While the Republican primaries were in full swing, I heard talk radio hosts say some of the most inane things I have ever heard. Not that radio talk show hosts don’t say some pretty stupid things on a continuing basis, but these were things so outrageously idiotic that I would not expect them even from such people as Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levine (all of whom must be taken with about 32 grains of salt).
Among the many misstatements of fact and inconsistencies in reason were their many pronouncements about who was conservative and who was a liberal. According to the chattering class, anyone who did not think precisely as did they were de facto liberals. However, much of what these talk show hosts were claiming to be conservative values was really libertarian ideas, and much of what they were decrying as liberalism was in actuality conservativism. There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding in the Republican party about the nature of conservativism.
In Letters To A Young Conservative, Dinesh D’Souza has a short chapter related to this misunderstanding. I share an excerpt from it below:
Libertarianism is a philosophy of government, but conservativism is a philosophy of life. The libertarians want to contract the domain of government to expand the domain of personal liberty. For the most part, conservatives support this. but on the question of how liberty is to be used, on the central question of what constitutes the good life, libertarianism is largely silent.
The central libertarian principle is freedom, and to defend freedom, some libertarians find themselves arguing that whatever people choose is always right. But one could arrive at this view only from the premise that human nature is so good that it is virtually flawless. In reality, human nature is flawed, and freedom is frequently used badly. Conservatives understand this. conservatives defend freedom not because they believe in the right to do as you please, but because freedom is the precondition for virtue. It is only when people choose freely that they can choose the good. Without freedom there is no virtue: A coerced virtue is no virtue at all.
… Admittedly, vast areas of programmatic agreement exist between libertarians and conservatives. Both believe that the federal government has grown prodigiously and that it needs to be severely curbed. Even on social issues, libertarians and conservatives are often on the same side, although not always for the same reasons. A few years ago, I heard a conversation between a conservative and a libertarian. The conservative said, “I am distressed by the idea of fornication in public parks.” The libertarian replied, “I am distressed by the idea of public parks.” And on the policy issue in question, the two found themselves in happy agreement.
Conservatives, like libertarians, resist looking to the government to redistribute income. but on some occasions, conservatives are willing to use the power of government to foster virtue. Libertarians find this appalling. “If you won’t trust the government with your money,” one of them said to me, “how can you trust it with your soul?” Well, nobody is putting the government in charge of morality or salvation. But government policy does influence behavior, and conservatives are not averse to using the instruments of government, such as the presidential bully pulpit or the incentive structure of the tax code, to promote decent institutions (such as intact families) and decent behavior (such as teenage sexual abstinence).
Remember these distinctions the next time you hear some radio personality say something like “Governor X is a nice guy, but the fact that he is willing to use government dollars to support Y is proof that he isn’t a conservative.” The only thing that radio talk show host Z just proved is he/she doesn’t know the difference between libertarianism and conservativism.