Bryan Caplan  

The Conservative Missionary

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I had a blast at Wednesday's Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Debate at Cato.  It's great to see students who care enough about fundamental ideas to publicly argue about them.  Some attendees would have preferred a more focused topic, but I would have just slightly tweaked it to: "Why Libertarians Should Be Conservatives/Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians."  Persuading skeptics is usually more engaging than merely defending your position.  If I were on the conservative team, here's the opening statement I would have delivered.


Why Libertarians Should Be Conservatives

Liberty is an extremely important value.  Unfortunately, most libertarians act like it's the only value that really counts.  There's a lot more to life than liberty: Happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and even survival.  Sophisticated libertarians will naturally object that liberty is great for all of these other values, too.  Often, they're right.  But not always.  Liberty and these other values sometimes conflict, and there's no reason why liberty should always prevail.

Let's start with the area where libertarians and conservatives have the most common ground: economic policy.  Libertarians have convincingly shown that free markets are underrated.  So far, we agree.  But there's more than a kernel of truth to liberal complaints about the conflict between markets on the one hand, and prosperity, equality, and common decency on the other.  We have a lot more government intervention than we should.  But just as liberals exaggerate the benefits of government, libertarians exaggerate its defects.  Judiciously halving government's role in the economy is reasonable.   Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not.

Outside of economics, libertarians make the same basic mistake.  But here, they're not alone.  Many liberals also downplay the conflict between personal freedom and other values - and libertarians compound their error by being even more absolutist.  Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies.  Would I ban alcohol?  No - there are plenty of responsible users. But I do favor many existing government policies that try to limit the collateral damage of alcohol - age limits, sin taxes, licensing, and maybe even rehab programs.  I'm open to the argument that marijuana deserves comparable treatment, but unlike libertarians and many liberals, I think we should cautiously modify existing laws instead of abolishing them willy-nilly.  If marijuana legalization proves a resounding success, we can talk about harder drugs in two or three decades.

I see the same problem with immigration policy.  A few liberals - and many libertarians - literally advocate open borders.  I recognize that immigration is the greatest foreign aid program in human history, and I sympathize with the plight of would-be immigrants in the Third World.  Most immigrants - legal or not - are nice people.  But open borders is crazy.   It seriously risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.  I'm very open to more cost-effective and humane ways to deal with the negative effects of immigration.  But as long as immigrants are eligible for government benefits, hurt low-skilled native workers, and vote, the only people we should readily admit are the highly-educated and clear-cut humanitarian cases.  I'd put Haitians in the latter category.  Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable, but asking Haitians to starve in post-earthquake Haiti is a disgrace.

Finally, let me turn to foreign policy.  Here again, liberals engage in much wishful thinking, and libertarians compound their errors.  Modern warfare is terrible.  Most of the people the United States kills in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are innocents.  If there were some way to spare them and successfully fight our mortal enemies at the same time, I'd strongly advocate it.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to do so.  Muslim terrorists really do want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and they're happy to use fellow Muslims as human shields to do it. 

I know, they "only" murdered 3000 people on 9/11, but the distribution of terror has a long right tale.  Slightly better planning by the terrorists could have multiplied the deaths by a factor of 10.  The next big attack could easily be bigger by a factor of 100.  And if you think Americans "overreacted" the first time, wait and see what they'll support the next time around.  Liberals and libertarians who impede decisive action now are probably paving the way for worse things to come - a downward spiral that makes World War I look benign by comparison.  I wish it weren't so, but that's the sad world we live in.

Don't get me wrong.  I treasure the libertarian contribution to modern political thought.  Where would conservatives be without libertarian economists to expose the defects of government intervention?  Libertarians are a valuable conscience on the conservative shoulder, asking us, "Why not freedom?"  But in the real world, there are often good reasons to respond, "Here's why not."  Sometimes in all good conscience, we must admit that the effect of liberty on other important values is too costly to pay.

P.S. "Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians" is coming Monday.


