DC Interns Shine at Cato Debate

July 22nd, 2011 at 9:54 am | 15 Comments |

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The Cato Institute held its second annual Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Intern Debate Thursday, pitting Cato interns against students interning at the Heritage Foundation (video of the debate can be found here). This year’s event proved to be a marked improvement over last year, with the two sides covering a wider range of issues and displaying more original thinking. While the conservative side came out on top overall, both groups failed to address the key economic issues facing young people.

In both this year’s debate and last years, the two sides generally agreed with each other about the size of government and about economic issues, so the focus was on national security as well as social issues like gay marriage and drug policy. Libertarians would typically accuse conservatives of inconsistency in opposing big government while favoring intervention in citizens’ private lives –in this year’s debate, Cato intern Irina Schneider, a recent American University graduate, argued that “any man who cuts liberty into pieces … does not believe in liberty.” Conservatives, in turn, attacked libertarians for being impractical and neglecting moral concerns which they associate with cherished American traditions –at last year’s debate, Heritage intern Shannon Hale, of Ave Maria University, claimed that “Libertarianism would be great if it worked, but in fact it doesn’t work.” These tendencies were carried to extremes at last year’s debate, which featured young conservatives trying to show that the Founders were modern American conservatives and young libertarians delivering long harangues devoted exclusively to drug policy.

The conservatives won this year’s debate, though, by responding to the libertarians’ charges of inconsistency with a defense of prudence as a conservative virtue. . “Consistency and simplistic arguments cannot provide the basis for an entire philosophy. This is a complex world and as such, requires prudence,” argued Heritage intern Erin Grant, a junior at Harding University, in response to a question on drugs. In a discussion of foreign policy, her co-debater Justin DiGennaro, a senior at Cornell, added that “Everything is a false choice[for libertarians] … [To them,] if you’re not in support of isolationism, you’re a nation-building neoconservative. But that’s really not the choice.” While there were still an unfortunate emphasis on invoking the Founding – both debaters repeatedly insisted that conservatism was mainly about finding new applications for principles developed in 1776 – the discussions of prudence got the most applause and helped counter the libertarians’ central point.

The libertarians continued to focus mainly on drugs, though they did broaden their focus a bit this time to discuss defense, immigration, and gay marriage more extensively. While their emphasis on rigid consistency often made them come off as dogmatic, they did develop a somewhat novel reply to conservative charges of amorality which stressed the difference between the state and civil society. “Social order springs not from the state, but from institutions like the family [and] the school,” said Schneider, “and we should allow these institutions, rather than the state, to teach people about the destructive effects of narcotics.” Comments like this made them seem less extreme, but they were unable to come up with an effective response to the conservatives’ embrace of pragmatism.

However, it was surprising and regrettable that neither side tried to think creatively about the central question most young people are wondering about: will I have a job after I graduate? Since the recent economic downturn and the ongoing jobs crisis represent the most serious difficulty conservatives and libertarians are likely to have in selling their free-market agenda to young people, so it would have been nice to get input from young members of both movements on these questions. Still, the debate was a step forward from last year, and hopefully future debaters will be able to spare enough time from arguments over drug legalization and the beliefs of long-dead politicians to discuss the issues that the rest of the country cares about.

Recent Posts by Ajay Ravichandran



15 Comments so far ↓

  • marcopolo

    Hows that $11 million from the Koch brothers working out for you?

    Propaganda does not come cheap I guess.

    Cough,cough. That big tobacco money sure smells foul.

    Follow the money………Where Cato gets its cash.

    Altria (the report identifies Altria Corporate Services as the contributor)
    American Petroleum Institute
    Amerisure Companies
    Amgen
    Chicago Mercantile Exchange
    Comcast Corporation
    Consumer Electronic Association
    Ebay Inc
    ExxonMobil
    FedEx Corporation
    Freedom Communications
    General Motors
    Honda North America
    Korea International Trade Association
    Microsoft
    National Association of Software and Service Companies
    Pepco Holdings Inc.
    R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company
    TimeWarner
    Toyota Motor Corporation
    UST Inc
    Verisign
    Verizon Communications
    Visa USA Inc
    Volkswagen of America
    Wal-Mart Stores

    • Steve D

      What an axis of evil.
      American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil fill my gas tank.
      Comcast Corporation, TimeWarner, and Verizon Communications provide a lot of people (but not me) with cable and communications.
      Ebay Inc is where millions of people buy and sell stuff.
      FedEx Corporation delivers my packages.
      General Motors, Honda North America, Volkswagen of America and Toyota Motor Corporation make most of our cars.
      Microsoft makes a lot of the world’s software, some of it even getting to be fairly decent.
      Visa USA Inc makes it possible for me to travel mostly cash-free.

      You, as far as I can tell, produce nothing.

      • StarSpangledSpanner

        And from all that Corporate cash and Koch money the Cato institute produces a mountain of propaganda.

  • balconesfault

    “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. “

    Winston Churchill

  • Graychin

    Two camps of ideologues arguing over which cliff to drive the bus over.

  • gover

    “Libertarianism would be great if it worked, but in fact it doesn’t work.” Given that conservative Republicans have dominated politics in the U.S. for the past generation, and given the condition we’re in, couldn’t the same be said, with more certainty, about conservatism?

    I’ve never been fond of Wagner. A personal defect I suppose. I used to joke that if you strapped me in a chair at the Bayreuth Festival and forced me to listen to the Ring Cycle, I’d give up the secrets of the bomb sight. I think about ten minutes of the Cato interns v/ the Heritage interns would have the same effect.

    • balconesfault

      I see pure libertarianism as akin to pure communism. Isolated from how human beings actually act, they seem to make sense.

      • TJ Parker

        Conservatism, in its most contemporary incarnation, is very similar.

      • KRH67

        Right, but name me a political view that works when taken to its utmost extreme.

        One can be libertarian without thinking government needs to dissolve. As with any political view there is an enormous range along it. Yet whenever people on the left OR right hear “libertarian” they just assume that person wants to live in his isolated home free from any interference in their life, government or otherwise. It is as if every time someone here said they were “liberal” everyone else assumed they wanted communism, or every “conservative” wanted fascism.

  • KRH67

    “Consistency and simplistic arguments cannot provide the basis for an entire philosophy. This is a complex world and as such, requires prudence,” argued Heritage intern Erin Grant, a junior at Harding University, in response to a question on drugs

    And this right here is why I consider myself more libertarian than anything else. The conservative response to questions on drug policy? “FACTS cannot provide the basis for a philosophy. This is a complex world and as such, requires someone else to provide morals for you.”

    How could such idiocy “win” anyone a debate?

  • Arms Merchant

    “…a somewhat novel reply to conservative charges of amorality…”

    Mr. Ravichandran, where have you been? Maybe you need to actually read the ideas of the Libertarian thinkers, instead of just caricaturing them.

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