Why I am a libertarian conservative
By John Ray
In my various writings, I normally mention my own political outlook only in passing. I am more interested in understanding what is happening in the world about me than I am in proposing my own grand theories. And in that respect I think I am a mainstream conservative. Conservatives don't like grand theories. I do however find libertarian ideas a very useful framework for thinking about problems. I think that most of society's problems are caused by governments usurping choices that could better be made by individuals and that government is just about the worst way of doing almost anything. So libertarians normally have a good answer to most social problems -- allow more freedom for individual choice. Libertarians have ideas and concrete proposals with a clear rationale and persuasive precedents. And that is a great contrast with the dismal Leftist reflex of solving everything via ever more pervasive coercion. And libertarian proposals in most spheres are normally congenial to conservatives too.
Where libertarians normally part company with conservatives is over moral issues. Conservatives want less regulation than Leftists but they do want some regulation. Exposing part of a black woman's breast (the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction") at a major sporting event upsets some conservatives dreadfully, for instance. I am afraid that I remain a total libertarian on such issues. What people do with their own bodies seems to me to be supremely their business. And all arguments that some idea or claim should not be uttered or made known simply suggest to me that the idea or claim concerned is a powerful one that cannot easily be opposed. I would not go so far as to say that any censored idea or claim is automatically correct but I think there is a strong presumption in that direction. So the argument that sexual restraint should be fostered by censorship of sexual expression suggests to me that the arguments in favour of sexual restraint are weak.
Where I part company with many libertarians is that I find them too doctrinaire. I DON'T believe that there is one simple recipe that solves all problems. That to me is a Leftist outlook. As conservatives generally do, I see the world as infinitely complex and as not reducible to any simple rule. And in fact many libertarians agree with that. The extreme form of libertarianism is anarcho-capitalism -- the idea that NO government is needed for any purpose. I know all the arguments in favour of that view but see them as contrary to all human experience. Man is a social animal who has always throughout history felt at least some need for a government to perform certain tasks and I am perfectly confident that that will always be so. So as far as I can tell, most libertarians are not anarcho-capitalists. They are Minimal Statists. They believe that there are certain functions (such as defence) for which a government is needed. I am one of those.
So the distinction between Minimal Statists and Conservatives is one of degree. Conservatives have always wanted to limit the size and power of the State (I document 1500 years of history to that effect here) but they still want a much bigger State than Minimal Statists do. And I am a pretty minimal Minimal Statist. I think the USA could abolish its whole alphabet soup of government agencies (FDA, EPA, DEA etc) to great net advantage (for instance).
Where I appear to be in a minority among libertarians, however, is over the issue of immigration control. I am in favour of control. I am far from totally alone in that view among libertarians but I think it is pretty clear that a majority of libertarians believe in open borders. I think that is naive. Not all people are equally compatible with one-another and if a householder has a right to say whom he will welcome into his house then I think nations have an equal right to say whom they will welcome into their nation. Fortunately, I live in one of the few advanced countries in the world (Australia) that does effectively control its immigration. And my views on that matter make me very much a mainstream Australian. A huge majority of Australians agree with our government's policy of control.
Another way in which I depart from most libertarians but am very much in harmony with conservative traditions is that I do believe us all to be limited in various ways by human nature. Libertarians have no obvious place in their thought for the concept. They know it is a factor but see it as simply one of the many mysterious factors that determine people's preferences. For them only the preferences matter. What determines those preferences is for them unimportant. But conservatives think human nature is VERY important. They think it greatly limits what we do and can do and use it to explain WHY collective action is to be avoided where possible. They give reasons for preferring liberty, instead of simply asserting the desirability of liberty, as libertarians usually do.
That is not to say that libertarians have the same view of human nature that Leftists do. Leftists normally insist that human nature does not exist and that therefore any human being can in theory become anything he wants to be or can be "educated" into being. Libertarians, by contrast, are simply uninterested in whether that is true or not. Leftists think little boys can be "educated" into preferring dolls to trucks as playthings whereas conservatives think they cannot. A libertarian, by contrast, simply says that little boys should be given a choice of what to play with and who cares what they choose. Unfortunately, however, a lot of people do care so the conservative argument does have to be made. I personally agree with the libertarian policy in the matter but I think that policy does normally have to be backed up with conservative arguments about human nature to get it implemented.
Conservatives also have to make more of an issue of individual differences than libertarians do. That people are different and should be allowed to make different choices is axiomatic to libertarians but they normally take that as given rather than arguing for it. With their perennial "all men are equal" doctine, however, Leftists are always trying to deny or minimize individual differences. Conservatives believe that doctrine to be disastrously wrong and argue vigorously against it. Conservatives believe, for instance, that some people work harder and smarter and therefore rightly get more money for what they do. Leftists however think (or claim to think) that all men are equal so unequal rewards must be unfair and the work of a flawed system. So whether or not individual differences are important is a major Left/Right issue -- but libertarians simply assume it away without debate. I spent most of my academic career researching individual differences so I am obviously in the conservative camp there.
And one way in which I differ from almost everybody these days is that I say out loud that there are some differences between the major races and nations of mankind and that some (but only some) of those differences are important. Up until the middle of the 20th century just about everybody believed that but the fact that Hitler used arguments of that general sort in justifying his deeds has made such arguments generally unmentionable in the modern world. I am however a psychometrician by trade. My expertise is in measuring psychological differences between people. I have had over 200 papers published in the academic journals reporting research in that connection. And perhaps the most solidly proven and replicated finding in psychometrics -- a finding that has always emerged in around a century of research -- is that people of African ultimate origin do have much lower average scores on general problem-solving ability (IQ) than do people of European ancestry and that variations in IQ are largely genetic. So, knowing what I know from my own field of expertise, I HAVE to say that the Leftist approach of treating blacks and whites as intellectually equal is doomed to failure. Somebody has got to say that the emperor has no clothes and I am prepared to be that person when required. Most people seem to think that makes me a "Right-wing extremist" or a "white supremacist". I think it simply makes me an honest scientist.
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