Libertarian conservatism 4

From time to time visitors to this website or our Facebook page query the idea – even the possibility – of there being such a thing as atheist conservatism. They are – almost always, as far as we can make out – Americans whose understanding is that the word “conservative” denotes Christian conservatism. To them, therefore, to speak of  “atheist conservatism” is to commit a contradiction in terms. Some have called it an oxymoron.

In Europe too, conservatism has a Christian coloration. Conservative political parties usually declare themselves to be Christian –  for example, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) of Germany. But their support does not come only from Christians. And in Britain the established Church of England has been called “the Conservative Party at prayer”, but the party does not exclude members of other Christian denominations or other religions, or the non-religious.

Yet it is an American conservatism that we embrace. It is faithfulness to the Constitution, to the essential idea that the United States was intended to embody as a nation: the idea of individual liberty protected by the rule of law.

The shortest answer we give to those who accuse us of being self-contradictory is to tell them what our prime principles are:

  • individual freedom
  • a free market economy
  • small government
  • low taxes
  • strong defense

And we point out that those are core principles of American conservatism. The Constitution – southern state critics please be reminded – does not require citizens to be Christian, or religious at all.

Just as often, perhaps even more often, we are told that we cannot be both conservative and libertarian: that the two traditions are separate and even inimical to each other, to the point of being mutually exclusive. Even if that were  true (and we don’t think it is), we consider it unnecessary to take tradition into account. The issue needs to be looked at philosophically, not historically. Our conservatism, holding the firmly conservative principles we have listed, is manifestly a conservatism of liberty.

And we think it is now, more than ever before, that the libertarian view should direct the political agenda of conservatism. A heavy counterweight is needed to bring America back from its tipping over into collectivism by the Left. Individual freedom urgently needs to be saved.

What is stopping conservatives from accepting libertarianism as its future? The libertarians themselves. Frequently, their public statements reveal them to be inexcusably ignorant of world affairs. They often advocate naive isolationism. They seem to lack a sense of what matters. The legalization of drugs could be wise and necessary, but it is not worth making a hullabaloo about  when jihad is being waged against us. A person should arguably be able to marry any other person or persons – or things – that they choose, but it is much more important that America should remain the world’s sole superpower.

John Hinderaker also thinks that this should be “the libertarian moment”. And he too reproaches libertarians with an underdeveloped sense of what matters to the existence, liberty, safety, and prosperity of the nation. 

He writes at PowerLine:

Every major strand of American conservatism includes a strong libertarian streak, because the value of liberty is fundamental to just about all conservative thought. But today, especially, is said to be the libertarians’ moment. What once was a fringe movement, politically speaking, has moved front and center in our political life.

And yet, in my view, libertarians of both the capital L and small l varieties punch below their weight. They have not contributed as much as they should to the conservative movement. This is partly because libertarians tend to founder on foreign policy, where many are merely modern-day isolationists. But it is also because they have tended to focus on secondary, or tertiary, issues of domestic policy.

A couple of years ago I was invited to a gathering on behalf of Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico who then was a libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. I was well disposed toward him, but when he started talking, his first subject was legalization of drugs. Now he is the CEO of a marijuana company. Rand Paul is probably the leading libertarian at the moment; he purports to take seriously the threat that someone drinking coffee in an American cafe will be struck by a drone-fired missile.

American liberty is indeed under attack, and a libertarian movement is needed more than ever. But the threat to freedom is not drug laws or drone attacks.

The principal threat is the administrative state, which increasingly hems in everything we do and depends hardly at all on the will of voters. …

Calvin Coolidge, who knew the Progressives well and understood how antithetical their vision of government is to America’s founding principles [said]:

It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter [the Constitution]. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Today we labor under an administrative state that has metastasized far beyond anything Coolidge could have imagined. It constrains our freedoms, it lays waste to our economy, it has largely rendered Congress irrelevant, and it threatens to make just about anyone a criminal, since no one can possibly keep track of all of the myriad regulations with which we are encumbered. And let’s not forget that the administrative state is run by liberals, for liberals.