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COMMENTS (38 to date)
Patrick L writes:

Unqualified Offerings

Act III: Man, we libertarians really fell for it
For a long time, I was kind of amazed by the libertarian rhetoric of the GOP, the way that somebody could argue for torture and corporate welfare and unchecked police powers and massive deficits and a global empire, and then follow it up with “Because I believe in limited government and the free market.” The cognitive dissonance wasn’t what bugged me (I’m cynical enough to take it as a given that politicians know how to lie) but rather that they would even bother appealing to the small government crowd that they feel free to screw over. I mean, aren’t we, like, a miniscule faction?
And then it hit me–it was never about us. All those dog whistles that libertarians respond to whenever Republicans blow the whistle? Those were for other people. Second amendment? It’s a cultural thing, not principle. Free markets? Intellectual cover for corporate welfare. Limited government? This is their way of saying to the subsidized farmers of the Great Plains and the employees of the Military-Industrial Complex and all the other beneficiaries of GOP-style redistribution “Don’t worry, you aren’t a welfare recipient like all those city folks that I bash. You’re better than that. You’re a hearty, self-reliant person who supports limited government.”
I already knew that all of the stances that the libertarians like were just there for other elements of the GOP coalition. But I used to think that the “limited government” rhetoric was a way of fooling us. Nope, it was never about us. The fact that too many of us were fooled was a coincidence (one that Republicans probably still laugh about over drinks). It was for everyone else in the coalition. The fact that we fell for it was just a coincidence. The fact that some of us actually provided them with pet intellectuals was just icing on the cake.
What brought a lot of this to the fore was seeing libertarians swoon over Sarah Palin as she blew dog whistles. I was never fooled by the whistles, but I did miss the purpose of the whistles: It was never about us. It was about the rest of Team Red.

I liked your long tale statement on terrorism though. You'll of course here a reponse from some magical-unicorn thinking like "we're causing the threat of terrorism to be worse by being over there," but they have very little data to confirm or deny that proposition.

Liam writes:

Very nice, Bryan. Can't wait until Monday

bbb writes:

I found many of your arguments for the conservative case very convincing, more convincing than your "hardcore" libertarian ones. Seriously.

bbb writes:

I found many of your arguments for the conservative case very convincing, more convincing than your "hardcore" libertarian ones. Seriously.

Doubtful writes:

I like the drug and immigration arguments, but the terrorism one needs some explanation of how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars actually reduce the likelihood of more terrorism in America (and catastrophic overreaction). Especially given all the homeland security technology and manpower that could be bought with trillions of dollars of saved costs of war.

Colin writes:
Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies.

I don't buy this. Drugs have been legal for most of this country's history -- were we a nation of junkies back in the 1800s? And drugs, despite prohibition, remain widely available. Age limits on alcohol, meanwhile, correspond with binge drinking among those under 21 as well (unlike many countries in Europe where the age to drink beer is 16 and in reality is almost non-existent).

I am more in agreement on immigration and foreign policy, where I think libertarianism is rather naive.

On the economic front, you are so non-specific that it is difficult to offer comment.

Eric writes:

Wonderful post. I'm sort of a cross between a libertarian and a conservative and not really at home in either camp. Highly libertarian economically. Hate abortion passionately and am a mild social conservative otherwise. Want more or less open borders. Agree entirely with the posted argument for slow, careful and monitored drug legalization. Not knee-jerk anti-war but not strongly in favor of U.S. wars in Iraq/Afghanistan either. I think the case for conservatism here is very well done and very fair for someone who doesn't agree with it.

ajb writes:

A fair and fair-minded post.

I would probably add something along the lines that conservatives often believe that not all cultures are created equal. Assimilation and policy promoting assimilation along lines that are now considered un PC are an important and essential part of the Anglo-American world view. The fact that market theory cannot a priori select between different preferences does not mean that we as a society should be indifferent on various social and ethical margins regardless of how many adherents abroad other views may have. We can and should choose among social preferences albeit with a light hand.

Dave writes:

Excellent! How many of these arguments do you truly believe?

darjen writes:

Interesting comments but I remain unconvinced. There is just too much that I can't agree with.

Zdeno writes:

I can't think of a single writer who's worldview is closer to my own than Bryan when he's pretending to be a Conservative.

Andrew T writes:

Great post ... I too look forward to your Monday post.

