In a recent column, I argued that libertarians should stop supporting third-party candidates and join our side in an effort to stand up to the Left. In response, writing for the Orange County Register and Reason, libertarian writer Steven Greenhut contended that although conservatives and libertarians have been allies on many issues in the past, “now we’re like residents of different planets.”
Maybe. Many of the issues that joined conservatives and libertarians in the past have not gone away. As Greenhut acknowledged, conservatives and libertarians agreed about the dangers of Soviet expansionism during the Cold War. They differed as to how much that justified empowering America’s security agencies. They agreed to defend property rights but disagreed on major details, such as when to use asset forfeiture as a tool in the war on drugs.
How much has changed? Where there was the Soviet Union, now there is China. Where there were once cocaine and crack, now there are methamphetamine and fentanyl. These problems, which Greenhut cites as examples, are bigger threats today than they were a generation ago.
Actions vs. Mean Tweets
It is impossible to explore the growing rift between populist conservatives and libertarians without discussing Donald Trump’s role. Are libertarians, like NeverTrumpers, putting Trump’s rhetoric and style in front of his policies? Have they examined Trump’s policies in their entirety, or selectively chosen what they see as his major transgressions because they just don’t like him? To explore that question, it’s worth examining Trump’s record on the areas of traditional agreement between libertarians and conservatives.
With respect to foreign policy, Greenhut mentions Libertarian National Committee Executive Director Wes Benedict, who in a 2018 position paper accused Trump of “reckless military aggressiveness.”
But how did that pan out? Trump started no new wars. He withdrew troops from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Germany, and challenged other NATO nations to contribute more to their own defense. He de-escalated tensions with North Korea. He avoided needless confrontations with China’s Xi Jinping at the same time as he strengthened relationships with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and he directed the U.S. military to invest in strategic deterrence instead of maintaining expensive tactical deployments all over the world.
How is any of this reckless or unrealistic? Apart from some bellicose rhetoric and missteps that he corrected, such as hiring, then firing, John Bolton, what would a different president have done on this front in order to be more acceptable to libertarians?
When it came to combating illegal narcotics, Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did step up the war on drugs. But Sessions didn’t last very long, and by the second half of Trump’s presidency, he accomplished something no president had ever done: he deescalated the war on drugs with the First Step Act. Why don’t libertarians give Trump credit for this? He overruled many in his party and offended many in his base to make this legislation happen, and it was the right thing to do.
It’s easy to get any productive dialog derailed on this question, because libertarians get stereotyped by conservatives as pro-drug, anything goes libertines. But libertarians make a solid argument—the war on drugs has damaged civil liberties and helped to create a monstrous security state—that requires a serious response.
Conversely, however, when conservatives bring up the harm drugs inflict on individuals and on society, they are stereotyped by libertarians as authoritarian collectivists. What is required is finding the balance between repression and tolerance. Repression is terrible. Prisons are filled with nonviolent drug offenders and police are prioritizing drug crimes that one could argue ought not to be crimes at all. But when taken to extremes, tolerance is also terrible.
There are nearly a half-million heroin and fentanyl addicts in the United States. After tripling in fewer than 20 years, for the last few years drug overdose deaths in the United States, mostly from opiates, have leveled off at around 70,000 per year. This is an astonishing statistic. Every year, more opioid deaths than there were battlefield casualties during the entire Vietnam War. The toll on society is devastating.
In cities across America, especially in blue states, heroin and methamphetamine addicts have taken over entire neighborhoods. They are joined by drunks, the mentally ill, predators and thieves, the willful homeless, and—in far lower percentages than is typically reported—sober, hardworking people who are genuinely down on their luck.
Outsourcing Economic Thought
Libertarians claim that the “quality of life offenses” these homeless inflict on working people whose towns and cities have been overrun are of “secondary” concern. The right to a safe, pleasant neighborhood is secondary to the fundamental human right to live a life of perpetual intoxication and pitch one’s tent on any public space.
To test their commitment to this legal theory, libertarians are invited to imagine themselves living near Venice Beach in Los Angeles, or the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or any number of places from Austin to Seattle, where drug addicts own the sidewalks and alleys. They are invited to step over the syringes and shit as they make their way to work in the morning, and navigate through an unavoidable gauntlet of stoned zombies on the way home. Libertarians are further encouraged to imagine this scenario includes their own hard-won home equity being underwater thanks to the invasion, making it financially impossible for them to sell and flee the chaos.
