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Jonah Goldberg on Conservatives and Libertarians


In his current op-ed, “Fusion Power on the Right,” conservative Jonah Goldberg points to the increasing popularity of libertarianism, especially among young people. In a valiant attempt to embrace the trend, Goldberg argues that there really isn’t that much difference between libertarianism and conservatism.

One has to wonder: what planet does Goldberg live on?

Goldberg points to Frank Meyer’s attempt to reconcile conservatism and libertarianism in the 1950s with a “fusionist” argument. Meyer observed that a virtuous society was important to conservatives. The libertarian position is that a free society — that is, one in which people have the widest ambit of freedom of choice with respect to peaceful activity — will nudge people toward virtue. Thus, Meyer argued, here was a common philosophical basis for conservatism and libertarianism.

However, there is one big problem still remaining: Conservatives believe that virtue is a necessary prerequisite for a free society. That is, they believe that people cannot be permitted to have a wide ambit of freedom of choice until they have earned it by becoming virtuous.

Libertarians, on the other hand, believe that people have a right to be free regardless of whether they have achieved what conservatives consider is a necessary level of virtue. That, of course, entails the risk that everyone will use freedom to choose “wrongfully,” but libertarians are willing to take that risk, believing that what matters above all else is that people be free to choose. Conservatives are not willing to take that risk — they want people to be virtuous before they let them be free.

How do people achieve the required level of virtue so that conservatives will finally say that it’s okay to free them? Through coercion of course. With orders, regulations, restrictions, mandates , taxation, welfare, and criminal penalties, people can be forced to be good, caring, and responsible people, enabling them, finally, to earn the right to be free. Libertarians, on the other hand, argue that all that coercion achieves the exact opposite — it makes people more dependent, fearful, irresponsible, uncaring, and cynical.

In a parenthetical, Goldberg acknowledges the validity of the libertarian principle when he writes: “If I force you to do the right thing against your will, you cannot claim to have acted virtuously.” He then goes on to claim that libertarian and conservative positions on such things as economics, Obamacare, trade, taxes, property rights, energy, the environment, intellectual property are “indistinguishable.”

I repeat: What planet is Goldberg living on? How can he honestly make such a claim?

Take Obamacare. The conservative position is to repeal it and then to come up with some other sort of healthcare reform, such as Medical IRAs.

Is that the libertarian position? Of course not. We would totally separate healthcare and the state, including an immediate repeal of not only Obamacare but also Medicare, Medicaid, and medical licensure laws. Medicare is just another socialist program, one that exists in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and China. For us libertarians, the government has no more business playing a role in health care than it does in religion.

That, of course, is a shocking notion to conservatives. While they love to declaim against food stamps for the poor, Medicare continues to be one of their favorite welfare-state programs.

But their real favorite is Social Security, the crown jewel of the welfare state, a program that Goldberg doesn’t even mention in his article. That’s because conservatives love Social Security. Oh sure, they’ll declaim against socialism all day long, but when it comes to Social Security, they’ll come up with all sorts of reasons as to why this particular socialist program needs to remain in existence.

The libertarian position? Repeal Social Security, without delay. Ditch it entirely. It has no place in a free society.

And therein lies the fundamental  difference between libertarians and conservatives: For libertarians, what matters above all else is freedom. That’s something that conservatives simply cannot comprehend or process.

Libertarians believe that people should be free to keep their own money and decide what to do with it. That’s why we call for the immediate repeal of the entire welfare state and the taxes that fund it. We believe that it’s morally wrong for the state to take money from people through taxation and give it to others. We want to totally separate charity and the state, in the way our ancestors separated church and state.

Conservatives might go along with that principle as a mantra but are unable to apply it in real life. That’s why they continue to embrace socialist redistributive programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, foreign aid to dictatorships, public (i.e., government) schooling, FDIC, and so many others.

Consider the drug war, another major dividing line between conservatives and liberals that Goldberg doesn’t even mention. When it comes to libertarian antipathy to the drug war, conservatives just don’t get it.

