Libertarianism vs. Conservatism: Which Way Will Millennials Push the GOP?

The political spectrum does not have a single dimension. The political system in Washington does.

There is a gap between America’s system of representation and the worldviews of its electors. However, many driven individuals refuse to be simply defined as Democratic or Republican, realizing that there are many more nuances to their ideology.

Debates like “Libertarianism vs. Conservatism” featuring interns from the Cato Institute, a predominantly libertarian research center, and the Heritage foundation, a renowned conservative institution, show the relevance and intensity of the current divide within the American right wing.

Two interns were assigned to each side. While they did come from the two institutes, the speakers were not representatives of their foundations and spoke out of their personal worldviews. As the debate moved into a variety of topics, from foreign policy to the role of government, from immigration to civil rights, it was clear that what are becoming two strong separate movements within the American right wing could not be more different.

When talking about military presence in the world, the libertarian side argued against an interventionist policy such as the one taken by President Bush, arguing for free trade as a better tool to interconnect with foreign countries. The conservatives countered by manifesting the need to “defend ourselves from irrational actors.” These two diverse views on the conduct of foreign actors in the international scene are fundamentally different, setting apart two types of policy prescriptions coming from what used to be a solid faction.

The divide was also evident on immigration issues. While the conservatives (two first-generation Americans) were insisting on strong border control for national-security concerns, the libertarian side argued for freedom of movement. According to one of the libertarian panelists, freedom of movement would benefit the U.S. by acquiring more human capital, boosting the economy, and redirecting bureaucratic immigration costs toward true security investment.  

The debate was not limited to technical and strategic issues and fostered deeper ideological conversations. A fundamental premise of the conservatives on human nature is that “men are not inherently virtuous” and that the “government can incentivize virtue” as a way to promote liberty through inevitably moral laws. That notion was rejected by the libertarian side, which stated that virtue is “not an area of life that needs government promotion,” which would only set a precedent for further intrusion in private life.

This inevitably led to debate on social issues such as gay marriage. When it came to this, the libertarian side seemed to be more closely allied with a socially liberal stance that considers the government’s definition of marriage as a “governmental encroachment on civil liberties.” Of course this was met by conservative opposition, which affirmed that the “nuclear family,” made by one man and one woman, “[is] essential for prosperity.”

The one thing both camps defended and enshrined was the Constitution and the perceived intentions of the founding fathers. However different their positions were, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the fathers of the Constitution were rightly guided.

Ideas and positions are shifting. As new ideological divisions arise in the Republican camp, a new generation of voters and politicians will have to be able to either bring the two currents back together or restructure the entire political system. Strategically, this may also open a breach for the Democrats to exploit, dividing a party that has not been allowing for much bipartisan compromise until the most recent immigration bill.

Perhaps both sides’ unshakable intent to preserve constitutional values will be sufficient to re-consolidate the two. Either way, Republicans must find a way to keep the party united, and quickly, if they wish to maintain popular support.

The debate took place on Wednesday, July 10 at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C.