Social Conservatism and Libertarianism Are Not Mergeable – So Stop Trying


It goes without saying that libertarianism, as a political philosophy, is fiscally conservative – i.e. that on a policy level, the State must ‘conserve,’ rather than spend on a whim. Virtually all libertarians agree that this is technically correct.

The jury, however, is apparently still out on social issues. Many in the libertarian movement desire a merging between American conservatism (as opposed to virtually any other conservative movement in the world), which includes social conservatism, and libertarianism. Conservatism, as a political position, is quite region-specific, and entirely relative. To be a ‘conservative’ means something different at different times. It is not a statement of principles in and of itself, but a belief that certain principles which are already being adhered to, must continue to be adhered to. This is why a European ‘conservative’ is, for the most part, someone who still desires a strong welfare role for the State, and an America conservative is much more reluctant to support increased welfare.

Roger Toutant recently wrote that apparently, “Libertarianism is, at its core, a fiscally and socially conservative movement.” He says this without much further ado, instead opting to hide behind a facade of pragmatism. His reasoning goes that if libertarians continue to represent themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal (not to be confused with welfarist “social liberalism”), we will never win any popular support, because the right will refuse to get on board with our “degenerate and lost” social views, and progressives will never agree to our notion of small government.

Social liberalism, which is not under discussion here, but it is worthy to note, is a political philosophy in its own right, with its own economic theories. Being socially liberal, on the other hand, implies a public policy stance, as opposed to personal liberalism, which means that the individual himself behaves in a liberal fashion. Being socially liberal is nothing more than the notion that the State has no right to legislate decency or morality. (And given that we’re talking about American conservatism here, I should emphasise that it does not matter whether it’s a supranational government, a national government, a provincial or state government, or a local government). The State’s mandate is and always will be fixed to protecting people and property from physical aggression, enforcing mutually-agreed upon agreements, and guarding against fraud. All of this, naturally, must be wrapped up in the doctrine of the rule of law, i.e. the State cannot act arbitrarily, everyone must be equal before the law, people can appeal decisions, etc., etc.

Toutant’s is not an isolated argument. Indeed, it has become increasingly popular over the last year for conservative-leaning libertarians to defend and emphasise the ostensible compatibilities between libertarianism and American conservatism, while also emphasising the incompatibilities between traditionally left-leaning positions where progressives and libertarians share common ground. Christopher Cantwell is the embodiment of this worrying trend, having testified before a New Hampshire legislative committee that the government should prohibit female nudity on public beaches. He used highly-questionable arguments (including “but what about the children?”) in support of this position, but at the end of the day it was clear that his social conservatism was rearing its head in what was supposed to be a matter left to the political philosophy of libertarianism.

The founders of libertarianism would not have bothered to distinguish libertarianism from American conservatism. Indeed, if American conservatism and libertarianism are as indistinguishable as many make them out to be, why did the distinction come about at all?

This is all especially worrying to me as a South African, and, I imagine, to many libertarians across the world (to be anecdotal: my arguably anti-conservative Facebook posts get more ‘likes’ from my European compatriots, over the norm where my American compatriots are mostly in the majority). In South Africa, ‘conservatism’ means a preference for Apartheid, a highly-socialistic system founded in the very fascist notion that the State is the embodiment of the people and enforces their will. So when I enter into policy debates, only to have my opponents declare with conviction that “libertarianism is conservative” – no doubt something they picked up from what is happening in America – I am placed at a significant disadvantage.

The definition of ‘conservatism’ which American conservatives have adopted enables them to relate, even if only at a distance, to the non-national philosophy of libertarianism. This is, however, not the case anywhere else in the world (at least, not to this extent). Therefore, when the argument is made that libertarianism and conservatism – or social conservatism more particularly – should, in essence, become one thing, a custom-made American definition is used. This is partly the problem with the assumptions underlying Toutant’s argument.

Libertarianism is set apart from American conservatism in one principal respect, which also sets it apart from progressivism, and which is the only justification for it being distinguished from both: individualism. A conservative, such as Toutant, can accept the basic premises of the NAP in theory, as have many conservative-leaning libertarians, but individualism in general is curiously excluded in favor of other values, such as (often bizarrely) democracy, certain social values such as the ‘traditional’ marriage.

Toutant’s questionable interpretation of libertarianism is most evident in the following paragraph:

“As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Libertarians are conservative in nature.  They do not rely on the NAP to provide guidance to their moral behaviour, nor to help them define what is good or evil or what actions should be punished, or not, by the state.  For that they rely on their culture and their religion.  To many, the NAP is the equivalent of the Christian commandment, “thou shalt not steal”, full stop.”