What about Tiebout-ish Federalism (with Constitutional guarantees similar to what we have currently) as another argument for conservatism? A local body of people who believe drugs would be harmful to their children (or even to society as a whole) could decide to prohibit them. Similarly if another local body of people decided drugs were a wonderful benefit to mankind, they could legalize all drugs. Given unrestricted freedom of movement (realizing there are financial limitations), people could locate to the area that best fits both their economic and social tastes. Shouldn't a local body of people be allowed the freedom to develop some such rule sets? I have not seen this addressed in libertarian posts.

mark t writes:

Great post. But are conservatives different in this country because we were explicitly founded on libertarian premises? In this country it is possible for conservatives to point to the Founders and claim that they are upholding liberty in order to 'conserve' first principles. I suppose my biggest question/comment would be that while conservatives in Europe make the claim that they will run the welfare state more efficiently, sometimes American conservatives make an effort to roll it back (Bush's attempt to introduce personal savings accounts). While Conservatives might put too much emphasis on the Order part of 'ordered liberty,' are they not better than their European counterparts?

Have libertarians been as fooled as Patrick L says or is it merely a sign of the electoral weakness within a presidential system? I still believe that ideas matter (in the long run ideas are the only things that matter). And in the intellectual competition for ideas that can adapt and be future oriented I see the philosophy of liberty as much more resilient than what Traditionalist Conservatives have on offer.

But who knows. I look forward monday's post.

Andrew D. Smith writes:

Some of your arguments hint at it, but a more general way to put one major conservative complaint about libertarianism might run something like this:

Near total freedom would be great, if IQs started at 120 and went up from there. But excessive freedom actually hurts less able people by giving them enough rope to hang themselves. Society needs to protect its weakest members from their own inability to delay gratification for long-term benefits -- or even to deny themselves gratification with massive and obvious medium-term consequences.

And because we live in a society where all laws must apply to everyone, the most able people must be willing to give up their own freedom to provide needed structure to folks who are less able to mange their own lives.

You can argue that the sexual revolution has been fantastic for the upper middle class (though you can also argue that it hasn't). But it has been unarguably terrible for the poor, who now raise the vast majority of their children out of wedlock.

Access to capital is great for very intelligent people who want to start businesses -- or even those who make a calculated choice for consumption smoothing -- but it is terrible for people who are stupid enough to max out their high interest credit cards and spend the rest of their lives doling out a third of their income in interest payments.

Your friends at Princeton were disciplined enough to try not just marijuana but also (I'd imagine) much harder drugs, but they had the self discipline to keep those pleasures from dominating them. Less intellects -- or even very smart people with more propensity toward addiction -- no so much.

Smart people do not need Social Security because they save -- and they don't just save because they make more. They save, even on lower incomes, because they understand the need to save. Stupid people do not save, which is why society must compel them to save or transfer a lot of money to them when they're too old to work (because we're obviously not going to let them starve.)

eccdogg writes:

Very good post Bryan.

I consider myself a libertarian, but I guess I am more on the conservative side so these views are very close to my own.

I believe that standard libertarianism points us in the right direction on most policy issues and holds the moral and intellectual high ground, but I am not so confident that I am ready to move all the way tomorrow.

Better to take measured steps, collect data and then push on again if necessary.

tom writes:

The domestic problem US libertarians, conservatives and liberals are trying to solve:

How can the US handle all the dumb people?

darjen writes:

Some possible libertarian responses. Curious as to what people here think.

Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not.

While it may not seem reasonable to the layman, there are some compelling historical examples where laissez-faire works as well or better in almost all industries.

Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies.

It doesn't help as much as one might think. After all, millions of people are still junkies. Most drug related crime stems from the fact that they are illegal, and therefore hard to obtain and supply. The people who want to use drugs do so whether or not they are legal.

Most immigrants - legal or not - are nice people. But open borders is crazy.

Many of the problems with immigration come from government incompetence. It's simply too easy for them to game the system and obtain public services for free. If libertarian policies were followed more often it would be much less of a problem. Restrictions on immigration ultimately hurts more than it helps. Freedom of association should be allowed for all citizens. Let them become citizens and pay taxes like everyone else. This country was built by immigrants.

