Speer C2C Journal Social Conservatism Libertarianism

Sorry Conservatives, we’re just not that into you

In January Sean Speer, former economic policy advisor for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, participated in a debate hosted by Students for Liberty Canada and the Carleton University Campus Conservatives. His opponent was Matt Bufton, co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Liberal Studies. The resolution was “Conservatives and Libertarians are natural allies and should view themselves as partners working towards common goals.” Speer’s argument for the affirmative was published in C2C Journal last month. Bufton’s rebut follows below.


There is no denying that, historically, conservatives and libertarians have often viewed themselves as allies in the fight against those who would give the state an expansive role in our society. The question I want to consider is whether that alliance should be maintained. In contrast to my friend Sean Speer, I believe  libertarians have not been particularly well-served by this arrangement, and that it’s time for us to move on.

One of the challenges in any discussion about conservatism and libertarianism is that neither term is especially well-defined. Wikipedia describes conservatism as “a political and social philosophy promoting traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. The central tenets of conservatism include tradition, human imperfection, organic society, hierarchy and authority and property rights.”

Libertarianism, the same source tells us, “is a collection of political philosophies and movements that uphold liberty as a core principle. Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment….” (To further confuse matters, both ideologies are derivatives of liberalism, the political philosophy that emphasizes individual rights and limited government.)

The problem with these definitions is that they don’t shed much light on the differences between conservatives and libertarians. Many libertarians will share the conservative appreciation for tradition and belief in human imperfection, organic society, and property rights. Many conservatives also see the importance of liberty, freedom of choice, and voluntary association.

To help us determine where the two tribes differ, it may help to consider some areas of disagreement.

On the issues of drug use and prostitution, most conservatives are unabashed paternalists. They wish to use the power of the state to prevent consenting adults from engaging in paid sexual activity or from ingesting certain narcotics. Libertarians believe these are matters of individual choice, and that the state has no business in banning “victimless crimes”.

In the domestic policy sphere, conservatives and libertarians share a belief in the ineptitude of government and generally prefer less of it. However, when it comes to foreign policy and immigration, conservatives are far more enthusiastic about government. They typically think the state should wage wars to prevent future aggression and build democracy overseas, and also to micromanage immigration. Libertarians generally prefer to use the military only for self-defense and advocate for the right of relatively free and open immigration.

For many years most conservatives strongly opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. To most libertarians there should be no role for government in marriage – but if there is, it should be offered equally to all. To their credit, many conservatives seem to have come around to the libertarian point of view on this issue!

To many libertarians, this list of disagreements is sufficient reason to keep their political distance from conservatives. It’s easy to understand this point of view – particularly for those from countries that have endured conservative warmongering, or those who are in same-sex relationships.

However, many conservatives (and some libertarians) prefer to concentrate on areas of agreement. “We have more commonalities than differences,” they might say, “let’s focus on what unites us.”

Those areas of agreement could include taxation, the size of government, balanced budgets, strengthening property rights, supporting free trade, and limiting economic intervention by the state.

But for those who believe conservatives and libertarians have these convictions in common, consider the following:

Taxes – Canada’s last Conservative government initially promised to reduce and simplify income taxes, but in practice used boutique tax credits to pursue votes, substantially increasing the complexity of the tax code. Personal income tax rates were the same when the Conservatives left office as when they took power.

Size of Government – Conservatives rightly criticize the Trudeau Liberals as profligate spenders. But inflation-adjusted spending under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was actually higher in their 2009 budget than in the Liberals’ 2017 budget. The reason for this massive jump in government spending? A so-called “Economic Action Plan” to stimulate economic growth with government programs! Faced with the philosophical choice between Friedrich Hayek or John Maynard Keynes, the Conservatives clearly embraced the latter, and snubbed the favourite economist of many libertarians.

Balanced Budgets – The Conservatives ran six straight deficits, including  in three of the four budgets delivered when they held a majority government. The federal debt was $150 billion more when they left office than when they entered.

Property Rights – There was no strengthening of property rights during the Harper years. Instead the government trampled the rights of shareholders on at least two occasions, when it refused to allow the sale of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates to foreign buyers, in the name of the national interest.

Free Trade – Harper talked a good game on free trade, but most of the deals signed during his prime ministership were of little consequence. There were only two significant deals negotiated during the Harper years, neither passed during his time in office (The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement – CETA – was later ratified by the Liberals, as was the Trans Pacific Partnership, although the latter was much diminished by the U.S. pullout on orders from protectionist President Donald Trump, supposedly a conservative Republican.)

Economic Intervention – The Conservatives expanded economic intervention and corporate welfare in a variety of ways, including creating the Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, and were strong supporters of supply management. Of the thirteen contenders for the Conservative leadership in 2016, only one, Maxime Bernier, called for the end of the government-enforced agricultural cartels that punish consumers to protect producers.

