The State of the Debate

There is a grey area between the well defined conservative and libertarian movements. Those of us building our ideological frameworks between the two have found it becoming increasingly crowded. Even though many of us on the Right describe ourselves as “conservative/libertarian-ish,” when we do we are often viewed as either squishy libertarians or overly hard-nosed conservatives, and we are viewed askance from either side.

It is difficult to articulate the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism and where we in between should fit. Many imagine a sliding scale of political ideologies, with totalitarianism on the far left, anarchy on the far right, and mainstream party positions delicately placed near the center. In this model, libertarianism sits to the right of conservatism, almost as an afterthought. Many political scientists think that separate scales are needed for social and fiscal issues, such as the famous Nolan Chart, which lends a more prominent placement for libertarianism.

These efforts, while helpful to some, are far too rigid for reality. The ideological spectrum, like a watercolor painting of ideas, bleeds around the edges. There are no thick black lines that surround the beliefs of libertarianism and conservatism, or that demarcate where an individual falls. There is plenty of room for variation within this bright spectrum, and the practice of keeping separate encampments for libertarianism and conservatism ignores that we are both camped on the same side of the war of ideas.

Our task would be easier if there were a more generally accepted term for those of us in the philosophical grey areas between conservatism and libertarianism. “Fusionism” has been suggested, with the adherents being “fusionists.” Of course, anything can be “fused,” but in this case we mean the mixing of conservatism and libertarianism.

This endeavor is our ideological inheritance, handed down to us by leaders on the right of the twentieth century—specifically by William F. Buckley. While libertarians do not readily accept Buckley’s leadership because of his rejection of Ayn Rand’s and Murray Rothbard’s unyieldingness, he was a prominent advocate for fusionism. In his beliefs and behavior, he showed that building a winning movement means practicing addition, not subtraction.

Fusionism requires an understanding of where the real ideological schism lies. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg defines the real political demarcation as one between those who have learned the lessons of history and those who have not.

The biggest disagreement between conservatives and liberals is about whether or not we stand on the shoulders of giants. Conservatives believe that we do, and that the process of trial and error known as civilization has worked out a lot of errors. Arrogantly, some now fail to appreciate this fact.

In the August/September 2010 edition of Reason magazine, Goldberg notes that “at the intellectual level… economic libertarianism remains largely synonymous with economic conservatism. The Mount Rushmore of libertarian economics—Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Hazlitt, et al—quite simply is the Mount Rushmore of conservative economics.”

I strongly agree with the opinion of Buckley and Goldberg that a long-view strategy for the Right requires a more open relationship between libertarians and conservatives. I understand that this is an argument of utility; such arguments I myself have criticized. However, the survival of the free market is at stake; as we watch the overall trend of my generation veering left, I fear the war for liberty may be lost while we on the right skirmish over degrees of freedom.

However, the differences between libertarians and conservatives are already well defined, and redefining them is not the purpose of this discussion. Instead, what I propose is that the way forward for fusionism is to celebrate the moral superiority of free markets and limited government and do a better job of making those moral arguments to religious conservatives.

This task will not be an easy one, as those who are both religious and libertarian-leaning face strong cultural and ideological headwinds in our religious and political communities.

Religious institutions’ opposition to libertarianism is not new. The debate over Ayn Rand in particular, the high priestess of the Church of Mammon, has been relentless within the faith community. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is inherently atheistic, and the debate persists over whether her limited-government and free-market beliefs can be extricated from Objectivism as a whole.

It is not just Rand who rankles the faithful. The entire laissez faire approach to culture problems does not comfort those teaching the social gospel. A religious organization on the left once papered Washington, DC with a warning that “God is Watching,” implying that eternal damnation should be a consideration in the debate over the debt crisis. These religious liberals believe that all people of faith should be on board with their mission of using the government for God’s purposes, and they are actively seeking to win over religious conservatives to their cause as well.

Of course, opposition to fusionism does not just come from religious conservatives. Many libertarians, in the vein of Ayn Rand, believe that religious faith and libertarianism are inherently antithetical. The crux for them seems to be that if you can accept an all-powerful God as the answer to life’s existential questions, it is a natural consequence to accept an all-powerful government as the answer to society’s intrinsic problems.

