Thursday, October 8, 2009

Social Conservatives and Libertarians: why we might not be able to get along

Hunter Baker has an interesting post in First Thoughts on the differences between Libertarians and Social Conservatives:
“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.”

I appreciate Hunter offering Aristotle’s thought, not Edmund Burke’s, as representative of social conservatism; however, I would parse the divergences with Libertarians this way:

1) The nature of freedom. Libertarians are concerned ONLY WITH exterior freedom-meaning they are worried about the pressure the state can apply. Social Conservatives, on the hand, are concerned with a deeper understanding of freedom, interior freedom. There are things other than the state which can enslave you e.g. your appetites. A drug addict or alcoholic is free according to a Libertarian, but not according to a Social Conservative.

2) Human nature and Bioethics. The Libertarian values Autonomy so he recognizes no authority outside of the self. In this scenario, redesigning human nature through biotechnology is permissible. The Social Conservative values Human Dignity and which requires a transcendent reference point. Tampering with human nature then would be playing God.


  1. Hey Mr. Joseph,

    I guess this is why I would distance myself from “libertarianism” per se, but would a libertarian really necessarily value autonomy foremost personally? Some libertarians may hold such a value, but others may simply believe that in government and law no authority can infringe on the person; a libertarian may still be able to believe that they cannot “play God,” just that the government cannot interfere with someone's decision to possibly do that.

    In the same way, I wouldn't say libertarians are necessarily concerned only with “exterior freedom,” but that they believe that should be the state's only concern — to varying degrees, I suppose. Well, maybe I simply consider myself a classical liberal to distance myself from these potentially more radical views...

    Also, I would say from a purely philosophical standpoint that the drug addict or alcoholic was free to a certain degree (people's disposition to such things would affect this freedom, of course) in choosing to become that way in the first place, but once he has passed a certain threshold of addiction he becomes not quite free. In any case, at this point, I still don't think it's necessarily the state's job to “free” him. From an ethical/moral standpoint, people should “free” him, but I don't believe the state, especially in our enormous United States of America, can actually be considered “people” in the sense we're looking for.

  2. Stephen
    A lot of good points here, so I’ll just focus on two.

    On what grounds should the state stay out of these matters? If you start seeing language like “individualism” “freedom” or “choice”, then you can be sure that the moral value of autonomy has been invoked.

    The Social Conservative is in agreement with the Libertarian when it comes to telling Washington to stay out of these matters, but he wouldn’t extend that to Local Government. And here we can see that Hunter Baker, whose post I cited above, is right to link Social Conservatives to Aristotle. Like Aristotle, the Social Conservative is Pro-Local. For the autonomy advocate, the level of government is not the issue, it is government per se.