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A Moral Distinction


A new acquaintance recently asked whether she and I could get along, considering that she’s a liberal while I’m libertarian. Her second question focused on Ron Paul, likely the only person she ever heard of associated with libertarian philosophy: “Are all libertarians as conservative as Ron Paul on topics like abortion and gays?”

This is where things can get complicated even when we try to keep them simple. Libertarians are not conservative. We’re not liberal, either. We’re libertarian.

Even saying we are fiscally conservative and socially liberal — though there’s some accuracy to that — can be problematic, because the concepts of conservative and liberal morph into other ideas and connotations that are far from libertarian. Indeed, the morphing is so common that there’s really very little difference between the policies of the other two.

Consider the word “conservative.” It refers to someone who wants to conserve, to save, to keep things as they are. But what does a conservative want to save? We’d likely be told that the aim is to conserve and save the American way of life. But what does that mean? Does the way of life to be conserved include an imperialistic foreign policy that has the country playing world policeman and maintaining around 1000 military bases in more than forty different countries?

All but one Republican hopeful for that party’s 2012 presidential nomination advocates such a policy, but so does President Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat. So did neoconservative Republican George W. Bush before him and liberal Democrat Bill Clinton before him. If Obama and Clinton want what conservatives want, how can we tell the difference? Is there one?

Does “conservative” mean the continued prosecution of the unconstitutional war on drugs? Again, only one of the Republican hopefuls wants to end that war. Liberal Obama wants to maintain it. He’s even cracking down on medical-marijuana facilities in states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal use, something he said he wouldn’t do.

Conservatives and liberals both like the indefinite detention allowed by the National Defense Authorization Act, and neither have trouble with the president ordering the assassination of U.S. citizens. They are statists, placing the power of the state over liberty, responsibility, and the Constitution.

Liberals and conservatives both favor welfare, albeit to different recipients. Liberals, for the most part, want so-called entitlements for individuals, while conservatives favor subsidies for businesses. Both, however, play on both sides of that fence, and they love making people dependent on government. They can each play both sides, because they have no philosophical root. Their principles are more like falling leaves floating on the wind, without root, anchor, or rudder.

Libertarians are different. We don’t want an interventionist foreign policy that wages war for the sake of nationalism. We don’t want a war against our basic civil liberties, whether it’s called a war on terrorism or a war on drugs. Both are wars on liberty and responsibility.

We don’t play the favoritism game, unless it’s simply favoring liberty over force. And that’s the ultimate difference. Libertarians place a higher priority on individual liberty and personal responsibility than we place on government power. Neither conservatives nor liberals can make that claim. For them, it’s power over principle.

It’s that prioritizing between liberty and obedience to authority that sets us apart; that’s how we should define ourselves. And that prioritization is based on the moral value of liberty.

Libertarians favor peace at home and abroad, with both stemming from the philosophy of liberty. We respect an adult’s right to choose what he puts into his body, just as we respect another country’s decision on what type of government to have. We advocate defense of our country’s legitimate sovereignty and safety, but we respect the same for other nations. We don’t believe in nation building.

We believe in the equality of rights of all individuals, not groups, because only individuals have rights — groups don’t. Groups are just bunches of individuals, and rights are not additive.

Libertarians are not simply conservative on some things and liberal on others. So let’s not muddy the issue by describing ourselves that way. We are libertarian on all issues. It’s a moral distinction.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.