How Conservative are Libertarians?

The Free Keene Website, which is part of the New Hampshire “Free State Project” movement, addresses the issue that there is an apparent correlation between libertarianism and conservatism, at least in terms of voting patterns, in New Hampshire.

One of my pet projects is to debunk any relation between libertarianism and conservatism. There is no relation; they are diametrically opposed. Things that are actually diametrically opposed but are nonetheless presented as being in relative harmony are a problem. This problem serves as the foundation for “expropriation,” which is the most efficient method to permanently kill off a movement–for good.

In this previous post, I demonstrated that conservatism and libertarianism share no bridge regarding the “Free Market.” Despite the lip service, conservatism nonetheless places protectionism as the necessary foundation for a “free Market.” This position, of course, destroys the actual meaning of a “free market,” and ends up ensuring that the totality of debate revolves around the strawman of legitimizing protectionism.

If the distinction over the “free market” seems subtle, perhaps introducing the “wedge issue” of “American Exceptionalism” may clarify things. The libertarian critique against the State, in large part, reduces to the institutional problem of an enforcement entity that largely exempts itself from the thing(s) it is supposedly enforcing. Libertarianism rejects any claim of exceptionalism by the State in this regard. Conservatism, however, religiously endorses “American Exceptionalism,” which, of course, is an endorsement that the American State is exempt from this enforcement problem. But as is typical, claims of exemption are always undergirded by the necessity of protectionism to enforce the exemption. This, of course, leads to the moral foundation of plunder. As Bastiat put it:

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

It simply never ceases to amaze me the extent “libertarians” refuse to give up the “conservative ghost.” The lead essay for this month’s Cato Unbound, “Liberty and Science,” by Michael Shermer, for example, essentially adopts the conservative position that moral foundations are an evolutionary dynamic between conservative “constrained” vs. liberal “unconstrained.” This leads Shermer to declare that libertarian politics is the evolutionary midpoint between the two, and that libertarianism is the long run evolutionary equilibrium of the (liberal) State.

Shermer’s position suffers from an obvious empirical problem. How does Shermer square the emergence of a secret police from the so-called “realistic vision” evolutionary framework? We understand why a secret police emerges from a “blank slate, unconstrained” moral intuition foundation; but this secret police also appears to be an evolutionary emergent product of the “realistic vision,” the one that supposedly imposes “libertarian constraints.” What exactly are the important constraints, here? This leads to the more general observation that there doesn’t appear to be much of any constraint on the growth of the State.

Shermer’s empirical problem may be rooted in a conceptual problem regarding moral foundations. For example, the research of Jonathan Haidt provides a much different model of moral foundations than Shermer’s (conservative constraint) vs (liberal constraint) dualism. Haidt identifies five moral foundations:


“Conservatives” recognized all five foundations as a part of the moral intuition while while liberals only recognized the first two. Haidt’s study was originally only intended to study the conservative vs duality until it accidently discovered a third variety, one that essentially was a mutation of the liberal foundations. This one only recognized the first two foundations as well but strictly subjugated the first to the second. Essentially, it was a “morals by contract” foundation. Haidt identified this as the “libertarian foundation.”

So, in the Haidt model, libertarianism clearly is not an evolutionary midpoint of conservative vs liberal moral foundations. It is, instead, a liberal mutation.

6 thoughts on “How Conservative are Libertarians?

  1. Nice to see that someone read my post!

    I also tend to stress the differences between libertarians and conservatives. Partly this is because I’m a left-leaning libertarian, and I don’t like people thinking I’m conservative. Partly this is because I’m working with local liberal/progressive organizations, and I want them to feel comfortable working with libertarians.

    So I was unhappy with the strong correlation I found. This is why I highlighted all the ways the measure probably overstates the similarities.

    Having said that, it certainly seems that, in some situations, the lumping of both groups together is appropriate. If you’re looking primarily at economic issues (as is the case in the New Hampshire legislature), then the two ideologies can be very similar. Not identical, but close enough that it’s understandable for people to lump both groups together in opposition to the left.

    1. Thanx for the comment.

      If the mechanism of voting(i.e., politcal action) seems to correlate libertarianism and conservatism as moral bedfellows, then that outcome is perhaps a sound argument against such a mechanism as means. Even so, in context, this “correlation” is not always accurate. For example. Ivan Eland, employing a wide array of measurement variables, tags modern democratic presidents to be much more “libertarian” than the republican counter-parts. For example, Jimmy Carter is the most libertarian modern president

      Of course, the fact that Carter, as the most “libertarian modern president,” introduced FEMA and the Dept. of Education only illustrates the problem of political action/means.

      In terms of political economy, I don’t define left/right according to the “mainstream” narrative. I define these terms in terms of protectionism and not redistribution.

  2. From what I read in a psychological study titled “Understanding Libertarian Morality”, Liberals more strongly embrace harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, while Conservatives more strongly embrace ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Libertarians score pretty low, which is why two new foundations had to be added to measure us, Economic Liberty and Personal Liberty. Libertarians score so high on those that we out-score those we allegedly agree with.

    This shows that for libertarians, liberty is a moral foundation instead of a means to an end. We prefer freedom because we prefer freedom, not because of any extra characteristic that is the result of freedom. Likewise, while we believe the free market produces superior outcomes, we prefer it because it is the FREE market as opposed to the centrally managed one.

  3. Presidents deal a lot with foreign policy issues, which basically aren’t present in the NH legislature. Presidents also tend to be more moderate, economically, than legislators. (They shift to the center to be more electable. Legislative districts aren’t as balanced as the entire country taken together, so legislators don’t shift as much.)

    So my argument doesn’t apply very well to this case (and it wasn’t meant to).

  4. The U.S. is somewhat unique in that it has a classical liberal traditions, which leads to some confusion of those who make classical liberal arguments because they are traditional arguments and practices, and those who make classical liberal (libertarian) arguments because they believe the arguments are correct apart from traditional practice.

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