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Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan

As the standard bearer for American conservatism for two decades, Ronald Reagan effortlessly embodied fusionism by uniting Mont Pelerin style libertarians, populist Christians, Burkean conservatives, and national security voters into a devastatingly successful electoral bloc. Today, it is nearly impossible to imagine a candidate winning both New York and Texas, but Reagan and that group of fellow travelers did.

In the meantime, the coalition has begun to show strain as the forces pushing outward exceed those holding it together. The Soviet Union, once so great a threat that Whittaker Chambers felt certain he was switching to the losing side when he began to inform on fellow Communist agents working within the United States, evaporated in what seemed like a period of days in the early 1990s. Suddenly, the ultimate threat of despotic big government eased and companions in arms had the occasion to re-assess their relationship. The review of competing priorities has left former friends moving apart. Perhaps nowhere is the tension greater and more consequential than between the socially conservative elements of the group and devotees of libertarianism.

The two groups have little natural tendency to trust each other when not confronted by a common enemy as in the case of the Cold War. Libertarians simply want to minimize the role of government as much as possible. For them, questions of maintaining strong traditional family units and preserving sexual and/or bioethical mores fall into an unessential realm as far as government is concerned. The government, echoing the thought of John Locke, should primarily occupy itself with providing for physical safety of the person while allowing for the maximum freedom possible for pursuit of self-interest.

Social conservatives similarly view the government as having a primary mission of providing safety, but they also look to the law as a source of moral authority. Man-made law, for them, should seek to be in accord to some degree with divine and natural law. Rifts open wide when social conservatives pursue a public policy agenda designed to prevent divorce, encourage marriage over cohabitation, prevent new understandings of marriage from emerging (e.g. gay marriage or polygamous marriage), prevent avant garde developments in biological experimentation, and a variety of other issues outside (from the libertarian perspective) the true mandate of government that cannot seek to define the good, the right, and the beautiful for a community of individuals. To the degree social conservatives seek to achieve some kind of collective excellence along the lines suggested by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, libertarians see a mirror image of the threat posed by big-government leftists.

Equally intense suspicions exist on the socially conservative side of the relationship. Libertarians can appear to be obsessed with money and a desire to be left alone, unencumbered by any obligation to their fellows other than not to interfere with their lives. The tension inherent in the relationship erupted during the American presidential primaries when the libertarian-oriented Club for Growth clashed with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Christian conservative. Club for Growth seemed to single out Huckabee for the most uncharitable view possible of his free-market bonafides. Rather than attempt conciliation, Huckabee apparently relished the attack and labeled the small government group "The Club for Greed."

U.S. Capitol building, Washington DC
U.S. Capitol building, Washington DC

The question, borrowed from the longest running feature in women's magazine history, is "Can this marriage be saved?" Do libertarians and social conservatives with religious concerns have a relationship worth preserving? As a Christian with strong sympathies toward social conservatism, I can help address part of that question. My answer is that libertarians and social conservatives have a strong interest in seeing each other persist in the American polity. Perhaps a libertarian analyst can address the issue from the other side.

So, why should libertarians see value in what social and religious conservatives hope to achieve? The answer lies in the concept at the core of the American experiment. America is not about unfettered freedom. America is about a particular type of liberty that has been the glory of the Western heritage, ordered liberty. Freedom without a strong moral basis ends up being an empty promise. The American founding generation understood the problem very clearly. The solution that appealed to a great many of them was to encourage religion among the American people. In their view, the Christian religion helped make citizens fit for a republican style of government. Meaningful freedom required the exercise of virtue on behalf of citizens. The connection between religion and virtue was easy to make. After all, even Voltaire hid his skeptical conversations about religion from his servants for fear they'd steal the silver if released from fear of divine punishment.

Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman

Put very simply, the travail of freedom is this: Immoral actors take advantage of moral ones. If everyone has to rationally suspect others of immoral behavior in order to protect themselves, then the value of exchange is severely undercut by the cost of self-protective action. Eventually, in an attempt to ease the expense of self-protection, participants petition the government for regulation. Regulation undercuts the entire libertarian idea. The key, of course, to breaking the cycle of advantage-taking and regulation-building is to change the nature of the actors. The more virtuous the actors, the less opportunistic behavior, and the more confidence all actors can have at the outset of exchange. What is needed is trust. With trust, the costs of transaction rapidly decline and the need for government regulation and enforcement moves downward, as well. Social conservatives press for public policies that tend to increase social capital by improving citizens.