Of course, politics is a relative game. It could be true that conservatives, for all their faults, are the best available option for libertarians. None of the Liberal governments of the modern era have been reliable liberals in the tradition of Wilfrid Laurier. However, they’ve done a few things right.

Since 1993 the Liberals have signed two major free trade deals (NAFTA and CETA), balanced the budget, cut personal and corporate income taxes, and announced plans to legalize marijuana.

It could be said that the above facts have been cherry-picked to support my case, and there is some truth to that. There are examples of Conservatives doing things that libertarians approve of – such as instituting corporate income tax reductions, ending the wheat board monopoly, and eliminating the long-gun registry.

There are also many examples of the Liberals doing things that we libertarians object to – and here I would include not only the profligate spending of Justin Trudeau’s government but also the flagrantly interventionist programs that such spending supports.

However, my point is not that libertarians should dump the Conservatives and move en masse to the Liberal Party. Rather, given our relatively small numbers, libertarians should think about how to maximize our influence in both parties. If we are to be involved in politics, we should support them on a case-by-case basis, rather than being bound to any particular party.

One of the basic principles of economics, a discipline where libertarians are disproportionately represented, is that incentives matter. If libertarians are permanently and irrevocably wedded to the Conservatives, why would they or any party bother to craft policies appealing to libertarian voters? To maximize their influence, libertarians should be “political free agents” who support whichever party offers them the best policies.

To this point I have focused on rebutting the argument for a formal alliance between libertarians and conservatives. But as Sean has pointed out, there are some durable intellectual connections between our two tribes.

Many of the most influential libertarian thinkers of the 20th century – such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan – are much better known and appreciated in libertarian circles than they are in Conservative ones, but generally they get even less respect from Liberals.

And the large- and small-c conservative movement (to the extent there is such a thing) has indeed moved markedly in the direction of libertarian ideas in recent decades. Consider that in 1974 the old Progressive Conservative Party ran on a platform of wage and price controls!

However, the same is true of the Liberal Party and the NDP. In the 1980s both parties opposed free trade with the United States. The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau instituted the National Energy Policy, and the NDP would likely have nationalized anything that wasn’t nailed down if they’d been elected.

Today, big “L” Liberals are free traders and the NDP has (grudgingly) removed any reference to socialism from the party constitution. Both parties have yielded somewhat to the arguments that Mises, Hayek, and Friedman made against a centrally planned economy, indicating that they have wielded influence over not just the readers of National Review, but also a great many people near the centre of the political spectrum.

It is therefore a tactical error to ally our ideas too closely with conservatism, for it would limit our ability to transmit these ideas beyond the minority of people who think of themselves as being “on the right”.

Canada’s conservatives have, I believe, struggled to carve out an intellectual identity that is distinct from other political parties. One effect of this is that many conservatives focus on realpolitik, rather than ideas. Perhaps this is why Stephen Harper faced little internal pushback when he decided to govern in a Keynesian fashion in 2009. Some Conservatives grumbled about the debt, but many argued (and no doubt sincerely believed) that government borrowing and spending was needed to cope with the Great Recession. The truth is, most of the money was spent after the economic recovery was well underway, and did more to stimulate Conservative political support than stimulate the economy.

Canada lacks a conservative intellectual movement that is distinct from Conservative political parties. But libertarianism provides an intellectual foundation that many conservatives find appealing. To them I say, “Take our ideas, please!”

But ideas, unlike physical objects, are not confined to just one owner, and Conservatives are not dependably loyal to our ideas, so libertarians should not be in the business of providing intellectual ammunition for Conservative politicians.

We will do our part to keep alive the interest in great thinkers like Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat. We welcome anyone and everyone to join that conversation, not just Conservatives bearing promises of libertarian policies they don’t plan to keep.

Individualism and Community in Libertarian Thought

In his remarks, Sean referred to libertarianism as a “thin ideology” based on individualism. As he suggested, I’m in partial agreement with him on this. In my view, libertarianism is a political philosophy. In knowing that someone is a libertarian, you have a good idea what their positions are on issues regarding the proper role of the state, and its relationship to individuals. However, being skeptical of coerced association means that libertarians spend quite a bit of time thinking and talking about alternatives.

Many of my libertarian friends are familiar with the ideas put forward by Elinor Ostrom in regards to governing the commons on the basis of libertarian principles. My conservative friends, not so much.

The libertarian love of Hayek and his work on “emergent order” – with many examples drawn from traditional institutions – is almost a caricature.

The libertarian historian David Beito wrote a wonderful book called From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, which studied the longstanding role of voluntary charitable and philanthropic associations in supporting the poor and the sick before the welfare state crowded out many such initiatives.

Sean is correct to say that libertarianism is limited in its ability to answer all the questions a person may have about how to live a good and meaningful life – but conservatism is only one of the possible answers. It is certainly true that some libertarians supplement their worldview with conservatism, but that’s far from the only option.

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