US Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) is far from the first, and is unlikely to be the last, politician to equate libertarianism and conservatism (“Rep. Justin Amash: Conservative and libertarian ‘basically the same philosophy,'” by Jack Hunter, Rare, February 16).
But the comparison is not only just plain wrong: It benefits supporters of statism on both the putative “left” and “right” at the expense of liberty. It allows conservative politicians to pretend to be libertarians (pandering to, and often fooling, libertarian-leaning voters) and “progressive” politicians to falsely caricature libertarians as conservatives (so as to preemptively defeat libertarian ideas without having to actually engage them).
It’s not that conservative politicians can never be “libertarian-leaning,” as Amash himself arguably is (a rarity among conservatives, he actually DOES usually vote against big government instead of just talking the “smaller government” talk out of one side of his mouth while growing government as fast as he can with the other). It’s that any similarities between libertarianism and conservatism are contingent and coincidental, not essential.
The central tenet of libertarianism is liberty. While there’s considerable debate within the libertarian movement itself as to the nature and scope of the liberty to be protected, libertarians generally defend the freedom to do as one wills, provided one does not coercively infringe the freedom of others.
The central tenet of conservatism is conservation. Similarly, there’s considerable debate within the conservative movement as to WHAT must be “conserved” — Amash wants to “conserve” the long-dead “classical liberal principles” of America’s founders, which are nominally libertarian in many respects; some conservatives would repeal the New Deal and “conserve” Coolidgeism; most modern conservatives want to “save” the New Deal by putting it on a more reasonable fiscal footing, but would love to ditch the Great Society — but once again there’s no doubt about conservatism’s philosophical lodestar: “Protecting” society from radical change.
To explain the difference in terms of one issue, take same-sex marriage:
For libertarians, the answer to “should a same-sex couple be permitted to marry?” is “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg — end of discussion.” Libertarians have held this position ever since the issue first came to their attention.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are at odds with each other on it.
Amash, for example, tweeted last year that the “[r]eal threat to traditional marriage & religious liberty is government, not gay couples who love each other & want to spend lives together” — a libertarian answer, but also the answer one would expect from someone who wants to “conserve” a Madisonian/Jeffersonian view of government’s role.
Then there are conservatives (e.g. Jonah Goldberg) who now tentatively support, or have at least stopped actively opposing, same-sex marriage because they regard the fight as pretty much over. They’re coming around to “conserving” the emerging new status quo rather than the old one.
And of course there are conservatives who still want to “conserve” a past in which same-sex marriage was illegal. They’re afraid of the prospective effect of rapid and radical social change on existing institutions (and power/authority relations), and want to use the force of the state, in a very un-libertarian way, to stop and/or reverse that social change. This is the conservatism which, per William F. Buckley, Jr., “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
As an anarchist — a libertarian who takes the principle all the way and advocates the abolition of the state — I think that Amash wastes his libertarian pearls by casting them before congressional swine. On the other hand, I can’t really hold it against him and it’s nice to see someone speaking truth to power on Capitol Hill. I just wish he’d give up the silly notion that “conservatives” can ever be more than temporary allies of convenience.