Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to represent the libertarian perspective in the Libertarianism v Conservatism debate at the Cato Institute. I had originally written a speech supporting libertarianism through an economic point of view, but as the debate developed into specific policy issues, I did not have a chance to present my speech. I’ve decided to make the content of the speech into this blog post.
While Alexander McCobin’s post last week focused on the differences between conservatives and libertarians, my post will attempt to show free market advocates why we should hold a political philosophy closer to libertarianism than conservatism. Additionally, I will attempt to adopt Megan McArdle’s embracive approach by reaching out to conservatives who truly understand the fundamentals of how the free market works. McArdle’s post entitled “Oregon’s Rich Talk is Not a Victory for Liberals,” demonstrates the method of persuasion that I hope to mimic.
Coming from an economics background, I have come to appreciate the free market and the economic liberties it provides. But the real question is, why do I support social liberties as well? Or, more broadly, why should free market advocates support a libertarian political philosophy rather than a conservative political philosophy?
Before I begin, it is important to distinguish that I am referring to conservatism as a political philosophy, not as a personal philosophy. That is, a political philosophy aims to answer the question of what is the proper role of the government. While I may be more conservative leaning in my personal philosophies, I do not believe that conservatism is a proper political philosophy. To quote F.A Hayek, “There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a [classical] liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them.”
I am a free market advocate because I understand why the market works and I understand how the market is better able to channel human nature to meet the demands of individuals. Free market advocates know that no one person has 100 percent knowledge or certainty, that knowledge is local and dispersed, and that orders emerge spontaneously, i.e. what we call “spontaneous order” or the “invisible hand.” We know, for example, that no central authority could determine the quantity, color, style, and size shoe each person wants at a given moment in time. Most conservatives would agree that having the government take over the shoe industry would be disastrous.
But why should the government take over the industry of ideas and traditions? If you truly understand how and why the free market works, you know that government officials cannot possibly also have perfect knowledge of the “good” and “bad” traditions in society. That is, in the free market of goods and services, if a product is not valued, the market takes care of it; it disappears – it’s no longer sold, and resources are not wasted to make this product. There need not be a decree from government officials. The same dynamic is at play in the market of ideas and traditions. The only effective mechanism of determining which traditions are “good” and which traditions are “bad” is by allowing them to freely evolve and either prosper or disappear.
By legislating, regulating, and mandating traditions, the government is attempting to artificially preserve those traditions. Most conservatives and libertarians are against the bailouts because they understand that conserving for the sake of conserving leads to bad, unwanted outcomes for all of society. For example, we know that if no one values the work of GM, the markets will allow them to disappear so resources can be used toward more valued ends; a “good” outcome. In the realm of traditions, there is no way of knowing which traditions are good and which traditions are bad if politicians artificially preserve the traditions they claim to have absolute certainty of being good traditions
If the conservative traditions are valuable, they will naturally stay in society. There would be no reason for the government to artificially preserve them. The institution of marriage and the family has persisted in all cultures for millennia, not due to some government policy, but due to the value that people derive from them. Meanwhile, institutions that have not produced sustained value to individuals, such as primogeniture, have disappeared, and rightly so. If we trust the free market of goods and services to lead to the best outcomes, we should also trust the free market of ideas and traditions to do the same. Believing in the free market of one, but not in the free market of the other only demonstrates a scant knowledge of how and why the free market works. Acknowledging that we lack perfect information in one aspect and not the other would be hypocritical of a free market advocate. This is also Hayek’s main criticism of conservatives, stating that they “lack [an] understanding of economic forces…and lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment.”
However, Hayek’s knowledge problem is not the only reason why free market advocates should be libertarians. Free market advocates should already understand and apply the important implications of public choice theory to government. Government bureaucracies created for running the welfare state are the very same government bureaucracies created for running the war on drugs. They do not fundamentally differ. Nobel Laureate James Buchanan criticized the view that when men enter into politics, they become angels. We all understand why that is false today. But why would free market advocates claim that when men run a certain government program they are not angels, but when they run another government program they are angels?
This view should be rejected by all those who understand the forces of economics, public choice, and the free market. Those who advocate regulating social issues, no matter how well-intentioned, inevitably fall into the same traps of bureaucratic inertia and agency self-preservation that plague other government programs. These are the Bootleggers and the Baptists we all learned about in our basic economics class. The dynamic does not change when you regulate an economic issue instead of a social issue. Take for example the profit-seeking opportunities that police have chosen to exploit through civil asset forfeiture, taking the property of innocent people for their own gain by claiming that the individuals “could be drug dealers.” We would be inconsistent to say that power should not be given to government with regards to economic issues, but power should be given to the government with regards to the social issues. We ought always to be wary of how government officials will use the powers that we grant to them.
Lastly, it would be in the “free market conservatives” best interest to advocate their philosophy as a personal philosophy, not a political philosophy. Many of the conservative values are great values, but the public reacts against them because they despise the notion of conservatives using government to impose personal views on them. Conservatives who legislate such views tacitly demonstrate that they either actually don’t believe their traditions are good enough to stay naturally or that they are the only ones who are smart enough to have absolute certainty of the best traditions – both of which makes moderates and independents cringe. The support of today’s youth for progressive politicians is not an opposition to liberty, but rather an opposition of conservatives legislating their beliefs onto individuals.
For conservatives to achieve their ends they should take the opposite approach, one that does not create backlash and one that implies that conservatives have faith not only in the value of their traditions but also in the intelligence and autonomy of the public to recognize these merits and adopt these positions voluntarily. In “Conscience on the Battlefield,” Leonard Read, the founder of FEE, explains how the best actions come through voluntary education and ideology, not force—or as he puts it, “action dictated by conscience instead of by Caesars.”
If conservatives want to defend their traditions and institutions, they should condemn any attempt by the state to impose one belief structure or another. They should focus their energies on arguing for why their ideas are valuable and should be adopted voluntarily by other individuals instead of using legislation to impose their world view on others. Conservatives would have a much better chance of reaching young people if they embraced the free market of ideas and defended their traditions on their own merit.