Being a libertarian who is personally conservative, and being a libertarian who advocates social conservatism, are two different things, considering that social conservatism is a public policy position. As an individual, I am arguably personally conservative. I believe in a higher power, I have never tasted alcohol or nicotine, I try to be decent, and look decent. But when my libertarian hat is on, i.e. when I engage in political philosophy or public policy (I work in public policy) – then I am an individualist, I am socially liberal. And, in that respect, it is a prerequisite for a libertarian to be socially liberal qua libertarian.

Jared Howe, a Being Libertarian associate, recently wrote in a public Facebook comment that many Americans view libertarianism as a leftist movement due to “the open border / free movement people.” He went on to write that identity politics is not “automatically invalid,” and that even Hans-Hermann Hoppe relied on “the historical and practical role of the monogamous family” in his work. I am, as some would know, one of the open borders people. To many, that makes me a leftist ab initio, and clearly according to Howe as well. However, I obviously dispute this line of thinking, especially considering the rationale most open borders libertarians provide for their position, i.e. it is always founded in sound libertarian theory, even if it is not particularly Hoppean libertarian theory. Hoppe’s work is invaluable, but I don’t recall him being declared the final arbiter on what is and what is not correct libertarian thinking.

Evidently, it has become problematic to use this description of libertarianism, i.e. that we are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It causes confusion and opens doors which should not even exist (such as the ostensible similarities between libertarianism and American conservatism). Instead – and this has become more popular in certain respects – if we want to appeal to a broad audience rather than philosophy club, we should say we value personal and economic freedom for individuals. In this way, we avoid the confusion between ‘socially liberal’ and ‘social liberalism,’ which is a philosophy with some unfortunate socialist connotations, and avoid the confusion between ‘American conservatism’ and ‘fiscally conservative.’

However, before we can go about reforming our marketing strategies, we should be clear about the fact that we comprise a distinct movement, and that while American conservatives have been worthy and valuable allies in many battles, we have our own agenda, which is often at odds with that of conservatives. We are not a subsidiary, extension, or transformation of American conservatism, but something entirely different.

Our victories over the left will be meaningless if we lose our identity in the process, instead becoming part of the authoritarian horseshoe paradigm we naturally must oppose.

* Martin van Staden is Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian.

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian, Rational Standard, and Champion Books. He has a law degree from the University of Pretoria. His articles represent his own views and beliefs, and not that of any of the organizations he is involved with.


  1. “It goes without saying that libertarianism, as a political philosophy, is fiscally conservative.”

    Sigh. No. “Conservatism” is not about “conserving.” It’s a philosophy holding that things long in existence are entitled to deference and credibility on account of their long-standing acceptance.

    Conservatives – even the old Goldwater conservatives did not shrink from the Cold War, but rather jumped at the chance to defeat communism. Goldwater rejected the containment strategies that had guided U.S. foreign policy since the late 1940s, and called for an aggressive strategy of liberation. Conservatives might disagree about the proper role of government in American life, but surely they could unite to defeat the “Soviet menace.”

    Conservatives are interested in, and committed to, using the power of the State to make the world safe for Big Business and to spread American conservative social values – to defeat the “permissive” ideology of libertarians who are spreading the “gay agenda” and “drug use” tolerance and such.

    Conservatives, no less than liberals want a large and powerful state. They differ only in what the power of the state should be focused on forcing people to do.

    • Your committing the fallacy of equivocation. Not all conservatives are for war and protectionism. For instance, I am a social conservative and an anarcho-capitalist anti-war free marketeer.

  2. American Conservatism is simply the philosophy of maintaining the status quo until and unless verifiable proof that a thing can be done a better way is shown. This burden of proof is and can be pretty high. True conservatives base their ideas on experience and history. This, coupled with the fact that true conservatives try to conserve the classically liberal principles of our founding is why we as libertarians have much in common with them. Where we, as libertarians, often diverge is on social issues, where we believe we have met the burden of proof for a better way, but they are not (yet) convinced. Another issue is that American Conservatives tend to try to conserve Progressive principles that have been in play for a long period of time (such as Social Security)
    Contrast this with American Progressivism, which is naught more than fascism that reverses the social propaganda roles of majority and minority (thereby creating the same hatred, but without the power to do actual violence, with the added benefit of guilt voting by the majority), it is easy to see why intelligent libertarians reject the Democratic Party and Progressivism. Conservatives are and should be looked at as our allies on most issues, and conversion to libertarianism from this group is much easier as it can be done with logic, rather than wading through the illogical emotions and feels that rule the life and voting booth of your average progressive.

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