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  • Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Libertarian? Part 1

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

In this series I’d like to explore some of the common misconceptions about the differences between conservatives and libertarians. In particular, misconceptions that arise from the famous 5 Dimensional Political Compass or the related 5 Dimensional Political Quiz.

We’ve probably all taken the “quiz” at some point that supposedly tells us where we fit on the compass: liberal, authoritarian, conservative, libertarian, or centrist. The quiz askes various questions designed to measure our preferences in the balance between freedom and security around the broad categories of social and economic issues. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute even has a page that asks “Are You a Libertarian?” followed by the quiz. It is my belief that this quiz and the compass are based on two faulty principles which suggests to many right-leaning individuals that they are libertarians when, in fact, they are conservatives.

The first faulty principle is the untruth that liberty can be charted in terms of social and economic constraints or disinhibitions. The truth is, liberty is an idea to be defined by political philosophy, not a substance to be measured by the scientific method. It can be tempting to define someone’s political worldview based solely on the stances they take on a laundry list of policies. Does he believe in the 2nd Amendment and support lower taxes? He must be a conservative. Does she stand for gay rights and support a woman’s right to choose? She’s got to be a liberal. Does he stand for all of those things? He’s definitely a libertarian. The problem with this line of thinking is that political philosophies can’t be reduced to a list of policies. If we are to say that someone is conservative because they advocate legislation that would make getting an abortion difficult, then could we not say they are very conservative if they advocate bombing abortion clinics?

Libertarians, we are sometimes told, exist somewhere between the liberal (who supposedly advocates social freedoms and constrains economic freedoms) and the conservative (who supposedly advocates economic freedoms and constrains social freedoms). The libertarian supposedly advocates for both social and economic liberties. But this line of reasoning is reached by examining particular policies advocated by the liberal and the conservative and noticing that the libertarian seems to share certain policy positions from each. While policies may be derived from political philosophies, they are not the same as a political philosophy.

Take the issue of tax cuts: a conservative, libertarian, and anarchist may all agree that taxes should be cut in a particular situation, but they disagree sharply on why taxes should be cut. The conservative and libertarian may be in favor of tax cuts as a means of stimulating economic activity or expanding personal liberties or reducing the size of government, but the anarchist simply wants to abolish government altogether. While the initial policies are similar the principles are not and these differences in principles will lead to ever widening policy differences as they come to fruition.

In practice, conservatives sometimes call themselves libertarians or vice versa. But it is very uncommon to have a liberal or progressive describe themselves as a libertarian. Think for a moment whether your friends who call themselves libertarians are more likely to support Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders? Would they be more likely to attend CPAC or Netroots Nation? A libertarian may claim to stand somewhere between a conservative and a liberal, but when it comes time to vote they find themselves backing conservative candidates over liberal candidates. This can be confusing if we’re attempting to navigate politics with a “compass” that relies of policies instead of principles.

The second faulty principle with the compass is the untruth that liberty is defined by the absence of constraints. True liberty is defined by the presents of only those constraints that fit our nature. A toddler who is left in his crib by his parents is less free than a toddler who is removed from the crib and placed in a nursery. But he is only freer with fewer constraints because both the crib and the nursery fit his nature. If his parents were to take him to a busy part of town and leave him there to roam amok he may be less constrained but he certainly wouldn’t be any freer than in the security of his crib or nursery.

And so it is with adults: we are freest when we operate within the constraints of our nature. Governments impose constraints in the form of taxes and authority exercised over the governed. Yet the absence government would leave us vulnerable to foreign invaders. Constraints imposed by courts, law enforcement, and the penal system protect law abiding citizens from those who disregard the law. Constraints that foster freedom may also be internal. We’re all prone to habits and character traits we’d like to eliminate. Constraints help mitigate the harmful effects of our own lack of character. These can range from simple self-denial, accountability relationships, or, in extreme cases such as addictions, forcibly removing ourselves from what our base desires crave. Whether they’re external or internal, constraints protect us from the harmful effect of absolute liberty.

It is for this reason that conservatives do not view the ends of liberty as an absolute to be realized by all people at all times to the greatest extent possible, but as a sacred blessing for those who are able to receive and maintain it by recognizing and embracing the constraints of their nature. As Russel Kirk put it, “Liberty forced on a people unfit for it is a curse, bringing anarchy.”

So, if the political compass doesn’t help us navigate between a conservative and a libertarian, what does? If it’s not to be decided by the ferociousness with which we defend liberty or by the broadness of “liberating” policies we advocate, how would it be decided? The difference can be found in how we approach the idea of liberty. And this is something we’ll explore in part 2.

This piece originally appeared in The Millennial Review.

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