Why do conservatives pretend to be libertarian?

I was having a chat with an old acquaintance recently, who kinda took me aback when he claimed to be a libertarian. I asked him what made him a libertarian. He told me he doesn’t like so-called conservatives with “progressive” views like Newt Gingrich (National Review conservatives agree), that he’s against the drug war (so are National Reviewers), and while he agrees with conservatives that while government is in the marriage business it shouldn’t “redefine” the term…he also thinks government shouldn’t be in the marriage business (which is indeed a more libertarian position, but I don’t think this idea – which right now IMHO has no chance of being implemented as all LGBT equality is coming through marriage equality measures – alone makes my friend a libertarian).

So I think he’s a conservative. Moreover, I’ve met more than one conservative who claims to be a libertarian because they either are for marriage privatization or are (horror of horrors) for marriage equality. I say they’re conservative because they have traditional values, they’re religious, and can’t think of anything else they differ from conservatives on. One of them who used to pull the “I’m not a conservative but” shtick with me has in several conversations let slip that he’s a conservative (“We should start a website, call it Liber[al]-[Conserv]Ative, you and me arguing,”).

So my question is, why do people who can’t be differentiated from conservative opinion-leaders on any other issue or even in temperament claim to be libertarian?

Because libertarianism is totally in right now. It makes you sound all high minded and principled, above the typical partisan fray. I’ve seen even liberals claim that label recently so it’s surely a trend.

To pick up the libertarian vote? Or to allow themselves to call themselves conservative and take some of the credit for some conservative policies, without having to accept any of the blame of the recent Republican leadership for doing big-government things?

Why do liberals pretend to be progressive? Ahhh, I kill me!

Anyway, to answer your question: for at least the last 10 years, the GOP has been nearly as “big government” as the Democrats. People who simply want less government–less enforcement, coercion, and taxation–feel cast out from the GOP. Hence the tea party and the neo-libertarian movement.

You and your friend can both be right. He may have traditional values, be against abortion, and dislike the idea of gays marrying, but if he is willing to put aside his personal values and say “it is wrong for the government to disallow those things,” then he can claim the libertarian moniker in good faith.

I disagree more with the economic and social policies of the GOP today more than the Democratic Party but that doesn’t mean each party’s stances are a package deal and you have to agree or disagree with them all. And in this case, it appears that the people in the OPs example are not just pretending to disagree with most conservatives, they actually are, even if it may not make them entirely libertarian.

A person can “take credit” for some policies and not others, to the extent that it is possible to take credit for anything, if they genuinely believe in some of the policies and not others. You don’t need to take the blame even for policies that you do not support. At most it means you need to explain why you are weighing the issues you do agree with more than the positions you don’t when you’re at the ballot box.

Maybe it’s just me, but FWIW personally I’ve never heard anybody say, “I’m not a liberal, I’m a progressive.”

I’m not a liberal any more, I’m a progressive. Liberalism seems too allied with the wealthy elite to be tenable. They will not fight back in the class warfare the rich have waged on the middle class, other than to try to restore social safety nets. Social safety nets are good things, but not tenable when the wealthy are robbing the rest of us blind. Plus, most of the “liberal” Democrats in office are actually Reagan Republicans at best. if they hang on to the White House and the Senate against the Republicans, I will toss the tiniest amount of confetti in the air and give a brief golf clap and get on with helping build a strong progressive movement in America.

To address the OP’s question:

All it really takes for a conservative to be a libertarian, for the most part, is give up the social conservative end of the platform. Most conservatives espouse small government, but they LUUUURVE their wars, yes they do, which is big government in spades. And elected Republicans are just as owned by the plutocrats as the Democrats, and the plutocrats LUUUURVE their low taxes and their corporate welfare programs. I can see many regular conservatives being willing to give those things up, but don’t expect it from your elected Republicans, they ultimately answer only to their wealthy masters.

Well, that provides some perspective.

