The Corner

How Should Libertarians Feel about Conservatarianism?

“Charles C.W. Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future is all the rage right now,” Tyler Cowen writes. “Books which attempt to redefine or carve up the political spectrum aren’t exactly my thing, but this one is well-written and vital.”

I just finished Cooke’s book, which I really enjoyed. I am not a conservatarian — I’m a libertarian – but I found the book full of insights and a good reminder of why I always enjoy so much reading the rest of Cooke’s writings. I particularly loved his eloquent case for federalism — it’s about time someone took on that battle and I hope he will continue to push for his vision. I also think that Cooke is onto something important in his description of the beginning of a fundamental shift among conservatives that could have profound, very positive implications for the future of the Republican party. 

Before I explain why that is, it’s important to explain that he sees the main difference between conservatarians and libertarians as their positions on immigration and defense issues. (He mentions abortion, but since there is no libertarian position on abortion even though a majority libertarians identify as pro-choice, I won’t focus on that.) But the difference here is not always so dramatic: There are a number of self-identified and very well-known libertarians who supported the war in Iraq (e.g., Randy Barnett and Brink Lindsey) and there were some serious debates among libertarians about the war before it started. As the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy noted back then, “foreign policy issues are harder to sort out from libertarian first principles than, say, the question of minimum wage laws.” The same is true of immigration. There are plenty of libertarians who are against open borders or oppose increasing the number of low-skilled immigrants because of the impact it would have on welfare spending. (Dan Mitchell is a good example.) These scholars identify as libertarians and are viewed by their peers as such.

In the same way, Cooke is openly in favor of gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and he believes that the war in Iraq was a mistake. So, one could argue, whatever gap he sees between himself and libertarians doesn’t seem to be as wide as one might think.

Further, as Cooke notes, the real distinction between the conservatives and conservatarians comes down to a generational split. That split, I suspect, is going to be a real problem for conservative politicians, unless they’re willing to face up to it. While it has been easy to ignore libertarians for years, politicians won’t be able to ignore this new brand of voters as older, mainline conservatives represent a shrinking share of the electorate. Candidates may still be able to ignore this in 2016, but I suspect this generational pressure will end up changing the Republican party sooner rather than later.

Where does this leave libertarians? I’m not sure. Speaking only for myself, I have never had any problem not identifying with either of the two main political parties. While I may have a more conservative temperament than some of my fellow libertarians, what makes me a libertarian is my radical opposition to the use of government to enforce my preferences. More than positions on abortions, gay marriage, or war, it’s the question of the use and role of government in our lives that really sets conservatives (and their political party) and libertarians apart. I may feel more in line with Republicans than Democrats on certain policy issues, but never enough to call myself a Republican. (Plus, it’s also hard to feel comfortable in the party when the Republican establishment is often ready to compromise so quickly for so little reason.)

I assume that most libertarians are, like me, okay with not belonging to any parties. After all, libertarians have held conservative and Republican feet to the fire over free-market principles (sadly, this has become a full-time job for me) and the importance individual liberty, rather than working from the inside. But I think it’s paying off. This probably means that my ideal candidate will never be elected president, but with time, patience, and hard work, I can see the GOP shifting in ways that I as a libertarian can applaud. In other words, thank you, conservatarians!


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