Why Libertarians Should Embrace Social Conservatism

by Jonathan Tkachuk

Libertarians should embrace social conservatism if they wish to advance the cause of a free society in the United States. By embracing social conservative positions on three core issues, that of abortion, traditional marriage and illegal immigration, libertarians would strengthen their intellectual defense of liberty while simultaneously broadening its political appeal with its greatest potential ally in American politics: social conservatives.

Ayn Rand and Social ConservatismBefore proceeding with this argument two initial observations are in order.

First, and contrary to conventional discourse, the solution to the GOP’s electoral woes is not to discard its socially conservative wing (no matter how obnoxious) in favor of social liberalism. This is simply lousy politics; there already exists one socially liberal party and the likelihood of social conservatives to disappear from the electoral equation in the near future is remote.

Second, libertarians often mistake the nuanced and legitimate critiques of society social conservatives make as somehow being outside the realm of classical liberal thought. Critiques regarding child rearing, the social ills that follow the birthing of children out of wedlock, sexual promiscuity, sexual deferment until marriage, the importance of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles cause real discomfort for present day libertarians.

While the reasons for this vary, the discomfort stems from a libertarian reluctance to engage in what Western philosophers understand to be matters of “virtue.” It can be said that the difference between libertarians and conservatives is their starting premises; libertarians value the protection and expansion of liberty while conservatives value societal order and virtue. This seeming dichotomy is unfortunate because classical liberal thought assumes one (liberty) to be contingent upon the other (natural order and virtue).

On Abortion

Perhaps nowhere is the difference in starting premises between libertarians and social conservatives so blatant than on the issue of abortion.

Most pro-choice libertarians approach the issue from the starting point of contract theory and the absolute right of self ownership; in this case of the mother. In this view, no prenatal obligation can be legally applied to the mother on the grounds that a) it contradicts the absolute right of the mother to her body and everything within her body, b) the lack of a consensual, voluntary, and enforceable contract between mother and “fetus” and c) the fact that human beings do not have “the right to be coercive parasites in the body of an unwilling human host.”

Social conservatives on the other hand approach this issue on the basis of core natural law principles such as the inherent individual right to life, liberty and property. Where they differ from pro-choice libertarians is in their extending these rights to the unborn. There are compelling reasons for this. The pro-life argument asserts, rightly, that a fetus is a) an entity that is biologically distinct from the mother b) an entity that possesses its own unique DNA code and c) a unique human entity that undergoes death during an abortion.

By attempting to justify this sobering reality—the reality that abortion results in the murder of human beings—in terms of fidelity to a 20th century adaptation of 18th century contract theory, libertarians risk opening their otherwise rich and insightful theoretical traditions to the damnable charge of irrelevance and incoherence.

In short, being pro-life is the natural libertarian position. Given the biological realities of the issue, it behooves libertarians to seriously re-examine the application of their theoretical traditions and, perhaps, side with Locke (or Ron Paul) over Rothbard.

On Marriage

Contrary to the conventional discourse on the matter, there is little difference in the way social conservatives and libertarians view the institution of marriage. Both understand marriage to be a human construct that has its origins in economic and social necessity. Both recognize that the institution of marriage represents the foundational social unit from which civil society arises and organizes itself. Both also recognize that strong two-parent families represent a sociological prerequisite to socio-economic mobility and advancement.

That being said, they do differ in one key respect: the extent to which marriage ought to be recognized by the state.

Social conservatives see the sanctioning of traditional (one man-one woman) marriage by the state as an essentially passive act. The reason for this characterization is that the act itself consists of nothing more than a recognition of a social reality. Traditional marriage is a social institution that both pre-dates and precedes the state. It pre-dates the state in that it existed before the state and it precedes the state in that it is an institution that commands the first love and allegiance of its members. The state did not create the institution of marriage; it simply recognized it as a social fact.

Libertarians on the other hand reject the involvement of the state in the institution of marriage. They view the sanctioning of traditional marriage in law as either redundant or preferential (i.e. discriminatory) against non-traditional forms of marriage.

To the extent that they acknowledge the legal legitimacy of civil marriage, libertarians have sought to expand the legal definition of marriage to include non-traditional unions, particularly homosexual ones. This is where relations between the two camps breakdown.

