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Many on the Right of the political spectrum sincerely believe that they hold libertarian views. They might be close on some economic matters, but only some, and not on a host of social issues. Fewer on the Left make the same mistake, but it happens. Some uninformed lefties might imagine that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representative of libertarianism, and occasionally the ACLU does take positions consistent with libertarian views. Many of these individuals, left and right, probably self-identify as libertarian only because they think it “sounds good”. After all, the root “liberty” might ring a compelling (if distant) bell, but perhaps I’m congratulating myself.

Jonah Goldberg, the conservative senior editor of National Review, wrote an interesting article a few weeks ago called “Fusionism, 60 Years Later“. In it, he describes the historical relationship between libertarianism and conservatism. Fusionism, Goldberg says, is the longstanding effort to find common ground between these two camps. He contends that most support for libertarian ideas comes from Conservatives:

In other words, conservatives tend to be libertarian, but libertarians tend not to be conservative. …libertarians want to have their own identity, separate and distinct from that of conservatism. They’re a bit like the Canadians you meet abroad who go to almost obsessive lengths to show everyone that they aren’t American.

I got a laugh out of that quote because it contains a grain of truth, but Goldberg knows all too well that there are substantive differences between Libertarians and Conservatives on the role of government. There are not-so-subtle departures on the basic role of government in regulating personal behavior. Libertarians, of course, believe that government almost never has a legitimate role in that area, with exceptions for the prevention and redress of various forms of aggression. Another difference is that Conservatives, like the political Left (not a typo), often favor government promotion of private business objectives, including protectionist anti-trade legislation, policies which Libertarians consistently oppose. And unlike Libertarians, Conservatives make a glaring exception to their avowed dedication to small government in their support for massive military outlays and foreign incursions in the name of protecting vital U.S. interests, which usually amount to safeguarding private economic interests abroad.

Nevertheless, Goldberg contends that Libertarians and Conservatives are all classical liberals, defined broadly:

The Founding Fathers were all classical liberals, but … they were largely conservative in manners, morals, and faith. Their conservatism was not labeled as such because it suffused the culture and was simply taken for granted. …

Until the middle of the 20th century, the conservative side of the classical-liberal tradition in America was not cultivated the way the libertarian side was, in large part because no one thought it needed to be cultivated.

That may be, but it does not diminish the differences that exist. Insofar as “conservatism” is about the preservation of certain institutions, such as private property, free speech, and other individual liberties, then there are areas of commonality between Conservatives and Libertarians, but full “fusion” is impossible if Conservatives cannot consistently recognize the appropriate limits of government. The power of government derives from its police power, or “legitimized” aggression to accomplish public objectives. That power must be restrained by adherence to the kinds of checks embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

Here is a quote from Goldberg’s piece giving just a bit too much relative credit to Conservatives on the subject of morality:

… conservatives borrowed heavily from the libertarian tradition, but they also borrowed from the religious, patriotic, and moral arsenals of the Founders. That is why the libertarians have stood apart like Coptic Christians, who claim a lineage and authenticity that needs no sanction from the larger, more powerful, and more syncretic Catholic Church.

The libertarian philosophy is grounded in two moral principles to which I’ve already referred: liberty and non-aggression (or non-coercion). The liberty of individuals is sacrosanct (as it was to the Founders) but does not extend to physically aggressive actions, including any form of theft. Liberty includes freedom of speech (the notion of “micro-aggression” is unlikely to carry much (if any) weight with most libertarians) and the freedom to defend oneself. Defined properly, aggression includes the imposition of external costs on others, such as unchecked pollution of the environment.

Ideally, “legitimized” aggression or coercion by the state extends only to preventing aggression by private parties or foreign aggressors, and to the revenue collection necessary to provide public goods desired by the polity. Defining strict limits on aggression by private and public parties provides a direct mapping to the broad extent of liberty. In other words, non-aggression itself implies liberty.

The libertarian philosophy provides a moral framework that exists comfortably alongside a wide range of religious beliefs as well as atheism. However, it cannot be denied that differing religious beliefs among libertarians often inform different positions when the rights of individuals stand in conflict.

There is no reason to assume that Libertarians lack patriotism, as Goldberg comes close to implying. However, patriotism should never be used to justify aggression, whether that involves limiting expression or unnecessarily entering into conflicts abroad. So Goldberg is stretching when he credits Conservatives with a better grip on moral or patriotic principles than Libertarians.

Goldberg ends his piece with misgivings about the potential for Donald Trump to hijack the conservative movement, and in this I am sympathetic. About Trump, he says:

He makes little or no effort to celebrate conservatism as a defense of the American tradition of liberty. He never talks about the Constitution, nor plausibly about religion. He makes scant mention of freedom. Instead, he taps into deep reservoirs of resentment and a kind of nationalism that has little to do with patriotism rightly understood.

Goldberg’s piece serves as a reminder of Friedrich Hayek’s great essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative“. While not referencing this essay explicitly, Goldberg mentions that Hayek and other European political philosophers have known a different kind of conservatism than what we know in the U.S. In Europe, conservatives:

“... sought to conserve the absolute rule of Church and Throne. The American Founders sought to overthrow even the partial rule of Church and Throne. And therein lies all the difference. In Europe, conservatism was understood as the opposite of classical liberalism. The reverse was the case in America, as Friedrich Hayek observed: ‘What in Europe was called ‘liberalism’ was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.’

Point well taken, and Hayek understood that difference all too well. His essay focuses on certain unflattering aspects of conservatism that ring true of the American version as well, including certain nationalistic and authoritarian tendencies, and a penchant for government involvement when it suits them:

… neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of [classical] liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion.

My attraction to libertarian philosophy has much to do with the simple appeal of liberty and the ugliness of aggression. However, I think my original attraction to libertarianism was strongly related to the superiority of market forces as a form of social organization. Market forces cannot operate very effectively without liberty, and the healthy maintenance of liberty is facilitated by the superior resource allocation made possible by market forces. What a beautiful symbiosis!