Libertarians and Social Conservatives
Last month I had a chance to sit down with journalist Alexis Garcia of Reason, a libertarian magazine and website, to talk about Texas. The interview was published last week, and you can watch it at the link. I’ll revisit two points from the interview here.
First, an elaboration on what I mean by “tacitly libertarian.” People who describe themselves as libertarian or as part of the liberty movement are concerned with liberty as a first principle. Insofar as government encroaches on liberty, they generally align with fiscal conservatives, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons. Drug policy is one of the issues where the two perspectives result in support for similar policies, albeit for different reasons. Rick Perry, for example, has emerged as a critic of the War on Drugs; later today he’s making an appearance in Lubbock, to accept a “Governor of the Year” award from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. When he talks about the issue, he’s generally emphasized controlling costs and reducing recidivism. That’s a fiscally conservative mindset. Libertarians may approach the issue differently–by arguing, for example, that the criminalization of marijuana is government overreach analogous to prohibition–but the result is that they’ll typically support fiscally conservative reforms in this area.
The libertarian-type Republicans sometimes disagree with other parts of the party coalition on fiscal issues, social issues, criminal justice issues (and, at the national level, foreign policy). But Texas, in contrast to some states, is a state where libertarian arguments have a built-in advantage: state government, with its part-time legislature, its constitutional restrictions against taxing and spending, etc, is limited in a variety of ways, regardless of who’s in charge.
Second, as I said in the interview, I think that tension between libertarian-type Republicans and socially conservative ones is inevitable. This is a point that I’ve been thinking about in the three weeks or so since we recorded the interview, because the Supreme Court has been hearing arguments about whether the owners of the Hobby Lobby can be required to include coverage for certain forms of contraception in their health care plans for employees. As writers like Tim Carney have pointed out, this is an issue where social conservatives and libertarians may be aligned. I think that’s a fair point, but the issue in that case is the specific result of the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Historically–and recently, as we saw last year in Texas–social conservatives have more often focused on passing new legislation to restrict or prohibit activity they disagree with on normative grounds. They’re not necessarily wrong to do so, but in doing so they are inevitably in tension with libertarian thinking, which is skeptical of government power and, correspondingly, more confident in the capacity of private actors–individuals, the private sector, civil society, and so on–to create, encourage, and sustain the virtue that underpins freedom.