Western Standard

The Shotgun Blog

« Mr. Bentley enters his rehab | Main | The rise of Harper populism »

Monday, March 16, 2009

Are libertarians part of the conservative movement?

Conservative activists of all types and description gathered last weekend at the Manning Centre’s Networking Conference. Any time you gather conservatives inevitably a discussion begins on what exactly is a conservative. Usually these conversations involve shouting and snide comments but today it is actually a very civilized and healthy conversation. There is one sticking point, however, that has continued to arise. Is a libertarian a conservative?

Strictly speaking a libertarian is a liberal. The word liberal has been warped and misshapen to the point that it no longer means what it originally meant. Those that believed in personal liberty and the coercive nature of the state had to change what they called themselves. So the liberal became the libertarian.

At the same time there was a shift in conservatism. They moved from the paternalism of Disraeli to the ‘fiscal conservatism’ of Mike Harris. Being conservative now meant that you wanted smaller government and, in effect, greater economic liberty. This shift meant that many of the goals of the classical liberals and the conservatives became the same.

Libertarians have worked with in various conservative parties in various countries ever since this shift. Yet there has always been a tension. Today at the Manning Centre libertarian activist Karen Selick denied having any part of the ‘conservative family.’ She claimed that the intellectual bases were different though some of the final goals were the same.

A day earlier the Prime Minister defined libertarians out of his idea of what it means to be conservative. At first I was extremely annoyed by this, but upon reflection I accepted it as the normal course of events. If libertarians are part of the conservative family then they are the uncle that no one seems to like.

The truth is that conservatism is not an ideology or a single set of ideas. It is a collection of ideas that have enough in common that they are willing to form a coalition. Earlier today I briefly discussed the regional differences in conservatism. It is hard to point to a single thing that makes someone conservative in Canada. It is even harder to create an international concept of what is conservative. The reason for this is that conservative is merely a title that is given to an ideological coalition.

Do libertarians have much intellectually in common with classic toryism or Edmund Burke? No of course not, but are libertarians part of the coalition of ideas that is referred to as conservative? In this country at this time, yes.

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on March 16, 2009 | Permalink


Golly I hope they're not part of the conservative movement. Everything they stand for is opposed to freedom and responsibility. I think they'd be better off as part of the Green Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Liberal/NDP Party of Ontario.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-03-16 9:40:47 AM

If the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the CPC views the libertarian-minded members of the party as the reason why the CPC can't get a majority, they're blaming the wrong people. Stephen Harper made it clear that he believes he can get along just fine without those annoying folks who believe in liberty and who are rightly skeptical about the wisdom of deficit spending and the interventionist state. The fiscal conservatives will be right in the long run, which will come about long before PMSH thinks we'll all be dead.

As I've made clear in previous posts, it's highly unlikely that this tactic will hold much appeal with leftist voters, who will only respond by questioning the PM's sincerity, and probably continue to believe that he has a hidden agenda. In the meantime, I'll let the CPC know that if they can toss my moral support out the window, I'll do the same with my financial support for them.

Posted by: Dennis | 2009-03-16 10:18:35 AM

I think the only thing libertarians had in common with conservatives was the belief in free markets and small government. With Harper's recent reincarnation, do libertarians have anything in common with conservatives anymore?

Posted by: Charles | 2009-03-16 10:23:50 AM

I've also noticed that the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the CPC has been denigrating the fiscal conservative/libertarian wing of the party as being laughably small. Well, if that was the case, then our influence would have been just as minimal. So why did Harper bother expending political capital showing us the door if we are just an inconsequential rump? You can't have it both ways. When we take our money elsewhere, if if it's just "parked", it's going to hurt the CPC.

Posted by: Dennis | 2009-03-16 10:33:31 AM

Not one libertarian in Canada has had as much influence through political action as John Stossel or Penn Gillette through entertainment and journalism in furthering libertarianism. Some libertarians might have had some marginal influence in the creative destruction of the PCs through Reform, the Alliance, and then the CPC. The CPC has now reverted to Red Toryism to stay in "power". Harper's recent comments are merely a reaffirmation. Perhaps there is some residual self-contempt in Harper's conscience associated with his libertarian rebuff.

The sad fact is that if every Canadian that could accurately spell and define libertarianism could coalesce into a political party, it would likely amount to one with the support of one percent of the flakes who support the Greens, a party based on political narratives of junk science.

