Sunday, August 3, 2008

How Do You Tell a Libertarian from a Conservative?

I suspect there are a lot of conservative politicians pretending to be libertarians. But there’s a simple test to tell the real supporters of individual freedom from the imposters:

  • A libertarian believes in freedom, but lets you decide what to do with it.
  • A conservative believes in freedom, but likes to tell you how to use your freedom.

You can weed out the “conservatives in libertarian clothes” with the wedge issues such as immigration, abortion and gay marriage.

Take immigration. The pure libertarian view is based on the free movement of people: that people should be free to live and move where ever they want. Even the somewhat timid 2008 Libertarian Party platform in item 3.4 says “Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders.” (

Contrast that with any conservative politician or talk radio host advocating for tight borders, limited immigration, and the prosecution of illegal immigrants. Thanks to conservatives, we now have to prove we are US citizens when we start a new job. Like many of you, I was born here and lived here all my life. Why do I have to prove I’m a citizen? This type of conservative-supported harassment of US citizens is only worse if you a citizen who happens to look like the current wave of immigrants (e.g., if you happen to be Hispanic, for example).

When it comes to immigration, as with homeland security, the conservatives will always pick “security” at the cost of personal freedom.

With abortion and gay marriage, there is a huge disparity in the opinions of citizens nationwide. In many cases, personal opinions are strongly held and based on deep religious convictions, beliefs that must be respected if we choose to support personal freedom. Like you, I have my own opinions on these issues. But a national consensus is impossible. So, it is best that government (particularly national government) just stay out of these issues.

In particular, I think that government has no role in defining what is or isn’t marriage. Definitions and traditions of marriage are deeply seeded in religious and cultural heritage. And these traditions evolve – fewer cultures retain arranged marriages today, whereas this was the norm in many cultures in centuries past. Let religions and cultures define what marriage is. Let government help couples make the legal arrangements related to such issues of joint property, inheritance, and consultation in medical matters.

Of course, I don’t think there’s a conservative politician who does now want to impose her/his definition of marriage on us all.

So that’s the test. If a politician prefers security over freedom or really wants to tell you how to use your freedom, she/he is not a libertarian!

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