Recently, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin attempted to explain, “Why conservatives and libertarians are at odds,” concerning ISIS, social issues and other hot button topics on the right.
But a better analysis might be—why is conservatism today so often at odds with itself?
From its earliest days, the modern conservative movement has always emphasized liberty and fidelity to the Constitution. Barry Goldwater thought we should be extreme in our defense of liberty. Ronald Reagan believed that where “government expands, liberty contracts.”
Conservatives have also believed it is the job of government to defend the nation and protect citizens. In this balance between liberty and security, conservatives have traditionally erred on the side of liberty.
William F. Buckley made this point in an editorial in the first issue of National Review in 1955:
It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side.
Pondering why conservatives and libertarians are at odds cannot be done sufficiently without first examining, or reexamining, what conservatism means within this context.
The opposite of libertarianism can be fairly described as authoritarianism. If a preference for liberty over authority (government) is what defines libertarians, it is not unreasonable to say that those who prefer authority to liberty have an authoritarian bent. Authoritarianism, like libertarianism, exists on the left and right.
Today there are libertarians and authoritarians who both call themselves conservative despite deep contradictions in what each stands for.
Concerning ISIS, libertarians (whether they believe military action should be taken or not) all agree that the president must follow the Constitution in declaring war by consulting Congress. Authoritarians do not believe this, preferring a strong executive that governs beyond constitutional limits. The same dynamic extends to debates over the Fourth Amendment and due process, where libertarians have gone to great lengths to remind everyone of constitutional parameters and authoritarians have insisted there aren’t any.
When we learned that the National Security Agency had been spying on every Americans’ private information, libertarians cried foul. Authoritarians defended the NSA without reservation or hesitance. For libertarians, Edward Snowden did Americans a service despite breaking the law. For authoritarians, Snowden was the equivalent of a terrorist who undermined the integrity of the federal government.
As the tragic events in Ferguson provoked a national conversation about police militarization, libertarians saw a dangerous problem where authoritarians did not. If anything, authoritarians argued that police should be armed and behave just like the military, erasing a distinction between soldiers and citizenry earlier conservatives found vitally important to civil society.
If the war on drugs has done more damage than good, libertarians are quick to limit the government’s involvement while authoritarians are not hesitant to defend the status quo, doubling down on every argument drug warriors have made the last three decades. Libertarians have taken the lead in reforming a prison system that unfairly punishes minorities for drug infractions. Authoritarians see no problem with the system and believe those convicted are getting what they deserve.
There is a type of person, pundit and political leader today, calling themselves conservative, who believes the President should be virtually unlimited in his war powers, that the NSA has done nothing wrong, that police militarization is not a concern and that the federal war on drugs should be fought until the end of time.
There is another type, also calling themselves conservative, who agree with Goldwater that liberty should be defended in the extreme, with Reagan that government is always a threat to liberty and with Buckley, that in balancing security and liberty, we should always “without reservations” come down “on the libertarian side.”
A libertarian always questions government. An authoritarian generally gives government the benefit of the doubt and chastises those who question it.
A Jennifer Rubin can examine “Why conservatives and libertarians are at odds” because she firmly represents authoritarian conservatism. She believes libertarianism is generally antithetical to conservatism, which is logical to anyone coming from the authoritarian perspective.
But knowing the importance of liberty to most generations of conservatives, the real question should be whether authoritarians should be considered conservative in any traditional sense.