and reevaluation that would prevent a libertarian dogma from coalescing.

      This view of Libertarianism might appeal in spirit to Churchill, when he said “[d]emocracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

  4. Tommy says:

    I wish the debate were more focused, as Professor Caplan pointed out. 90% of it seemed to be about drugs. I understand the empirical evidence that seems to contradict economic thought (Legalize something and you get less of it…?) is a big backing for the libertarian argument to decriminalize all drugs, including hard drugs.

    The biggest difference between the two was not who has ownership of one’s body (I will talk about that difference below), but rather the importance of the institution of Government to make social change. They believe Government should protect “institutions” such as the family, and less drug use. I believe that Government defining the institution will actually cause the deterioration of the historical and common “family”. One could offer a number of reasons why this would be (Asking Government to get married, Government has the final say, sacrileges the Sacrament, the necessity for divorce and the ease of attaining it, etc.), but I think just understanding Director’s Law is reason enough.

    Regarding the difference between the two sides on ownership of one’s body, Conservatives believe you cannot be free to have an non-virtuous aim in how you use your body. It would be similar to why Libertarians believe the that one person cannot harm another persons body. The belief is fundamental: Libertarians believe that we can do whatever we wish to our bodies, while Conservatives argue that the runoff of non-virtue will effect other’s, and therefor have the right to stop you from doing so. The question is, are you really free to do what you want, or only do as you ought? Morally, probably the latter. But, as the Conservative side said, you can’t ban laziness or private drunkenness, because it is impractical. Now, what the Conservatives did not mention is that what is “practical” many times is based on technology of the time. Currently, it is not practical to somehow monitor someone to make sure they are not getting drunk in ones’ own home… but what if the technology did exist for it? Would that suddenly become right? It would literally open the floodgates to arbitrary rule. Conservatives would be forced to honor virtue, which Governments simply cannot (In their very nature) defend.

    With respect to the Libertarian position, I am not sure where they would stand on other issues as child pornography, child-contracts, etc., since, as you said above, “..our bodies belong to us… not our parents…”. Defending the principle in theory and applying it to reality is where I believe the Libertarian philosophy falls short sometimes and rarely at best. In regards to these regarding children or mentally ill, should situations where ignorance (For lack of a better word) is prevalent allow someone else in practical authority to guide/control someone elses’ decisions?

    In the end, I was confused by how often the Conservative side would quote the founding fathers, how their principles are timeless, and why we should apply more weight to their beliefs. However, one of the debaters went off on how we should have nation-building overseas and how because of our lack of military presence in Afghanistan caused the Taliban to takeover. The first goes directly against what just about every founding father believed, and the latter was just extremely selective foresight with a lack of understanding of cause and effect.

    • Aaron says:

      The idea of a universal, objective standard for virtue is silly. Both conservatives and liberals suffer from a delusion that we can judge ‘good’, ‘right’, and ‘ought’, statements a priori, and abstractly.

      Further, saying that ‘society’ has a stake in preventing harms which are personalized and particular, essentially claims that particularized harm can be abstractly measured. Not a sound methodology. Libertarians would defend drinking, but not drinking and driving, because of the distinction between particular and generalized dangers. Society has a valid stake in limiting general harms, which are categorically distinct from widely prevalent particular dangers.

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