Take your average good old boy, who grew up shooting guns and loving America. Now say:

He smokes weed, used to smoke weed, or has friends who smoke weed (drugs are mmkay)
He has gay friends
He doesn’t care about fetuses

But he still:
Shoots guns
Hates welfare
Hates taxes

This person is extremely typical; a lot of my friends fit this basic pattern. You can see why they might not feel at home in either party. Libertarianism to the rescue!

I actually fell into this trap once upon a time. I called myself a libertarian until the 2004 election, when I decided to do some research on the Libertarian (capital L) candidate and was horrified by the insanity. I’ve since backed off on using that term

My two cents is that the current mainstream conservative movement is a fusion of two separate ideologies: pro-business economic conservatives and family-values social conservatives. (There’s also arguably a third wing - national security conservatives - but they’re on the decline right now and don’t enter into the current picture.)

In my opinion, a lot of libertarian/conservatives are people who are okay with the pro-business package but are uncomfortable with the family-values package.

I blame it on Bush. Only half kidding there.

But I guess I would have to see some data to see how big a “problem” this is. Not that it’s realistic to have such data, but in my experience, not all that many people know what libertarianism is or even that there is such a thing. Most of my friends self-identify as “conservative”, but I’m constantly having to inform many of them that they’re really more libertarian (most are very socially liberal, and none is religious). But few have ever even heard of libertarianism.

A general pattern:

A political wave starts (or is reborn).
It gets media attention, people start talking about it.
It starts getting political traction.
Move in and take it over, fold it into your mainstream party. Never mind the details. Never, ever mind the details. Forget the details. Blur the daylights out of the details.

Part of this process is to have a few high profile people in the mainstream party claim brotherhood or whatever with the smaller group. Move in, absorb, etc.

The Tea Party and Libertarians are two recent examples where this has happened. And fundies years ago. The OWS movement would be folded into the Democratic party except the Dems don’t want it and aren’t good at co-opting incipient 3rd party groups.

Libertarians often espouse several other views on social issues that are not widely discussed by the two major parties:

  • War. Libertarians often think that both major political parties are too eager to kill people for oil, to spread democratic principles and militarily occupy foreign countries without sufficient reason.
  • Foreign aid and … I forget the other term. Disaster relief? The thing where the government provides national aid to areas with storm damage. Libertarians tend to be against this policy becase it allows the government too much power and influence.
  • Banking. Almost certainly instilled by Ron Paul’s end the fed campaign, many libertarians are suspicious of the Federal Reserve Bank. While the desire to return to the gold standard isn’t as prevalent within the party as many outsiders might think, there is a lot of suspicion as to how the government might be using the Federal Reserve to exert power.
  • Drug wars. Libertarians tend to be in favor of legalization of drugs (albeit often with qualifications and safeguards).
  • Social issues. I get the impression that many Democrats and Republicans want things mandated at a national level. As the OP touched upon in his initial post, Libertarians tend to be of the opinion that many social issues should not even be debated on the national level because it is not within the government’s constitutionally mandated power to grant or deny such privileges to the population.

tl;dnr: It’s very hard to understand the libertarian party platform until you break away from the right versus left paradigm that’s pretty prevalent in today’s culture. At first glance, the Libertarian party seems to merely be your standard “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” sect of people. But when you look closer, you’ll find that the party is not merely a combination of some liberal principles and some conservative principles, but really does have its own set of principles.

Oh, and as a final note to the OP: If you encounter people who truly consider themselves libertarian for no other reason than that they support marriage equality, then scratch what I said above. The most likely scenario is that they think of libertarians as simply “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” and are verbally jumping on the bandwagon based on their limited understanding of the party.

Maybe because they’re all semi- (or total- ) ignorami who don’t really know what a conservative or libertarian really is, or maybe there really isn’t a well-agreed-upon definition for them all to agree upon. Everybody seems to have their own ideas of the definitions, tailored to suit their own mixture of ideologies.