Face it, there is a bit of political junkie in most, if not all of the posters and those commenting on this site. They all seem to be more at home with conservatives regardless of their libertarianism. After all, the Shotgun hasn't actually come out and declared this an exclusively libertarian site, yet.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-03-16 11:12:32 AM

Hugh MacIntyre - "but are libertarians part of the coalition of ideas that is referred to as conservative? In this country at this time, yes."

As close to the truth of the situation Hugh, is "as damn is to swearing".

Posted by: Joe Molnar | 2009-03-16 11:18:18 AM

I've also noticed that the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the CPC has been denigrating the fiscal conservative/libertarian wing of the party as being laughably small.
Posted by: Dennis | 2009-03-16 10:33:31 AM

As Reagan used to say "there you go again", attempting create linkage between fiscal conservatives and libertarians. While there may be some common economic ground that fiscal conservatives and libertarians share, libertarians share some areas of economic policy with sections of the Liberals and NDP, and I've noticed you haven't attempted to create any linkage with them. What separates a fiscal conservative from a libertarian is that fiscal conservatives deal in reality,the attainable. Libertarians like Marxists are Utopians, and we've all seen what happens when they get the reins of power.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-03-16 11:29:42 AM

No Ontarian can be a libertarian. Libertarians believe in limited government and human freedom, but Ontarians derive their elevated social status to big government and limitations on liberty. They are in fact more like feudal barons. Hence the need to tear down Ontario, reclaim its wealth and return it to its rightful owners, and reconstruct it into a more balanced and equal format.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-03-16 12:09:15 PM

Stig, I would say that I am anything but a utopian. My lack of faith in mankind runs so deep that I would not trust one man to rule over another.

Joe Molnar, I like the way you put that.

John, I agree that libertarians have had a greater difficulty finding our voice. The most prominant in the media are Gerry Nicholls and Marc Emery. Neither of which call themselves libertarians when talking to the media.

I should clearify because some people seem to have missed it. I am making a distinction here between the Conservative Party and the conservative movement. Libertarians are not the only 'conservatives' who are pissed at Harper's budget. I think that, based on last weekend, most of the 'movement' is pissed about it.

Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-16 12:10:59 PM

"and we've all seen what happens when they get the reins of power." Really? I guess America was founded on modern conservatism then ...

Posted by: Charles | 2009-03-16 12:28:11 PM

....reclaim its wealth and return it to its rightful owners, and reconstruct it into a more balanced and equal format.
Posted by: Zebulon Punk | 2009-03-16 12:09:15 PM

Just like your bro's did in Zimbabwe. That was a great success story for your people.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-03-16 12:28:53 PM

No it's more like what Ontario did to Alberta in the NEP. Some call it revenge, I call it justice.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-03-16 1:14:24 PM

My lack of faith in mankind runs so deep that I would not trust one man to rule over another.
Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-16 12:10:59 PM

You sound like an anarcho-communist or a libertarian-communist.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-03-16 1:29:12 PM

"A day earlier the Prime Minister defined libertarians out of his idea of what it means to be conservative. At first I was extremely annoyed by this, but upon reflection I accepted it as the normal course of events. If libertarians are part of the conservative family then they are the uncle that no one seems to like."

Hugh, that was my reaction as well. And I agree with you that, politically speaking, libertarians are liberals. In fact, arguably, they're the only consistent liberals, the only ones who take seriously the idea that the state has no business imposing a conception of the good on its citizens.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-03-16 1:41:30 PM

Those who call themselves libertarians on this blog, to judge from the substance of their arguments, tend more towards anarchism than conservatism. You can't have no government in a nation of 330 million people. Hell, you can't have no government in a nation of 330 people.

Libertarians love to quote Thomas Jefferson. The man was a political and philosophical giant, granted; a product of the Age of Reason. But he also inveighed heavily against the contamination of cities and what they would do to American life, as he rightly predicted that such large settlements would discourage the highly absolute liberty he championed.

Despite old T.J.'s words of wisdom, we are committed; cities, like firearms, are here to stay, and cannot be uninvented. A literal interpretation of every word of Jefferson's philosophy is therefore untenable. But we can still carry the promise of liberty into the 21st century. That is an infinitely more fitting tribute to Jefferson and his legacy than digging through his writings for references to hemp while ignoring his support of slavery.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-16 2:07:39 PM

Ten Conservative Principles

by Russell Kirk

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary.

