Why are Australian libertarians suddenly so keen to collapse the ‘broad tent’? You don’t see many social conservatives trying to reform the tax-code according to the Summa.
Political alliances between different ideologies shift with the times. For most of the second half of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives were united against communism and its fellow-travellers. A lot of differences could be overlooked when there was a united view on what was perhaps the most important issue in world politics, at least from the perspective of liberals and conservatives.
As many people have commented, there have been more overt tensions between liberals and conservatives since soon after that glorious month of November 1989 took away their common cause. But there is still something of a liberal-conservative camp – if not quite a single tent, to modify John’s metaphor. This is partly because there are many people who, in the context of contemporary politics, are on the liberal side of economic debates and the conservative side of social debates. But it is also because there are some issues on which ideologically distinct classical liberals and conservatives can still agree. Here are a few:
* school choice: conservatives do not put the some normative emphasis on choice as classical liberals, but they want the right to educate their children according to their faith.
* anti-discrimination law: classical liberals, who support freedom of association and an independent civil society, think conservative groups should be able to organise themselves in ways that discriminate on the basis of sex, sexuality, lifestyle or religious beliefs. Classical liberals may think that such discrimination is obnoxious and personally have nothing to do with the institutions that practice it, but also believe that it is none of the state’s business.
* federalism: this does allow more conservative governments to exist in some places, but classical liberals tend to like federalism as insurance against an over-bearing central government.
* law and order: I expect some classical liberal friends will disagree with me on this one. But in my view the state’s primary job is to protect its citizens and their property from violence and theft; and in high-crime times that means lots of police and full jails.
* (somewhat in tension with the above) scepticism about the state’s competence: social democrats have huge faith in the state; even when it has stuffed up for decades they still think that with more public funding or some other fix it will all come good. So while conservatives do not have the same ideological opposition to state intervention as classical liberals, they are far more open to the idea that the state’s failings are more fundamental than the size of the budget.
* scepticism about the welfare state: Conservatives and classical liberals both tend to believe that the welfare state creates and entrenches some of the problems it was set up to solve. So they tend to oppose higher welfare benefits as that will encourage people to go on to them, and tend to support compulsory activity in exchange for welfare support (though to be fair some social democrats have come around to this view as well, and some classical liberals oppose it).
Plus there are latent agreements that could become salient if the political environment required it, such as some of the attacks on religion, the family, private property or democracy that we have seen before.
But we should accept that there are areas in which conservatives have more in common with social democrats at the current time. For example, there is now a powerful left-familism trying to protect the family from the ostensible threat of the market that has strong parallels with the right-familism long seen in conservatism. John’s point about WorkChoices here is an example.
And on other issues, such as equal civil freedoms for gays, classical liberals have more in common with social democrats than they do with conservatives, though following Andrew Sullivan I think that the logic of secular conservatism does in fact support gay marriage.
To me, a liberal-conservative alliance is an issue-by-issue affair. Liberals and conservatives should work together where they have a common cause, and not be upset when they disagree on other things.