So-Cons and Libertarians: Can this Marriage be Saved?

The Acton Institute asked me for an essay for their publication Religion and Liberty a few months back.  Here is an excerpt from the piece I gave them:

As the standard bearer for American conservatism for two decades, Ronald Reagan effortlessly embodied fusionism by uniting Mont Pelerin style libertarians, populist Christians, Burkean conservatives, and national security voters into a devastatingly successful electoral bloc. Today, it is nearly impossible to imagine a candidate winning both New York and Texas, but Reagan and that group of fellow travelers did.

In the meantime, the coalition has begun to show strain as the forces pushing outward exceed those holding it together. The Soviet Union, once so great a threat that Whittaker Chambers felt certain he was switching to the losing side when he began to inform on fellow Communist agents working within the United States, evaporated in what seemed like a period of days in the early 1990s. Suddenly, the ultimate threat of despotic big government eased and companions in arms had the occasion to re-assess their relationship. The review of competing priorities has left former friends moving apart. Perhaps nowhere is the tension greater and more consequential than between the socially conservative elements of the group and devotees of libertarianism.

The two groups have little natural tendency to trust each other when not confronted by a common enemy as in the case of the Cold War. Libertarians simply want to minimize the role of government as much as possible. For them, questions of maintaining strong traditional family units and preserving sexual and/or bioethical mores fall into an unessential realm as far as government is concerned. The government, echoing the thought of John Locke, should primarily occupy itself with providing for physical safety of the person while allowing for the maximum freedom possible for pursuit of self-interest.

Social conservatives similarly view the government as having a primary mission of providing safety, but they also look to the law as a source of moral authority. Man-made law, for them, should seek to be in accord to some degree with divine and natural law. Rifts open wide when social conservatives pursue a public policy agenda designed to prevent divorce, encourage marriage over cohabitation, prevent new understandings of marriage from emerging (e.g. gay marriage or polygamous marriage), prevent avant garde developments in biological experimentation, and a variety of other issues outside (from the libertarian perspective) the true mandate of government that cannot seek to define the good, the right, and the beautiful for a community of individuals. To the degree social conservatives seek to achieve some kind of collective excellence along the lines suggested by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, libertarians see a mirror image of the threat posed by big-government leftists.

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2 thoughts on “So-Cons and Libertarians: Can this Marriage be Saved?

  1. Looks like a great piece. I’ll read the full version. I’m reminded of Jennifer Roback Morse’s libertarian argument for strengthening marriage. When marriages fall apart, who is left to arbitrate the broken pieces? The government. And what libertarian or otherwise sane person thinks it an optimal system when the government has to delve into custody of children, spousal conflict, and other deeply intimate matters?

    Wouldn’t it be better to have some government encouragement on the front end of the marriage decision than a whole-hog government manhandling of its disintegration?

    Perhaps there’s room there on at least that little island of an issue for libertarians and conservatives to get along . . .

  2. Interesting and thought provoking. I’m going to ramble a bit and perhaps restate things that are obvious to you and most of your readers:

    Social conservatives and social liberals both seek government mandates for their positions.

    There is no Scriptural precedent for our present circumstance. In the Old Testament, Jews were either an oppressed minority or a direct theocracy. In the New, Jews and Christians were cultural minorities with little influence in a large, brutal, foreign government.

    Social conservatives and libertarians both have the unique opportunity to contribute to the reshaping of our government. Should we? … and to what extent?

    Weren’t the social liberals also informed by some variant of Christianity (Niebuhr, etc.) in the past?

    Lots of gaps in my thinking about this … but you’ve got me started!

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