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues.

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

Posted by: DJ | 2009-03-16 2:19:36 PM

When did Marc Emery stop calling himself Libertarian to the media? As long as I've known him, he's identified himself in that ball park?

Trust Karen Selick to tell it like it is. Always consistent, and always extremely grounded in her principles. She'd be added to my last of Libertarians who have actually done their homework and heavy lifting.

I think Stig is right in one sense. The nature of libertarianism is such that it may even be counter to the philosophy to enjoin one's self in the "cavorting round the canibal pot" dance of modern day political canada

Also agree with poster who like Mike Brock believes that influencing culture is a good idea -- In addition,I think the free-schooling, un-schooling or homeschooling movement will ultimately reap better results than politics.

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 2:22:44 PM


I'm curious as to what you think of this idea:

Philosophical anarchism, as I understand it, is the position that the state as such is illegitimate: political authorities cannot give us reasons to act we wouldn't have had anyway. But, even if the state is illegitimate -- the philosophical anarchist says -- it doesn't follow necessarily that we ought to abolish it.

If following a law would promote the good, or some other moral end, then we should follow it. But the law's authority is entirely parasitic on its relationship to prior values or obligations. As such, no one should obey the law, just because it is the law. People should obey good laws -- laws that promote the good -- and ignore, if possible, bad ones.

The philosophical anarchist isn't really a bomb thrower, because he's willing to recognize that obedience to some laws is instrumentally important if we are to achieve certain goods. He can even recognize that it was a good thing for the north to crush slavery in the south (for example.) If slavery is bad, then destroying it was a good thing, an endeavor worthy of admiration.

That's pretty close to my position. I'm ok with government when it successfully achieves what I believe (and think I have good reason to believe) are important goods. I agree with you that "no government" would probably be worse, on the whole, than "limited government." But I don't think government is, in itself, a good thing; it is valuable instrumentally, not intrinsically.

I think a lot of thoughtful libertarians fall into this general category. What do you think?

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-03-16 2:51:58 PM

Is a libertarian a conservative? Strictly speaking a libertarian is a liberal? People who believe in freedom, equal human rights should have included all persons

My own personal experienced the last 3 decades of talking to the much too many redneck sof Alberta, they the Conservatives, evangelcial ones especially tend to believe in the free use of their own rights, and not anyone else's, especially not mine... they tend to falsely like to classify my honest, true posts, my own freedom of speech and my right to be heard as mere hatred, because it does not go along with their radical dishonesty.. sad.

One thing I here can agree too that an immoral, very bad liberal and a bad conservative are really the same thing... no matter what they call themselves.. they are still practising hypocrites..

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2009-03-16 4:33:55 PM

The concept of limited government has become little more than rhetoric in the conservative movement, and any common ground that existed between conservatives and libertarians has long since been eroded.

Posted by: Fred Hockemeyer | 2009-03-16 5:10:28 PM

The ten points of conservatism superlatively distilled, DJ.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-16 7:45:21 PM

I think you draw perhaps too fine a point, Terrence. Like you, I consider government a necessary evil rather than an ideal; that said, it is our social and competitive nature, as well as our uniquely human ability to think, plan, and form groups based on the abstract, that makes some form of government necessary to all human settlements. Most groupings of social animals have somebody in charge, and humans are no different. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Something or someone always rushes in to fill the void. It might as well be someone we can pick.

Also like you, I don't particularly enjoy obeying what I consider to be bad laws. However, in Canada we're truly fortunate to not have to make that decision too often. While some of the laws we have are ridiculous, few cross the line into oppression, so few are worth openly flouting, never mind protesting. If I'm caught breaking a bad law, I'll plead guilty and not object to any reasonable punishment, because I chose to break it. Not that this is ever likely to become an issue; aside from sharing the odd file, I'm completely clean.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-16 7:59:07 PM

I enjoyed reading the 10 points too. I wouldn't classify them as principles. I'd classify them as attitudes. And I think you need more than attitudes when it comes to examination of, moral judgement of, and construction of ethics. And without ethics, politics as it is practiced today is little better than (as I have used this metaphor before and will continue to, until somebody corrects me with a good reasoned argument, why I should not) - cannibals prancing around the soup-pot, pushing and shoving to get what they consider to be "their fare share".

