At a recent conference, I participated in a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along. I advocated for common ground from the social conservative position, but also sought to help the audience think through some of the basic issues involved. Below, I’m pasting in my answer to a question about whether there was always a bigger rift than we realized that was papered over by the Communist threat and whether there is hope for the two groups to work together. It is an approximation of my remarks, but it is quite close to what I said.
The answer to the question is that yes, there is a rift and yes, the spectre of the old Soviet menace made the distance between the two camps appear less significant. During the Cold War, both camps were terrified of the seemingly all-powerful Soviet empire and what it would do to the cause of human dignity and freedom if allowed to prevail. The great Whittaker Chambers, you probably recall, felt that when he left the Soviet cause he was joining the losing side. This terror effect is all the more impressive when we consider the fact that the Soviet supermen and their centralized committees were never able to solve the riddle of how to effectively ration out toilet paper to their comrades. But there is no mistaking it. They looked quite formidable at the time.
So, what is the cause of the rift? After all, social conservatives and libertarians agree that the free market is fundamentally superior to other economic systems. They also both believe in limiting the power of government.
The primary difference between the two groups is with regard to the connection between the law, on the one hand, and morality and culture on the other.
My fellow panelist (Doug Bandow) will speak better for libertarians than I can, but I think it is fair to say that in their view, the reason we choose to live together in political association rather than as hermits in the woods is so that we can enjoy the benefits of mutual defense and commerce. Thus, all the government we really need is a military to protect against external threats, police to protect against internal ones, and maybe courts to enforce contracts between individuals.
Social conservatives, in contrast, line up more or less with Aristotle, who insisted that political life is about more than just mutual defense and commerce. Instead, political associations exist to enable us to develop a civic friendship whereby we will discover moral excellence as a community.
For social conservatives, that Aristotelian civic friendship means there is value in turning the law to certain moral purposes beyond things like mutual defense and enforcing contracts. Instead, we hope to make law in such a way that it promotes human flourishing and prevents or discourages things that lead to decay and decline.
Given that logic, we tend to want to legally promote and affirm things like marriage and the bearing of children within wedlock. Many of us would also, for example, probably support laws that require children to attend school up to a certain age (just not necessarily a public school!).
We believe in promoting or supporting these things (marriage, childbearing within wedlock, education) via the instrument of law because we believe they are fundamentally good for people and are good for our culture. Indeed, you will often hear social conservatives citing studies that show that individuals who successfully graduate from high school, get married, and delay childbearing until after marriage are extremely unlikely to live in poverty. The research also shows that children who grow up in traditional, two parent households, in the aggregate, tend to perform better in school, have less behavioral problems, are less likely to commit crimes, and are less likely to depend on public assistance when they grow up. For those reasons, and not merely as a matter of religious preference as others often believe, social conservatives support using the law to bolster social arrangements that improve human flourishing.
Then, on the negative side of the ledger, social conservatives support using the law to restrain or prohibit activities they thing are damaging to human beings and the culture as a whole. That means social conservatives agree with laws against addictive narcotics, pornography, gambling, and prostitution. They do not believe these are victimless crimes, but rather that they are pathological and destructive to both individuals, families, and communities.
Libertarians tend to disagree with this approach to law as a promoter of various human goods, not because they hate traditional marriage or are big fans of prostitution, but because they believe this broader view of the law opens the door to a growing, busybody, and possibly malignant state.
Their concern is obviously not an empty one. And the libertarian theory of government is very clean and elegant. I think is part of why some of my brightest students are often libertarians. When I was a college student myself, I found libertarian political and economic thought quite compelling. For that matter, I still do.
But I find the Aristotelian view more appealing, still. “The Philosopher,” as St. Thomas Aquinas referred to him, believed that God made us social and rational so that we might seek after true justice using our ability to discuss what is good and what is bad.
I very much like Aristotle’s answer to Plato on the question of private property. I think it helps us see the common ground we can have. Plato proposed a system of common property and common wives. Indeed, in his system no one would even know who their children were. He reasoned that in such a system, the city would be like one body. If one hurts, then all hurt. If one is happy, all are happy.
Aristotle, my model of a conservative for today, at least, criticized the views of his old teacher. Just observe human beings, for that matter think about yourself, and you will know that human beings love the particular, not the general. A field that is owned by all will remain unplowed. But a field owned by one will be developed to the profit of all. A boy who has a thousand fathers, truly has no father. A boy with one father, has a good chance to know what it is to be loved.
Thus, the choice for private property over common property and traditional families over utopian communes is a choice for human flourishing.
As a final note, Arisotle throws in something else that is a staple of conservative reasoning. Plato, he says, the world is very old. Many have lived before us. Is it not likely that some who have lived before us have tried this idea of common property? And is it not the nature of people to keep the things that are good and work well? And yet, we see almost no societies built on a vision of common property like yours. So, Aristotle concludes, we can see private property has endured and is better both in terms of our reason about the nature of people and from historical example. We can try what you say, but ultimately, we will revert to the better option.
Now, a libertarian analysis of the same problem might go a different way and would perhaps resemble the thought of John Locke instead of Aristotle, but in this case and in several others, the libertarian would reach the same conclusion. That is a happy coincidence because it makes us co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.
The rift is real, but the threats forcing us together right now are much stronger than the disagreements which push us apart.