The Lib/Con Marriage—A Summary


A commenter noticed that nobody had posted on yesterday's panel on the fate of the libertarian/conservative "marriage." Well, ask and ye shall recieve.

Cato's Jeremy Lott and The American Conservative's W. James Antle both argued for the symbiotic benefits both sides derive from the relationship: Libertarians get, well, relevance, and conservatives get a conscience—Antle stressed that it's in the interest of neither the Republicans nor the country if the party lacks a voice on the inside warning it to steer clear of big-government conservatism. Lott emphasized the idea (Frank Meyer's?) of fusing libertarian means to conservative ends, pointing out that the case for limiting government interference in people's lives was intimately tied to the value of the civic and familial institutions conservatives prize. Both also observed that, as Gene Healy succinctly put it, a man is only as faithful as his options—with whom will we make common cause if not Republicans? Hillary?

Amy Mitchell of The American Spectator (and a former colleague at Cato) had a frankly pretty puzzling argument for the breakup. Essentially, she quoted a series of libertarian criticisms of the Bush administration (many from Reason), which she seemed to regard as a breach of some unspoken agreement not to criticize the Great Experiment. This I don't get because Amy was there with me at CPAC when Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute got up on a panel to announce she was there to defend the president's immigration policy and got booed as loudly as if she'd suggested foregoing the panel in favor of a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11. Social conservatives have been equally grumbly about the president's perceived lack of enthusiasm for depriving gays of rights. If that's supposed to be a dealbreaker, I'm not sure what's left in the "big tent"—a sad clown, a seal, and some littered Coke cans, probably.

Nick, finally, argued that the relationship had long been in Weekend at Bernies mode anyway, that it was a marriage of convenience forged by the Cold War and the need to provide a united front in opposition to communism, and that there was little else at the level of higher principle binding libertarians and conservatives together.

For my part, I thought the debate was ill framed—though probably the question needed to be posed in a stark form to provoke a lively debate. The real options aren't "marriage" and "going our separate ways"—as Nick pointed out, it's not clear how much of a real "marriage" there is now. Let's instead say that libertarians and conservatives are Friends with Benefits. We'll happily collaborate on particular issues or for particular candidates in an ad hoc way, but the same can be true of libertarians and liberals. The ACLU, after all, had a booth at CPAC where they were handing out op-eds by Bob Barr. Nobody supposes they are (or should be) "married" to conservatives just because they can find common ground on particular issues. And as Albert Hirschman observed in Exit, Voice and Loyalty, while sometimes the absence of an exit option can prompt useful deliberation, it's precisely the option (and threat) of exit from an organization that magnifies voice within an organization. So, for instance, school administrators might be under greater pressure to be responsive to the concerns of parents if they know their customers can jump ship for the school down the street if they're unsatisfied. And the school down the street has greater incentive to attempt to appeal to those same parents if they know they're succeptible to being won over—at least temporarily.