Muslim terrorists really do want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and they're happy to use fellow Muslims as human shields to do it.

The aggressive military solution is ultimately not effective. In practice, it has only served to further destabilize the affected regions even more, making us less safe.

guthrie writes:

Out of the park, Bryan!

Doc Merlin writes:

Leftists when pretending to be conservative always strike me as horribly fake... this on the other hand seemed very authentic and powerful. I can't wait to see the next in the series.

Nathan writes:

"And because we live in a society where all laws must apply to everyone, the most able people must be willing to give up their own freedom to provide needed structure to folks who are less able to mange their own lives."

Since when do all laws have to apply equally? Accredited investor laws forbid certain individuals from investing in certain types of high risk ventures, while allowing those whose assets or income exceed a certain threshold to do so. In short, the law specifically protects those who are unable to manage their own lives while exempting those who have shown that they need no such protection.

Likewise, the Amish don't have to participate in Social Security, and certain Native American tribes can use peyote.

I see no reason that we couldn't expand this scheme to virtually everything. Like driving and firearm ownership, require people to pass a test in order to opt out of mandatory government savings/ investment programs like SS, Medicare, Obamacare, etc. Sure, some people will pass the test and still ruin their lives, just like some drivers and gun owners do.

I'm not a fan of government licensing and testing, but driver's licenses work infinitely better than banning driving entirely just because some people are horrible at it.

StrangeLoop writes:

"Judiciously halving government's role in the economy is reasonable. Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not."

Two words: government failure. Simply because private rational decisionmaking has warts, does not mean government decisionmaking is a superior alternative. As Karl Hess emphasized, "Vietnam should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder."

"If marijuana legalization proves a resounding success, we can talk about harder drugs in two or three decades."

Setting timetables for public policy (aka, "coercive policy") seems outrageously idealistic. The Drug War (on freedom) has persisted for decades already; the experiment has failed--costing economic resources, life, and shattered families.

Immigration? Labor should be as free as capital; wealth-maximization, brah.

Terrorism? Blowback, man.

Bryan making arguments against libertarianism gives me the chills. Please make it stop!

Eric writes:

@Doc Merlin

I agree. It often seems as though the liberal writer believes conservatives are closet racists who hate poor people and want to keep women barefoot and pregnant, but just won't say so in polite company. And, try as they might, the liberal imitator can't keep this from coming across in the simulated writing.

Lord writes:

Almost makes one miss the fun of death panels and fascists. ;-)

Foobarista writes:

My main objection to open borders is "tactical"; the piecemeal way that most libertarians approach policy means open borders - or something like it - would probably come "first", long before the rest of the libertarian package is implemented.

This would be a disaster, and would guarantee that we'll go through a nasty period of ethnic machine politics. This is already happening at a local level in places like LA, and many Democrats look forward to this at the national level. We survived ethnic machines in the 19th century simply because the State was a smaller then and it was a lot harder to collect taxes, but would we want Tammany Hall at all levels of government powered by the taxation powers of the modern State?

Can't see much hope for libertarian ideas in this scenario.

BZ writes:

In one fell swoop, Bryan has exposed the gaping chasm between rights-based and consequentialist libertarians.

Many of the later will object to the case being made, but will at least be willing to take it seriously. However, noone who can say something is "... a clear violation of individual freedom, but ..." and hope to convince a Lockean, Rothbardian, Jeffersonian, or any other believer in human rights.

So, a proposal: those willing to compromise with immorality can have the moniker "conservative". The other 4-5 of us will keep "libertarian" and shake our heads sadly.

Foobarista writes:

Ideological or philosophical consistency is irrelevant if the policies don't work or if bad implementation ends up wrecking the whole project.

Foolish consistency and all that...

guthrie writes:

BZ
Did you mean 'unwilling'?

Lori writes:

Since when does American conservatism approve of immigration status for Haitians on humanitarian grounds? Something must have happened since the Cuba/Haiti false dichotomy of the Reagan Doctrine and I didn't get the memo.

Seth writes:

Darn. I thought I was conservative. Maybe I'm libertarian.

Great post. We need more of this kind of stuff.

Michael seebeck writes:

I believe this essay would be best redone to actually make sense instead of the pile of nonsense that it is.

