One question that we’ve all danced around a bit is whether the old “fusionist” project, wedding cultural conservatives to libertarians, makes sense any more. As a social conservative weary of unfulfilled and unfulfillable boasts about how we’re going to “drown the federal government in the bathtub,” I’m occasionally inclined to say no—as are a lot of people these days, from the crunchy-con critics of capitalism to the lifestyle-libertarian opponents of the religious right.
Ultimately, though, I think the marriage still makes too much political sense to be broken up. Libertarians—at least libertarians who care more about the size of the federal leviathan than about, say, gay marriage—can’t ditch social conservatives, because without social conservatives (and particularly evangelical Christians) there wouldn’t be any significant constituency for small government reform in America. By and large, the Americans most interested in, say, school choice or social security privatization, or what-have-you are also the people lining up to oppose abortion and gay marriage. The upper-middle-class voters the GOP has been losing to the Democrats over social issues aren’t natural libertarians; if they voted for Reagan, they did so because he promised to cut their taxes, not because they had any interest in hacking away at entitlement spending. The notion—advanced by Andrew Sullivan, among others—of a socially liberal, budget-cutting, hawkish third way is pretty much just a fantasy.
At the same time, small-government libertarians can’t ditch social conservatives because it’s precisely their emphasis on values, churches, and families—however authoritarian it can sometimes seem—that make libertarianism possible at all. Boaz writes that “the limited-government agenda has to include a greater insistence on individual responsibility”—and where is this going to come from if not from social conservatives? By the same token, social conservatives can’t ditch libertarians because of the lesson of Europe—which is that if you set out to create a socially-conservative big government, you’ll destroy the very incentives that make faith and family thrive in the first place. (Also, libertarians are “wicked smaht”—much smarter than your average social-con—and useful to have around in an intellectual knife fight.)
All of which is to say that the underlying realities that Frum limned in Dead Right, over a decade ago, haven’t changed that much. These are tough times for the conservative alliance, and it’s to be expected that social-cons would blame libertarians for the Right’s difficulties, and vice versa. But like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.