In Praise of Libertarian Fickleness

A few follow-ups on the post by David Boaz, below.

Libertarians are basically a sect of conservatives, say John Zogby & Zeljka Buturovic in the National Review Online. That’s because libertarians care more about economics than about foreign policy, cultural, or other issues:

Let us for a moment [assume] that a person’s ideology is solely determined by his policy views. And let us also assume that social and economic liberties can largely be disentangled and that libertarians are as close to liberals on social issues as they are to conservatives on economic ones – a view implicit in the argument for liberaltarianism. Still, our data show that different aspects of ideology are not equally important for a person’s ideological identity, and, somewhat ironically, that this is especially true of libertarians. For all their insistence that liberty has multiple facets, libertarians appear to cherish one of them much more than others.

Supporting data shows that 60% of self-described libertarians find “economics” more important than the “social/cultural,” “foreign policy,” “energy/environment” or “other/not sure” issue areas.

I’m not convinced. A common libertarian approach to any issue is to begin with the economics of that issue. Certainly it’s true of energy and the environment. It’s also very likely true of foreign policy, because wars aren’t cheap, and it’s at least plausibly true of social and cultural issues. Libertarians see economics everywhere, not just in “economic” policies. It’s a common belief in our tribe that we are among the very few to grasp sound economic principles at all.

We can (and should) debate whether this is true, of course, but such is libertarian belief. And when conservatives abandon what we see as sound economics – as with the George W. Bush administration – well, we start looking for the exits.

Lately, though, it’s been easy for libertarians to return to conservatism. To no one’s great surprise, the Obama administration has continued the profligate spending. We may have hoped that the new administration would compensate in other areas, but this just hasn’t happened. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp should have been closed by now. On military tribunals, search and seizure issues, indefinite detention, and our expensive, never-ending foreign wars, there’s little difference between this administration and the last.

I don’t want to say that liberaltarianism is dead. But is it endangered? Sure. It deserves to be.

If libertarians seem more conservative lately, it’s not only that we’ve been pushed away by the left. Attendees at this year’s CPAC ranked “reducing size of federal government” and “reducing government spending” as by far their highest policy priorities. They also chose Ron Paul as their preferred presidential candidate. Those same attendees even booed speaker Ryan Sorba for condemning gay Republicans:

(Though many seem to share it, I wouldn’t personally trust Sorba’s understanding of Aquinas.)

Today’s young conservatives appear embarrassed by the culture wars, which must seem to them like a relic from someone else’s past. Many young conservatives have known a literal state of war for their entire adult lives. They may not even remember the last balanced federal budget. And they know that putting a Democrat in the White House hasn’t helped. Personally, I’m no conservative. But there is strength in fickleness, and if conservatives can do better, then good for them.