Those who would consider themselves religious and libertarian find themselves challenged by both associations. But this is wrong on both counts. Unlike Objectivism specifically, there is nothing about libertarianism more broadly that is inherently atheistic. Also, there are very real moral arguments in favor of limited government and free markets that are appealing to most faith traditions. The fact that these arguments are not being made more vigorously is a shame.

While I cannot speak for all religious traditions, I can convey the significance of liberty to a follower of Jesus Christ and briefly outline a moral argument for fusionism.

Even as a lay person, the call to liberty and voluntary service to society are inescapable for Christians. Christianity starts with the individual, celebrates the individual’s inherent dignity and opportunity for salvation, and grows outwardly into community and kingdom. One of the end goals of Christianity is freedom; a consistent theme of the New Testament is that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). As a result, the level of orders of earthly authority flow from individual governance to the authority of the state, with the individual as the highest level of government and the state the lowest.

Christianity is voluntary because social engagement, while an imperative of our Christian faith, is the course by which we develop individual virtue. Any social obligation put forth in the New Testament is voluntary. There are no calls for governments or even church leaders to force servitude, only encouragement to voluntarily serve others. The Apostle Paul said repeatedly, “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone” (1 Corinthians 9:19) and “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13).

Capitalism, defined as free markets and limited government, is then compatible with Christian faith as it heightens personal responsibility in a manner that fosters morality within individuals. The father of free markets, Adam Smith, wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that these morals include honesty, self-discipline, diligence, and trustworthiness.

This is what Jonah Goldberg referenced when he said, “the real threat to America is [Aldous] Huxley’s vision of Brave New World. When government gives people their every desire it creates hollow men, or as [English Christian apologist] C. S. Lewis called them, men without chests.”

The warning of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is that the government can control people by giving them their every desire and removing from them any private sense of social responsibility. This mirrors what C.S. Lewis wrote in his social commentary The Abolition of Man: “in a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

Lewis speaks at length to the consequences of the atrophy of the “chest,” where moral principles including “valour and good faith and justice” are fostered. The building of these virtues is essentially important for Christians, for if our chests become irreversibly emaciated, we will lose our morals and we will lose our identity as free individuals.

These and many other themes in Christianity are echoed in other religious traditions which are very favorable to libertarianism. An example of what fusionism would look like between libertarians and religious conservatives is in the benefits that capitalism affords the poor. Presenting solutions to seek the eradication of poverty is an important place to begin because it is the singular issue which can most effectively deracinate the current political holdings of the religious Left.

The message needs to be clear that good intentions are never enough. Many who are motivated to help the poor are often persuaded to support government antipoverty programs because they are a very visible endeavor. We must not be satisfied with simply making a show of helping the poor. The case needs to be made that while you feel like you are helping the poor, statistics show that the poor might actually be helped.

A study from the Goldwater Institute looked at ten years of Census Bureau data (1990-2000) and compared the change in poverty rates in all 50 states. The results, even adjusted for immigration and economic catastrophe, showed that states with large poverty programs actually increased poverty over that time, whereas the states with the lowest levels of taxation and government spending drastically decreased poverty. The study’s author, Matthew Ladner, sums up the results saying, “although there are doubtlessly some who benefit from high state government spending, the poor do not seem to be among them.”

The study’s proposed solution is to stop passing legislation out of good intentions. Ladner says that “the failure of many government programs to reduce poverty should instill policymakers with a sense of humility. The causes of poverty have proven to be complex, and the ability of government programs to affect them has been limited.”

Indeed, the causes of poverty are complex, which is something that religious conservatives inherently understand. In the Christian tradition, the demographics usually mentioned when discussing the poor are the “widows, the fatherless, and the stranger.” What made these groups poor was their lack of individual rights. Depending on the specific situation, they likely did not have property rights or legal standing. They often did not have the option to enter the job market or the opportunity to be entrepreneurial.

