If the American right is successfully to defend limited government in the struggles of our times, libertarians and conservatives will have to cooperate as political allies. Such cooperation is impeded by the libertarians’ sense that they alone are the principled defenders of individual liberty, flanked on either side by liberals and conservatives who are, in different ways, equally statist. Liberals seek to violate individual liberty through regulation of economic transactions, while conservatives seek to violate it by defending morals legislation. So the argument goes.
This view, however, is mistaken, and sober libertarians should acknowledge that conservatives are much more their friends than are liberals. That is, conceding (merely for the sake of the argument) that libertarianism is correct and conservatism is an incorrect understanding of the role of government, libertarians still ought to see that conservatism is far less hostile than contemporary liberalism is to the individual liberty that libertarians seek to protect.
It is true that conservatives often defend morals legislation, and that libertarians view this as an intrusion into the realm of personal liberty similar to liberal business regulations’ intrusion into the realm of economic liberty. Nevertheless, libertarians err to the extent that they think this means that conservatism represents an opposite but equal threat to liberty as liberalism. The key difference between the two is that conservatism, unlike contemporary liberalism, contains resources within itself that limit its impulse to regulate human behavior through law.
In the first place, for conservatives, the standards that justify such regulation are relatively fixed and knowable in advance. Ordinary conservatives like to see the law reflect traditional morality. But tradition, by definition, is not subject to much change. More philosophically inclined conservatives might seek morals legislation that reflects their understanding of the natural law. Natural law, however, is understood to be part of the permanent order of things and is therefore, by definition, fixed and unchangeable. Thus conservatives are not going to be found continually introducing new subjects of moral regulation, or constantly revising and expanding the scope of government.
Liberals, in contrast, can be expected to do so and in fact are routinely found doing so. They cannot acknowledge any settled limits to governmental authority because of their belief in progress, a process to which they are unwilling to assign any endpoint. Moreover, liberals’ conception of progress is intimately bound up with the expansion of state authority, since they view government as an important, and usually the chief, tool by which social and economic wrongs are to be ameliorated. The extent of economic and social regulation that was sufficient and admirable to liberals of a generation or two ago would be derided as utterly inadequate and inhumane by today’s liberals. There is every reason to believe that the liberals of the next generation will demand an even more extensive role for government.
This liberal overreach explains why the conservative defense of traditional morality frequently involves no intrusion on individual liberty at all but merely an effort to resist liberals who would use the power of government to rewrite traditional morality or make individuals conform to what liberals regard as modern morality. For example, the conservative defense of traditional marriage does nothing to limit individual freedom, since it would merely deny governmental recognition to same-sex unions while leaving homosexuals free to live however they wish. Similarly, when conservatives oppose the expansion of anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation, they are not seeking to impose their views on others but merely defending the right of individuals to conduct their economic affairs according to traditional moral standards if they so wish.
In the second place, the conservative appetite for government regulation finds an internal constraint in the conservative belief in a flawed or imperfect human nature. Religious conservatives understand this in terms of the fall of man—the weakness in human nature arising from original sin—while secular conservatives simply content themselves with the empirical observation that most humans rarely reach a very high moral standard, and draw the conclusion that there are limits within human nature preventing such elevation. In any event, most conservatives of whatever stripe recognize the imperfection of human nature as a limit on the good to be achieved through legislation and regulation of the lives of individuals. This disposition arises in part from an appreciation of the limits of what can be achieved for the governed by attempts at improving them through law. Since man is inherently flawed, it can be a source of needless conflict and unhappiness for the law to set an unreasonably high standard. The respect for limits also arises from the recognition that a flawed human nature means that the humans who administer government are flawed, too. That is, conservatives see that we cannot expect any clean, simple gain from increasing the government’s power to “do good,” since the very people who wield that power are imperfect and often tempted to abuse it.
The liberal is much less sensitive to such limits. Contemporary liberals tend to believe less in an inherently flawed human nature than in the idea that human beings have been corrupted by unenlightened and unjust social institutions. Accordingly, they favor the progressive correction of such social institutions through what they claim are centrally administered rational reforms—while conservatives and libertarians alike believe such claims of rationality are hubristic folly. The very thing that conservatives view as a caution against government-led social and economic reforms, the imperfection of human conditions, liberals regard as an ongoing invitation to further government intervention. And if conservatives are correct that human nature is inherently flawed, then liberal efforts at governmental control will never cease to expand: every regulation that liberals expect to improve society will in fact create new problems, which liberals will then try to address through further government regulation.
Finally, conservatives, like libertarians, are not egalitarians. This places both in sharp contrast to contemporary liberals. Conservatives believe in a certain equality of basic rights for all, but they do not regard inequalities of achievement, social status, or wealth as intrinsically suspect. On the contrary, they view them as the natural result of a free society in which individuals are left alone to act on their very diverse talents and interests. Put simply, conservatives believe in equality of rights and opportunity to succeed, but not in equality of outcomes.
Dogmatic egalitarianism, however, is one of the deepest impulses of the modern liberal. This is not to say that liberals insist on an absolute equality. Nevertheless, their spontaneous moral reflex is to find inequalities of all kind suspect and to think that they need to be remedied through government intervention. This impulse sets them on the path to unlimited government. As Tocqueville suggests in Democracy in America, people who are fundamentally committed to equality can never be satisfied by existing social conditions. The elimination of each inequality makes the remaining ones stand out even more sharply against the backdrop of general equality. This irritates the mind of the egalitarian and leads him to demand further efforts of government to enforce an ever greater equality.
One can see this restless, insatiable desire for equality in the way that liberals advocated the new health care law when it was being crafted and proposed. Their defense was energized by indignation over inequalities in access to health care, an indignation that was comparable to the anger liberals expressed in relation to past inequalities that had been ameliorated through past programs of government assistance. Precisely because of their dogmatic egalitarianism, they could not defend the new law as a mere societal improvement, but had to frame it as remedying a basic injustice, a step without which we could not claim to have a decent society. Doubtless if the health care law survives the political and legal challenge it now faces, the next generation of liberals will insist, with indignation, that the government role in health care needs to be expanded even further in order to address the remaining inequalities in this area. In fact, some liberals of today frankly admit that the law is merely a step toward a system in which health care is even more comprehensively administered through government. Contemporary conservatives are not in the grip of such egalitarian passions, and so cannot reasonably be viewed by libertarians as an equal threat to individual liberty.
None of this means, of course, that libertarians and conservatives should ignore the real differences between their visions of society. Those differences are important, and they should be debated frankly and vigorously (as has been done at Public Discourse recently). Such debate should not, however, be allowed to impede political cooperation against the common adversary: an egalitarian liberalism whose understanding of the role of government in society far outstrips anything entertained by conservatives or libertarians.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).