Although the next U.S. presidential election is not until 2024, this is still an election year. Most candidates are running for state and local offices. On the national level, voters in the 50 states only vote for three offices. They select members of the House of Representatives by district for two-year terms, two senators for six-year terms, and, by means of the Electoral College, a president every four years. In the November election, all 435 seats in the House are up for grabs. However, in the Senate, senators are divided into three classes with staggered terms. Thus, only one-third of the Senate seats can normally be contested at any election. This year, 34 of the 100 Senate seats are up for regular election, plus special elections in Oklahoma and California.
Republicans are salivating at the prospect of regaining control of the House and Senate in the upcoming midterm election. They last controlled both Houses of Congress during the last two years of Obama’s presidency and the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Not only does the political party of the president historically do poorly in midterm elections, but high price inflation, a low presidential approval rating, the retirement of many House Democrats, and a Democratic Party that has moved increasingly leftward have even some Democratic strategists predicting that the Democrats will suffer huge losses in the election. Republicans would like to think that it is their agenda that will appeal to voters this November and not just that the voters are turning away from the Democrats in droves and have no other real alternative in our two-party system.
Earlier this year, Republican members of the House held their three-day annual retreat, the House Republican Issues Conference, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. During an interview with Fox News at the conference, eight-term House member and current minority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said the 2022 midterm elections will be “issues-based” and “contrast-based.” He maintained that Republicans have a “bold conservative agenda” that will highlight “not only what Democrats are doing wrong” but what Republicans would do “differently.” He believes that “both domestically and abroad,” Americans “are not happy with the direction of the country” and “are just so hungry for conservative ideas.” From that perspective, “there has never been a better time to run on a conservative agenda and show people what we would do, and then have a mandate to go and do it.”
Republicans are “proposing a very different and better agenda.” Scalise insisted that “non-traditional Republican voters” are looking toward “a conservative message right now.” “They didn’t like the shutdowns, they don’t like all the big-government socialism, they care about their kids’ education,” he said. Republicans have “phenomenal candidates, a lot of military veterans, a lot of minorities, a lot of people from different walks of life who are running as Republicans in places we haven’t always seen.” They can “get our message out in places where people are open to new ideas right now, even if they have been voting Democrat.” Because Americans “are not happy with the direction that Biden and Pelosi are taking the country,” Republicans “have an opportunity to win in places where we haven’t won in a while.”
There are only two agendas worth looking at as we draw closer to the midterm election. But these two agendas are not the contrasting agendas of the Democrats (liberalism) and Republicans (conservatism). With its emphasis on abortion on demand, Medicare for all, social justice, free college, wokeism, the transgender movement, and climate change, the progressive Democratic Party of today has moved so far leftward that it is unrecognizable when compared to the liberal Democratic Party of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. For anyone who believes that the government should be a limited one that follows the Constitution, that markets should be free, that individual liberty should be fostered, and that property rights should be respected, there are really only two agendas worth considering: conservatism and libertarianism.
Now, at first glance, it might seem like conservatism and libertarianism share common ground. After all, conservatives regularly recite their mantra of fidelity to the Constitution, federalism, limited government, fiscal conservatism, private property, less government, lower taxes, less regulations, individual liberty, the free market, free enterprise, and a strong national defense. Before he was elected president of the United States, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) was interviewed by the libertarian Reason magazine about his political philosophy.
The first question he was asked was about the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Said the Gipper: “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals — if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”
But not all conservatives agree on the connection between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservative icon Russell Kirk, while acknowledging that conservatives and libertarians “share a detestation of collectivism” and “set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy,” nevertheless warned against the “many and grave failings” of libertarianism. Said Kirk:
I venture to suggest that libertarianism, properly understood, is as alien to real American conservatives as is communism.
What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.
But regardless of any connection between conservatism and libertarianism, Republicans certainly have a conservative agenda. However, whether it is a “very different and better agenda” than the Democrats’ agenda remains to be seen.
