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Libertarians & conservatives

February 1, 2010

On the right side of politics there has long been a conflict between the “conservatives” and “libertarians/liberals”. The former value religion, nationalism and tradition while the latter value individualism, tolerance and diversity. All good-sounding words.

At first glance it seems that these approaches should conflict. And yet there are people like Tim Andrews, Ralph Buttigieg, Danny Haynes, Jim Fryar, Dan Farmilo and many others who describe themselves as “conservative libertarians” or something similar. How can this be?

To understand this apparent paradox it is necessary to draw a distinction between the “moral” and the “political”. Contrary to leftist dogma, these are not the same things.

In the moral sphere there is a distinction between moral conservatives and moral liberals, ranging from prudish tea-drinking virgins, through to libertines at an orgy on acid (and a lot of other positions in the middle). The issue here is personal decisions about how to answer that all important question of “what is a good life?

The political question is quite different, and focusses instead on “what should the government do?” In the political sphere there is a distinction between political interventionist and political libertarian, ranging from wanting to impose all of your views on other people, through to wanting to let each person run their own life entirely as they like (and a lot of other positions in the middle).

Unfortunately, many people get these topics confused and argue that “because I think X is a good idea, therefore it should be compulsory or subsidised” or “because I think Y is a bad idea, therefore it should be prohibited or taxed”. With this confused approach, politics becomes nothing more than an argument about who is more moral and whose morality is correct, and that devalues both the moral and the political debate.

There is no necessary link between moral philosophy (what is a good life) and political philosophy (what should the government do). For example, it is possible to personally be a Christian while not wanting Christianity to be compulsory. And it is possible to like farming without wanting it subsidised, to hate smoking without wanting it banned, or to personally oppose fatty foods while not wanting them taxed.

Just because you believe in your version of “the good life” doesn’t mean you need to impose it on others.

When people confuse morality with politics they assume that “moral conservatives = political interventionist” and “libertarians = libertines”, but this isn’t the case. True, some people are morally conservative and politically interventionist (eg Kevin Andrews, Fred Nile). And some libertarians are libertines. But others, like the names at the beginning of this article, are morally conservative while politically libertarian. These people are morally conservative without wanting political action… and they are libertarians without be libertines.

The mix-up between morality and politics is common in public discussion, and leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Libertarians are often accused of personally supporting drugs, abortion, prostitution, divorce, risky behaviour etc, which is often not true.

At the same time, moral conservatives are attacked for “imposing” traditional morals just because they have a traditional morals. This is what happened recently with Tony Abbott’s perfectly reasonable and harmless comments about the advice he would give his daughters about sex. Nowhere did Abbott say or imply anything political, but many simple minds automatically linked morals with politics and assumed that Abbott was going to impose virginity on the young women of Australia. Whether Abbott’s morality was right or wrong isn’t the point… he wasn’t going to impose it and so it wasn’t a political issue.

Both morality and politics are hugely important subjects, and they deserve our attention. But when people confuse moral philosophy with political philosophy they take the discussion backwards.

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  1. February 11, 2010 at 5:21 am

    “Just because you believe in your version of “the good life” doesn’t mean you need to impose it on others.”

    I understand the argument, but I think you’re missing something. Not imposing your version of the good life is part of your way of living a good life, right? Therefore, you ARE imposing your version of the good life on others – ie, that they shouldn’t interfere with others either.

    Of course, I support this imposition, because while ever we have entities with power (ie for as long as we are human!), then something will be imposed, and I’d much rather it was this version of the good life than others. But I don’t delude myself that it isn’t an imposition.

    Not all moralities are equal. Libertarian morality is clearly superior to many, for example. But creating a society with the libertarian ethos of “do as you will as long as you hurt no others”, by necessity replaces any other moral basis for society. Do you see what I’m saying?

  2. February 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    If you’re asking whether I’m generally against violence, coercion & theft… then the answer is yes. I don’t think that is an example of me imposing my moral philosophy. Rather, it is me imposing my political philosophy.

    Note that I’m not arguing that any political political philosophy is better. Maybe it’s a good thing to impose your moral preferences. I’m just making the point that having moral preferences doesn’t necessarily mean they must be imposed. The question of how to live life, and question of which laws are best, are two different questions.

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