There’s nothing quite like the sensation of bringing a conversation to a halt with a single word. There you are, chilling with your boyfriend’s family. His well-meaning cousin, or uncle, or step-brother-in-law turns to you and asks you what you “do.” You calmly reply that you run an online magazine for women—and they nod enthusiastically right up until you get to the word—libertarians.
Their expression drops. Eyebrows, once slightly furrowed with interest, now rise to the hairline as they sit back from you ever so slightly. “Oh, interesting,”—or some other such supposedly-neutral-sounding phrase—they say, then turn to some saner participant in the conversation, eager to get away from your lunacy lest they somehow catch it and begin grabbing the nearest Gadsden flag.
I can’t be the only person this has happened to.
It would be one thing if they were “afraid” of some things I actually stood for: equality under the law for everyone, the end of big business, a more reasonable, natural distribution of wealth, the end of systemic oppression. Then perhaps I’d be proud to send them running for the hills.
But nay! After a lovely dinner, a well meaning family member sits across the table from me and says ,“Gina, I don’t know if you know this or not, but libertarians are understood to be very conservative,”—oh, no, I had no idea—“Tell me why.”
I was happy she asked. I was worried that I was going to have to keep frowning with confusion every time the conversation ended when it came to my work.
Like an awkward libertarian nerd, I thought it was a great idea to give her a “brief” history of the contemporary libertarian movement, from the 1970s to today. Protip: Whenever you are asked this question, NEVER EVER answer with a “brief” history of the contemporary libertarian movement from the 1970s to today. It’s not brief, and no one cares. So, of course, two hours later, this poor woman was probably bored to tears, and, more importantly, had no idea why I didn’t warrant the label “conservative.”
It was, frankly, all my fault. Considering that being called a conservative is one of the more annoying realities of being a libertarian, you’d think I would have thought out a response to that one a little better.
Consider my lesson learned. I took a moment to hash out what I thought some of the key differences were between conservatives and libertarians, and explain why some people think they are in fact synonymous. Please feel free to use this as a reference for your friends, neighbors, total strangers, who feel the need to ask you why you think you’re so different from John McCain (*shudder*).
Libertarianism 101: Libertarians are not conservatives
by: Gina Luttrell
Libertarianism is a completely distinct political philosophy from conservatism. It emphasizes individual freedom, which includes free markets and social freedom, strong protections for civil liberties, and tolerance. However, contemporary libertarians make some choices that make them look a little more like conservatives:
- Libertarians are ultimately for limited government, which matches the rhetoric (not the actions) of our conservative brethren.
- Libertarians, for better or worse, tend to prioritize economic policy over social policy, and that is where we tend to line up with conservatives.
- Some libertarians think that fusing with the Republican Party is a good idea.
However, let me assure you that libertarians are, in fact, NOT conservatives for a few reasons:
- Conservatives in their truest form favor their policies because they think that’s what “tradition” dictates; libertarians favor it because we think it is the most effective for human flourishing.
- Contemporary conservatives are invested in using the government to perpetuate their own morals and ethos. Libertarians prefer to use non-violent forms of persuasion, or, better yet, prefer to leave everyone to their own devices.
- Conservatives have, for some time, preferred a greatly interventionist foreign policy; libertarians always prefer peace.
There are other significant differences as well. This is just a start. What do you think are some important differences between libertarians and conservatives? Why do you think people mistake the two?