Comparing Liberal, Conservative, and Libertarian Answers To Issues?

By David Bergland

Here are some frequently asked questions about political issues. Each question is followed by a short, typical response from a liberal, a conservative, and a libertarian.

Because all liberals and conservatives do not think alike, the responses listed for them are naturally subject to challenge. However, I’ve tried to be fair — and to accurately represent what most liberals or conservatives might say. These responses are based on conversations I’ve had with hundreds of people who described themselves as liberals or conservatives, and on the published writings of self-described liberals and conservatives. The libertarian responses are based upon my views and the writings of libertarian scholars.

Obviously, these quick answers offer just an overview of libertarian thinking. Some of these issues are discussed at greater length in various chapters of Libertarianism in One Lesson. Other issues have been extensively addressed by libertarian scholars and think tanks. I encourage you to do additional reading if the libertarian position seems surprising, or if you don’t think it would work in the “real world.” In every case, you’ll find that libertarian policies are practical, realistic, and already in effect in some part of the United States or the world.

Should there be a draft for military purposes?
Liberal: Yes, but not during peacetime.
Conservative: Yes. America must always be strong to deter potential enemies. And young people need military service to learn patriotism and discipline.
Libertarian: Absolutely not, under any circumstances. The draft is slavery. Slaves make poor defenders of freedom.

Should government own or control newspapers, radio, or television?
Liberal: Yes. We need the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) to guarantee high-quality programming. In addition, the government should restrict advertising aimed at children. We also need laws to ensure balanced coverage by the conservative-dominated talk radio networks.
Conservative: Government should not own radio or TV networks but should make it a crime for them to broadcast offensive material. We also need laws to ensure balanced coverage by the liberal-dominated television networks.
Libertarian: No. Government ownership or control of press or electronic media has no place in a free society. Owners of newspapers and broadcasters should be responsible for what they publish. Let parents and consumers decide what may come into their homes.

Should government regulate sexual activity among consenting adults, including prostitution?
Liberal: Generally not. But, if prostitution were legal, it should be regulated to protect public health and to make sure that women are not exploited.
Conservative: Yes. Prostitution, homosexuality, adultery, and fornication should all be illegal because they are antithetical to family and religious values.
Libertarian: No. Sexual activity involving consenting adults violates the rights of no other person. The right of adults to make their own decisions in this most private area must be respected.

Should drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin be legalized?
Liberal: Perhaps. Marijuana could be legalized, but the production and sale should be regulated and taxed. Tax money should be used for drug-treatment programs.
Conservative: Are you nuts? Drugs cause crime, harm families, encourage criminal gangs, and promote other social ills. We need stricter anti-drug laws, longer sentences, and more prisons.
Libertarian: Yes. Peaceful drug use violates no other person’s rights. People have the right to control their own bodies. Drug laws subsidize criminals, cause more crime, corrupt law enforcement, destroy civil rights, and do not work.

Should it be legal for people to travel or move into and out of the U.S. without limitation?
Liberal: We should allow people trying to escape political oppression to come to America, and give them government aid to help them get settled. But we should strictly limit their number because they take American jobs.
Conservative: No. We have too many immigrants already. They go on welfare, take our jobs, increase crime and disease, and refuse to learn English.
Libertarian: Yes. All individuals have the same rights, regardless of where they were born. Anyone willing to take responsibility for himself or herself has the right to travel and seek opportunity. America has always benefitted from immigrants. They tend to work hard, start businesses, become educated, improve our economy, and make America a more culturally dynamic place.

Should government subsidize farmers and regulate what they grow?
Liberal: Yes. Farmers need protection from low prices for their crops and against bad weather. Also, these farm programs help supply food to the needy.
Conservative: Some support is needed so that family farms are not lost, and to protect American farmers against unfair foreign competition. Many farm programs are expensive and wasteful, but they can’t be completely eliminated.
Libertarian: No. Business are not entitled to have the government force taxpayers to support them. Farmers should operate in a free, competitive market, just as all others in business should.

Should government impose tariffs, quotas, embargoes, or other restrictions on international trade?
Liberal: Tariffs and quotas are needed to save American jobs. Trade embargoes can also be used to punish right-wing dictators who oppress their people.
Conservative: Trade barriers are necessary to protect industries vital to national defense and to keep American businesses competitive. Trade embargoes can also be used to punish left-wing dictators who oppress their people.
Libertarian: Trade barriers violate the rights of Americans and foreign people who desire to trade. Trade barriers cut everyone’s productivity and cost more jobs than they save.

