At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives, many speculated that the GOP might be veering in a more libertarian direction—or at least influential leaders within the party might be prodding it or might be anxious for it to go in that direction. The Daily Beast ran the headline “Libertarians run the show at CPAC.” In his CPAC speech, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum warned that conservatives should not surrender their principles, referring specifically to social issues.
Some on both the left and right perceive libertarianism as inherently hostile to social conservatism. Some libertarians even think this. This is not only a misperception, but flat out wrong—libertarianism offers social conservatives a better hope for success in our current political environment than the nationalist approach often favored by some social conservative leaders.
Part of the beauty of libertarianism is that you can be socially liberal or socially conservative and subscribe to the label. For the millions of social conservatives who constitute a significant base of the Republicans Party, embracing libertarianism is not an all-or-nothing question of accepting or rejecting deep convictions about life, traditional marriage, or drug regulation. It simply means rethinking the approach to these issues.
The distance between mere rhetoric and tangible success for social conservatives essentially comes down to this question: Does the federal government always have to become involved? Or should certain decisions be made at the state and local level, as the framers of the Constitution intended?
The protection of innocent life is the number one concern of millions of Americans in both parties. Most pro-lifers believe that Roe v. Wade was constitutionally unsound, and indeed, some pro-choice advocates even admit that the legal reasoning was flawed. Given the gravity of what’s at stake, it is understandable that many would demand federal protection of the unborn.
It is also true that the political prospects of this happening anytime soon are nil. But if murder and manslaughter laws are decided at the state and local level, why shouldn’t that approach work for those who believe abortion is the taking of an innocent human life? The more libertarian position is the constitutional one—that any powers not delegated to the federal government as outlined in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution are delegated to the states.
It might not be possible to get rid of abortion throughout the nation, but it might be possible to save unborn children in Alabama or South Carolina. National polls have shown that more Americans than ever are now calling themselves pro-life. Fighting at the local and state level to keep pushing attitudes in this direction is certainly a worthwhile effort.
On traditional marriage, public opinion is quickly moving in the direction of allowing same-sex marriage, something still anathema to many people of faith. Libertarians generally take two positions on this issue: One, that states should decide what constitutes a marriage; Two, that government has no business regulating marriage and it should be defined by religious or civic institutions.
Polls show that the entire country, and particularly youth, is becoming more tolerant of the idea of same-sex marriage. In this political climate, allowing more conservative states to define the institution—or better yet, allowing your church to define it—should be more attractive to social conservatives than some of current alternatives.
Concerning the federal war on drugs, it’s hard to measure the damage done to many families whose kids were put in jail for an extended time due to mandatory-minimum drug sentencing. There are countless Americans, and especially young people, who’ve made a single mistake with drugs, get caught, and are then incarcerated longer than rapists and murderers—alongside rapists and murderers.
States should regulate softer drugs like marijuana just like they do alcohol. This might be the tricky issue for some social conservatives, but it is the constitutional position. If we concede that the current federal war against the unborn is wrong, and that President Obama and Congress have no constitutional authority to define marriage, the same is true of federal drug regulation. A war against drug abuse—just like alcohol abuse—should be done at the state and local level, or better yet, the church and community level.
It’s always important to emphasize that this question is not about legalization versus keeping drugs illegal. It is about deciding which level of government should regulate drugs—federal, state, or local. Federal prohibition didn’t work a century ago, and it has failed miserably in our own time.
The drug question also isn’t about surrendering to liberalism or hedonism, but a much-needed, common-sense re-examination of what’s conservative. Conservative icons William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman long advocated the libertarian position concerning the federal war on drugs. So has televangelist Pat Robertson, who has called for marijuana legalization. These men are not exactly “lefties” in any respect.
On traditional values as a whole, some of the most prominent names associated with libertarianism, past and present, are social conservatives—Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Rep. Justin Amash, Rep. Thomas Massie, Fox News’s Judge Andrew Napolitano, Lew Rockwell, Tom Woods, Robert Murphy, Jeffrey Tucker, and last but certainly not least—Ron and Rand Paul (both of whom I’ve worked for).
Indeed, libertarianism’s current mainstream success is largely due to the fact that socially conservative, Christian men have been successful in promoting it.
Again, one can also embrace social liberalism and claim the libertarian mantle, though it is telling that the economic collectivism that remains at the heart of American liberalism continues to render left-libertarianism a much smaller and less significant philosophical force than its right counterpart.
Social conservatives have no reason to fear libertarianism and have much reason to embrace it. In the end, libertarianism simply tells us what the state cannot do; our values tell us what we ought to do, and liberty gives us the freedom to do it.
Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own.