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Jonah Goldberg

Last week I wrote, “libertarians…need to understand that operationally they are still members of the capital ‘R’ Right.” This assertion prompted an interesting response from Harry Browne, the Libertarian party’s 2000 presidential candidate:

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”Sorry, but we don’t accept that. Choosing between “left” and “right” today is like choosing between the Yankees and the Mets. Neither one is a carefully defined political philosophy that stands consistently on one side on every issue. I defy Mr. Goldberg to define conservatism in one sentence (or even one paragraph) that can tell you, for example, which of George Bush’s initiatives conservatives should support.”

I like Mr. Browne and I think the public interest is well served when he has a voice in national debates, but not only is this a pointless challenge, it’s also a disappointing one.

Oh sure, I can quote a dozen aphorisms about how to define conservatism: “adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried” (Abe Lincoln); the idea that “human nature has no history” (Glenn Loury); the state of being “enamored with existing evils” (Ambrose Bierce); “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop’” (William F. Buckley); opposition to “arbitrary power” (Edmund Burke); and so on and so forth. I could probably also come up with a bunch of one-liners of my own.

But ultimately none of these would be to Mr. Browne’s satisfaction, or mine.

But so what?

Mr. Browne places a dismaying amount of emphasis on the imperatives of belonging to a “consistent” movement. “If you consistently want individual liberty, you’re a libertarian — not a conservative.” “Libertarians stand for something identifiable and consistent…” Libertarians stand “consistently on one side on every issue.” Etc.

Who ever said consistency was the highest value?

I can name all sorts of ideologies that are more consistent than conservatism, Marxism heading the list. Consistency has zero moral content. It is neither good nor evil nor anything in-between. Even inconsistency — unlike it’s more fearsome sibling, hypocrisy — isn’t morally loaded. But it is useful. When someone points out your inconsistency on an issue it engenders contemplation, introspection, and, hopefully, caution — conservative virtues all. Hence, the chief benefit of having libertarians in the conservative movement, even when their advice goes unheeded, is that they keep everyone on their toes.

Admittedly, conservatism is not always and everywhere on the same side of every issue, like Mr. Browne’s version of libertarianism. He puts the highest emphasis on individual liberty (leftists place their highest emphasis on equality — another nice thing when unforced and taken in moderation). Well and good. And depending on the issue and the context, conservatives can generally be counted on to agree (Republicans are a different matter).

But let us be clear. If you think no other value can ever trump individual liberty you are Harry Browne’s kind of guy. If any circumstance or threat, any condition or cause, arises that might minimally constrain individual liberty then you must — for consistency’s sake — oppose it. The draft? Always wrong. Government-funded scientific research? Nope. Public schools? Highways? Libraries? Parks? No! No way! Never. Nope. Speed limits, school zones, movie ratings, driver’s licenses, any drug, pornography, or immigration laws? Nah-ah. Restrictions on homosexual marriage? Certainly not. Prohibitions on the depiction of pedophilia on TV? Well, you can’t support them (the libertarian position on actual pedophilia is unclear to me). Indeed, Mr. Libertarian, I defy you – you who holds consistency so lofty — to come up with a single sentence that tells me what specific form of taxation would satisfy all libertarians everywhere and all the time.

Of course, this is all a little bit unfair. Many of these topics cause considerable debate among libertarians themselves. Because, as Mr. Browne surely knows, there’s less consistency in the libertarian camp than he’s willing to admit.

Indeed, it’s simplicity itself to be a libertarian when debating the role of the federal government. But what about your town or your neighborhood? Here things get tricky. At some level individual liberty is no longer the highest value. Suddenly Mr. Browne’s one-item ideological checklist — he says “All it takes is to ask yourself what it is you really want” — descends into selfishness or sophistry.

Can’t our legitimate wants trample other people’s legitimate wants? And please don’t tell me, “It depends on how you define ‘want.’” Because if it does, than you are judging the legitimacy or validity of another person’s self-interest — a libertarian no-no.

We all know that there are the rights of associations, organizations, churches, and families. There are the needs of communities and institutions. And sometimes they necessarily constrain individual liberty. As Spock says in Star Trek II, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And as Kirk (James T., not Russell A.) adds, “Or the one.” (Which is why democracy will never be fully to the libertarian’s liking. Conservatives have different problems with democracy, but that’s another matter).

Three Cheers for Arguments
This all goes to the fact that there’s room for debate. As any pro-life libertarian will tell you, there are good arguments to be found among the libertarians, just as there are good arguments to be found within the conservative movement. And that is a wonderful thing. Arguments offer insight. Arguments are necessary because not every event presents itself in an ideologically consistent and digestible fashion. Sometimes it is a noble thing to conscientiously refuse to enlist in a war. And other times it is cowardice and treason. The trick is to figure out which is which, and the only way to do that is have people of good will disagree with each other.

This is precisely why the conservative movement needs libertarians — because they are vital voices (indeed, that’s why I voted Libertarian in 1992). Libertarianism is an intellectual acid test for conservatism. Libertarians keep the rest of us honest by always asking, among other things, “Why should government do it?” And that is always a good question, even when there’s a good answer. But the fact that conservatives are open to the question puts those asking it squarely on the Right.

Russell Kirk, who could not define conservatism in a paragraph, much less a sentence, would consider it folly to even try. Kirk wrote, “Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma.” Rather it is a recognition that life often pits some values against others, and that men are not always brilliant at sorting out which value should trump which in any given situation. As Edmund Burke noted, “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefor no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.”

I make no pretense that conservatism is always right. It has its flaws, as Hayek underscored when he said that it tends to get pulled in a direction not of its own choosing. But, it seems to me equally ridiculous to say that libertarianism is always right — freedom is not always first. At least conservatism, through its humility, is flexible enough to recognize this fact. Mr. Browne wants a simple and consistent philosophy of life. So do I. The only trouble is life keeps getting in the way.

Editor’s Note:  At the request of numerous bleary-eyed readers and one bleary-eyed writer, this concludes — for now — the libertarian-conservative brouhaha. Thanks for your patience and patronage. We will now return to regular scheduled programming.


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