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-16 8:09:35 PM

I always refer myself as a "libertarian" in the media, and if I get to elaborate, I explain an "Ayn Rand libertarian" and try to get Atlas Shrugged in there too.

I would have to say the most prominent libertarians in Canada are Henry Morgenthaler, Karen Selick, Walter Block, but its true we lack libertarians in entertainment like America has with Drew Carey, John Stossel, Penn Jillette or even a clearly libertarian elected member of the government like US Rep Ron Paul, Tom McClintock and Paul Braun. MP Scott Reid is rumoured to be libertarian but his courage is lacking in the face of dictator Harper's "my way or the wood shed" and says and does nothing at all of any consequence in Ottawa.

Posted by: Marc Scott Emery | 2009-03-16 8:17:44 PM

I have heard Marc Emery call himself both a libertarian and an objectivist in private. I do not recall him ever specifically saying that he is a libertarian in a media interview. Which is reasonable because I doubt many canadian journalists have a good idea of what the word means.

Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-16 8:19:40 PM

oops, posted that without seeing the man himself post on his own behave. I stand corrected.

Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-16 8:22:24 PM

To me a Conservative is always a God-centric person first. Once a person believes in the supernatural (religion) , they can invent any number of ancillary fairy tales to justify their ready-to-emerge-at-any-moment statism. Harper's "Freedom, family & faith" is really just faith as freedom is easily suspended by the Conservatives through invasion (Afghanistan), the drug war, the massive deficits and bailouts, spending sprees of unprecedented amounts, enlarging the civil service. Family is a euphemism for "I hate gays, potheads, single Moms, city people, hippie kids, the 60's" or "I love rednecks with big families who vote Conservative" and is code for "Bible-thumping social conservatives" but there is no F there (except the F You to everyone else). And "faith". Well thats what statism is, faith, because there is no science or truth to what Stephen Harper advocates.

Posted by: Marc Scott Emery | 2009-03-16 8:26:40 PM

Marc, I was a conservative, am now a libertarian type. I never have thought the way you stereotype conservatives. I can't imagine that I am the only one.

Libertarians are not perfect either. Mogantaler for example, was a significant force resulting in everyone being forced to pay for a medical procedure that only some will ever have, and that many are against. He also accumulated a lot of wealth along the way. A libertarian would let those who wanted an abortion pay for it themselves.

Posted by: TM | 2009-03-16 9:47:43 PM

Marc, your problem is that a whole lot of your "realities" are prefaced with the words "To me," or "For me." Such a statement amounts to opinion, not fact, and is therefore not proper debate. Your entire post is a hate-filled screed; where's that peace and tolerance flower children are always preaching? You're just sore because those neocon Americans have busted you for drug smuggling and Stephen Harper wouldn't ignore his own country's laws to let you plead out. You are reaping what you have sown. Deal with it.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-17 6:41:35 AM

Marc, your opinion of 'conservatives' is rather narrow and simplistic. You are not being fair to the thousands of conservatives who are for the leagalization of weed. Nor are you being fair to the millions of people who have an honest difference of opinion.

Shane, the laws had been ignored for most of Mr. Emery's time in that business. The government clearly knew what he was doing (he told them) yet they did not arrest him. The punishment on the books for selling seeds is vastly smaller than the life he'd be facing in the US. And Canadian law and US-Canada treaties state that you do not extradite if the punishment is viewed as obscene. Considering the difference in degree of punishment, Canadian law must view life in prison as obscene.

Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-17 7:05:49 AM

Actually, Hugh, the treaty states that the dispary of punishment must not "shock the conscience" of Canadians. Given the low-key response to Marc Emery's situation—a few photo ops and some grumbling by the perennial anti-American contingent—it's safe to say they're rather less than shocked. Irritated, maybe, but not shocked.

Furthermore, the treaty does not specify that a law that exists in both countries but is strongly enforced in one, yet weakly enforced in the other, is ineligible for consideration as a matter of extradition. Stephen Harper has also promised to step up enforcement against drug growers and distributors, which removes even more of an already weak argument.