Despite the fact that it is antithetical to the Constitution and to American traditions, there is little opposition to the administrative state as such. Conventional politicians suggest that regulations can be made less irrational and less burdensome – a good idea, certainly – but hardly anyone questions the fundamental concept of Congress delegating its powers to unelected and mostly unaccountable agencies that are charged with managing just about every aspect of our lives. Nearly everyone considers the administrative state, as such, to be inevitable.

Why don’t libertarians stake out a “radical” position on domestic policy? Why not argue, not just for a moderation in the inevitable drift toward a more and more powerful administrative state, but for a return to the Constitution’s central principle – the very first words of Article I – that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States…”, a Congress that is accountable to the people.

A battle is being fought for the liberties of the American people and, frankly, it isn’t going well. The fight has little or nothing to do with drugs and drones. If libertarians are serious about preserving and expanding liberty, they should join the fight that matters. A libertarian movement that focuses on a rollback of the administrative state would be “radical,” but it also would put libertarians in the vanguard, not on the fringe, of American conservatism.

  • Andrew M

    I cannot consider the prohibition of certain drugs a trivial issue. It’s wasted $1 trillion of our tax dollars ever since President Nixon declared a War on Drugs. It poses a direct national security threat by artificially increasing the value of drugs, allowing Mexican cartels to become wealthier than they already are and inflicting pressure against America’s already-porous southern border. Who knows how many Islamic sleeper cells are taking advantage of this fact?

    And what do we get for all of this? 663,000 arrests of American citizens in 2011 for mere possession of marijuana, a prison-industrial complex growing with the complicity of the government to cage these political prisoners, and a police force willing to go after low-hanging fruit with military-grade weaponry instead of pursuing violent criminals (who often get lighter sentences when they are caught).

    Mentioning all of this does nothing to diminish the attention we shed on the global jihad, who I must add is also a beneficiary of America’s suicidal drug policy through the trafficking of Afghani heroin. Slapping the sickest of our citizens with criminal records which limit their means of gainful employment and rehabilitation is a moral travesty, and continuing this policy will weaken America’s will to countering the obvious threat of Islam more than any substance can.

    Those few countries which relax their drug policy experience decreased drug use and a healthier overall society. Portugal decriminalized all drug use back in 2011, after which rates of drug abuse declined dramatically (source):

    The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

    The Netherlands, famous for its relaxed marijuana policy and culture, boasts a lower usage rate of the drug than the United States. Colorado’s legal marijuana industry is also increasing economic opportunities and decreasing violence in the state.

    In light of this information, I’m not sure why self-identified conservatives who want to see drug use decline aren’t passionately leading the charge to legalize all drugs with varying amounts of regulation. (It would also stick a thumb at the UN, which insists member nations keep drugs illegal. What self-respecting conservative wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?)

    Of course children shouldn’t be using drugs; of course certain drugs are bad for you. These are not good arguments against legalizing drugs. Keeping drugs illegal increases their availability to children (drug dealers don’t check for ID, licensed retailers do) and threatens addicts with jail time instead of encouraging them to seek medical treatment.

    Everything said, keeping drugs illegal weakens America. I will loudly defy this stupid policy until it is reversed.

    • Andrew M

      Correction: Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, not 2011. 🙂

  • Kelly

    Atheist conservatives are the only true conservatives. No matter how hard religious people might try to be conservative, the collectivist impulses of religion always seem to affect their worldviews and color the positions they take. Religious conservatives are really just liberals in a different flavor: they, too, want to impose their own code of morality on others through force and coercion. Of course they believe in personal liberty — except where it applies to a gay couple who want to marry, a pregnant teen who wants an abortion, a retiree in line to collect tenfold what he paid into Social Security and Medicare, or a guy who just wants to smoke his weed in peace.

  • liz

    Great article, and wonderful quote by Calvin Coolidge.
    I think the Tea Party and libertarians should join forces and create a third party, or at least purge the GOP and start from scratch.
    I’m really sick of communists disguised as Democrats, and crony capitalists disguised as Republicans. And ALL of them politically correct cowards, with few exceptions.