The conservative agenda
The best way to examine the conservative agenda is to view it as one coin with two sides: domestic and foreign. On the domestic side, there are the issues of education, victimless crimes (drugs, gambling, prostitution), welfare, government grants and subsidies, health care, gun control, the minimum wage, Social Security, taxes, unemployment benefits, government regulations, and antidiscrimination laws. On the foreign side, there are the questions of foreign aid, disaster relief, free trade, foreign policy, the military, foreign wars, overseas military bases, travel, immigration, sanctions, embargoes, and national defense.
Contrary to the image that many liberals have of conservatives, the conservative agenda has plenty of room for things like welfare payments; the minimum wage; food stamps; government grants for scientific or medical research; government subsidies for art, culture, or agriculture; and unemployment benefits. Conservatives just want to be able to set the amount of the payments, the minimum wage, the food stamps, the grants, the subsidies, and the benefits. Conservatism is not opposed to government involvement in banking, housing, retirement, education, or health care. Conservatism is not even against taxes, gun control, government regulations, and antidiscrimination laws. And conservatives are the biggest advocates of legislation against victimless crimes.
The conservative agenda likewise has plenty of room for foreign welfare in the form of foreign aid and disaster relief. Although conservatives think these things should be reformed, they never question the giving of American money and supplies to foreigners and their governments unless some country refuses to do what it is told. Surely conservatives believe in free trade? Many conservatives talk about free trade, but their support of trade organizations, trade agreements, trade treaties, “fair trade,” and Trump’s tariffs show that they have no concept of what free trade actually is. Although conservatives give lip service to the movement of goods, they openly want to restrict the movement of people when they support things like travel bans to Cuba and immigration checkpoints far from the border. Conservatism is at its worst when it comes to issues relating to foreign policy and the military. The defense budget — which should really be called the offense budget — is never large enough. Instead of a foreign policy of neutrality and nonintervention, conservatism much prefers a foreign policy that is imperialistic, belligerent, and meddling. Ending foreign wars, closing overseas military bases, and bringing the troops home have no place in a conservative agenda. But there is certainly room for sanctions and embargoes that harm foreigners and military aid that enriches defense contractors.
Conservatism is an authoritarian philosophy that looks to the state to arrest people and then fine them, appropriate their property, or lock them in cages for engaging in private consensual behavior or peaceful activity that doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone. Conservatism has no philosophical objection to the federal government’s taking money from some Americans and redistributing it to other Americans. Conservatism is the philosophy of state-coerced morality and virtue. Conservatism maintains that the government should protect people from harming themselves. Conservatism does not demand the separation of school and the state, charity and the state, the market and the state, retirement and the state, health care and the state, commerce and the state, or science and the state.
So Russell Kirk was right about conservatives and libertarians not having anything in common. He was just on the wrong side — the authoritarian side that seeks to use the state to order society. In this respect, conservatism is much closer to liberalism than it is to libertarianism. On the important issues of the day, there really is not much difference between the conservative agenda and the liberal agenda. One seeks a government run by conservatives while the other seeks a government run by liberals.
The conservative mantra of fidelity to the Constitution, federalism, limited government, fiscal conservatism, private property, less government, lower taxes, less regulations, individual liberty, the free market, free enterprise, and a strong national defense is all a ruse, a smokescreen, a façade designed to ensnare grass-roots conservatives who genuinely hold to these things to identify with the conservative movement, donate to conservative organizations and their causes, and vote for Republican candidates.
The libertarian agenda
Like conservatives, libertarians have an agenda. But the best way to examine the libertarian agenda is to view it as a cube, not a coin. A cube, it should be remembered, has not four sides, but six. The libertarian agenda is that of individual liberty, the free market, commercial freedom, private property, limited government, and peace.
