The GOP Needs More Libertarianism, Not Less

New York Times columnist David Brooks is wrong to worry about the influence of "economic conservatives."


Has libertarianism taken hold of the Republican Party and ruined American conservatism in the process? New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks so.

In a column this week, Brooks surveys the state of the American right and declares it to be in terminal decline. The root of the problem, he explains, is libertarianism. Traditional conservatives, those who favor a society that functions "as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government," have been surpassed by those who "upheld freedom as their highest political value" and "spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty."

The result of this libertarian triumph, Brooks argues, has been a disaster for the American right. "Since they no longer speak in the language of social order," he claims, "Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country."

Considering that the 2012 Republican Platform advocates things like "Making the Internet Family-Friendly" by banning online gambling, "vigorously enforced" legal crackdowns on pornography, and "a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman," it seems a little fishy to say the GOP no longer speaks "in the language of social order." The Republican message needs more libertarianism, not less.

Brooks' larger point is also wrong. As he sees it, free-market thinking is deficient because it "appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens."

But that is a false dichotomy.

Libertarians favor limiting the size and scope of government precisely because they believe that approach will offer the greatest opportunity for people to seek their own happiness, whether as individuals, parents, church-goers, or, yes, even as business owners.

Does that make libertarianism anti-social? Hardly. Libertarians simply maintain that there is a crucial distinction between state and society and they hope to maintain a wall of separation when appropriate so that the latter may flourish.

Consider the ideas of libertarian patron saint Friedrich Hayek. Although he is best known for his warnings about the dangers of a centrally-planned economy, Hayek was equally concerned with identifying and expanding those things that make free societies rise and grow in the first place, such as free trade, voluntary social cooperation, and the rule of law.

Contrary to the stereotype of the heartless individualist, Hayek never held that each man was an island unto himself. In fact, Hayek even suggested that humans might possess some instinctual desire for collectivism, an inheritance from early man's struggles for food and shelter as members of small groups. As he wrote in his book The Fatal Conceit (1988), "it is true that the greater part of our daily lives, and the pursuit of most occupations, give little satisfaction to deep-seated 'altruistic' desires to do visible good."

Whether or not altruism is truly instinctive, it does seem to be true that most people derive benefit from doing things for others. But where someone like David Brooks would see that as an invitation for the government to step in and take charge, libertarians believe the answer is for individuals to pursue voluntary altruism on behalf of their own family, friends, or communities while simultaneously supporting the limited government that protects everyone's equal right to do the same.

As most libertarians will tell you, maximizing the political, social, and economic freedom of each person also maximizes the common good. That's a feature of the libertarian approach, not a bug.