Maybe it was original and true when Reagan first said it in 1962, but by the time Arlen Specter appropriated the old “I didn’t leave the [insert party] Party. The [insert party] left me” in 2009 it was an obnoxious cliché. Or so I thought.
Now, in 2010, I find that the phrase captures my own feelings about my transition from conservative to libertarian just perfectly. I’m not moving, the label is moving. I didn’t change, conservatism changed.
Fifteen years ago the only thing I thought libertarians stood for was legalization of marijuana. I’m actually indifferent on that issue, but I certainly don’t think it’s the kind of thing I’d want to build a political party around. Back then I saw conservatism as the movement that stood for our traditional political infrastructure and so – by extension – for limited government and civil liberties. These were the days of the Gingrich Revolution, and it was a good time to be a conservative.
And then along came Bush. There was the War on Terror, PATRIOT Act, and the invasion of Iraq. But more than that, there was compassionate conservatism. In an effort to further entrench the evangelical vote in the conservative wing, conservatives embraced the basic tenet of liberalism: better living through big-government. Instead of cutting down on superfluous government like the Department of Education, we got the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead of trimming waste and fraud in entitlement programs, we expanded government with Medicare Part D. This was not the conservatism that I had signed up for. This was not the conservatism that revered the principles of our Founding. This was not the conservatism that I wanted to have anything to do with.
A decade ago I saw the world in terms of liberals vs. conservatives. Today I see the political landscape as divided between progressives and libertarians, with liberals and conservatives in a confused jumble in the middle.
Despite my belief in limited government, I’m a staunch social conservative. I believe in protecting the right to life of all human beings. I believe in the importance of traditional families. I believe in old-fashioned morals, and for a while this aspect of my politics kept me in the conservative tent while the rest of my support for conservatism slowly eroded. But in October 2009 a sermon by Elder Todd Christofferson in the Mormon General Conference forever changed my perception of morality and politics. Here’s an excerpt from his talk, called Moral Discipline:
The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).
As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that “gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. . . .
“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”
In most of the world, we have been experiencing an extended and devastating economic recession. It was brought on by multiple causes, but one of the major causes was widespread dishonest and unethical conduct, particularly in the U.S. housing and financial markets. Reactions have focused on enacting more and stronger regulation. Perhaps that may dissuade some from unprincipled conduct, but others will simply get more creative in their circumvention. There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome. This approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone. In the memorable phrase of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.”
In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.
I had some qualms about quoting a Mormon leader on America’s Right, but when I realized that the lynchpin quote in that excerpt comes from political commentator Walter Williams I decided to go ahead and include it. If Mormon leaders get to quote libertarian economists in their sermons I figure I ought to get to quote Mormon leaders in my libertarian essays!
Since hearing that sermon I’ve decided that I’m tired of trying to win the culture wars by the application of top-down political force. Not only is it unwinnable, but even if you did win you would still lose. I don’t want to live in a country where public and higher education are riddled with antiquated leftist fossils pedaling their failed ideologies, but I’m no more keen to live in a world where a conservative government imposes politically correct conservative ideology. I’m now a libertarian because I believe that’s the only way to win the culture wars and still have anything left at the end of the day.
The last barrier that prevented me from calling myself a libertarian as I grew more and more cynical about the conservative movement was that I didn’t really know what it meant to be a libertarian. I have long since learned that there’s more to it than legalizing pot, but I was confused by the different factions who considered themselves libertarian and even more confused by the fact that libertarian views can crop up from folks all across the old conservative/liberal political spectrum.
Two things finally made me comfortable with libertarianism. First of all, I found the Volokh Conspiracy. It’s the most prominent libertarian legal blog in the country, and – although there is certainly dissent among the members – it was my first introduction to top-rate libertarian legal scholars.
Secondly, I came to believe we are in a period of political sea-change in which old paradigms (liberal v. conservative) are dying and new ones are forming (progressive v. libertarian). Part of the reason libertarianism has been so ill-defined is that – as a small, marginal element of American politics – there was little pressure to form a cohesive ideology. There were no leaders because there was nothing significant to lead. If you view the Tea Parties as essentially libertarian rather than conservative, however (and I do), then all of a sudden the libertarian movement is the most vibrant and influential political ideology in popular society. There will always be alternate views and dissenters, but the time for libertarianism to move from the fringes to center-stage is now. And along with that transition it’s time to start developing a coherent policy philosophy.
So I’ve stopped looking for an arbiter of libertarianism. I don’t think there is a kind of “orthodox libertarianism”. Instead – much as with conservatism just prior to the National Review – I think it’s high time to build one.