A Conservative Not a Libertarian

Thomas Jefferson argued that the government that governs best is the government that governs least. Though there is some truth to this assertion, it is probably truer that the government that governs best is simply the government that governs best.

Over the last couple of decades, there has been an alliance of sorts between traditional Conservatives and Libertarians opposing “Liberal” big government. Libertarians insist on a minimalist government and oppose, on principle, an ever larger and more intrusive state. To Libertarians economic markets are the preferred regulators of behavior.

Traditional Conservatives, while not necessarily opposed to strong government, were not sympathetic with the uses the Liberals were making of it. Though Liberals attempted out of good intentions to use government to help those in need, their approach has often degenerated into creating, encouraging and subsidizing a dependent class in exchange for political power. It is ironic that the more successful 1960’s Liberalism is in transforming the disadvantaged classes into the middle class, the less need there is for their programs. Their political saliency increases only in proportion to the failure of their policies.

What Libertarians sometimes overlook is that the functional free markets they worship as the regulators of daily transactions do not sprout like weeds from any soil. Conservatives recognize that markets must be planted and nurtured. Libertarians have long accepted the necessity for the rule of law, the regularization of and enforcement of transactions and contracts, and provisions for public order.

Important as such structures are, they are woefully insufficient by themselves. The complex and numerous interactions between individuals require an implicit trust such that in large measure third-party enforcement is not necessary. If every transaction required a regulator, the normal efficiencies of markets would be overwhelmed and destroyed. Markets depend on the character of the people. Markets cannot prosper without an ethos of trust, integrity and honesty. The undermining of this trust by the irresponsible actions of companies like Enron demoralize the markets necessary for prosperity.

One role of government, recognized by traditional Conservatives and not by Libertarians, is to take care to improve the character of individuals, a character necessary for a free people. Such concern might take the form of a tax code that encourages traditional families, private savings for retirement, and contributions to non-profit charities. Such a concern might take the form of anti-discrimination laws that teach tolerance. Such a concern might take the form of strict enforcement of Securities and Exchange Commission laws that reinforce the notion that success is a function of hard work and luck, the not result of fraudulent tactics.

President George W. Bush has proven to be less of Libertarian and more of a traditional Conservative. When he ran for office, he emphasized government-private partnership in providing the community-based services that large government bureaucracies find so difficult to provide effectively. Faith-based solutions have proven particularly effective for problems of drug addiction.

In the recent state of the union address, Bush seems to be concerned about the self-centeredness taught by a society that focuses too much on material acquisition and too little on other values. For too long our culture has said, “`If it feels good, do it.’ Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: `Let’s roll.”’ Bush used the unity in the wake of the September 11 attacks to focus Americans outwards. He asked Americans to personally reach out and help others in their own communities. Bush asked Americans to commit two years somewhere in their lives to volunteering for others, to share of themselves.

Frankly, the expansion of government volunteer programs, like his USA Freedom Corps, may tend to crowd out rather than encourage local efforts. Nonetheless, Bush’s instinct to call upon the better angels of our natures, to ask us to care for those around us, makes Bush a traditional Conservative. Libertarians would deem such considerations outside the legitimate scope of government. For this reason, Libertarians will likely not make good leaders. And in the long run, a government that takes care to help create good citizens, a government concerned about character, is the one that will have to govern least.

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