What if Libertarians and Conservatives Agreed on Empirical Issues?

Following up my post on what might happen if liberals and libertarians agreed on empirical issues, this post addresses the question of what might happen if libertarians came to agree on empirical issues with conservatives.

Unfortunately, answering this question is a lot tougher than the previous one about liberals. Libertarianism and liberalism are fairly coherent ideological movements. By contrast, “conservatism” is a hodgepodge of different ideologies united mainly by their opposition to the political left. George Will, Pat Buchanan, Bill Kristol, and Mike Huckabee are all considered conservatives. But they differ greatly from each other on both empirical issues and values. So too with neoconservatives, religious right social conservatives, and Burkean conservatives. Moreover, some conservatives are quite close to libertarians on most issues because they have a assimilated a great many libertarian ideas.

To make the question more tractable, I’m going to focus primarily on social conservatives who generally support free market policies on “economic” issues, while also supporting a high degree of “social” regulation. I recognize that this is far from the only type of conservatism out there. But it’s probably the most common one in the United States, especially among conservative intellectuals.

As with some libertarians and liberals, some social conservatives are purely utilitarian in their values. They support conservative policies because they think that will maximize human happiness. If a utilitarian libertarian and a utilitarian conservative could agree on empirical issues, their policy differences would disappear. They would then agree on both values and the best way to implement them. But pure utilitarianism is even less common among conservatives than among liberals and libertarians, possibly because many social conservatives are strongly religious and the major religions all incorporate many non-utilitarian values. Here are some issues where non-utilitarian conservatives will continue to disagree with libertarians even if the two groups could come to a consensus on empirics:

I. Nationalism.

Many, though not all, conservatives are nationalistic. By contrast, most libertarians are hostile to nationalism, usually for the kinds of reasons I outlined here. Some of these differences are traceable to disagreements over the empirical effects of nationalism. But not all of them. At the level of fundamental values, many nationalistic conservatives are willing to impose severe costs on foreigners for the purpose of securing significantly smaller benefits for members of their own polity.

This has important implications for issues like trade and immigration. Let’s assume that greatly expanded immigration creates huge net benefits for immigrants, but inflicts much smaller net costs on native-born Americans. Most libertarians would accept that tradeoff. After all, the freedom and utility of immigrants is, in their view, no less valuable than that of natives. And the majority of libertarians see immigration restrictions as infringements on liberty, not just utilitarian harms.

Not so with nationalistic conservatives. For example, conservative Harvard economist George Borjas wants to greatly reduce immigration in order to prevent what he estimates to be fairly modest wage reductions for low-skilled Americans, even though he realizes the enormous harm that would inflict on potential migrants. In a recent book, conservative scholar Edgar Browning explicitly states that immigration policy should be determined entirely without reference to the welfare of the immigrants themselves (which he views as an uncontroversial premise). Views like Borjas’ and Browning’s are quite common among nationalistic conservatives, though admittedly not universal.

What is true for immigration also holds for trade. The only difference is that fewer conservatives believe that free trade inflicts net harms on Americans than believe the same of immigration. Those who do believe that trade inflicts net harm on Americans tend to support protectionism entirely without reference to the impact on foreigners (Pat Buchanan is a good example).

Agreement on empirical issues surrounding immigration, trade and other such issues would eliminate libertarian-conservative differences only if conservatives came to believe that fully laissez-faire policies in these fields create net benefits for current American citizens.

II. Social Regulation.

Much of the libertarian-conservative disagreement over social and “morals” regulation comes down to disagreement over the empirical effects of such regulations. Elsewhere, I have criticized conservatives such as Robert Bork for ignoring the ways in which their empirical critiques of economic regulation apply to social regulation as well.

But empirical disagreements are not the only source of the conflict. Many conservatives believe that some forms of “immoral” behavior are intrinsically wrong even if legalizing them would increase happiness on net. For example, some argue that it is intrinsically wrong to gamble, take mind-altering drugs, engage in “unnatural” sex, or consume pornography. Conservatives who believe this might still be willing to support legalization if the harms of prohibition are great enough. That accounts for William F. Buckley’s and now Pat Robertson’s opposition to the War on Drugs. But the threshold level of harm needed to persuade social conservatives to support legalization is a lot higher than for libertarians.

The flip side is that many libertarians might still oppose social regulation even in cases where they agree that it creates net utilitarian benefits. They, after all, value social freedom for its own sake, not just because they think it increases happiness. Most libertarians might be willing to support regulation if they thought the utilitarian benefits were extremely large. If banning pornography were the only way to prevent a massive epidemic of rape, I would be in favor of it. But the threshold level of benefit would, for most libertarians, have to be pretty high. Certainly much higher than for most social conservatives.

III. Retribution.

Conservatives generally favor harsher punishments for criminals than libertarians do. This difference reflects various empirical disagreements between the two groups. But there’s also a difference in values. Conservatives are, on average, much more committed to the value of retribution than libertarians are. That’s a key reason why many libertarians, but almost no conservatives, favor moving the criminal justice system towards a model based on restitution rather than punishment (see this article by co-blogger Randy Barnett). Personally, I’m much more of a retributivist than most of my fellow libertarians. But my view is definitely in the minority among libertarian intellectuals.

I have not mentioned war and foreign policy in this post, largely because the issue deeply divides libertarians among themselves. I think that the internal division among libertarians (people who mostly share the same values) suggests that the divide between dovish libertarians and hawkish conservatives on these issues is also largely about empirics rather than values. However, it’s possible that the conservative commitment to nationalism also plays a role here.

Overall, a social conservative who came to agree with libertarians on empirical issues but not values would be more supportive of free trade and immigration and more skeptical of social regulation. But she might still differ with libertarians on these issues because of the conservative commitment to nationalism and nonutilitarian justifications for social regulation. Full convergence with libertarian policy positions would only occur if the conservative came to believe that social regulation inflicts very great harm and that free migration is a net benefit to Americans. Even then, we would still have the disagreement over retribution.

A libertarian who came to agree with social conservatives on empirical issues would endorse higher levels of social regulation and lower levels of immigration. But we would only see full convergence if the libertarian came to believe that the harm caused by laissez-faire was great enough to outweigh the nonutilitarian value he assigns to freedom.

UPDATE: For readers who may be interested, here’s a post I wrote about F.A. Hayek’s classic libertarian critique of conservatism that focuses on some of the same issues as this one, though it does not try to distinguish empirical issues from differences in values.