Here’s a good analysis, adapted from the textbook we used in my introductory principles of American government class (The Challenge of Democracy by Kenneth Janda et several al).

Janda classifies ideologies along two distinct dimensions, resulting in a sort of four-square diagram, distinguishing liberals vs conservatives vs libertarians vs populists. It is the job of governments, as modernly conceived, to ensure liberty, equality, and order. But liberty (taken to extremes, at least) is contradictory to both equality and order, the enforcement of which require limitations on individual liberty. Thus, people will have various opinions defining the relative priorities of those three ideals.

The relative priorities one assigns to liberty, equality, and order define Janda’s categories of liberal, conservative, libertarian, populist. (Note: ISTM I’ve seen a newer edition of the book, in which he uses the same analysis but he’s changed some of the terminology.)

Here is a web site, apparently intended as course material for some college class, that shows Janda’s graph, with some detailed discussion.

I’m “old style conservative” (as in, the pre-nutterville stuff). Conservatives haven’t been sane since Regan. Regan did okay for the exact time frame when he governed, but he would be a hot mess in today’s world. My biggest issue is fiscal conservatism.

At one point, Libertarian sounded good on paper, so I started attending the local Libertarian Party meetings. My local Libertarian Party meetings played out like the whole group were let out of the loony bin for the night. (Honestly! If it would not have surprised me if they all filed onto a short bus to go back to their facilities at the end of the meeting!) They were creepy and paranoid, not just once, but repeatedly. By the third month, I was beginning to worry about the fact that these people had my real name, number and home address (and that they probably did live out in the community with no supervision).

The biggest issue that I remember at this point was how ALL of them were CONVINCED that chem trails were spreading some disease that causes fibers to grow from any sort of wound and that would blanket your lawn in a fuzzy white scary stuff (think dew covered spider webs in the morning) that was dangerous to your health. And it was ALL THE GOVERNMENT’s doing behind our backs so that the Illuminati could take over.

These were folks who were not Internet savvy at the time. I imagine by now they’re holding round-robin bomb-shelter pot lucks to show off their gun and ammunition collections.

Let me summarize the classifications given by Janda (two posts above):

If your ideological priorities are:
[li] Equality > Liberty > Order, you are a Liberal.[/li][li] Order > Liberty > Equality, you are a Conservative.[/li][li] Liberty > (Equality/Order), you are a Libertarian.[/li][li] (Equality/Order) > Liberty, you are a Populist.[/li][/ul]
Note that in the last two, the values of Equality and Order are adjacent in the list of priorities. Since these do not conflict with each other, it doesn’t matter which order of priority you put them in. Thus, there are only four distinct orderings of these values rather than six.

As mentioned above, I think Janda has changed the terminology for some of these ideologies in his more recent editions. ETA: I’m guessing it’s due to the kind of nuttiness that Enkel described, just above, that Janda may have done this.

Hardly. On social issues both the Democrats and (less noticeably) Republicans have moved to the left. Plus when Reagan first got into politics he opposed Medicare as “socialized medicine”. How would “progressives” be different from the more liberal Democrats exacts?

Don’t you think a somewhat limited understanding of libertarians as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is a good start? I mean, it’s not a huge error to start off with it and then, over time, develop understanding of libertarian principles.

In Canada, Liberal Party used to be thought of (is still?) as a “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” whereas the other two parties, NDP/PC were (are still?) thought of as liberal/liberal and conservative/conservative. Liberals ran the country for decades as liberal/conservative combination does seem a solid foundation for developing a healthy democracy - which Canada is, of course.

Yes, I do think it is a good starting point. I think the primary mantra of the Libertarian party is “It’s not the federal government’s job to be doing that,” and being socially liberal and fiscally conservative is a part of that mindset.

ETA: Of course, we could do away with an awful lot of this confusion if we simply stopped trying so hard to categorize people in a particular party.