Should the government mandate a minimum wage?
Liberal: Yes. Otherwise, employers will exploit workers by paying only subsistence wages. Everyone is entitled to a living wage.
Conservative: No. Employers should be able to hire the best employees they can get at the lowest price set by market competition.
Libertarian: No. Such laws violate the right of employees and employers to strike their own deals. Economics and history show that minimum wage laws cause unemployment.

Isn’t taxation the only way to pay for necessary government services?
Liberal: Without taxes, not enough people would be willing to pay for welfare for the poor, or education, or environmental protection, or so many other important things which only government can provide. In fact, the government should probably raise taxes so it can do more good.
Conservative: Without taxes, not enough people would be willing to pay for a national defense, or subsidies to vital industries, or to fight the War on Drugs, or so many other important things only government can provide. However, taxes are somewhat high, so it may be possible to reduce them slightly.
Libertarian: Taxation is immoral and indistinguishable from theft. We should replace taxation with voluntary methods of funding legitimate govenment functions. Besides, most “government services” can be provided by private sector business, charities, and other organizations.

Should the U.S. government send troops to intervene in the affairs of other countries?
Liberal: Yes, if it will advance the cause of human rights, topple oppressive right-wing dictators, or help poor and starving people in third-world countries.
Conservative: Yes, if it will help fight terrorism, topple oppressive left-wing dictators, or protect vital U.S. interests such as oil.
Libertarian: No. The U.S. government has no authority to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries except in response to a military attack on the American homeland.

Should the United States government continue to participate in and support the United Nations?
Liberal: Yes, because the U.N. is the last best hope for world peace and because it performs valuable humanitarian missions.
Conservative: Yes, but we should pressure the U.N. to take more pro-American stances.
Libertarian: Not as presently constituted and financed by tax dollars. A voluntarily financed forum for international cooperation would not be objectionable.

Should young Americans be compelled to serve in some capacity in the name of “national service”?
Liberal: Yes, everyone has the obligation to “give back” for what society has done for them, and to learn the importance of helping others.
Conservative: Yes, when it can be justified for national defense purposes.
Libertarian: No. Mandatory labor is slavery regardless of whether it is masked by the euphemisms “draft” or “national service.”

Should the U.S. government help American businesses during hard economic times with low-interest loans or subsidies?
Liberal: Yes. This will save jobs, and American workers need all the help they can get during a recession. However, corporations shouldn’t be allowed to use such support to make excessive profits.
Conservative: Yes. Government should help business stay in business. Such a policy promotes free enterprise.
Libertarian: No. Government can only help some businesses by stealing from other businesses and taxpayers. No one has the right to be subsidized at the expense of others.

What is the best way to deal with the current massive budget deficits?
Liberal: Raise taxes on the rich. Don’t cut federal spending on social programs.
Conservative: In the short term, borrow more money to keep the federal government operating. Don’t raise taxes, and don’t cut federal spending on defense. In the long run, economic growth will help pay down the national debt.
Libertarian: Dramatically reduce federal spending and taxes to encourage greater economic growth. Confine the federal government to national defense and protecting our constitutional rights. With those savings, pay down the national debt as quickly as possible.

Is there a solution to the long-term financial problems of the Social Security system?
Liberal: Significantly increase payroll taxes. Older people are entitled to live in dignity, and they need the security of a government-financed retirement program.
Conservative: Reduce benefits, make the system more efficient, and raise the retirement age. Also, consider implementing voluntary, government-controlled private retirement accounts with a portion of people’s Social Security taxes. If necessary, borrow more money to keep the system afloat.
Libertarian: The impending Social Security bankruptcy requires that we end the system by granting older workers and retirees the choice of a lump-sum payment or private insurance annuity to replace future Social Security benefits. Ending the bankrupt system will relieve younger workers of the tax and avoid the economic meltdown which will surely result from a massive increase in Social Security taxes.

Should the U.S. government send foreign aid to other countries?
Liberal: Yes. We need to help the poor in third-world and developing countries which have good human-rights records.
Conservative: Yes. We need to help those governments trying to resist terrorism or trying to convert from socialism to democracy.
Libertarian: No. American taxpayers should not be forced to pay to support other governments. However, individuals should always be allowed to give voluntary aid.

Should children be required by law to attend schools?
Liberal: Yes. Parents cannot be trusted to provide for their children’s education.
Conservative: Yes. Education is too important to the economic health of the nation to be left up to parents.
Libertarian: No. Compulsory attendance laws violate the rights of parents to decide what kind of education is best for their children.

Should parents be allowed to teach their children at home?
Liberal: Maybe. However, it should be strictly regulated to make sure that parents don’t teach their children bigotry or bizarre religious doctrines.
Conservative: Yes. Although some parents may fail to give their children a proper education, public schools aren’t doing a very good job. However, increased federal oversight of schools and standardized testing may solve that problem, which will encourage homeschoolers to return to the public-education system.
Libertarian: Yes. The government has no proper role in education. There should be a separation of school and state for the same reasons that we have a separation of church and state. There should be no government penalties or regulation of parents who prefer to teach their children at home.

