One item stood out at last week’s Republican presidential primary debate: There was not an explicitly nor implicitly identified libertarian candidate. Ron Paul represented the libertarian faction in Republican debates in 2008 and 2012, and his son Rand Paul assumed the mantle in 2016. Prior libertarian-leaning Republican primary candidates include Barry Goldwater in 1964, Jack Kemp in 1988, and Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000, yet no such candidate can claim the position in this year’s Republican primary. The lack of a libertarian candidate is emblematic of the right’s shift away from free-market fundamentalism and toward a more robust social conservatism.
My own ideological evolution is demonstrative of the right’s shift away from libertarianism. Eight years ago, The Federalist published my essay making the Christian case for libertarianism. At the time, libertarianism seemed ascendant in contemporary politics. The New York Times wondered aloud if America’s “libertarian moment” had arrived, and Time Magazine featured Sen. Rand Paul on its cover describing him as “The Most Interesting Man in Politics.” But libertarianism’s political triumph was short-lived.
There are many possible reasons for this shift away from libertarianism, but among the most decisive were the disruptive events of the Covid-19 pandemic. America’s response to the pandemic exposed two fundamental truths that libertarianism was ill-equipped to answer: First, our institutions have been seized by ideological activists who have weaponized them against core American values; second, the left is on an evangelizing mission to impose its values across society unless resisted.
Institutions Are Broken
Covid exposed the deep moral rot of key institutions, such as academia, journalism, science and medicine, and corporations, among many others. In a liberal society, these institutions play a vital role in tempering concentrated political power by serving as neutral actors leveraging their unique expertise and interests to better society. During the pandemic, however, these institutions revealed themselves as political activists weaponizing their unique positions of authority to enact the left’s political agenda.
This rot was evident when public health officials published a public letter during the height of the pandemic insisting that the George Floyd riots did not violate their previously asserted guidance against mass gatherings because the rioters were rioting for a supposedly virtuous cause. This letter exposed those bureaucrats as mere political activists rather than the neutral experts they claim to be.
When critical race theory (CRT) became a polarizing, mainstream issue, many libertarians claimed CRT was protected by academic freedom. But that’s not true. Public school curriculums are inherently political because public officials ultimately decide what is taught in a public school. But for decades, curricula have been developed by progressives leading to a left-wing indoctrination of students evident in declining civic knowledge and patriotism.
The activist takeover of institutions allows leftists an additional avenue to exercise political power without ever explicitly enacting legislation. Therefore, conservatives must be willing to cripple their ability to exercise power by either externally dismantling these institutions or through their own hostile takeover. Neutrality toward these corrupt institutions will only allow the left to continue to subvert conservatives’ political interests.
The Left Won’t Leave You Alone
Recent years have also made it clear that the left won’t leave you alone. Leftists have a missionary zeal to impose their mores upon society. Again, the George Floyd riots are demonstrative. In their aftermath, the left demanded that you demonstrate your solidarity with leftist social causes or else you’re complicit in systemic racism.
Lavishly funded “diversity, equity, and inclusion” consultants infiltrated corporate boardrooms to inject racial identity politics into the workplace. Then the left came for your children, secretly using public schools to compel children into experimental mutilation under the guise of gender theory. Parents who objected to this radicalism were deemed domestic terrorists or threatened by Child Protective Services. There is nowhere to hide. Leftists insist on your acquiescence.
The left’s cultural aggression is a product of the right’s refusal to assert our own cultural values. Adherence to a neutral public sphere under the guise of secularism only creates a vacuum for the left to leverage the powers of the state to promote their own values. When the state stopped promoting traditional Christian values, the left filled the void by promoting cultural Marxism.
A less libertarian conservatism must leverage tools such as public school curricula, public television, military ethics training, and other professional training in the bureaucracy, etc. to educate Americans on traditional virtues.
Liberty Requires Virtue
Institutional rot and the left’s missionary zeal thus resurface a timeless wisdom: Liberty requires virtue. Absent said virtue, institutions and culture will inevitably culminate in tyranny and social disorder. In recent years, conservatives have relearned that a culture cannot sustain degradation without catastrophic effects to individual liberty. By contrast, libertarianism is at best agnostic on the need for a state to cultivate individual virtue.
Social righteousness as a prerequisite for liberty is an insight our Founding Fathers understood. In his farewell address, George Washington implored that America must be a virtuous nation for the republic to endure. He wrote:
… And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Of course, libertarians and the left will accuse conservatives of wanting to enact a Christian theocracy, but that’s a lazy smear. Again, George Washington is illustrative. In his first annual address to Congress, President Washington wrote that Americans must understand the difference between order and oppression, and also liberty and licentiousness. He wrote:
… by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of Society; to discriminate the spirit of Liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last…
Libertarianism fails to heed Washington’s advice by mistaking all encroachments on personal behavior as oppression. On the contrary, the conservative appreciates that in a free society, the state must proactively promote social virtue to prevent society from descending into cultural degradation. Disorder and licentiousness inevitably result in tyranny.
A New Libertarian-Conservative Fusionism
Despite these critiques, libertarianism still offers a lot to the right. The free market remains the greatest path toward material prosperity, and the right’s ability to promote wealth creation is among our biggest political advantages that should not be ceded. But of course, conservatism’s goal is about more than material wealth. Rather, it’s about shaping the conditions for human fulfillment. Any such new fusionism between libertarians and conservatives requires finding libertarian solutions to conservative objectives.
For example, among the right’s policy priorities is to rebuild the natural family. While this can be done via the tax code through an expanded earned income tax credit, or paid family leave policies, libertarians might help deregulate childcare services to drive down the cost of childcare.
Surely there are plenty of ways libertarians and conservatives can and should find common cause, but any shared agenda between libertarians and conservatives must aim toward retaking institutions, restoring social virtue, and rebuilding the family. Absent those objectives, libertarianism offers little to the right in our current political moment. America’s current state is characterized by cultural decadence and institutional rot that can only be remedied by an aggressive conservative agenda unafraid to assert its values throughout society.