How are compassionate conservatives and libertarians different, and is there any hope for a union in 2012?

That was the subject of a debate last week between libertarian Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, and self-described “compassionate conservative” Dr. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine. Hosted by Grove City College and sponsored by The Center for Vision and Values, I had the distinct privilege to attend this event as a student at GCC.

I could not have been more disappointed.

At Grove City College, the conservative-libertarian divide is very stark. While for decades, Grove City College has been known as one of the most politically (and culturally) conservative colleges in America, the “Ron Paul Revolution” of the past few years—coupled with the school’s increasingly popular Austrian/libertarian economics department—has shed revealing light on what most see as a petty, futile debate over largely insignificant details.

Perhaps this was the reason for the topic of this year’s Kibbe-Olasky debate. As we approach an important presidential election, many are worried that the conservative movement will be too splintered to defeat President Obama—especially considering the sharp differences between libertarian ideology and centrist Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

But regardless of the reason for the debate, the event itself suffered from the same deficiency that plagues almost every other discussion about the libertarian-conservative divide—a failure to address the critical issue: property rights.

Forget what you have been told in the past about libertarians as libertine, hedonistic, “Atlas Shrugged”-toting brats. Indeed, that is not philosophical libertarianism, but an unfortunate social fad. Philosophical libertarianism rests on the non-aggression axiom and upholds property rights as inviolable. Philosophical libertarians (ought to) argue that no one has the right to transgress against the property rights of another human being.

Government is not exempt. Just as it is wrong for me to steal my neighbor’s wallet, it is wrong for the government to confiscate a portion of my income. Property rights are supreme, and no collective body of people—no matter how large—can “vote away” the property rights of any single other human being.

This is where compassionate conservatism and philosophical libertarianism differ. And this is the only place where they differ.

Unfortunately, this was not the subject of last week’s debate. Instead, I was subjected to an hour of anecdotes, stories and clever quips that did little to reveal the fundamental difference between libertarians and conservatives, and thus did nothing to further any understanding between adherents of the two ideologies.

Perhaps most frustrating was Mr. Olasky’s predictable defense of the family and beneficial social institutions that he claimed would not exist were we to all function as rugged libertarian individuals. This portrayed his gross misunderstanding of the difference between libertarianism and conservatism, and Mr. Kibbe was quick to correct him. Only childish libertarians will argue that social institutions are themselves the product of the state and would not exist in a “libertarian utopia.” Grown-up libertarians like Kibbe know that it is natural and good for human beings to voluntarily associate with one another. Indeed, survival would be impossible were it not so.

Additionally, the discussion was almost devoid of any serious economic evaluation of the two philosophies. I don’t blame Kibbe or Olasky for this—time was limited. But it is easy enough to convince a crowd that providing tax benefits for families and non-profits is beneficial social policy without examining the often-detrimental effects that “tax-exempt” status has on charitable giving in America. And sometimes the economic analysis can be damning, rendering any discussion about the benefit of policies like tax credits for families, for example, totally pointless. These economic discussions must be held. Unfortunately, many social commentators lack the economic understanding to seriously address these concerns.

There is much more that I can say about this debate, what it reveals about the conservative-libertarian dispute, and the general conservative-libertarian divide at large. I will leave those to another post. But suffice it to say that unless both libertarians and conservatives come to realize that their point of difference is property rights, we should not expect any progress or movement toward political union.