Should the ownership of firearms be restricted by law?
Liberal: Yes. Guns kill people. Ownership of firearms should be very strictly regulated, with waiting periods, mandatory gun locks, background checks, and government-issued licenses. If those steps don’t solve the problem, then only law enforcement and the military should be allowed to own any type of gun.
Conservative: Generally, no. However, some limitations on hand guns and military assault rifles may be appropriate.
Libertarian: Ownership of firearms violates no other person’s rights, and therefore should not be subject to any penalty or government restriction. Aggressive (criminal) use of firearms should be punished, but not responsible ownership.

What should the government do about the rising cost of health care?
Liberal: Every American has a right to health care. The federal government should guarantee free health care, or at least insurance, for everyone. Government must control fees charged by greedy doctors, hospitals, HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies.
Conservative: Medicare entitlements must be controlled and limits should be put on medical malpractice lawsuits. Business and individuals should get more tax breaks for medical expenses.
Libertarian: Eliminate the socialist policies that drive up costs. End the government-enforced doctor’s monopoly. Let midwives, nurses, and other professionals provide medical service. Give patients the power to make more medical decisions. Deregulate hospitals and insurance. Replace Medicare with voluntary private funding for the needy. As a transition step, offer dollar-for-dollar tax breaks for all medical costs.

What should government policy be toward abortion?
Liberal: A woman has the right to an abortion. If she can’t afford it, taxpayers should pay for her abortion.
Conservative: Abortion is murder and should be subject to appropriate criminal penalties (except, perhaps, in the case of rape or incest).
Libertarian: This is a rare issue where libertarians can disagree. Most libertarians hold that a woman has the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, and that government should play no role in that decision. Other libertarians hold that abortion involves a violation of the rights of an unborn child, and should be illegal. All libertarians agree that under no circumstances should government force anyone to subsidize another’s abortion.

What should government policy be toward nuclear power?
Liberal: Because of high risk and the problem of nuclear waste disposal, no more nuclear power plants should be built and existing plants should be shut down.
Conservative: Nuclear power is cheap, safe, and less polluting than other power sources. Government should do more to encourage its development.
Libertarian: The nuclear power industry is subsidized by federally legislated limits on liability. Government should get out of the nuclear power business and let private power companies compete in the energy marketplace — while bearing full responsibility for actual or potential liability.

Do we need the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that medicines are safe and effective?
Liberal: Yes. Only government can protect us against events like the Thalidomide tragedy (when a drug turned out to have unanticipated side effects). But we do need to speed up the FDA approval process for diseases like AIDS.
Conservative: Yes. But the FDA needs to be reformed. Currently, the approval process is so slow and expensive that it discourages pharmaceutical companies from developing new drugs.
Libertarian: No. There is a market demand for information about the safety and effectiveness of medicine. That demand can be met by private testing labs, the same way Underwriters Laboratories tests and reports on electrical appliances. The FDA causes delays in the approval of medicines that lead to unnecessary deaths and suffering by people denied medicine for extended periods.

Do we need zoning laws to protect our communities?
Liberal: Yes. Zoning is necessary to control sprawl, to protect open spaces, and to guarantee sufficient low-income housing. It’s also needed to make sure that profit-hungry businesses like WalMart can’t build “big-box” stores wherever they want.
Conservative: Yes. Zoning is necessary to ensure stable property values, to protect historic neighborhoods, and to maintain the quality of life we want in our communities.
Libertarian: No. Zoning denies the right of individuals to make the best use of their property. Experience in unzoned cities like Houston proves that cities can thrive without zoning. Rents are lower, property values are protected, and compatible uses tend to cluster together. Other free-market alternatives are things like private deed restrictions or covenants.

Do we need the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide loans to entrepreneurs and small business?
Liberal: Yes. Otherwise many minority-run or female-owned businesses would not be able to get start-up funds and create jobs in their communities.
Conservative: Yes. Anything that helps free enterprise is a good thing.
Libertarian: No. The SBA is just another example of welfare for business. The agency hands out money that was seized from working taxpayers and successful businesses. It gives that money to people who failed to persuade lenders to loan them funds voluntarily. Free-market venture capitalists are perfectly capable of deciding which new businesses have a realistic chance of succeeding, and lending money accordingly.

About the author: David Bergland was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1984. He is the author of Libertarianism in One Lesson. The above essay is Chapter 18 of The Ninth Edition of his book, which was published by the Advocates for Self-Government.