Ever since the Cold War and ‘Great Society’ eras, classical liberals (a.k.a. libertarians) and American conservatives have formed an expedient, if at times uneasy, political alliance. In more recent years, some might say the groups’ goals and interests have diverged, particularly following the compassionate conservatism experiment in the 2000s, which saw large increases in federal spending. It was appropriate, then, that last evening, while this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a debate over this very question between Reason Magazine editor-in-chief Matt Welch and National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg. Video of the event can be viewed here.
Ron Paul’s popularity and the Tea Party are the most obvious examples we can point to when talking about the libertarianism as an arm of conservatism. Paul is more apt to refer to himself as a "conservative" than a "libertarian." However, many libertarians are hesitant to embrace either Paul or the Tea Party; Ron Paul’s racist newsletters,,or the Tea Party’s image of being a socially-conservative, populist organization, can be a turn-off to many. As American culture has grown more permissive, many libertarians have grown more liberal in their cultural outlook (especially on topics such as gay marriage or the war on drugs). Yet they have remained staunchly conservative in many other policy positions, especially those regarding economic policy, taxes and spending. And despite the (often glaring) cultural differences between free-wheeling libertarians and traditional conservatives, (as well as a small outcropping of left-leaning, self-styled “liberaltarians”), attempts to reach out to the Left haven’t yielded the results some had hoped. The Occupy movement may stand with us all in its condemnation of the financial and auto bailouts, as Goldberg pointed out last night, Occupy’s message is less a creed against market interventionism, and closer to “I want a bailout too!”
The point that both Welch and Goldberg made sure to hammer home last night is that while we may disagree on many important policy issues, there’s one that urgently needs to be dealt with: the impending fiscal crisis. Concerning debt and spending, both libertarians and conservatives are on the ‘right’ (as in correct) side of the issue. As Nicki pointed out last week, our projected deficit (not total debt, but this year's projected deficit) is $1 trillion, and we’re on track to owe more than the whole US economy is worth in a few short years. Runaway spending translates to yet more crowding out of the private sector, and results in debts that will have to be paid back by future generations. We can all agree: profligate spending by our elected officials does nothing to promote liberty, personal responsibility, or a citizenry that believes in its government.