A Conservative Libertarian

Last year while I was on my North American adventure I had time to read quite a few books. One of these was Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. His basic premise is that the American left, which dominates most media and academia, pretends that they are not ideological but merely pragmatic. A leftist will claim that conservatives are ideologues, bound to the dogmas of backward traditions, but liberals are simply open-minded folks who go with whatever has been proven to work. Goldberg ably demonstrates why this is hogwash, so I will not rehash his arguments here. Despite the fact that some claim otherwise, the truth is that we all have ideologies, we all have systems of interpreting what is going on in the world. For many people, these systems are unconscious, instilled in them by parents, school, peers, and media to the point where they do not even realize that other people might see things differently. (Hence the common assumption on the left that if you disagree with my tax policy you must be ignorant/racist/sexist/hateful of poor people etc.)

I was raised in a conservative home, taught in the public school system, and grew up in a very liberal area of the country. Extracting a purposeful ideology out of all the unconscious assumptions that have developed has taken a long time. When I asked, I call myself a conservative libertarian (or a libertarian conservative, depending on the context). I use these terms very specifically. In the most basic sense, a conservative philosophy conserves those ideas and traditions that have given shape to our culture and society for many centuries. Conservatives hold on to ideas that have stood the test of time. A libertarian philosophy is concerned with maximizing the liberty of the individual as opposed to the rights of the collective. These two philosophies overlap in some places and contradict in others, but overall they give me a framework for deciding if I can support an idea. They force me to ask two questions about every issue: Does this make us more free? Has this worked in the past?

Let’s take Communism as an easy example. The Marxist socialists and the Leninist Communists wanted to create a society where men and women did not need to worry about poverty or hardship. They saw their philosophy as ending in an utopia of peace and brotherhood. Laudable goals, sure. But before I sign on, I have two questions. First, does it make us more free? Well, if it works (see next question) it would free us from want, like President Roosevelt wanted. But what about our freedom of agency – our freedom to choose how to live? A Communist society is by necessity totalitarian, that is, its only hope of working requires everyone to participate. If the government is decided who gets paid what, and who lives in what house, and who sells what product, then your freedom of choice is severely limited. There is no room in a Communist state for people to make their own choices. Remember that the Berlin Wall was built to keep the Communist citizens from leaving, not to keep their capitalist neighbors from entering. There is also the fact that a state that provides for every need turns a free citizen into a slave who is completely dependent upon that state. Clearly, your freedom is curtailed in a Communist government.

Question two: Has this worked in the past? The answer to this one should be obvious. Neither the Communist societies in the past such as the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations nor modern examples such as Cuba or Venezuela can show the innovation, freedom, or happiness of their capitalist neighbors. Korea provides a striking example. In 1953, the two Koreas were even in technology and standard of living. Today, capitalist South Korea is an economic powerhouse and its people are some of the most prosperous on earth. Meanwhile, Communist North Korea is one of the poorest places on earth. Cuba may have “free” healthcare but their standard of living is below the American concept of poverty. Venezuela recently had to post armed guards at toilet paper factories because they could not produce enough for their citizens. China only became an economic success after Deng Xiaoping modernized the country and loosened government controls. I think it is clear that Communism has failed wherever it has been tried, and I did not even mention the millions upon millions of people who were murdered or starved to death in these nations.

What about an example that satisfies one question but not the other? Taxes tend to make us less free, but we would all agree that some level of taxation is necessary to support a government that protects our life, liberty, and property. Legalizing all drugs would make us more free, but there is a point at which they would be more harmful to society than keeping them illegal. Truthfully though, most ideas will answer either yes or no to both questions. Humans have an innate desire for freedom, so what works will often satisfy our need for liberty as well. Free people are happy people, innovative people, and strong people.

The quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin about a society who gives up liberty for security and loses both is an apt one. If we give up our freedom to choose our own medical care for the security of knowing someone else will pay for it, we will find ourselves worse off than before. If we give up our freedom to defend ourselves with firearms for the security of a militarized police force and surveillance state, we will find ourselves in more danger than before. If we give up our freedom to travel as we will for the security of keeping safe from terrorists, we will become prisoners in our own lands. The point is that freedom is dangerous and scary. Children have parents who watch out for them, take care of them, tell them what to do, and keep them safe from the outside world. The government should not be our parents. A conservative philosophy of liberty is for grown-ups who understand that they will face the consequences of their actions, both positive and negative. It is not for the timid. You have the freedom to choose to support ideologies that keep you safe from want, from need, and from fear, but beware! History shows that societies that go down that road face ruination, a lower quality of life, and degradation of the human spirit, which yearns to be free.


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