Libertarianism holds that people should be free to live their lives any way they choose as long as their conduct is peaceful, their interactions are consensual, and their actions don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. Libertarians believe that every crime needs a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property. Vices should never be considered crimes, and neither should bad habits, immoral actions, poor judgment, risky behavior, unhealthy living, dangerous activities, sin, self harm, addictive conduct, or financial irresponsibility. Because libertarians believe in absolute freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of conscience, they oppose any and all attempts to prohibit or punish discrimination practiced by private individuals.
Libertarianism holds that the marketplace of goods and services should be free from government intervention. This is known as laissez faire. The government should not interfere with exchanges between willing buyers and willing sellers. No industry or sector of the economy — or individual business — should receive government subsidies, loans, or bailouts. International trade should be completely free of all tariffs, quotas, and regulations — without 1,000-page trade agreements. Libertarians believe that all goods and services can and should be provided by the free market. There should be a free market in education, health care, job training, charity, banking, housing, and retirement.
Libertarianism holds to commercial freedom. Right now, there is no area of American commerce that government does not regulate. Because of occupational licensing, some Americans must get permission from the government to open a business, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have a particular vocation, or provide a service to willing customers. Businesses must comply with a dizzying array of environmental regulations, safety regulations, antitrust regulations, advertising regulations, employment regulations, licensing, and permits. Predatory-pricing laws make it illegal to set one’s prices too low. Price-gouging laws make it illegal to set one’s prices too high. Libertarians believe that consumers, consumer protection groups, and the free market can regulate business better than government agencies and bureaucrats.
Libertarianism holds to the sanctity and inviolability of private property. The U.S. government has about 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, subsidies, and a variety of social services to poor, disabled, and lower-income Americans on the basis of the beneficiary’s income or assets. But the government has no wealth of its own. To provide welfare it must first expropriate the property of Americans via income transfer and wealth redistribution according to the myriad number of federal, state, and local taxes. Antidiscrimination and public-accommodations laws are other ways that government violates property rights. Libertarians believe that Americans should be able to keep the fruits of their labor; that all charity should be individual, private, and voluntary; and that property owners should decide who is allowed on their property and what the requirements are for being there.
Libertarianism holds that government is the greatest violator of individual liberty, free markets, commercial freedom, and property rights. As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling has well said, “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.”
In a free society, government would be limited to the protection of rights. All government actions — at any level of government — beyond reasonable defense, judicial, and policing activities would be illegitimate. Government would be prohibited from intervening in, regulating, and controlling peaceful activity. Government would never punish individuals or businesses for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. As long as people don’t infringe upon the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government would just leave them alone.
How limited should the government be? As limited as possible, and then some. As limited as it was in the nineteenth century when there was no occupational licensing, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, stimulus plans, income tax, FTC, EPA, OSHA, ATF, Federal Reserve, minimum wage, immigration controls, price controls, FEMA, CIA, FBI, NSA, food stamps, drug laws, wealth redistribution, unemployment compensation, EEOC, FDA, FCC, TSA, or antidiscrimination laws. As limited as it was when the only contact that most law-abiding Americans had with the government was when they went to their local post office. And in a free society, even the post office would have to compete with private industry for mail delivery.
Libertarianism holds that peace is always to be preferred to militarism, imperialism, the warfare state, and the national-security state. The best way to maintain an agenda of peace is for U.S. foreign policy to be one of neutrality and nonintervention. No military alliances should be entered into. No regime change should be undertaken. No foreign wars should be fought. The defense budget that enriches defense contractors at the expense of the American people should be slashed. The military should only be used for truly defensive purposes. Nuclear weapons are immoral because they kill indiscriminately on a massive scale. All foreign U.S. bases should be closed and all U.S. troops brought home. Our two vast oceans should be our first line of defense, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out.
So, which agenda will it be: the agenda of the coin with its authoritarianism, militarism, and wealth redistribution or the agenda of the cube with its liberty, peace, and property?
This article was originally published in the October 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.