Sorry, but arguing that the Americans should allow people to break the law just because our own government allows people to break the law, and that such listlessness on our part should be a factor in extraditing Canadians who have broken that law in America, is horseshit. You think that the lazier our government becomes, the less accountable our citizens become to the laws of other countries? Give me a break. If the extraditing country were any Western nation but America, this wouldn't even be on the radar. And this you know for a true thing.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-17 10:05:25 AM

Today's Conservative party is the enemy of freedom in Canada. Anybody who values freedom cannot continue to support these authoritarians. Do you really want to let religious beliefs of these bible thumpers determine what freedoms the rest of have?

The Harper Conservatives are oppressive and intolerant and must go.

6 months mandaTORY minumum for growing a single pot plant? Are they CRAZY? well they do believe in talking serpents, and that the world is what ? 6000 years old??? WTF? These are our leaders? Our minister of Science believes the creation story!

Posted by: DrGreenthumb | 2009-03-17 2:48:34 PM

"I would have to say the most prominent libertarians in Canada are Henry Morgenthaler, Karen Selick, Walter Block . . ."

Walter Block lives in New Orleans, where he teaches at Loyola University.

". . . but its [sic] true we lack libertarians in entertainment like America has with Drew Carey, John Stossel, Penn Jillette or even a clearly libertarian elected member of the government like US Rep Ron Paul, Tom McClintock and Paul Braun."

Tom McClintock is not a libertarian. Who is Paul Braun?


Posted by: Jeff Riggenbach | 2009-03-18 7:42:31 PM

"I think the only thing libertarians had in common with conservatives was the belief in free markets and small government."

Conservatives do not believe in either free markets or small government. They employ libertarian rhetoric, but when they get into office, they grow government and prosecute those who try to buy or sell services or commodities they don't approve of.

The only thing libertarians have ever had in common with conservatives is that they both put their pants on one leg at a time.


Posted by: Jeff Riggenbach | 2009-03-18 7:45:18 PM

A true Libertarian puts their pants on both legs at a time.

Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-18 7:48:54 PM

Medication wearing off again, Greenthumb? Marijuana was just as illegal under all the previous governments of Canada, as Marc Emery is about to learn rather painfully. What are you trying to say, that if the Conservatives legalized marijuana, but took away freedom of speech, press, and religion, they'd still be less an enemy of freedom than they are right now?

Just what we need: another single-issue nut bag.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-18 10:14:37 PM

A true libertarian puts his pants on any way he damn well pleases, Hugh.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-18 10:15:42 PM

Marc is *not* a single issue guy. That being said -- he's done more to challenge the insane drug laws in North America than any person in the history of marijuana prohibition. It's a damn shame to watch you so-con creeps licking your lips at the idea of a man being sent to prison for life for selling marijuana seeds.

At least Marc has actually DONE something to advance freedom. He's not just some arm-chair warrior with nothing better to do than surf the internet and insult people.

Posted by: MW | 2009-03-19 1:19:24 AM

A true Libertarian puts their pants on both legs at a time.
Posted by: hughmacintyre | 2009-03-18 7:48:54 PM

A true Libertarian wears a skirt.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-03-19 7:33:54 AM

Sorry, MW, but the sad truth is that there is only one cause that Emery has pushed, one cause that he has plastered throughout the papers, one cause he has constantly played up to the cameras, and it isn't removing the user fees from provincial parks. The marijuana party may devote lip service to more mainstream issues, but they're merely for show, designed to pad out what really is a one-track platform.

It's also the truth that Marc Emery is getting exactly what he has always claimed he wanted. For years he has dared the authorities to arrest and prosecute him. Well, they finally have, and only now has he realize his mistake; this is not something he can make go away with a performance in front of a camera. As they say, be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

And take a look at your own post. It's far more insulting than any of mine, or indeed, anyone else's, period. You fly off the handle. You call names. You beat us over the head with strident cries of "Shame! Shame!" Its tone and syntax are repugnant, petulant, juvenile.

You may be mad at the world, but the world doesn't care. Deal with it.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-19 7:46:43 AM

.Mr Harpers mention of" freedom, faith and family " - he didn;t exactly make these values up-they were already well entrenched in the hearts and minds of so many of us out here.

Your Majesty Herr Emery- this list is the poetic motovation of billions of your fellow humans-- whether you want to deny or discount this great and worthy facet is your deal between bong hitsl, but neither you nor the stoner elete are not gonna make these priorities go away any time soon.

Posted by: 419 | 2009-03-19 9:28:49 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.