Libertarians and Conservatives:

My discussion of the prospects for a libertarian-liberal alliance is probably incomplete without some attention to the troubled relationship between libertarians and conservatives.

As I argued in the previous post, at the level of fundamental principle, libertarians have more in common with liberals than with conservatives. However, there are important countervailing factors that may make a revival of the libertarian-conservative alliance more feasible than any likely libertarian-liberal coalition. Some of these factors operate at the level of intellectual elites, and others at the level of practical politics.

Intellectual Commonalities.

At the level of intellectual elites, there is much less disagreement between libertarians and conservatives than at the mass level. Most libertarian intellectuals find, say, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to be repulsive. I know I do. However, most serious conservative intellectuals are far more supportive of limited government and probably less prone to support government interventions in social affairs than he is. My sense is that most conservative intellectuals continue to favor major reductions in the size and scope of government despite President Bush's movement in the opposite direction. Many of them even favor reductions in the government's role on some "social" issues. For example, there are probably more conservative intellectuals than liberal ones willing to endorse the abolition of the War on Drugs - by far the most important civil liberties issue from the standpoint of most libertarians. The National Review,probably the most prominent conservative opinion journal, has supported drug legalization for decades, for example. Obviously, this is cold comfort if conservative politicians don't heed NR's advice on this point. However, it does help explain why many libertarian intellectuals continue to view conservatives as allies. The conservatives we deal with on a day-to-day basis are far more likely to be National Review types than the type who watch the 700 Club.

Practical Politics

At the level of practical politics, there is no question that the GOP, under George W. Bush, has turned in a pro-big government direction, and that is one reason why many libertarians, myself included, wanted them to suffer a defeat in the recent election. However, most of George W. Bush's big government policies - such as the Medicare prescription drug plan, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the steel tariffs, were enacted purely for the sake of political expediency. Much of the Republican Party base hated them, and it is no accident that many Republicans are calling for a return to small government principles in the aftermath of their defeat in November. Unlike in the case of the Democrats, there is a real chance that the GOP will return to (relatively) small government principles in the near future, just as it did in the aftermath of the political defeat of its last two big government presidents - Richard Nixon and George Bush I. The political failure of Bush II may well lead Republicans to reconsider whether "big government" conservatism really is the way to go.

Civil Liberties and Social Issues

Most of those who argue against a libertarian-conservative coalition focus heavily on the issue of civil libeties. It is indeed the case that even most pro-limited government conservatives differ with libertarians on social issues such as censorship of pornography and gay rights. These differences are not going to go away. As a matter of philosophical principle, these differences are very grave. However, they matter less as a matter of practical politics because the ability of government to seriously constrain these kinds of freedoms in the modern world is quite limited. All the efforts of social conservatives over the last forty years have had little impact on people's ability to consume pornography, nor have they significantly slowed what I think is the natural and inevitable evolution towards greater social and legal acceptance for homosexuals.

The one major area where conservative policies do pose a truly grave threat to civil liberties is the War on Drugs. However, the Democrats don't show any more enthusiasm for curtailing drug prohibition than Republicans do. And, as noted above, there are probably at least as many anti-drug war conservative intellectuals as liberal ones.

While I oppose the Bush Administration's claims of virtually unlimited executive war powers, the administration's abuses in the War on Terror are not enough of a threat to civil liberties to justify a libertarian-liberal alliance on these grounds. As I discussed in more detail here, only a relatively small number of genuinely innocent people have been victimized by these policies (see also these two posts by Megan McCardle). Certainly far fewer than are harmed by the War on Drugs or by numerous policies favored by the Democrats. Moreover, Bush's more extreme claims for unlimited executive power have been repudiated by the Supreme Court and by Congress. That does not mean that libertarians should simply support pro-Bush conservatives on these issues or that there is no reason for concern. Far from it. It does suggest, however, that the issue is not enough to justify a libertarian-liberal alliance.

Whether the libertarian-conservative coalition can be saved remains to be seen. Much depends on the future course of the GOP. For the moment, however, it remains a more viable option than a libertarian-liberal alliance of the sort proposed by Brink Lindsey, Daily Kos, and others.