Whenever two Hillsdale College professors get into an argument, everybody wins. At the Public Discourse, economics professor Nikolai Wenzel makes the case that “conservatism is misguided, arbitrary, inconsistent, and ultimately inimical to liberty and human flourishing; in response, philosophy professor Nathan Schlueter argues that Wenzel mischaracterizes conservatism and misunderstands its conception of liberty.
I didn’t have much interaction with Dr. Schlueter during my time at Hillsdale, but by all accounts he’s a marvelous professor. I did take Dr. Wenzel’s introductory course on Political Economy, and can personally attest that it was equal parts informative and intellectually challenging. Were I to undertake the difficult task of ranking Hillsdale’s professors, Dr. Wenzel would unquestionably make my top five.
I say this to make clear that the libertarian-conservative debate couldn’t ask for more formidable combatants, and there is precious little I could possibly add to the philosophical side of the exchange. However, in defending conservative philosophy, Dr. Schlueter’s response didn’t cover my main objection to Dr. Wenzel’s argument: whether his characterization of conservatism matches what we see in practice.
His chief objection seems to be that, rather than being truly committed to liberty, conservatism is all too comfortable with the “enlightened few” using government to impose “private preferences” on the individual. But Dr. Wenzel doesn’t elaborate on how that translates to anti-liberty policies. I’d like to explore just how illiberal conservatism’s non-libertarian causes actually are.
Abortion—It never ceases to amaze me that libertarians and pro-lifers quarrel as much as they do. The rationale for legally protecting unborn life is exactly the same as the rationale for protecting adult life: that life is one of the individual rights that justice demands government protect. Both groups have the exact same conception of liberty; it is a separate question—are the unborn people?—which leads conservatives to look at the evidence and conclude that fetuses deserve to be grouped with the individuals government already protects. Libertarians should either concede that abortion is a liberty issue and join forces with us, or explain why the unborn don’t have the same individual rights as everyone else.
Marriage—As Jennifer Roback Morse argues, civil marriage is “society’s institutional structure for protecting these legitimate rights and interests of children.” Through incentives and obligations, it binds couples together to give their offspring a stable home with a mother and a father. The rationale for limiting this union to man-woman couples is that men and women bring unique sets of characteristics to parenthood, and children need both sets for an ideal upbringing. Further, there’s nothing coercive about it—obligations are only placed on those who voluntarily agree to them by marrying, and no gay Americans are denied their rights to form relationships, live together, have sex, hold marriage ceremonies, consider themselves married, share property, visit one another in hospitals, make medical decisions for one another, or receive domestic partner benefits from employers who wish to offer them. Current law could easily be revised to extend the incidents of marriage (hospital visitation, bereavement leave, etc.) to gay couples without redefining marriage.
Religion—In controversies over religion in public, conservatives are almost exclusively on defense, warding off legal assaults on benign religious expression in public schools and benign religious monuments on public property. They are pushing against coercion, not trying to impose it. Granted, conservatives also take pains to remind people of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, but they do so out of Washington’s belief that liberty cannot survive without the “indispensable support” of religion. Further, this doesn’t translate into coercive policies, either; merely affirmation of America’s religious roots through symbolism, ceremony, and discussion.
Drugs—While some conservatives may base their opposition to drug legalization in health concerns or antipathy for drug culture, the more overriding rationale is that drugs warp one’s mind and dull one’s senses to the point where he becomes a threat to the rights of others. If government is essentially the collective exercise of the individual right to self-defense, then people are well within their rights to protect themselves from drug-related crimes and accidents via drug prohibition. It’s worth remembering that John Locke himself believed man’s power over his own body was not absolute, that liberty didn’t cover the right to enslave or destroy one’s self:
[…] a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases […] though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself […]
Other—Dr. Schlueter’s reply notes that there are individual-harm components to pornography and prostitution, as well. Here, though, let’s ask a different question: how many conservatives—even devout social conservatives—rank these among their chief concerns? How many are really politically active because of porn or prostitution? To judge conservatism based on a few conservatives’ fixation on these issues is just as silly as judging libertarianism based on a few libertarians’ fixation on copyright laws.
Surely there are some conservatives out there to whom Dr. Wenzel’s critique applies, but are they really numerous enough to warrant the attention he’s given them? There’s no conservative push to turn the reins of government and society over to an “enlightened few” dispensing virtue edicts.
By and large, conservatives are every bit as live-and-let-live as libertarians, their understanding of the cutoff between private preference and public concern every bit as healthy. In standing for life, marriage, and traditional culture, conservatives can be trusted to leave liberty every bit as secure—indeed, even more so—than they found it.