Live the nightmare, and then reconsider the question: How “secondary” is this right to do something, anything, to cope with “quality of life offenses?” Suddenly the “collectivist” compromises necessary to solve this problem become more palatable.
Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, possibly the only writer in America today who has been able to elicit any shred of empathy from progressives for poor white people, delivered a talk at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington in 2019 titled “Beyond Libertarianism.” Vance argued that social problems are often the result of political choices. His examples tap the same issues that Trump rode into the White House in 2016.
Vance describes the opioid epidemic as a political problem. “We allowed our regulatory state to approve these drugs and to do nothing when it was clear that these substances were starting to affect our communities,” he said.
On the economy, Vance said, “We made the choice that we wanted that kid to be able to buy cheaper consumer goods at Walmart instead of have access to good jobs, and maybe that was a defensible choice—I don’t think it was—but it was a choice, and we have to stop pretending that it wasn’t.”
One of Vance’s main points is that the vast majority of conservatives, at least until Trump came along, had “outsourced” their economic thinking to libertarians. He calls for balance, adding “the question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher? And are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?”
Corporate Power Is a Threat
In a rebuttal to Vance’s 2019 talk, Steven Horwitz published an essay titled “Why Libertarians Distrust Political Power.” Horwitz is a professor of economics at Ball State University in Indiana. He is also the director of the Koch–funded Institute for the Study of Political Economy.
Horwitz labels Vance’s positions as “nationalist conservatism.” This is a bit presumptuous, since the movement catalyzed by Trump is still very much in flux, but it beats “white nationalism,” and isn’t any less descriptive than “conservative populism,” so as a placeholder it will do.
The heart of Horwitz’s rebuttal appears to be that even though obvious social problems in need of remedies mean that we ought to do something, this does not mean we can do anything. He cites historic political impotence in the face of Vance’s examples; drug addiction, suicide, pornography, and the opioid epidemic, and claims that what Vance “does not offer is any argument for bridging that gap between ought and can.”
The trouble with Horwitz’s argument is that he’s cherry-picking. It is easy enough to cite examples, often of debatable merit, where government ineptitude caused problems, or took existing problems and made them worse. But where is Horwitz going with this argument? He ignores countless examples where government action did solve problems, and he doesn’t confront the foundational consequences of his reasoning. What is government for? What is the purpose of a nation? Aren’t the realities of language and culture, the basics of what define a nation, ultimately social phenomenon?
Libertarians are right to promote limited government. As a guiding principle, it is one of the most important, along with the right to personal liberty and private property ownership. But libertarians, and conservatives, need to recognize that in our 21st-century global economy, private corporate power can eclipse state power. Preserving the right of Americans to enjoy their personal liberty and independently build private wealth depends on preserving a balance of power between global corporate interests and the federal government.
The political threat that faces Americans today is a growing alliance between government and corporate power. Conservatives see this with increasing clarity, and are searching for political and philosophical answers that will build a movement to counter the relentless centralization of authority. It is a cause to which libertarians could make vital contributions, if they would recognize that inefficiency, corruption, and centralization can come as quickly from corporate sources as it can from state sources.
Ideology vs. Reality
It isn’t enough to sit back and take ideological potshots at nationalist conservatives. Libertarians need to recognize the heretical fact that sometimes big government programs are in the national interest—the wildly successful Apollo Project with its myriad commercial spinoffs is as good an example as any. They need to reject their anarchist fringe, for which the logical endpoint of their philosophy is a nation fragmented into private fiefdoms protected by private warlords. They need to question ideology that doesn’t match reality. They need to engage in exploratory investigations instead of confirmation research, and question the paid-for ideas coming out of their well-funded think tanks.
With the challenges Americans face today, it isn’t enough for libertarians to say government cannot do anything as well as the private sector can, and let it go at that. They need to present a coherent policy agenda. America’s major cities are becoming ungovernable. What’s their solution? America needs infrastructure for the 21st century. What’s their solution?
Finally, libertarians should take a very hard look at the political advances progressives are making, with the full support of multinational corporations and government bureaucracies. How is this any less of a threat than the threats they imagine conservative populism brings? Do they realize how the progressive policy bludgeons of climate change mitigation and institutionalized anti-racism, both to be implemented as national emergencies, are going to impact personal liberty and private wealth?
An alliance between conservatives and libertarians is possible. But conservative populism, both as an ideological movement and as a practical political agenda, will evolve with or without the libertarians.