Throughout history, the denial of these rights has resulted in material poverty and defined what it really meant to be poor.

Economist Art Carden, Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University, often articulates this desire to properly understand and accurately address the problem of poverty. “I want to see poor people made richer,” he has said. “A lot of ways that people go about doing that are wrong. I want to move people past simply meaning well, get them past thinking of benevolence only as hand-outs.”

Carden also recommended reading When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, a book that delves deeply into understanding the complicated nature of poverty.

One of the authors, Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, argues that we are all poor. The Christian argument is that all men have broken relationships with God, with themselves, with others and with creation. The concept of a broken relationship with others is important to the discussion of poverty alleviation.

Another book recommended by Carden is Generous Justice. In it, the well-known Manhattanite Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller points out that “helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. We must help, because doing so is key to the healing of our relationship with others.”

For those who are concerned with helping the poor, there is no validation in pursuing policies that on the surface appear to alleviate poverty, but that in the end do not. Anything that delegates the responsibility to help the poor to others or to government programs denies individual responsibility. Our direct help is what builds relationships with others; it is what prevents us from becoming Lewis’ hollow men.

This is best done through market interactions. The system of free markets and limited government not only has the best track record of alleviating poverty, but also of building personal relationships and improving individual virtue.

Large government programs have unfortunately provided a never-ending stream of data that demonstrates that well-intentioned legislation often has negative unintended consequences. We do not get credit for good intentions when we are headed down the path that is paved by them.

Such a path is unacceptable for people of faith, and specifically for religious conservatives. This is an area ripe for potential fusionism between libertarians and religious conservatives. While libertarians may believe in capitalism for different, more Randian reasons, the opportunity to reach out to religious conservatives must not be missed. We need not come to our free market convictions by the same path to agree on the superiority of capitalism.

The role of government in poverty alleviation is an issue that clearly unites and distinguishes conservative and libertarian fusionism from the left. Although I do not presume to know the place for fusionism in all areas (social issues chief among them), I am convinced that there is much more common ground for us to claim. It will be much harder to have this discussion if libertarians and religious conservatives continue down separate paths. By beginning with the issue of the negative effects of big government on the poor, we will clarify and sharpen our nuanced positions. As a result, we will provide solutions that are clearly distinguishable from the status quo.

Many religious liberals are actively marketing to religious conservatives (and in many ways winning them over) by appealing to their faith. If libertarians do not pursue fusionism with religious conservatives, we may find in time that liberals have succeeded in branding liberalism as the only religiously acceptable political ideology.

If that is the case, there would be no coalition on the Right. How then will there be enough of us to defend freedom?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jacqueline Otto emphasizes that libertarians and conservatives share the goal of a more market-oriented economic system. That system can be ours, she argues, but only if we work together. As a result, she criticizes what she calls “the practice of keeping separate encampments.” She stresses the individualist and voluntary character of the Christian faith, which she sees as a proper complement to a market order. She warns that should we fail to emphasize the morality of capitalism, those on the religious left will be happy to dismantle it for us.

Response Essays

  • Jeremy Kolassa argues that fusion with traditional American conservatism has failed. The divide on social issues is simply too deep. Even in economics, conservatives have tended to be pro-business rather than pro-market. When voters see special favors for corporations being touted as free-market solutions, they lose interest in markets as a policy. That makes market advocates’ jobs so much harder. The unequal treaty needs to end, and libertarians need to assert an independent political identity.

  • Clark Ruper reviews the history of fusionism, including the growth of independent libertarian institutions that don’t have to depend on the conservative movement anymore. Young people nowadays aren’t moving left, he argues. They are simply moving away from conservatism. The fusionist project is dead, and conservatives killed it.

  • Jordan Ballor argues that the libertarian exaltation of political liberty is dangerous: By privileging the power of the state, this worldview both gives the state too much importance and also undervalues the independent institutions of civil society. In reality, these institutions are bulwarks against the state. They represent the happy medium between atomistic individualism and Rousseauan collectivism. He ends with a plea for Burkean conservatism as the best way of constraining the statist/collectivist impulse.