Conservative Theology

Libertarianism vs Conservatism


While I often assail the left-wing on this blog, I don't always find the time to do equal justice to the not-wing -- the libertarians.  Conservatives and Libertarians are often lumped together because of two things (and really they are both the same thing):

  • We both dislike the direction of the left-wing, and the attitudes with which they approach public policy
  • Many of the first steps that either position would take when in office would be the same -- removal of the massive governmental beurocracy which has developed

However, I think that because of these broad-stroke similarities, many people miss the issues with libertarians. 

I think there are a lot of ways in which you could separate libertarians from conservatives.  This post is going to concentrate on one of them:

  • Conservatives want to dismantle the governmental infrastructure in this country.  Libertarians want to dismantle the legal infrastructure as well.

Libertarians tend to be reductionists in their thinking.  They want all legal structures to follow contract law, and reduce everything else to that.

This is why many libertarians view marriage as an improper role of government.  According to much libertarian thought, marriage doesn't have any role in law, except as two parties wish to establish a contract with each other.  Only then should the law step in.

Conservative thought, on the other hand, views a number of different relationships as being governmentally important, and thinks that law should be engaged in dealing with those.

Here's are several reasons why I'm a conservative:

  1. I think that enabling people to live simply and peaceably with each other without undue interference should be a primary governmental goal
  2. I do think that society needs rules and boundaries to operate in a variety of circumstances
  3. I do not think that society needs a large government to accomplish #2, and that a large government is in direct opposition to #1

The thing that libertarians don't seem to understand is that it is precisely the fact that many of our social mores get encoded into law that allow us to operate with a small government, and with that government having minimal interference in our lives. 

By giving norms the weight of law, it allows people to live simply by following common and respected patterns, without requiring governmental intervention.  It is precisely these social forms and customs which make governmental intervention redundant.

Take marriage, for instance.  It is true that in many societies marriages do not need approval from the state (like a marriage license).  But that does not mean that marriage is any less within the bounds of law.  Precisely because a society has norms and customs surrounding marriage (which are utilized directly within the law) means that two people can be married without any need for permission or approval from the government. 

Can you imagine a society in which, in order to get married, you needed to lawyer-up and make an airtight contract defining the terms of your relationship?  That would be ludicrous!  It is precisely because we have social norms that are reflected in legal norms that two people who are in love can get married with minimal intereference with the government.

In fact, in absence of social norms reflected in legal norms, you wind up having to make a contract for everything you do.  So, instead of dealing with governmental red tape every time you interact with them, you have to deal with red tape in every single interaction you make with any person at all!  Our society is already moving this way, with all of the disclaimers, End-User-License-Agreements, privacy statements, and other idiocy we have to deal with every day.  All of these stem from the fact that our social norms are being segregated from our legal norms in the name of "neutrality" (whether religious neutrality or some other form of multiculturalism).

You might object that it is not the libertarians who are doing this but the liberals.  But in this aspect the liberals and libertarians are in complete agreement.  Both agree that social norms are mere contrivances, and therefore do not merit the coverage of law. 

Conservatives, on the other hand, view social norms as a vital part of an integrated society, which cannot be cleanly separated into "legal", "cultural", and "religious" aspects.  Our law is meaningless if it is separated from cultural norms, and cultural norms are derived from religious ideals.

The fact is that the liberals are right about one thing - if you want to treat social norms as mere cultural artifacts, it takes a big beaurocracy to do so.  The liberals want one big beaurocracy in the government, while the libertarians would like a signed contract completely stating all terms and assumptions when I go to purchase a hamburger, and for a team of lawyers to sit in the front row of the wedding ceremony.

Social norms, however, allow you to live peaceably in society with each other without the hassle.  In a conservative culture, you can focus on loving each other, and not on the legal hassles which will result from loving each other.