An Unequal Treaty

Fusion. It sounds like such a great thing, the coming together of two or more different elements into one complete and harmonious whole. But don’t let the word fool you. The past several years, decades even, of fusionism between libertarians and conservatives has been anything but that. This fusion can best be described as an unequal treaty, with conservatives in control, while libertarians are told to sit down, be quiet, and just support whatever conservatives are pushing at the moment. That we are even having this discussion shows how far libertarianism has come, and how unworkable the current situation is.

While libertarians and conservatives may share some ideas in common, they come from fundamentally different philosophical foundations. In my mind, these foundations are, indeed, incompatible. As the name suggests, libertarianism is about liberty, specifically individual liberty. Conservatism, on the other hand, is about conserving as much of the past as possible, and having as little change as possible. Libertarians are excited about the future and the changes that await us, in technology, society, culture, and in many different fields. Conservatives, on the other hand, just shudder. Libertarians love freedom. Conservatives love tradition. These are not philosophies that we should expect to work well together.

In her opening essay, Jacqueline Otto makes several points about where libertarians and conservatives converge. But notice the elephant in the room: social issues. At no point in her essay does she write about gay marriage, drug legalization, civil liberties, feminism, or even foreign policy or immigration. These are serious issues, but ones where libertarians and conservatives frequently disagree. Instead, Otto writes solely about economics, as if that were the be-all and end-all of libertarianism. But it is only a part, not the whole.

Let us take an especially contentious issue, gay marriage. Libertarians are in favor of letting gay and lesbian couples enjoy the same legal benefits and recognition as heterosexual couples. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been against this and for relegating them to a second-class status, or just flat out not recognizing them at all.

For libertarians, this is a question of the individual’s right to rule his or her own life. That is, after all, what liberty is about. For a conservative, society to a great extent rules a person’s life. It is not always a question what the individual wants, but of what is right for the community. The community, in turn, is built on centuries-old traditions. Allowing gay marriage would break these traditions, which is why most conservatives are denouncing it as rampant immorality. Viewed in this light, conservatives are really just the other side of the progressive coin. Both put the community in charge.

When we end the Pledge of Allegiance, we do so with the words “Liberty and Justice for All,” not “Liberty and Justice for only those people we like.” Libertarians believe in the former, but conservatives mostly believe in the latter. That’s not something that can just be papered over. As I shall explain further on, being associated with it also greatly hampers the liberty movement.

And what 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.

All these things hamper libertarians when we try to explain liberty to Americans and expand the movement. People notice and remember them, and because we also like free markets, they regrettably associate free markets with these policies. And that smells like hypocrisy. It only makes our job of defending the free market so much harder.

Because of this unequal treaty, the American people commonly don’t realize that libertarians were against the war in Iraq, against the USA-PATRIOT Act, against the Department of Homeland Security, against the bailouts, and against the big-government big-spending ways of the conservative administration of George W. Bush. Only lately, with the rise of libertarians such as Ron and Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jeff Flake, have we been able to reach out and actually talk to people.

I concur with Otto that we need to act to save the free market today. However, I disagree with her on the reason why we’re in danger. It is not because of infighting or not presenting a united front. It is precisely because we have presented a united front that we’re in trouble. It’s because, with this unequal treaty between our two camps, libertarians have had no voice to combat the social conservatism that is dooming the free market. As long as libertarians are tied to conservatism’s backward social policies and pro-business defense of status quo, we’re not going to make headway with the American people—the same people who will then march blithely into a socialist doom.

If we’re going to save the free market and establish a truly limited government in America, libertarians need to come out from the conservatives’ shadow. We need to end the unequal treaty and emerge as a fully independent brand, on an equal footing. We need to make a case for liberty without caveats. Liberty for all, even those people I might not like so much. Such a consistent stance will win over Americans that the inconsistent conservative one hasn’t. We should no longer tolerate just being patted on the head by conservatives and told to be quiet. We’ve done that for years, and it has not gotten us any more liberty.

Before I conclude, I wish to make two quick points. First, when I speak of fusionism, I am political party–neutral. Specifically, I am Republican Party–neutral. I am focusing on political ideologies, on left and right, not on institutions or parties; to me, the party is a political tool. Having libertarians take over the Republican Party and work within it to effect change may—or may not—be the most effective strategy in politics. I do not know. That’s something for political consultants, campaign strategists, and the talking heads on TV to figure out.

Second, I should point out, lest one thinks that libertarians and conservatives should break permanently and become enemies, that I am not against ad hoc coalitions on certain issues. If there is an issue on which conservatives and libertarians largely agree, we should work together on it. But conversely, if there is something that libertarians and liberals agree on, we should work with together with them on it. Previously, this was anathema. Libertarians were never to work with “the other side,” even though we shared much in common with it. But this shortchanges us and hampers the cause of liberty by denying another avenue we can use to promote it. We should and must become political opportunists, working with anyone who agrees with us on the issue of the day. We will never agree with all the people all the time, but we do agree with some of the people most of the time—it just depends on who those “some” are.

Fusionism has long been presented as an equal alliance between partners, one that is strong and necessary to advance freedom. But it has not been equal, and it has not advanced freedom. The way forward seems clear to me: libertarians must stand on their own. Only by presenting an independent, consistent vision of liberty will finally win.

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.