What is a “Libertarian-Conservative”?
An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times provides a good example of the libertarian-conservative mush or hash that the libertarian philosophy has become. The op-ed is about the appointment of Supreme Court justices and was written by Steven G. Calabresi, who is a professor of law at Northwestern University and a visiting professor at Yale Law School.
Calabresi’s op-ed begins, “I’m a libertarian-conservative.”
Now, what exactly is a “libertarian-conservative”? Neither Calabresi nor the Times defines the term. It’s as if they presume that everyone knows what a “libertarian-conservative” is.
There is no doubt that Calabresi is a conservative. In fact, he served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also advised Attorney General Edwin Meese. He wrote campaign speeches for Vice President Dan Quayle.
But why then does he describe himself as a hyphenated “libertarian-conservative?” We just don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that several years ago, conservatives who were disenchanted with the conservative movement flooded into the libertarian movement and began calling themselves libertarians.
There was one big problem, however: In certain important areas, many of these disenchanted conservatives continued hewing to their conservative views. Even worse, they began prevailing on libertarians to abandon their libertarian positions and join up with these hyphenated “libertarian-conservatives” on important issues of the day.
Two premier examples were Social Security and Medicare, which are the crown jewels of the welfare state.
In the early days of the libertarian movement, libertarians did not mince words: a free society necessarily is one in which there is no Social Security, Medicare, or any other socialist program that takes money by force and gives it to other people. A genuinely free society is one in which everyone is free to keep everything he earns and decide for himself what to do with is own money. In a free society, charity is entirely voluntary. Examples of libertarians who advocated the principled case for liberty included Leonard E. Read and Ludwig von Mises.
That’s also what conservatives once believed as well. When Social Security and Medicare were proposed in the 1930s and 1960s, conservatives opposed both programs. But once their icon Barry Goldwater got smashed by liberal icon Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, conservatives threw in the towel and made peace with the welfare state. From that point on, conservatives became reformers of the welfare state, not advocates of repeal.
Thus, when the disenchanted conservatives flooded into the libertarian movement, they brought their reform mindsets with them. And they convinced many radical libertarians to abandon libertarian positions in favor of conservative reform positions, all the while describing them as “free-market reforms.”
Two premier examples of this phenomenon were Social Security and Medicare. Today, there are many libertarians who are loathe to publicly call for the repeal of these two socialist programs. The disenchanted conservatives who flooded into the libertarian movement convinced them that if they wanted to have respectability and credibility within the mainstream media and among mainstream Americans, they had to become advocates of saving Social Security and Medicare rather than advocates of repealing these welfare-state programs.
In the process, libertarians who embraced this conservative mindset began calling their reforms “free-market reforms” to Social Security or “free-market reforms” for healthcare. They maintained that their reforms were “libertarian” because they were being advocated by libertarians.
But of course that’s just nonsense. The term “free market” means markets that are free of government control, management, interference, and regulation. Since a reform of a welfare-state program leaves the program intact, albeit in reformed fashion, it is the opposite of “free market.”
That’s how the libertarian philosophy, which properly understood is a radical philosophy of liberty, has become a libertarian-conservative hash or mush. It’s also why the libertarian movement has become a revolving door for disenchanted conservatives. It explains how once radical libertarians have become reform-oriented libertarians. It’s what explains the hyphenated “libertarian-conservative.”
Consider, for example, a Calabresi op-ed that appeared in The Hill in 2017. Calabresi endorsed reforming Obamacare by adding a provision to the Republican healthcare reform package that would allow interstate competition of health-insurance providers. That is standard conservatism — “free-market reforms” to healthcare, but never, heaven forbid, calling for repealing Medicare and Medicaid.
Over the years, unfortunately, that conservative reform mindset has infected the libertarian movement, to the point that today many people believe that this is what libertarianism is all about. In fact, lots of people believe that libertarianism is nothing more than a branch of conservatism. Some libertarian organizations are even referred to as conservative or conservative-oriented by the mainstream press.
A while back, I heard a self-labeled libertarian giving a talk on healthcare to an audience composed entirely of libertarians. He said that of course the solution to healthcare was to abolish Medicare and Medicaid and separate healthcare and the state entirely.
He also said, however, that Americans just aren’t ready to hear that radical message. Therefore, he said, libertarians need to settle for making the case for “health savings accounts.” In that way, he said, libertarians had a better chance of achieving “success.” The rest of his talk was devoted to an analysis of health savings accounts.
That’s a perfect example of what conservatives who have flooded into the libertarian movement have done to the libertarian philosophy and to the libertarian movement. Health savings accounts are just another reform plan, one designed to make federal involvement in healthcare work. It will never happen. The only thing that can restore health to America’s healthcare system is libertarianism — genuine radical libertarianism, which necessarily entails ending all governmental involvement in healthcare, including “health savings accounts.”
In fact, the solution to all of what ails America lies in libertarianism, not in libertarianism-conservatism.
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