The market should be free. This is the primary tenet of Libertarianism. You see, if we had a truly free market, then you could buy anything that any was willing to sell in the marketplace. You could buy food, clothing, housing, drugs, sex, organs. Anything that a person is willing to sell, at a price the two of you can agree on, would be available for purchase, without government interference (except, perhaps, for the sake of enforcing the contractual agreements in the case of one party attempting to take advantage of the other).
Conservatism differs from Libertarianism in this respect. The Conservative holds that certain aspects of the market should be free, but not every aspect of the market. For instance, ideas should be available and open for discussion. But, the use of violence, or intimidation via threats, should not be allowed on the market. Likewise, food, clothing, housing, necessities, should be available on the market. Organs, sex, and drugs, should not be available on the market. The question isn’t whether or not a person can willingly engage in such trade, but rather or not such trade is actually good for society, or if it should be suppressed.
I know some will say this sounds like the arguments that liberals make for their positions, but there is a key difference here between conservatives and liberals. Liberals disregard the Constitution and want to use the power of the federal government to intervene in areas where, simply put, the federal government has no business being. Likewise, liberals want to use the power of the government to guarantee certain results, like a “living wage” and “free healthcare”. Conservatives recognize that the Constitution limits the federal government from interfering in states rights, and that too much government is actually bad for a society.
The Conservative position is, essentially, the political incorporation of the Catholic idea of Subsidiarity. I write this as a Baptist, so I’m not trying to argue a specific point of Catholic theology here, only that the idea of Subsidiarity, as expressed in Catholicism, is the closest idea to what Conservative governmental theory is about. We recognize that social issues should be handled at the closest level possible to the individuals concerned.
National defense effects all of us, therefore it should be handled by the federal government. The same goes for international trade, treaties, and even interstate commerce. After all, who can resolve disputes between two states except for an authority higher than those two states, or an authority who is able to enforce rulings on those states. But, questions as to whether or not a local baker should be required to make cakes for any and all weddings is not something that the federal government should be involved in. Let the local municipality make the determination on whether or not that business can stay open. What Jacob does in his bakery in Georgia has no effect on Sally getting married in California.
There are many areas where the Conservative and the Libertarian will be in agreement. We both want smaller, more limited government. In theory we both want fiscal responsibility. But, there is a Conservative morality that differs from Libertarianism, where we recognize moral limits to the market place that the Libertarian doesn’t recognize. Conservatives come from a political and moral tradition that recognizes that humans are not, by nature, good and noble, but rather selfish, enjoying pleasures that we have long since recognized as perverse and immoral. For this reason, while we want a limited and small government, we also recognize the necessity of certain limitations on individual behavior that our Libertarian friends would not agree with.