Separating Ourselves from the Pack

by Harry Browne

April 3, 1998

Conservative leaders brag that liberalism is intellectually bankrupt today. But, unfortunately, conservatism has nothing more to offer than watered-down liberalism making the government bigger for "good" purposes instead of "bad" ones. In fact, conservatism isn't an ideology, a philosophy, or a political program; it is simply a political party.

At a recent conservative gathering in Washington, sponsored by National Review magazine, conservatives congratulated themselves on having won the Cold War, seeing free markets vindicated and socialism discredited, and having liberals like Bill Clinton win elections only by stealing Republican issues. As George Will put it, "When your greatest problem is plagiarism from opponents, you're doing okay; so be of good cheer."

But what do these "victories" mean? The Cold War may be over, but where's the peace dividend? Free markets may have been vindicated, but why do the number of federal regulations continue to increase? If socialism is dead, why does big government continue to get bigger every single year? What has been won?

Today conservatism doesn't stand for anything except gaining power. Ask any conservative politician or leader or even any rank-and-file conservative to define conservatism in one single, consistent statement, and you're not likely to get a coherent answer.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, is easily definable. As Perry Willis has put it, "a libertarian believes in individual liberty and personal responsibility on all issues at all times." This leads easily to the obvious principle: never support a government solution to a social or political problem. Is there any such guiding principle that unites all the diverse political stands a conservative or liberal might take? Conservatives say the government can't end poverty by force, but they believe it can use force to make people moral. Liberals say government can't make people be moral, but they believe it can end poverty. Neither group attempts to explain why government is so clumsy and destructive in one area but a paragon of efficiency and benevolence in the other.

But neither conservative nor liberal politicians really believe even what they profess. Conservative politicians say they believe in economic freedom and yet they vote to put poor people out of work by raising the minimum wage and they subsidize their favorite companies with our money. Liberals supposedly believe in personal freedom but they vote to censor the Internet and make every family install a V-chip in its TV set.

In truth, conservative politicians and leaders are really interested only in power. The evidence for this is that they happily declare victory whenever their side wins a minor cut in a department's budget (even if the overall budget continues to get larger), or when a single government function is turned over to a private contractor (even if more money is spent on the function), or when they put through a minor tax cut (even if the overall cost of government continues to grow), or when liberal politicians start talking like conservatives (even though both sides continue to vote for ever-larger government). And they trumpet privatization programs and "free market" policies in other countries as signs of a worldwide trend toward freedom even though the governments in those model countries are growing as steadily as ours is.

In other words, just like liberals, conservatives care more about symbolic triumphs than substantive changes. When conservatives celebrate Pyrrhic victories, they are telling us they don't really want to make a significant difference in our lives; they only want to put a few more points on the scoreboard and then go get drunk to celebrate. The only competition between Republicans and Democrats between conservatives and liberals is over who can catch the other in contradictions or scandals, who can win the word battles, who can grab the reins of power.

Libertarians want to reduce power, to repeal laws not just water down the latest proposals. Libertarians measure victory only in terms of real reductions in government and real expansions of liberty and conservatives have produced neither of those things.

The hypocrisy of both conservatives and liberals is an important reason that we shouldn't call ourselves "fiscally conservative and socially liberal." We should never define ourselves in terms of other ideologies as though we were borrowing from them. Conservative politicians are as fiscally imprudent as liberals, and liberal politicians are as contemptuous of social rights as conservatives. To imply that we are like them in any way puts us in the same class as people like William Weld, Bill Bradley, and Christine Whitman politicians who talk a good game but who, in practice, are neither fiscally sound nor socially tolerant. In the realm of either economics or personal behavior, they will vote enthusiastically to increase government.

Conservatives and liberals sometimes advocate positions that are similar to libertarians. But, unlike libertarians, their positions aren't grounded on consistent principles they can point to at least not on principles that don't contradict the stands they took on other issues. Libertarians believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility on all issues at all times. And if we want to be taken seriously by those who are sick of big government, we need to separate ourselves as far as possible from all other ideologies and politicians.

We do that by making proposals that will significantly improve the lives of individual Americans proposals that are distinctively Libertarian proposals that no Republican or Democratic politician would feel comfortable making. For example . . .

  • We don't want silly little tax cuts or to redistribute the burden of big government by switching to a flat tax or sales tax. We want to reduce government so far that we can repeal the income tax completely and replace it with nothing.

  • We don't want to "allow" Americans to invest a small portion of their Social Security taxes on their own. We want to get Social Security completely away from the politicians, so that Americans can use all of their own money in whatever way they want.

  • We don't want to solve the education crisis by giving government the power to dispense voucher money according to the politicians' standards. We want to get the government completely out of education and repeal the income tax, so that parents have the power and the resources to make their own choices.

Over time it will become more and more obvious that Libertarians are the only people offering to make life much better for the three quarters of the American people who already want government to become much smaller.

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