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Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?: The Tough Cases of Abortion and Marriage

By: Jay W. Richards
Public Discourse
April 25, 2012


Link to Original Article

2012 was supposed to be the year that economic issues drove the presidential debates while so-called social issues—abortion, marriage, religious freedom—took a back seat. Most libertarians favored this storyline, since they tend to disagree with conservatives on social issues. In light of the furor over the Health and Human Services mandate that religious organizations fund insurance for “preventive” care including contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, however, we should probably retire that trope. Does this mean there must be a divorce between libertarians and conservatives?

There are serious disputes between these groups. The recent series of essays by Nathan Schlueter and Nikolai Wenzel at Public Discourse provides a near-perfect contrast. In his response to Schlueter’s follow-up essay, Wenzel raised a representative libertarian complaint about conservatives: “The prohibition of pornography, the banning of drugs, privileging heterosexual marriage over other types of associations, and all activities that violate the rights of some can hardly be considered a ‘common’ good.”

In my experience, however, such sharp philosophical divisions are uncommon among both right-leaning voters and right-leaning politicians, neither of whom divide up neatly into conservative and libertarian camps. They don’t know what “methodological individualism” or the “harm principle” are, and they don’t much care. For example:

Are these people being inconsistent? I don’t think so. I suspect there is a tacit if inarticulate conservative wisdom that recognizes that the libertarian commitment to free markets and limited government is best preserved within a broader conservative context.

Over fifty years ago, National Review’s Frank Meyer made the case for “fusionism,” which joined traditional morality with a defense of liberty and free markets. Meyer and others knew that fiscal conservatism needs social conservatism, and vice versa. A free market allows us to exercise creativity and virtue, for instance, but it also needs a reasonably virtuous citizenry. A population of thieves would create anarchy, not freedom. Unfortunately, the very name fusionism implied that that these were separate concerns that needed to be, well, fused.

In our recent book Indivisible, James Robison and I argue that there are (at least) ten basic principles that not only ground this tacit conservative wisdom but ought to appeal to the “everyman libertarian” who values limited governments, individual rights, and free markets, but is not otherwise committed to a deeply libertarian philosophy. Perhaps the best way to illustrate these principles briefly is to focus not on their philosophical foundations but on the two greatest sources of conflict between libertarians and conservatives: abortion and marriage.

If You Love Freedom, Defend Life

Pro-choice libertarians argue that limited government shouldn’t legislate what happens in the uterus of a woman. This sounds superficially plausible. What they don’t realize is that they are striking at the foundation of their own beliefs, since the case for economic freedom is also a moral one.

“Free trade,” wrote Edmund Burke, “is not based on utility but on justice.” While you might expect Burke to say something like that, consider also the pro-choice atheist Ayn Rand. “Man—every man—is an end in himself,” she insisted, “not the means to the ends of others.” Rand’s followers make the same argument, as do most libertarians. The moral case for economic freedom is invariably rooted in the idea that every human being, whatever his or her race, age, or social status, has inherent dignity. Even at the Randian extreme, the notion persists, though hanging in mid-air, that a human being is valuable and should be free because of what he or she is, apart from whether he or she is useful to anyone else. (Rand maintained her pro-choice stance only by denying, implausibly, the humanity of the unborn.)

The intrinsic value of the individual is the foundation of the pro-life position, too. It is why pro-lifers argue that the government should protect the life of the unborn, the elderly, and the infirm, and should prohibit scientific procedures that destroy human embryos. “Human life cannot be measured,” said the late Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey in a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1995. “It is the measure itself. The value of everything else is weighed against it.”

Most libertarians support a limited government, not an absence of government. The central role of government—its core competency—is to maintain the conditions in which individual initiative, personal freedoms, and personal property are protected under the rule of law. Those conditions do not include the “freedom” of some to violate the basic rights of others.

Protecting innocent, pre-born, human life, then, is not only consistent with economic freedom; as Ron Paul understands, it is one of the prerequisites of freedom. That is why libertarians committed to freedom should be pro-life.

Marriage: A Limited Government Recognizes Pre-Political Realities

It’s fairly easy to connect the pro-life and pro-freedom causes. The right to life is inscribed in the Declaration of Independence alongside the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s less obvious how those who believe in limited government could also believe that the government should favor conjugal marriage. Shouldn’t the state get out of the marriage business altogether, and just treat us all as individuals? If two men want to get “married,” for instance, where does Big Brother get off telling them they can’t? As Nikolai Wenzel argues, “Privileging heterosexual marriage over other types of associations . . . can hardly be considered a ‘common’ good.”

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores what marriage is. Marriage is a public institution with public consequences. We’re having this debate because marriage is about public recognition and approval, not private feelings and vows. “Including homosexuals within marriage,” observes Andrew Sullivan, a supporter of same-sex marriage, “would be a means of conferring the highest form of social approval imaginable.”

Philosophically, I would argue that libertarians often miss this point because their commitment to individual rights and “methodological individualism” lacks the equally important commitment to our inherent and specific sociality, which includes the universal institution of marriage.

But let’s set that aside and focus just on the libertarian commitment to the individual. Ironically, redefining marriage would strike at the foundation of individual rights. A limited government doesn’t try to redefine reality as the Orwellian governments of the twentieth century did. A limited government recognizes and defends certain realities outside its jurisdiction. Our government doesn’t bestow rights on us as individuals. We get our rights from God. A just and limited state simply acknowledges and protects the rights that already exist.

The individual is one pre-political reality; marriage is another. It transcends every political system. Even cultures that have taken homosexual acts in stride, such as the ancient Greeks, still knew that marriage was for a man and a woman. The question is not what people would like to do, but what marriage is. Since only a man and a woman can mate, marriage always has a special relationship to bearing and raising children.

Since so many different cultures and religions have recognized and protected marriage, we should conclude that it’s based on human nature and is not merely a social convention that we’re free to change once progressives capture the Supreme Court or the state legislature. Our very biology testifies to this. Every healthy individual has biological systems that are complete in themselves. Only our individual sexual organs are intrinsically incomplete. They can only achieve their primary purpose when joined with another human being of the opposite sex. No doubt this is why few cultures until recently ever had a widespread debate about the nature of marriage. It was obvious.

In fact, marriage is far more universally recognized than are our ideals concerning individual rights and equality. Each of us is, by nature, a person in relationship. And marriage, a unique union of a man and a woman, is one of our most basic human relationships. Appealing to nature and nature’s God to defend individual rights and equality, which most cultures have not recognized, while ignoring the universal testimony of nature and culture on marriage, is like sawing off the branch you’re sitting on. Put another way, you can’t make war on the source of our natural rights and then appeal to it for help.

Just as government may not redefine our rights as individuals, it has no authority to redefine marriage. Communism was totalitarian because it tried to redefine the individual, to create a new “Communist Man.” (It also tried and failed to redefine marriage.) We’re now struggling with another totalitarian impulse to redefine reality. If the state, working hand in glove with most of the media, can redefine a universal institution rooted in human nature, what can’t it redefine?

We conservatives need to strengthen our base without alienating our near allies. One way to do that is to show how the central convictions of “everyman libertarians” can find a peaceful repose in a conservative home.

Jay W. Richards is Director of the Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality at the Discovery Institute, a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, and co-author, with James Robison, of the New York Times bestselling book Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late.




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