Over the last months, in discussions with libertarians, Ronald Reagan has repeatedly been cited on how libertarianism and conservatism are essentially the same.
“If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” ~Ronald Reagan, Reason Magazine, July 1975
After seeing this quote repeatedly, I finally decided it was time to look it up and get the context. The full interview is fascinating and very much worth the read. The interview appears in Reason Magazine, a leading Libertarian publication. While in many respects, Reagan shows an appreciation for libertarianism in the interview, he also points out places where the philosophies disagree.
In the same answer where he pointed out the similarity between the two philosophies, he states,
“Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions… But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.”
This is interesting, because he points out that he should not be equivocated with libertarianism. He also clarifies the quote under discussion by saying the two philosophies are “travelling the same path.” There is a difference between coming from the same philosophical foundation, and traveling the same path.
As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that the similar path of the two philosophies is the of fight against high taxes and burdensome regulation. On this issue, Reagan finds common ground with libertarians.
However, a few questions later, Reagan begins to describe his first difference with Libertarians, the extent of government involvement. Reagan talks about a grey area in which “you ask is this government protecting us from ourselves or is this government protecting us from each other.” He generally opposes motorcycle helmet laws, but then discusses the grey area where a doctor told him of individuals “who become public charges as a result of permanent damage–he has pointed to an area where it does go over into not just hurting the individuals directly involved but now imposes on others also.”
The existence of this grey area is a point where Reagan believes libertarians and conservatives can disagree.
“I only use this extreme example to show that when we come down to government and what it should or should not do for the good of the people and for protecting us from each other, you do come into some grey areas and I think here there will be disagreements between conservatives and libertarians.” p.2
This disagreement on the size of government manifests itself later in the article when it comes to differences in dealing with the FDA, education, and taxes. Both Reagan and the interviewer believe in a more limited government, but they have differences in the “degree” to which government should be limited.
Reagan even goes as far as to flip a question about the FDA being “Big Brother” on its head and says, “Maybe what we should look at are those areas where government should be a “Big Brother” in ensuring that the private sector is doing the job.” He believes there is an important role for government oversight of the private sector.
The second major area where Ronald Reagan points out the difference between libertarianism and conservatism is on the issue of social issues, or “sin laws.” While I earlier addressed these differences in the context of marriage and abortion, here Reagan talks about gambling and prostitution. It’s worth reading the full exchange between Reason and Reagan on these two issues.
REASON: You said earlier that government doesn’t exist to protect people from themselves. Let’s take the desert island shipwreck situation. Would you be in favor of any laws against gambling in the shipwrecked island situation?
REAGAN: You’ve named an issue that is one of the most difficult for me to reconcile. I know this gets into the whole area of the sin laws and here again I think you’re in one of the grey areas. There’s one side of me that says I know this is protecting us from ourselves; there’s another side of me, however, that says you can make the case that it does get into an area in which we are protecting us from each other.
I cannot go along with the libertarian philosophy that says that all of the sin laws can be ruled out as simply trying to protect us from ourselves. You car take the case of the father who gambles his money away and thus leaves his family dependent on the re’ of us. You can take surrounding areas–the necessity for protection against dishonest gambling–which requires added government duties and obligations–
REASON: But isn’t it really very selective law enforcement when it comes to nonvictim crime areas?
REAGAN: Well, now, you know the nonvictim crimes. Here again I think you’re in a grey area that requires certainly more study than I’ve given it. Prostitution has been listed as a nonvictim crime. Well, is anyone naive enough to believe that prostitution just depends on willing employees coming in and saying that’s the occupation they want to practice? It doesn’t.
REASON: Well, it partly depends on the options. There are a lot of jobs that people might find distasteful in a free market. I suppose that if you work in a paint shop and you’re breathing paint fumes all day, it might not be a very desirable job either.
REAGAN: Yes. But get into the seamy side. Talk to law enforcement people about the seamy side of how the recruiting is done, including what in an earlier day was called the white slave traffic–and you will find that the recruiting for prostitution is not one of just taking an ad in the paper and saying come be a prostitute and letting someone walk in willingly.
REASON: Yes, but, Governor, we really haven’t lived in a time when prostitution has been decriminalized.
REAGAN: Yes, we have lived in such a time. In many areas of the country in the old days, prostitution operated with local control and there was no problem and they even claimed inspection and so forth. Once, at the beginning of World War II, I asked the medical officer at our post (it was in New Orleans) why they were closing up the brothels with so many military bases there. And he gave me a pretty hard, cold answer. He said the army isn’t interested in morals. The army’s interested in keeping soldiers healthy. He showed me the difference in the statistics. He said the average girl in a house handled roughly 40 to 50 customers a night. And he said if you give her a five day week, that’s 200 to 250. Suppose the first man infects her and here are 200 to 249 men that follow suit during that week and he said the most often that you could possibly inspect would be once a week. He said we also know statistically that by putting a girl out on a street because of the difficulty of soliciting and getting to a place and getting back out on the street again, they only handle about 9 customers. Now, he said, the first thing that’s done when they’re picked up is inspection. So every 10 days she averages inspection –and there’s only been 90 customers in between. Now, you stop to think of the public health situation of this. You have to, then, take on certain regulatory chores if you’re going to have this.
Reagan lays out in vivid detail a crucial difference between libertarians and conservatives, and it is an area where he refuses to go along with the libertarian philosophy. Reagan sees the very real personal impacts of social issues like gambling and prostitution. He understands that these are not victimless crimes. This enabled him to fight for victims, and oppose issues that were corrupting the core of society.
Like Reagan, I agree it is important to point out that in many respects, conservatives and libertarians are natural allies. We have a lot of common ground in opposing the expansion of government on all levels. On that front conservatives and libertarians should be working together. However, it is incredibly naive to equate the two philosophies, and it rips Ronald Reagan out of context to claim him as a source for this idea.
To my libertarian friends, welcome to the party of Lincoln, Reagan, and, in Virginia, Cuccinelli. If you want to join and become a part of it, we welcome you. If you want to embrace a philosophy that bases rights in a transcendent moral order, conservatives love new blood.