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Rectification of language

What do you do with political terms? In the interview, I said that libertarianism and conservatism are theoretically opposed, because one makes freedom the final standard and one does not, but that on practical issues today they are often consistent. I also suggested that many people who call themselves libertarian are mostly conservative philosophically but find the “L” word more convenient because it suggests American traditions of decentralization and limited government (which I agree are central to any authentic American conservatism).

A friend thought I was being too “wet,” and didn’t accept my explanation that when you’re trying to make basic points clear to an uninformed audience you can’t emphasize every distinction. She said:

They are really in important ways at odds, and, even more crucially, libertarianism tends to win out over conservatism when the two are yoked together, because the idea of not making judgments and letting people do as they like is so much easier to do today than having to assert positive values/virtues. I say they should be nipped off at the root for any audience. Especially beginning type audiences. On many specific points they should diverge, such as gay marriage, the presence of religion, and yet no one wants to draw out the obvious incompatibility. Or, if they are not going to be nipped apart at the root, the Frank Meyers thing would be good to assert, that is, that libertarianism without virtue is totally worthless and will wind up serving the dominant liberal culture.

I then got an email from someone complaining at length that I had praised “conservatism” too much, and depicted libertarianism in too disadvantageous a light by treating left/libertarians as the most authentically “libertarian.” He pointed out that most “name” conservatives are soft on social issues and like big government, while at least in his experience actual libertarians tend to be to attached to American and Christian tradition. To which I responded that

[L]eft/libertarianism is by far the most prominent [kind of libertarianism] from the standpoint of someone who reads the mainstream media and it’s the [kind] readers of the interview are most likely to run into if they look in the places they usually look. The so-called libertarian bloggers for example—Instapundit, Volokh etc.—are all left/libertarians who think “gay marriage” and research on living embryos are just great. The most prominent libertarian mag is Reason and it’s the same. And if someone says a Republican is “libertarian” it mostly means he favors gay rights, abortion and legalized heroin.

So where does all this lead? It doesn’t seem informative to say “libertarian” if you can mean Virginia Postrel, Joe Sobran, or someone who wants to run things on the model of Israel under the judges. And at a time when the Bush administration counts as extremely conservative one has doubts about “conservative” as well. It seems to me that the most basic political issues today are whether there’s some conception of the good, beautiful and true—practically speaking, of God—that’s going to have public authority, and the general role of the state in social life. Political classifications ought to reflect those basic issues, and neither “libertarian” nor “conservative” does. Any thoughts or suggestions?

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