Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An open letter to confused c/Conservatives

Often I feel as though Conservatives are always wondering what the heck libertarians are always so upset about. I've developed a theory that libertarians just think in a completely different way than partisans -- maybe because libertarians think in terms of philosophy and Conservatives think in terms of practical politics, or maybe there is something fundamentally different about the way libertarians look at the world that makes things obvious to one side and baffling to the other.
The latest -- or at least the most recent and prominent example of this was Harper's speech last week. I know that there are a lot of conservatives who were unhappy with the speech, but there are still many who don't understand why libertarians feel insulted.
Since I've heard this or similar comments a lot, I thought I'd adapt a short exchange with a friend who I won't identify (unless he'd like me to) in which I thought did a pretty good job of clarifying what all the fuss is about. His question/comment was as follows:
After listening to the audio of Harper's speech on David Akin's blog, I realised that there may have been some misunderstanding.
Did he turn his back on his classical school roots? Absolutely, unequivocally, many times over. Did he incorrectly lay the blame for the sub-prime crisis on the private sector rather than on the government that created the perverse incentives and misguided mandates in the first place? You bet.
But did Harper lay a cheap low blow on libertarians? I don't think he meant to say that libertarians support the bailouts, or socialised medical assistance for drug addicts, or personal irresponsibility in general. Rather, I interpreted him as saying that they fail to take into account those who do.
My response to "confused Conservatives" (and I mean that in the nicest way) making this argument to what they must only be able to interpret as "confused libertarians" is as follows:
Dear Conservative,
I've heard others make the same argument over what Harper meant when he addressed libertarians on Thursday night. I think you might be right about what he meant but I still think there is reason to be upset because I know that Harper knows two things:
First, Harper knows how libertarians think and what upsets them. He chose to address the libertarians in the room directly and then, at best, say that their ideology is a naive, head-in-the-clouds one you can only have with no understanding of the real world (this is how I interpreted it) or, at worst, that libertarians are personally irresponsible and therefore the reason their ideology could never work. (This is how Mike Brock and others who were at the speech interpreted it.)
Either way, he definitely made it clear that there is no point in libertarians staying with him if they care about small government or more overtly libertarian policies and that he had no desire to convince them to stay on board. I interpreted his statement as, "I know some of you consider yourselves libertarians, and I'm not sure why on Earth anyone would be stupid enough to do that or why you're *here,* of all places, if you do consider yourself one."
Second, Harper knows that bad government policies don't fix the problems he was talking about. In fact they often actually make problems worse (ie, drug policy, the sub-prime crisis) and encourage people to stop taking responsibility for themselves (ie, socialized medicine, bailouts). To me this was an opportunity to pay homage to the ideas of classical liberalism -- at least in the market -- even if he doesn't think they're practically possible. Not every libertarian would be happy if he did this, but they wouldn't feel attacked the way they do now, either, and some would have felt like he was at least reaching out.
That said, this weekend I took away two feelings from the Manning Centre conference: that (small-c) conservatives in general would like to bring libertarians into the fold in the movement to move towards smaller government, lower taxes, etc. (with the exception of some social conservatives who are violently opposed to the ideas of personal liberties being included with economic ones), but partisan (big-C) Conservatives want libertarians -- and even some fiscal conservatives -- to shut up or ship out.
Harper's speech might not have been a direct attack on the moral character of libertarians (though I maintain that it was at least an attack on their intellectual capacity to interpret the world), but it was clear to me that we're not welcome with Conservatives unless we're willing to throw principle aside, grab some pom-poms and start cheering no matter what Harper does because, theoretically, it might be worse to have a Liberal government with significant pressure from a Conservative opposition than a Conservative government that only has opposition pulling it to the left.
Anyway, I hope you understand why I think libertarians have cause to be upset and don't feel as though it's just anger at Harper manifesting as not being receptive to anything he says.
I know some of the commenters here on this blog sincerely hope that Harper's speech was meant to attack and drive libertarians away. This post isn't for you. But there are some genuinely concerned conservatives (and even Conservatives) that want to reach out to anyone who will work with them to support the ideas of smaller government, and they should know where their would-be allies are coming from.
Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

1 comment:

Luca Manfredi said...

I think of myself as a libertarian and though Harper's speech is unusual, it isn't that surprising. He heard the balking at the stimulus package and merely said "If you think you can do the job better, come get it".

Speaking like that to a libertarian conference is pure cojones, and I for one would have taken my hat off to his courage.

My support for Harper is unshaken, because I know he's more open to libertarianism (which isn't a delusion or a utopia, dare I say)than Ignatieff or Layton. So all libertarians and small-c conservatives should keep grinding away in the movement, converting one mind at the time.