What's being argued here is more statism over libertarian minarchism, under the guise of "people can't take care of themselves and can't be trusted to make their own decisions, so we'll restrict them and call it government based on what we believe is best for them."

Those of us who know better know that's a false argument, insulting, and inherently dangerous.

What's missing to that argument is *why* the conservative statist sees things they way they do, through the lens of government control. The answer is complex, usually over their heads, but in a nutshell, it's because they help perpetuate a system of government control that produces the very functional illiteracy and incompetent lemmings they complain about and then devise more government control to address, never accepting or even realizing they helped cause the problem!

Libertarian thought, however, at its superior level of argument over all statism, begins with the premise that the individual knows best, and prefers to let the individual be free to make their own choices, take their own chances, reap the rewards, or face the consequences. There is no overlap between the conservative mantra of government control of markets to favor corporate-fascism over small business and the libertarian mantra of truly free markets with separation of marketplace and state--except the lip service.

In reality, conservatism is just another brand of statism, just like progressivism, with the difference being one is on the right and one is on the left, arguing over which form of government control is to be forced on people whether we like it or not. Libertarians, on the other hand, reject that argument, and promote freedom from government. Statists from both sides only give lip service to libertarian arguments when it suits what they oppose in big government and never what they favor in it.

So, in conclusion, no, libertarians should not be conservatives, because that is a step backwards in the struggle to achieve our human potential through Liberty, which is what this nation was founded and built upon. It's also against our very basic human nature. Ask a Russian.

Marco writes:

"Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not."

Do you have any text explaining how government intervention in laissez-faire can prevent/mitigate monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures?

I admit I am biased against that notion, but I'd like to read an actual argument.

Joseph Sunde writes:

This stuck out to me:

"Judiciously halving government's role in the economy is reasonable. Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not."

I consider myself a libertarian-leaning conservative, but although you're right that this is a common stance, I don't usually assume it.

As of late, I've been using the Kling-Schulz argument against to counter this argument: The answer to "textbook market failures" is simply THE MARKET ITSELF.

Great post, Bryan!

Steve Z writes:

I would re-write the paragraph on immigration to reflect the fact that conservatives who are pro-immigration restriction tend not to care much about the foreign aid aspect of immigration.


Carl The EconGuy writes:

Acc. to Bryan, a conservative is apparently just a half-assed liberal, without the completely certain convictions of the total besserwisser-mentality of true liberals. But, in his view, it's just a matter of degree, not a difference of principle or ideology.

I think this misses a whole lot of things, in particular the notion of conserving something that is the essence of conservatism. There are certain values that are at the true core of conservatism, and, whatever they are, they should represent the best of western civilization. Perhaps the values that a true English gentleman stood for best encapsulate them -- including the old saw that "if I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I pray that I would have the strength of character to choose the former."

But Bryan's definition misses all of this, and simply tries, unsuccessfully, to define the border between modern American liberals and some watered down version of liberalism that he happens to call conservative, over some pretty narrow political issues of the day. As I said in my opening paragraph, I don't find that difference convincing at all.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan wrote:

I know, they "only" murdered 3000 people on 9/11, but the distribution of terror has a long right tale.

A Freudian slip? (tale/tail)

charles writes:

Usually people don't know how self-destructive capitalism can be, since Engels supporting Marx to meta-capitalists like Al Gore and George Soros patrocinating liberals. History has show that capitalists sometimes don't like disputing the market with fairness, when these guys starts think they are above the market, they become as dangerous as any dictator.

I'm a conservative not because I hate libertarianism or capitalism, but I love it so much I need to preserve it. That's what I have in mind with my conservativism.

But, since I'm very amateur at politics, I can be wrong.

Larry Bernard writes:

You fail on both points of the debate. The problem with Libertarianism and most Libertarian thinkers is they don't have a coherent or cogent sense of what Liberty is. And the Libertarian Party USA doesn't even really pretend to be based on Liberty.

This debate is lost by both sides until you have a common or at least coherent sense of liberty.

Furthermore any conservative knowledgeable enough in history would know that monopolies come from state power, and not from liberty and would be a failure to argue

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