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CATHY YOUNG

Unity on the right gets rocky

A COUPLE of weeks ago, a panel gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of a troubled marriage: the alliance between libertarians and conservatives.

Generally, the two groups have been united by their distrust of big government and their belief in the value of free markets and political liberty -- even if they have disagreed on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, where conservatives have endorsed a traditionalist approach and libertarians an individualist one. The conservative-libertarian coalition was largely responsible for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 and the Republican victory in Congress in 1994. Yet, ever since the end of the Cold War, the unity has been fraying.

Most libertarians are troubled by the growing clout of the religious right within the Republican Party, the post-9/11 stampede to endorse security measures that sometimes impinge on individual rights (particularly for people detained on suspicion of terrorist involvement), and the unchecked growth of government under the presidency of George W. Bush. In the past election, these concerns led many libertarians who had usually voted Republican to jump ship and either cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Party candidate or, in some cases, back Democrat John Kerry.

Conservatives, in turn, tend to see libertarians as aggressive secularists who disdain the moral and patriotic beliefs of ordinary Americans and cling to an abstract individual-rights absolutism even in the face of an all-too-real threat to our survival.

The tensions were evident at the recent panel (co-sponsored by Reason magazine, for which I am a regular columnist). While two of the four speakers, Jeremy Lott of the libertarian Cato Institute and W. James Antle of The American Conservative magazine, insisted that the marriage could indeed be saved, the other two -- Reason editor Nick Gillespie and Amy Mitchell of The American Spectator -- argued that there was no marriage left to save. To the proponents of a breakup, the ''marriage" had always been more of an illicit affair, a loveless union of convenience, or even an abusive relationship.

In many ways, it is true that the Republican Party right now is highly inhospitable to libertarians. Now that the Republicans run the government, their enthusiasm for curbing it has oddly abated. Federal spending is on the rise (though there is some disagreement as to how much of that is attributable to the war on terrorism). Much of Bush's domestic agenda -- federal dollars for the promotion of marriage and faith-based charities -- amounts to a conservative incarnation of the ''nanny state" that claims the right to tell citizens what's good for them. The rugged individualism of Barry Goldwater, the late senator from Arizona who was outspoken about his contempt for right-wing attempts to legislate morality, has gone out of style.

Yet there is still life in the alliance. While some libertarians may have cast protest votes for Kerry, few see the Democratic Party with its regulatory instincts as a likely champion of freedom. (Of course, liberal Democrats have their own version of coercive moralism in such areas as affirmative action and gun control.) On foreign policy issues, there is much debate among libertarians themselves. The war in Iraq can be seen as a reckless big-government adventure or as a step toward the spread of freedom around the world. Gillespie argued that there is no parallel today to the communist threat that pushed libertarians and conservatives into a united front during the Cold War; but many would counter that Islamic terrorism, a more diffuse opponent than the Soviet Union, poses at least as much of a danger.

As a libertarian-conservative, I hope the union endures. Walking out will leave the libertarian politically homeless and will (as both Antle and Lott pointed out at the recent panel) further enable the spread of conservative nanny-statism. For now, the libertarian elements in the Republican Party exert much-needed influence in keeping the brakes on the party's affair with big government. It's an encouraging sign that Bush's first post-election move was to use his new political capital to crusade not against gay marriage or abortion, but for Social Security privatization -- a libertarian measure that reduces dependence on government and promotes personal choice.

A large number of Americans who know nothing of political labels fuse conservative and libertarian ideas in their political beliefs, embracing economic conservatism, tolerance, and freedom of choice when it comes to moral values and a government strong enough to protect our society from those who would destroy it. Many surveys show that young conservatives, in particular, are likely to be libertarian on social issues. So maybe the marriage can not only survive but inherit the future.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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