Why I am a Conservative, Not a Libertarian

Dad and I have had discussions over the years as to whether we are conservatives or libertarians. It’s been very interesting, because while at times we have defined ourselves differently, we have voted in ways that stretched those categories. Also, we’ve been known to switch labels at different times. But here’s me pinning myself to the wall with a definitive statement: there is a difference between those labels, and I am conservative.

Common sense and a boatload of bad experiences both require me to give a definition. Requirements be hanged. Both labels point towards broad movements, not narrow, concrete parties. If this was “why I vote Republican,” we might have definitions. Unfortunately, it’s not, and neither conservatism nor libertarianism have party platforms so much as tendencies.

So let me start with one tendency: views on authority. Libertarianism is all about liberty, liberty wherever it can be found. Authority is viewed with suspicion, and it is all delegated from the hands of the individual. Conservatism is not thusly. Conservatism does begin with fundamental rights and individual freedoms, but with those freedoms come responsibilities. And here’s the key—those responsibilities aren’t just to take care of yourself.

Libertarians, in my experience, tend to hop on a bandwagon I’m fond of—verbal beatdowns of government welfare, even Social Security and Medicare. But they then go a few steps farther, and defend the right of everybody to do what they want as long as it doesn’t very directly hurt anyone else. There’s a tendency there to define everything in terms of individuals and protecting them from other individuals. The government exists as a referee.

Conservatives beat the same drum with regards to redistribution of wealth, but play things a little different. Conservatives are big on family values, on civic responsibility and patriotism. A conservative will ostentatiously wave his Bible as much as his Constitution. There is a tendency in conservative talk to point outside the individual and talk about his relationship to the rest of the world.

This sometimes has tangible results, but not always on a policy level. Conservatives, regardless of their view on a given war, are far more likely to rally for our troops than libertarians. I have known conservatives (I’m one of them) whose greatest objection to the anti-war crowd is not necessarily what they say about the war itself, it’s their attitude towards the troops. Regardless of whether a given war is a good idea, we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers who stick their necks out for us. That sense of thankfulness and honor can be missing in libertarians.

Now that whole little schpiel on war could create a reaction from a lot of libertarians (“yeah, but my position is really what’s best for the troops!”), but that simply makes the point. There is a difference in emphasis between conservatives and libertarians. One movement has a culture that thanks those who serve the community, one has a culture that is more concerned with critiquing the context in which they serve.

Back to views of authority. Now, I’m not the sort of guy who likes to be bossed around, even by people who have the right to do so. I’m just ornery that way. But I do think that we live in a world that has legitimate authorities, and we have to obey them even if they are wrong. Within reason. We cannot obey commands to sin, but we can obey commands to be stupid. We pay taxes, despite the enormous amount of stupid involved there. I think it should stay that way.

Here’s the problem with all this: the lines are fuzzy. Both movements love freedom more than the current establishment. Both movements can find support in the Bible and can bow the knee to Christ Both movements (despite allowing for Antifederalists) support the Constitution as the law of the land.

The haziness gets worse. I am taking my stand with conservatism because that movement has a place for rightful authority, and because it has a stronger sense of community, and because it tends to believe in a world where interpersonal relations are not based merely on the” as-long-as-they-aren’t-hurting-anyone-it’s-okay” principle. But there are side effects.

Back to the military thing. Conservatives look at our troops with rose-colored glasses and tend to see our wars with an aura of heroism that isn’t always there. And we turn a blind eye to a lot of things in a way we shouldn’t. Libertarians (despite a tendency to screechiness) pare things down to cold logic and cut right through all of that. In short, there are problems conservatism has that libertarianism doesn’t.

And here’s why I don’t care. Conservatism has problems, but those problems are more consistent with the world God made. We may go giddy with thankfulness, but we are right to be thankful. We may have lower standards for politicians, but that’s because we look at them with grace and a sense of priorities. We may sometimes be too loyal to our nation, but at least we understand loyalty at all. We may submit to authority more often than strictly necessary, but at least we can submit when we should.

This is not to excuse our problems. They are real, and nobody like a jingoistic goose-stepper. But it is to say that you have problems wherever you go, and sometimes they’re worth it. If I can be thankful, submit to authority, contribute to a community, and have a morality beyond my own orneriness, it’s all worth the price of having to make sure I don’t overdo it.

So that’s me venturing into the grey area. The contrasts honestly would not be so stark if I wasn’t, well, you know, contrasting. But they are important, and I hope my thoughts were helpful in you sorting out yours.

Have a blessed day.


4 thoughts on “Why I am a Conservative, Not a Libertarian

  1. Very interesting and insightful post.

    Personally if I have to categorize myself, I’d fall under the label of a libertarian.

    Because while I’m a devoted christian, I believe in a completely secular government as the Constitution intended (everybody knows we were built on a FOUNDATION of christianity, but I feel many conservatives tend to favor their own christian version of a theocracy).

    I think the main contrast, as you point out, is that conservatives tend to favor the well-being of America over that of the individual (if absolutely forced to choose).

    The reason I disagree with this is because, when our Constitution was created, the Bill of Rights was added specifically to protect the interests of the INDIVIDUAL against the intervention of the Nation.

    In fact many believe (me included) that if the government of America is not serving the best interests of the individual citizen, the inhabitants of our country have the right—some would even argue the DUTY—to rise up and displace that government, as many of our founders discussed during the preliminary years of the American Revolution (reiterating the fact that the rights of the individual are more important than the well-being of the state).

    Conservatives, as you note, are big on family values, civic responsibility, community and patriotism.

    The dangerous territory some conservatives tread occasionally, is in trying to instill (or legislatively enforce) these same values they hold on others, prompting government coercion that, while it may ultimately be the best for society, still violates the notion of individual liberty and personal autonomy.


  2. It seems to me you’re simply defining conservative as “Christians I agree with on politics”, but isn’t the traditional definition of conservative “One who sticks with what is already pre-existing”?

    Otherwise I think you make good points in your attack on Libertarianism.


    • How traditional? That hasn’t been a key part of the American definition of conservatism for quite a while. Conservative is more often contrasted to liberal than it is to progressive. Though, I do tend towards conservatism, and would certainly argue that, but it would take another post.


  3. Whoa. This was really good. I agree. It seems that often libertarians treat the Constitution like the PCA treats the Westminster Confession. Turns out it’s a pretty good thing, but it’s not the Bible, nor should it be treated as the be-all, end-all. In this case, that’s biblical government, which the Constitution strives for but does not, of course, completely attain.
    It’s much more important to change the hearts of the people than the laws of the country, I believe. I’ve always been of the opinion that, for instance, Obama is not the problem (or solution). The kind of people who vote for the kind of person like Obama (or whoever) are the problem (or solution).

    So yea. Great post.

    As an aside, it has always struck me as hilariously ironic that the conservative right, with its push for well, conservative government, is usually the side responsible for the glamorization of war, and cries for more of the same. Odd, really. You’d think the big-government democrats would be all over that. Just another example of how lines aren’t always drawn where we think they should be.


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