4.2.1 Libertarianism

Tyler Chamberlain

Although libertarians make up a sizable portion of today’s conservative movement, they nevertheless sit uneasily within it. They embrace the free market and small government ideals of other conservatives, but they do not always agree with the social conservatism of other groups, particularly when it is used to justify the restriction of individual freedoms. We will return later to the theme of tensions within or between conservative groups.

Social Conservatism

Social conservatism refers to a multifaceted set of political concerns, all of which are related to the broad aim of protecting society from threats. These threats come in different forms, and different types of social conservatives are worried about some threats more than others. First, there may be some moral threats to society against which the government should act. These can include pornography, profanity, and gratuitous violence in films and video games. Second, some threats may be cultural in nature. The preservation of a culture is often accomplished by using the education system to inculcate each new generation into the values of the political community. Some conservative opposition to immigration also stems from this concern to preserve a particular culture. Third, there may be general threats to social cohesion and communal loyalty, against which many social conservatives are on guard. For example, some conservatives worry that the rise of individualism can weaken social bonds and the sense of community that is required to maintain social health. Excessive economic inequality can also weaken the feelings of mutual loyalty between the rich and poor.

It is important to point out that social conservatism can be motivated by either religious or secular concerns. Much of today’s social conservative movement happens to be religiously based, for example in many religious groups’ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, but there is nothing inherently religious about social conservatism

Libertarianism is anti-statist. This does not mean it opposes the existence of the state as such, but it prefers to limit its activity to a carefully defined sphere and demands that it not unnecessarily interfere with citizens’ lives. Rather than enforcing a particular set of outcomes, libertarians believe the state should instead allow individuals’ interactions and decisions to transpire as they will within a neutral set of legal rules that is enforced fairly and equally. Libertarians therefore agree with classical conservatives about the danger of social engineering or using the state to produce desired outcomes. Modern conservatism makes a distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of result. It endorses legal equality, in which everyone has the same legal freedom to pursue life projects and seek wealth, but it rejects the notion that the state must actively redistribute wealth to eliminate real inequalities.

After the similarity concerning social engineering, however, major differences emerge between libertarianism and classical conservatism. According to the latter, the libertarian emphasis on the free market and individual rights allows markets to have a corrosive effect on social cohesion and moral character. For example, excessive economic inequality, which often results from unregulated markets, can lead to a breakdown in the social trust that is so important to classical conservatives. When faced with market forces that have a negative impact on the social fabric, classical conservatives often prefer state activity to protect social health, whereas libertarians prefer to let the market play out as it will.

Another difference is the ideological character of libertarianism. Libertarianism is a set of philosophical claims about the primacy of individual rights and proper limitations on what governments can justly do to their citizens. It is therefore comprised of universally valid claims about individual rights and the proper role of government that ought to apply everywhere. This contrasts sharply with the classical conservative emphasis on working within existing traditions to bring about reforms that are a proper fit for the society in question. It is difficult to see anything but a major difference between these views.

The important point here is that despite disagreements with other conservative outlooks, libertarianism has more in common with the New Right than with other contemporary political outlooks. Before starting the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier was one of the more well-known libertarians in the Conservative Party of Canada. In the United States, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, and Rand Paul are prominent libertarians in the Republican Party. On the other hand, it is difficult to find many self-described libertarians in today’s left-of-centre political parties.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Tyler Chamberlain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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