Acton Institute Powerblog

Libertarians in Black

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

The conservative-libertarian fusionism conversation is gaining new life as discussions and reflections about the state of the Republican party reverberate after last year’s election. Ben Domenech has a particularly worthwhile outline of what he calls a “libertarian populist agenda.”

Last month’s discussion at Cato Unbound also focused on fusionism, and in this post I’d like to bring together some of the various threads to conclude for a vision of conservative-libertarian fusionism (or at least co-belligerence) in the economic sphere.

In one of his discussion posts, Clark Ruper asserts that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.'” But he then proceeds to use the research of Boaz and Kirby, which identifies a group as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal-libertarian” as definitive of a new generation of liberty-minded voters. This ambiguity gets precisely at what Domenech calls in today’s edition of The Transom the difficulty posed for fusionism by “the more atheist and agnostic strands of libertarianism, particularly the urban variety.”

It’s easier for these strands to give lip-service to the openness of the libertarian cause to “social conservatives” than to really identify the coherence of conservative social values with libertarianism. This gets precisely at the dynamic I intended to highlight in my initial post about the limitations of libertarianism as a political philosophy of limited government as opposed to a fully-blown world-and-life view. If you think that libertarianism is really a political philosophy that remains largely agnostic about things other than government, then you are more likely to really think that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.'” But if you think of libertarianism as an ideological worldview that has to do with maximizing individual choice and autonomy in every conceivable sphere (political or not), then you are much more likely to see libertarianism as entailing social liberalism (or what some conservatives deride as libertinism).

The upshot of this is that I think the key to any constructive fusionism must deal on the basis of seeking liberty in the realm of political economy, something that both conservatives and libertarians ought to be able to unite on. We ought to be able to come together to defend and promote a system of political economy that best promotes human flourishing, particularly by addressing the problem of poverty and the complex challenges of wealth creation. This is in part why I find a movement like the Bleeding Heart Libertarians is encouraging.

In another dialogue about fusionism, Jonah Goldberg asserted that there should always be a “libertarian in the room,” referring to the context of political discussions, because “the libertarian in the room asks the right question: Why is this a job for government?”

I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor. As Johnny sang,

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Pingback: Libertarians in Black Cassocks | Acton PowerBlog()

  • JQ Tomanek

    One of the problems I run into with the younger libertarians is the notion that “the state should not be a part of prostitution, extra-marital sex, etc.” therefore “these are all great experiences that we have been lied to about.” It turns into more a libertinism. I fully appreciate the use for persuasion on these matters, but it definitely doesn’t help convincing conservatives about libertarian principles when some do not understand that “freedom” means “I get to do anything I want.”

  • JQ Tomanek

    “but it definitely doesn’t help convincing conservatives about libertarian principles when some do not understand that “freedom” means “I get to do anything I want.”

    Sorry, should have said “when some understand that freedom means ‘I get to do anything I want.”

  • Evan Rogers

    Another discussion about libertarianism without mentioning the Non Aggression Principle.

    Missed the mark. Good effort. Better luck next time.

    • I do treat the NAP in passing in my final post in the Cato Unbound controversy. No doubt you will find it not fully satisfactory, however: “For instance, the non-aggression principle (NAP) may well be an important principle of political economy, but it hardly suffices as a principle for morality qua morality. A kind of Hippocratic Oath for policy (‘first do no harm’) can be an important principle for governing, but it doesn’t get adequately at the positive obligations that we have towards other people on an individual (and even communal) level.”

  • RogerMcKinney

    Anyone who reads the history of the Dutch Republic will find no other nation in history that was more Godly and yet prostitution was legal in it. Prostitution was also legal in ancient Israel even though considered immoral. Neither had laws preventing drug and alcohol use. Do conservatives consider those societies to have been libertine?

    The problem is determining how far to enforce morality. Conservatives give us no objective, debatable limitations to government, only platitudes about the “common good”. The conservative response is little more than Keynes’ defense of his economics against Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”: big government will be OK as long as people like us are in charge.

    Practically speaking, libertarians need to quit carping about wealth transfers to the poor. It’s a very small amount of federal spending and does nothing for our PR. Most federal transfer payments go to the middle class. That’s what we should gripe about!

    Conservatives need to quit accusing libertarians of not caring about the poor. Libertarians see free markets as the best hope for the poor and we have overwhelming evidence in China and India while conservatives have no evidence that government programs help the poor. In fact, poverty is no better in the US today than when LBJ started his “great society” to end poverty. Why is it that conservatives are so blind to this amazing asymmetry in factual evidence?

    The elephant in the room for libertarians is military spending and the tendency to go to war on the part of conservatives. If conservatives would abandon the military and war I think fusion would be much more likely.

  • Pingback: Bonanza's Adam Cartwright, a Cowboy in Black | Acton PowerBlog()