Just as an example, consider the social conservative push toward policies that encourage marriage rather than cohabitation and discourage divorce. Social statistics from the last twenty years establish in a fairly uncontroversial fashion that children from intact, two-parent families will, on average, perform better in school, be less likely to get pregnant out of wedlock, be less likely to do drugs or abuse alcohol, and are substantially less likely to spend time in prison. If there are policies that can actually increase the likelihood that children can be raised in intact families, then it makes sense to pursue those policies (within reason) because they will become, on average, more virtuous citizens less likely to impose costs on others through moral failures. If the logic here is sound, then libertarians have an incentive to consider at least some policy activities of social conservatives as potentially justifiable and beneficial even within a libertarian framework.

The crux of the matter is social capital. Social capital is the name we give the value generated by the virtuous actions and attitudes of the people. A society with a libertarian style government is a near impossibility without substantial social capital. No trust, no virtue, no small government. This formula is virtually axiomatic.

Signing of the Constitution of the United States
Signing of the Constitution of the United States

Another point of connection between libertarians and social/religious conservatives occurs because of theology. Social conservatives tend to believe human beings are tainted by a sinful nature. If we are all sinful, then how sound a policy is it to place a great deal of power in a government of one person or of many persons? Though the Christian revelation, for example, does not aim its canon specifically against monarchy or any other kind of high-powered government, the practical outworking of a doctrine of original sin is that power should be restricted, checked, and divided. The American constitutional regime set up by the founding generation should surprise no one. It was a likely outcome not only of a group of thinkers influenced by Locke, but also by the Calvinism that had long been prominent in the new world as the faith of the Puritans.

This suspicion of power continues to unite social conservatives and libertarians. While libertarians might protest that social conservatives seek to expand the government's interest in "private" matters of sex, reproduction, and marriage, the reality is that they have primarily fought a rearguard action in which they attempt to preserve laws under attack by an activist judiciary. Social conservatives have not fought for some new regime of moral authority at the expense of freedom. Rather, they have tried to save the old one because of the educational effect of law.

When it comes to new ideas about expanding government, social conservatives are largely still quite reserved exactly because of their desire not to feed a bureaucratic beast likely to develop an agenda independent of its intended purpose. As a group, they would far prefer to see mediating institutions take on the great social reforms of the day, just as they would prefer to see the church return to a much more prominent role in addressing both the needs and root causes of poverty. Another issue that offers great promise for the relationship between social/religious conservatives and libertarians is school choice. Prior to September 11, the movement for school choice was gaining steam very rapidly. It was the rare initiative that seemed to fit libertarian purposes easily while simultaneously addressing the question of social justice. After September 11, the war on terror sucked all the air out of the room for creative social policy advances, and school choice moved well down the national agenda.

School choice hasn't gone away, though. It is a matter that promises to re-emerge powerfully when domestic policy again moves to center focus. A great many evangelicals probably came to know of Milton Friedman because of his work in school choice rather than because of his justly famous broader work in economic theory. For libertarians the interest comes from harnessing the power of competition to improve the entire educational system and to take a step toward privatizing a massive public undertaking. Social conservatives perceive those virtues, but are more interested in the protection school choice offers for their right to control the education of their children and to insulate them from what they view as the indoctrination of left-wing ideology.

So, can the marriage be saved? Are libertarians and social conservatives destined to grow further apart or can they unite around these points of connection involving social capital, suspicion of government power, and the privatization of public education? I submit the points of connection, notwithstanding messy public blow-ups like the Huckabee/Club for Growth affair, are much stronger than the forces pulling the two groups apart. This survey demonstrates how much they have in common and how fruitful conversation between the two can be.

Hunter Baker, J.D./Ph.D. is an assistant professor of political science and special assistant to the president at Houston Baptist University.