Liberty is an extremely important value. Unfortunately, most libertarians act like it's the only value that really counts. There's a lot more to life than liberty: Happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and even survival. Sophisticated libertarians will naturally object that liberty is great for all of these other values, too. Often, they're right. But not always. Liberty and these other values sometimes conflict, and there's no reason why liberty should always prevail.
Let's start with the area where libertarians and conservatives have the most common ground: economic policy. Libertarians have convincingly shown that free markets are underrated. So far, we agree. But there's more than a kernel of truth to liberal complaints about the conflict between markets on the one hand, and prosperity, equality, and common decency on the other. We have a lot more government intervention than we should. But just as liberals exaggerate the benefits of government, libertarians exaggerate its defects. Judiciously halving government's role in the economy is reasonable. Laissez-faire in the face of monopoly, imperfect information, irrationality, externalities and other textbook market failures is not.
Outside of economics, libertarians make the same basic mistake. But here, they're not alone. Many liberals also downplay the conflict between personal freedom and other values - and libertarians compound their error by being even more absolutist. Restrictions on drug use are a clear violation of individual freedom, but they also protect families from seeing their children turn into junkies. Would I ban alcohol? No - there are plenty of responsible users. But I do favor many existing government policies that try to limit the collateral damage of alcohol - age limits, sin taxes, licensing, and maybe even rehab programs. I'm open to the argument that marijuana deserves comparable treatment, but unlike libertarians and many liberals, I think we should cautiously modify existing laws instead of abolishing them willy-nilly. If marijuana legalization proves a resounding success, we can talk about harder drugs in two or three decades.
I see the same problem with immigration policy. A few liberals - and many libertarians - literally advocate open borders. I recognize that immigration is the greatest foreign aid program in human history, and I sympathize with the plight of would-be immigrants in the Third World. Most immigrants - legal or not - are nice people. But open borders is crazy. It seriously risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. I'm very open to more cost-effective and humane ways to deal with the negative effects of immigration. But as long as immigrants are eligible for government benefits, hurt low-skilled native workers, and vote, the only people we should readily admit are the highly-educated and clear-cut humanitarian cases. I'd put Haitians in the latter category. Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable, but asking Haitians to starve in post-earthquake Haiti is a disgrace.
Finally, let me turn to foreign policy. Here again, liberals engage in much wishful thinking, and libertarians compound their errors. Modern warfare is terrible. Most of the people the United States kills in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are innocents. If there were some way to spare them and successfully fight our mortal enemies at the same time, I'd strongly advocate it. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to do so. Muslim terrorists really do want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and they're happy to use fellow Muslims as human shields to do it.
I know, they "only" murdered 3000 people on 9/11, but the distribution of terror has a long right tale. Slightly better planning by the terrorists could have multiplied the deaths by a factor of 10. The next big attack could easily be bigger by a factor of 100. And if you think Americans "overreacted" the first time, wait and see what they'll support the next time around. Liberals and libertarians who impede decisive action now are probably paving the way for worse things to come - a downward spiral that makes World War I look benign by comparison. I wish it weren't so, but that's the sad world we live in.
Don't get me wrong. I treasure the libertarian contribution to modern political thought. Where would conservatives be without libertarian economists to expose the defects of government intervention? Libertarians are a valuable conscience on the conservative shoulder, asking us, "Why not freedom?" But in the real world, there are often good reasons to respond, "Here's why not." Sometimes in all good conscience, we must admit that the effect of liberty on other important values is too costly to pay.
I agree with my conservative opponent that there are many important values. I'll accept his whole list - happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and survival. And I agree that all of these values conceivably conflict with liberty. But like other conservatives, my opponent is too quick to deny priority for liberty - and much too quick to confidently announce that serious conflicts exist.
Liberty is not just another important value. It is a moral constraint on the pursuit of other values. Consider the classic thought experiment where five people require organ transplants to survive. Almost everyone grants that it would be wrong for a doctor to murder a stranger to save his patients' lives. It might be noble for the stranger to volunteer, but taking his organs without his consent is wrong, even if it leads to a better overall outcome.
The standard response to this experiment is to raise the stakes: What if the doctor could save a million lives instead of five? This is a good objection to absolutism. But the weaker conclusion - you shouldn't violate liberty unless you can reasonably expect a much better outcome - still stands.
In any case, conservatives are too quick to accept alleged conflicts between liberty and other values. My opponent mentions standard market failure arguments against laissez-faire, but the connection between these arguments and major government programs is tenuous at best.
Take Social Security, the biggest program in the U.S. budget. Conservatives want to curtail this program, but why won't they go further? My challenge: Name the market failure that leads people to neglect their own retirement. Irrationality is the only credible candidate, but this would at most justify forced savings for the irresponsible minority, nothing like the universal program we have.
Still, when faced with an alleged conflict between economic liberty and other values, conservatives often show a healthy skepticism. Outside of economic policy, unfortunately, they leave their healthy skepticism behind. Take drug prohibition. Alcohol ruins far more lives, destroys more families, and kills more bystanders than all illegal drugs put together. Conservatives barely think about this problem, but they're confident that we should keep fighting the Drug War for the foreseeable future.
Unlike some libertarians, I agree that prohibition reduces consumption. But probably not by much - see the Netherlands or Portugal. And after the American experiment in alcohol prohibition - or Econ 101 - conservatives can't reasonably deny that violent crime and adulterated products are largely side effects not of drugs, but of drug prohibition. Liberty will save lives - and when it does, conservatives should support it even if it isn't popular.
Conservative opposition to immigration is even more disturbing. Immigration promotes almost every value my opponent mentions - especially for the low-skilled workers he wants to exclude. Life in the Third World ranges from hard to hellish. Just letting an immigrant move here to work at Walmart spreads happiness, prosperity, equality, common decency, and yes, survival. The economically illiterate assume, of course, that immigrants' gains come at the expense of the native population. But conservatives know better: International trade enriches the people of both countries, even if they're trading labor.
Yes, some American sub-groups lose. But Borjas himself, the most prominent detractor of immigration in economics, estimates that decades of immigration have cut high school drop-outs' long-run wages by a mere 4.8%. And before you worry about the effect of immigration on the welfare state, remember that the American welfare state focuses on the old and the sick - and immigrants tend to be young and healthy.
I know I'm not going to convince conservatives to join me in calling for open borders. But it's crazy to call open borders "crazy." The U.S. had virtually open borders for over a century - and it was a tremendous success. Mass migration didn't kill the goose that lay the golden eggs; instead, the golden geese multiplied like rabbits. It's possible that immigrants will vote to destroy the system that attracted them, but unlikely. Immigrants come here because they prefer life here to life at home. It wouldn't take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty.
Finally, let's turn to foreign policy. I don't know whether respecting the rights of innocents conflicts with our survival. Neither do you. The War on Terror might deter future attacks by putting the fear of God into our enemies. It might inspire future attacks by enraging otherwise harmless people who see their families die by American hands. It could go either way. This isn't wishful thinking; it's honest ignorance. (If you disagree, I will bet you; but since you claim knowledge, and I claim ignorance, I want odds). And honest ignorance isn't worth killing for - especially when the victims are innocents.
Conservatives' greatest strength is their skepticism of government. But they aren't nearly skeptical enough. When government "solves" dubious problems by dubious means, abolition - not moderation - is the sober solution. And the burden of proof shouldn't fall on those who oppose the status quo, but on those who deprive their fellow human beings of their liberty.