Like Walter Olson, I was struck yesterday by Tim Carney's admonition that “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters” in light of government infringements on religious liberty. Walter did a good job of demonstrating that libertarians, even those who are not themselves religious, have been "on the front lines" in defending religious liberty in such cases as Catholic hospitals' objections to paying for birth control and the wedding photographer in New Mexico who didn't want to photograph a gay wedding. Libertarians don't have to be conservatives to object to "liberal" infringements on personal and religious freedoms.
But there's another problem with what Carney wrote. I'm not quite sure what "Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters" means. But perhaps he means that libertarians should stop thinking of themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" and recognize that a lot of infringements on freedom come from the left. In my experience libertarians are well aware that in matters from taxes to gun ownership to Catholic hospitals, liberals don't live up to the ideal of true liberalism.
But what about conservatives? Are conservatives really the defenders of freedom? Carney seems to want us to think so, and to line up with conservatives "on social matters." But the real record of conservatives on personal and social freedom is not very good. Consider:
- Conservatives, like National Review, supported state-imposed racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. (I won't go back and claim that "conservatives" supported slavery or other pre-modern violations of freedom.)
- Conservatives opposed legal and social equality for women.
- Conservatives supported laws banning homosexual acts among consenting adults.
- Conservatives still oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.
- Conservatives (and plenty of liberals) support the policy of drug prohibition, which results in nearly a million arrests a year for marijuana use.
- Conservatives support state-imposed prayers and other endorsements of religion in public schools.
Conservatives have a bad record on social freedom. It is, in a word, illiberal. Carney may be right that,
This is how the culture war generally plays out these days: The Left uses government to force religious people and cultural conservatives to violate their consciences, and then cries "theocracy" when conservatives object.
But conservatives earned the skepticism of liberals and libertarians on social issues over long decades during which they supported far greater intrusions on personal freedom than the ones Carney is writing about—which are nevertheless illiberal and should be opposed by all who adhere to the principles of freedom.