For example, during a recent John Stossel segment, conservative icon Ann Coulter accused libertarians of favoring drug legalization in order to cater to the left.

What? What could be more bizarre than that? One can imagine Coulter lying awake at night, scratching her noodle, and wondering why those libertarians favor drug legalization. It simply does not occur to her in even the remotest way that drug laws constitute the most direct assault on individual freedom that one could ever imagine.

You see this phenomenon with how conservatives react when libertarians call for the legalization of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. They are absolutely shocked! Oh sure, they can at least understand legalizing marijuana, but hard drugs too?

They just don’t get it. For libertarians, the overarching principle is individual liberty. If the state wields the authority to punish a person for putting something bad into his mouth, regardless of what it is, that is not a free society. A free society is one in which people are free to ingest anything they want.

Conservatives have a conniption fit when they hear libertarians call for repeal of Social Security, Medicare, and other welfare state programs and the repeal of the drug war. Remember: For conservatives, people cannot be freed until they have achieved some undefined level of virtue, a level that they feel Americans just haven’t achieved. For conservatives, Americans cannot be trusted to take care of their ailing and aging parents, any more than they can be trusted to help others in need. And they certainly can’t be trusted with drug legalization. Why, if drugs were legalized today, conservatives feel, everyone would be injecting heroin and snorting cocaine tomorrow.

Trade? Conservatives believe in government-controlled trade, whereby government officials negotiate trade treaties with foreign regimes that entail reduced trade restrictions. The love sanctions and embargoes, especially the ones against Cuba and Iran. Libertarians reject that notion. We believe in unilateral free trade, whereby Americans are free to buy and sell with anyone anywhere in the world, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Of course, thanks to conservatives (and liberals), Americans are punished severely by their own government for trading with people in those countries.

Immigration? Conservatives have long waged the war on immigrants, including raids on private businesses, deportations, immigration checkpoints, and even a Berlin Fence along the southern border. Libertarians, on the other hand, believe in open immigration—that is, the fundamental right of people to travel and move and enter into mutually beneficially economic relationships with others.

Goldberg claims that libertarians and conservatives were united in the fight against communism. Nonsense! Libertarians have long argued that that the Cold War and the national-security state apparatus corrupted American values and induced Americans to embrace communist methods, including things like assassination, torture, wars of aggression, sanctions, and embargoes, not to mention such horrors as the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, which conservatives (and liberals) said was necessary to protect America from a communist takeover, which, of course, never happened.

In the name of protecting “national security,” a ridiculous and nebulous phrase that doesn’t even appear in the Constitution, the consciences  of the American people have been so stultified that with the exception of libertarians and a few liberals, everyone now automatically defers to the authority of the Pentagon and the CIA, no matter how immoral and destructive their policies against foreigners.

In fact, when it comes to foreign affairs, conservatives have come to view the state as their god, perfect and beyond reproach. That’s why they were so furious at us libertarians for opposing the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the brutal sanctions against Cuba, Iraq, and Iran, the Patriot Act, the NDAA, the illegal telecom spying, the national-security letters, the kidnappings, torture, assassinations, Gitmo and the chain of secret prison camps, and, well, the entire “war on terrorism” paradigm that has provided the excuse for infringing on our civil liberties here at home.

That’s also why they get so angry at us libertarians whenever we point out that the terrorist strikes against the United States, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the USS Cole attacks, the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in East Africa, the 9/11 attacks, and all the rest are a direct result of what the U.S. Cold War national-security apparatus has been doing to people overseas. For conservatives, such observations rise to the level of heresy and treason.

Jonah, there are sound reasons why young people are gravitating toward libertarianism and away from conservatism. They’re studying the words of our Founding Fathers. They’re studying the works of libertarian intellectuals. They’re seeing the consistency of libertarian philosophy. They’re recognizing that libertarianism is the key to prosperity, peace, and harmony. But most of all, they’re realizing that freedom is their highest value.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.