The relationship between libertarians and conservatives has been a hot topic lately. The latest edition of Reason Magazine features the debate Where Do Libertarians Belong? between Brink Lindsey (Cato), Jonah Goldberg (National Review), and Matt Kibbe (FreedomWorks). The debate addresses where libertarians fall on the political spectrum and whether they should embrace the tea party movement. Last week, Students For Liberty and America’s Future Foundation co-hosted the Libertarianism v. Conservatism Debate between DC interns. Following the debate, George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan wrote two blog posts on the topic. While these issues are interesting, I am much more concerned with the question of how libertarians should message and market our ideas.
For most of my life I have self-identified as a conservative. Even after I came to hold firmly libertarian beliefs I would still call myself a conservative both out of comfort and because I thought it was a word that people would recognize. Only recently have I come to believe that this is a poor strategy for advancing the ideas of liberty. Here are the three main reasons why I, and I believe other libertarians, should not call themselves conservatives.
First, the left is a target rich environment - The most promising growth areas for libertarians are social issues. For the past 50 years these topics have been largely overlooked by the libertarian movement. The 1980s-2000s saw rapid growth of strictly “free market” think tanks and activism groups. While this work is important, it ignores issues that are both critically important to libertarians and appealing to young people.
Today’s youth are more socially tolerant than ever before: strongly opposing marriage bans, censorship, and the war on drugs. It is easy for young people who care about these issues to slip into a big-government progressive mentality because they see that as the only ideology that cares about their issue. It is our job as libertarians to reach out to these individuals and show them that there is another way — that there is a political philosophy that supports true liberty for all people at all times. But that is not conservatism. It is libertarianism.
Second, libertarian ideas are strong enough to stand on their own - I have had many conversations with conservatives that go like this: “Yeah, you libertarians are really strong in ideas. That is what you are good for in the conservative movement, coming up with the ideas that we can implement.” Historically, this is a very true statement. For years libertarian champions such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman have been used by conservatives as the intellectual foundations of their policy and political debates. Our pantheon of thinkers from Paine to Bastiat, Spooner to Hazlitt to Rand, Rothbard, and Friedman are amongst the greatest political and social thinkers who have ever lived. As libertarians we enjoy the advantage of having a consistent, practical, and moral philosophy to stand upon. Mixing those ideas with conservative populism only waters down and degrades our message.
Not only are our ideas strong, they are also popular. Although they may come from radical roots, they have a widely centrist appeal. Reasonable independents will often come to hold libertarian policy positions without ever having read a libertarian book. The Cato Institute’s recent study The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama reported that, in a Zogby International poll of 2006 general election voters, 59% responded yes to the question “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” Without necessarily realizing it themselves, these voters hold the core principles of libertarianism: frugal government spending mixed with respect for individual liberty. Even if these individuals do not self-identify as libertarian, they clearly hold libertarian sympathies and we should be engaging them.
Furthermore, we are not the first ones to make this realization. Back in the 1960s Students For a Democratic Society President Carl Oglesby (who self-identifies as a libertarian) used the term “Radical Centrism” to describe the widespread popularity of SDS. Yes, they may have been radicals, but their main message of ending the Vietnam War and promoting democracy were very moderate and popular beliefs. Today it is libertarians who hold the center ground and can draw from the left, right, and independents to grow our ranks.
Third is the importance of branding liberty - We are in the business of selling a product: the ideas of liberty. Effective communication, messaging, and marketing are key to building up the “liberty brand”. Selling these ideas is not about studying Mises or Friedman but in communicating their ideas to normal people in simple-to-understand terms.
Most people, even politically interested ones, do not make judgments based on philosophical or economic study. Instead, they make judgments based on their own experiences and associations. Thus it is critical for us to build up positive associations in peoples’ minds. When someone thinks about liberty, they should be thinking about concepts like prosperity, freedom, self-realization, and an idealized future. Those are the concepts that we must build up through our messaging and marketing.
Conservatism, however, is a damaged brand. In and of itself it automatically narrows the audience to which it appeals. By definition, it is backward-looking and gives the opponent the ability to call conservatives reactionary and “the party of no”. Beyond that, however, any value the term conservative had was destroyed by G.W. Bush and the GOP Congress of 2000-2006. These politicians spent more money than any administration since Lyndon Johnson while entering needless wars and preaching social intervention by the government (gay marriage bans, USA PATRIOT Act, faith-based initiatives, etc.). When moderate and independent people think of conservatives, they no longer think of champions of freedom like Barry Goldwater, instead they think of intolerant evangelists and anti-intellectual populists like Sarah Palin. Fair or not, this is simply the case.
Where do we go from here?
I am not telling libertarians currently working in free market organizations or conservative politics to stop what they’re doing. For one, I’m not smart enough to think I have a master strategy worked out. For another, I have personally worked in both of these areas and know the great work being done there. I am happy others will continue those battles. What I am proposing is that there are other ways to promote libertarianism that should be embraced by the new generation of leaders coming forward that break away from the old libertarian alliance with conservatism. Here are a few:
First, we need to build more libertarian institutions, particularly in the areas of student organizing. Libertarians have too long relied on conservatives as parent institutions. We need to stop relying on places like the Leadership Institute and Young America’s Foundation for support. Working under their conservative banner only further damages our brand and our ability to reach out to liberal- and independent-minded students. Being a “fringe wing” of the conservative movement (which I have heard from the mouths of people at these organizations) is simply not getting the job done. What we need are more libertarian student groups, think tanks, professors, and activists who can convey the message of personal, economic, and academic freedom.
Secondly, we need more outreach to new markets. At Students For Liberty we have been increasing our outreach to the traditional left. Especially with the growing number of disillusioned Obama voters, this is a target rich environment. While we have seen promising results so far, we have a number of deep-rooted stereotypes to overcome. The most common negative response we hear when talking to a progressive goes something like: “Hmmm, interesting, but this talk of liberty and free markets sounds like you are conservative republicans”. The conservative brand is repugnant to liberals and for good reason. We will not gain significant traction on this front if we continue to carry around conservative baggage. Of course, we can keep working with conservative groups on single issues like taxation and concealed carry on campus, but we must not wrap ourselves in the conservative banner.
Finally I think we need to embrace the idea of being radical centrists. Our ideas are popular and we need to portray them as such. We know that freedom does not come a pieces and that our message resonates well with American voters. We want all individuals to be free, happy, and prosperous – and we know that liberty is the best way to accomplish that.