Drew Carey has described libertarians as “conservatives who still get high.”
It’s funny, but I wouldn’t say I agree with that assessment per se. I’m sure a lot of people confuse the two, for many reasons. Both libertarians and conservatives claim to be in favor of “small government.” Both tend to favor lowering taxes and lessening government spending. Libertarian-leaning candidates are often described as Tea Partiers by the media. Libertarians are also pretty active in the Republican Party as well. Not to mention the fact that conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh often describe their policy views as “libertarian conservatism.”
In reality, libertarians are drastically different from conservatives.
Conservatives are divided on a lot of issues, so I’m going to end up generalizing here (sorry about that), but it’s my assessment that conservatives, while claiming that they favor “small government” actually advocate big government in a great many areas: drug prohibition, gambling, prostitution, taxation, abortion, faith-based initiatives, and immigration policy, for example.
Common among these is the idea that the government should legislate behavior. This is true in many cases (murder, theft, molestation, etc.), but clearly not in as many cases as conservatives would like. It is the libertarian perspective that the government should not be in the business of telling you how you should live your life, assuming you are harming no one.
It’s hard to imagine a conservative agreeing with this.
I think it’s also worth noting that many of these anti-libertarian conservative views have religious motivations or undertones. This is no secret, really. Christian fundamentalists have self-identified as conservative for quite some time.
This is not to say that libertarians aren’t religious. Many of them are (although it is more-or-less true that the atheist community seems to be split between liberals and libertarians, but that’s a topic for another day). What’s important though is that the libertarian perspective is religiously-neutral. People have the right to hold whichever beliefs they choose, so long as they aren’t harming anyone (or preventing others from doing the same). And those religious beliefs, however noble they may be, have no place in public policy.
Again, it’s hard to imagine a conservative agreeing with this sentiment.
In fact, thinking about it, the only area where I think I’d be able to find some common ground with a conservative is fiscal policy. And that’s not even guaranteed.
Bottom line, conservative differences from libertarianism far outnumber the similarities, in my opinion. So much so, that it’s almost an insult that some people still manage to confuse the two or lump them together (liberals and conservatives included), but oh well.
Fools will be fools.