Right hooks, left crosses

GetReligion doesn't normally take notice of obscure right wing fisticuffs, but I'm going to make an exception because I was one of the dogs in the fight, and because the fight ended up in The Boston Globe. On Wednesday, February 23, I took part in an America's Future Foundation roundtable at the Fund for American Studies building. The title was "Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

As the ad copy put it, "Arguing to keep the marriage together will be W. James Antle III of the American Conservative and Jeremy Lott of the Cato Institute. Amy Mitchell of the American Spectator and Nick Gillespie of Reason will take the side of divorce."

The debate was moderated by colleague Gene Healy (pictured). He told me after that he had a heck of a time not jumping in.

The way Cathy Young frames it in her Monday column for the Globe, the tension on the panel was between secular, tolerant libertarians and government-boosting, finger-wagging social conservatives. That tension was there, but I believe it was not the important fault line in the debate.

In his post-debate summary, Healy noted that

In the course of debating whether conservatives and libertarians should stick together, it became clear that there was no fundamental agreement about the definitions of conservative and libertarian. In Jim Antle's telling, a conservative is someone who champions family, faith and freedom against the forces of centralization, whether red-team or blue. I don't think I'm being unfair to say that in Amy Mitchell's account, it's someone who roots, roots, roots for the red team.

Nor was there much agreement about what it means to be a libertarian among the libertarian panelists. Jeremy Lott saw no inconsistency between libertarianism and moderate social conservatism, so long as it's not enforced by the state. Nick Gillespie, on the other hand, argued that a monomaniacal focus on the state left out some important aspects of liberalism. He rejected the notion that libertarianism could be limited to the realm of political philosophy. At one point, he noted that we were dramatically freer than we had been decades ago, because, among other things, in 1970 it was difficult for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel together. Afterwards, I wondered what the hell that had to do with libertarianism, and a friend cracked that I must have skipped the part about hot-pillow joints in Locke's Second Treatise.

Former boss Nick Gillespie and yours truly came to blows over precisely what libertarianism is. I picked up on a statement that he had made on a television chat show recently to the effect that "Libertarianism isn't just about government. It's about expanding choices," and said, Oh no it isn't.

I insisted that libertarianism is and always has been a philosophy of government. It's about distrusting the state and attempting to limit it, draw it back, check its excesses. I pointed out that the first entry in the book The Libertarian Reader is a selection from the Bible, where the high priest Samuel tells the people the horrible things that would come their way if they decided to have a king.

My debate partner Jim Antle insisted that, in the political arena, libertarians who chose to go it alone would be remembered as a bunch of ineffective "hipster-posers," which drew a few laughs.

I gave myself over to the difficult task of selling social conservatives to libertarians. I argued that the "modern religious right as a mass political movement began not with Roe v. Wade but with Jimmy Carter's ham-fisted attempts to interfere with private Christian schools." People forget that a lot of the millions of freshly registered conservative Christian voters who put Reagan over the top in 1980 saw their collective political involvement as what we might call a "defensive action."

I didn't skirt difficult issues such as abortion, but I cautioned against dividing voters into economic conservatives and social conservatives. For some, such as GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly, the division is there. But for most churchgoing, right-of-center voters, I argued,

Religious conservatives may not hold to the canons of libertarianism as laid out by Murray Rothbard or even Charles Murray, but the instincts are there. They understand the virtue of thrift and they don't want the government to spend like a drunken Democrat either. They want a less oppressive tax burden just as much as we do. And George W. Bush would not be pursuing Social Security privatization if James Dobson and Franklin Graham objected.

So there you go. Outraged readers may now proceed to call me a selfish hedonist in the comments threads.

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