By seeking to have the state sanction non-traditional unions libertarians inadvertently align themselves with a cause historically championed by the egalitarian and Marxist left: the annihilating of natural distinctions between the sexes and the natural social institutions, specifically marriage, that arose over time to harness these distinctions for the well being of both individual and societal cohesion.

While some libertarians might find this social critique offensive, it should be noted that Ludwig von Mises not only agreed with this critique but also incorporated it into his broader defense of liberty.

To be sure these issues will not be resolved anytime soon. Many libertarians will object to the legal discrimination non-traditional unions now experience in many parts of the country, not to mention the underlying social critique by social conservatives towards non-traditional marriage. Social conservatives will continue to dismiss such concerns as amounting to little more than an attempt by libertines to bestow a societal status on non-traditional unions that is undeserved. In addition, they harbor the fear that the state will force private individuals and institutions to recognize these unions; a recognition most will not be able to grant on account of conscience and religious liberty.

That said, there is room for libertarians to make amends with social conservatives on this issue. This room exists within libertarian thought and is none other than the core libertarian position towards marriage: the separation of marriage and state. This would require sacrifices on both sides. Libertarians would have to reverse their current position on the state sanctioning of same-sex unions while social conservatives would have to push for the end of the state sanctioning of traditional marriage. While libertarians might balk at this duel strategy, they should take solace in the fact that such a sacrifice would be tactical, not philosophical.

Illegal Immigration

The third and final issue in which libertarians should embrace social conservatism on is illegal immigration. At present most libertarians support granting illegal immigrants some form of legal status with little or no legal penalty. Social conservatives take the opposite view; supporting instead firm legal actions that punish illegal immigrants for breaking the law.

At the heart of this disagreement is the fundamental premise of whether or not the state has the right to regulate the immigration of foreign nationals into its territory.

Unfortunately, libertarians too often confuse the issue. They argue for the benefits of increased immigration rather than the matter at hand; namely the rule of law. They support amnesty for illegal immigrants because they support more immigration; full stop. By doing this, libertarians betray a certain disregard for the rule of law that exposes them to the charge of something they are not: anarchists.

This is not to say that present immigration law is optimal. Our nation would almost certainly benefit from a more relaxed set of immigrations laws. That is not the issue. The issue is whether or not a state has the right to regulate and enforce immigration law. On this point libertarians need look no further than Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution which grants Congress the power “to establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.”

Undoubtedly some libertarians would take issue with this argument on the grounds that it seeks to limit the liberty of individuals. While this is an understandable concern it is short sighted, particularly from a libertarian point of view. A liberal state has the right to regulate the entry of persons onto its territory by virtue of the fact that it has been delegated this authority to act on behalf of its private property owning citizens. As with a private property owner, who possesses the right to regulate the entry and behavior of persons onto his/her property, the liberal state possesses the right to regulate both the entry of persons unto its territory. It possesses this right by virtue of its acting on behalf of and with the consent of the private property holders within its borders.

When understood in this context, the relationship between liberty and illegal immigration becomes a rather straightforward one: the enforcement of immigration law is an upholding of the liberty of a state’s citizens to regulate who may or may not enter their country.


In conclusion, there is room for libertarians to move closer to the socially conservative position on abortion, state sanctioning of marriage and illegal immigration without compromising their fundamental principles. Each position can be made using uniquely libertarian lines of argument. Some libertarians will dismiss this approach as simple political pandering to better appeal to social conservative votes. There is some truth to this charge. Yet, one would be hard pressed to argue that libertarianism suffers from too much popular support. Rather than seeking new enemies, libertarians should focus on keeping its friends without sacrificing its principles. On at least three issues, libertarians can do just that.


Jonathan Tkachuk received his M.A. in Diplomacy-Counterterrorism from Norwich University and his B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University. An independent professional with foreign policy research experience, Jonathan resides in Northern Virginia. 

One Comment

  1. You might actually try and understand Libertarianism instead of spreading these silly right-wing misrepresentations.

    I suggest understand what the movement is doing and start at: http://www.libertarianinternational.org the non-partisan Libertarian International organization.

    Conservatives are the Libs of past years, Get a grip!

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