To begin a discussion on the nature of libertarianism and conservatism I must review a few things I repeat often. Perhaps the number one claim against libertarianism is that Biblical ethics contradict it. That is, the claim might be that libertarianism implies antinomianism. But this is a profound and dangerous misunderstanding of the definition of libertarianism. The roots of this misunderstanding will be revealed as we go through Hoppe below.
What is libertarianism? Surely that depends on the libertarian tradition in which one stands. I have made it clear elsewhere that I sit squarely in the Rothbardian/Hoppean tradition. This means that the libertarian can only be described as such if he agrees to the following proposition: “no one shall ‘initiate or threaten to initiate physical force against others and their property'” (Hans Hoppe). One’s personal moral relativism, approval of various lifestyles, and anti-religiosity frankly has nothing to do with libertarianism as a political theory. Libertarianism properly understood, then, is far more narrow than many libertarians today (including the Libertarian Party) would have you believe.
Is libertarianism then a political and societal system? I would deny this. It is a stance opposing State coercion against the individual and intervention into an economy. But if libertarianism is not itself a societal system, what is the preferred societal system? The answer lies in ” private property.” The libertarian, because he considers the initiation of physical force against an individual and his property as unacceptable, must support a “private property order.” This is the proper way to understand society’s structure and system. It is here that we must introduce the claims of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
The tenth chapter of Hoppe’s book on Democracy is entitled “On Conservatism and Libertarianism.” Libertarians themselves often debate whether libertarianism should be seen as coming from the right or the left. There are many who are adamant about their position. Others completely reject the debate as absurd. There is no “right or left” libertarian, in their view. A self-described right-libertarian might consider this rejection as categorically right libertarian. The debates will go on.
But surely this is a semantic debate. For some see “right and left” as political terms, describing two differing stances on how to grow the State. And others see “right and left” as cultural terms, to be coupled with “libertarianism” for clarification purposes, so as to not scare away a given audience. Others see “right and left” as a difference in mindset and mood, some preferring change and others hesitant about it. And finally, still others see “right and left” as describing one’s stance of the legitimacy of private property.
Whether libertarianism historically came from the “right” or the “left” depends entirely one what one means by left and right. It is profoundly annoying when the modern libertarian dismisses conservatism on the basis that it stands historically opposed to libertarianism. This reveals an unwillingness to consider the nuances and variances in conservative thought and practice. One difficulty in our modern progressive democracy is the conflation of State and culture. Most lay conservatives actually are primarily focused on cultural concerns, not political conservatism as it was defended in 18th century Britain (maintaining the status quo and power of the State for its own sake). It is true that they have been suckered (especially by the Neocons) into voting to grow the state on cultural issues due to the United States’ obsession with political democracy, but they do not realize this. They do not realize that the State (especially the Democratic State) is the enemy of cultural conservatism. The false assumption is that advocating for traditional cultural preferences necessarily infers that one advocates for the State to expand on cultural matters. In short, the present failure of libertarian critics of conservatism is in their assumption that conservative Statism and cultural conservatism go hand in hand per se.
Against Contemporary (Democratic) Conservatism
Hoppe’s thesis is that libertarianism needs cultural conservatism and that the only way to save the west and its civilization is to embrace it, contrary to the claims of (most) libertarians who would prefer to embrace cultural progressivism in the name of libertarianism. But to reiterate what I had stated above, the advocacy and defense of cultural conservatism should not be seen as adding to libertarianism’s narrow definition. To reiterate, we are not making libertarianism into a “thick” philosophy, but rather pointing out the benefits of a voluntary social embracing of certain historical and cultural norms. That is why, for example, Hoppe and others like him, deride cultural marxism, even if purportedly voluntary.
Hoppe understands that conservatism can mean different things and can be taken in different senses. He mentions two: “someone who generally supports the status quo” and “someone who believes in the existence of a natural order, a natural state of affairs.” The first sense is discarded for the purposes of this chapter and the argument. The implication here of the second sense, in the context of the book as a whole, is that the democratic State necessarily and harmfully intervenes into the natural state of things. That is, the democratic State breaks down and destroys an order of private property, natural authority, societal structure, and capital production in pursuit of things like egalitarianism, affirmative action, and subsidization of public “bads.” The conservative, natural order of things, recognizes the necessity of social units that that the progressives do not; namely, “families (fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren) and households based on private property and in cooperation with a community of other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, ancient, and indispensible social units.”
The thesis of Hoppe’s chapter can best be summarized by his claim on page 189: “…conservatives today must be antistatist libertarians and, equally important, libertarians must be conservatives.” As a reminder to the reader, Hoppe is using his second definition of conservative.
Contemporary conservatism, according to Hoppe, “is confused and distorted. This confusion is largely due to democracy.” As the United States and Europe became “mass democracies” in the twentieth century, “conservatism was transformed from an antiegalitarian, aristocratic, antistatist ideological force into a movement of culturally conservative statists: the right wing of the socialists and social democrats.” [Bold added.] Ancien Regime conservatism, defenders of the monarchies of Europe, certainly had its faults, but their non-existent desire to control a “publicly-owned” (that is, socialistic) Government makes them better than today’s conservatives. The trouble is that the majority of conservatives today can only think in terms of a democratic State, which, being supposedly owned by “everybody,” is by definition socialistic. When modern conservatives think “law and order,” they think “State activity.” This is precisely the problem. They have deviated from upholding the “natural order.”
Hoppe subsequently takes down modern conservatives of many stripes. Not only does he dismiss the obviously anticonservative so-called “neoconservatives,” but he also critiques both the Buckleyite Post-WWII “New Right” and, more importantly, the conservatism of the (Pat) Buchananites and the modern Kirkians. (What Hoppe does not mention and what this Reformed Libertarian is happy to add, is that this latter flavor of conservatism has strong roots in American Catholicism. Whereas the Neoconservatives took over the Evangelical political world, Buchananite conservatism has a heavy Romanist overtone.) At any rate, Hoppe, while affirming that Buchanan and those in that tradition “are genuinely concerned about… cultural rot,” they too are statists. While we agree with Buchanan on some things such as cultural degradation and anti-imperialistic foreign policy, the libertarian and the Reformed conservative should not consider himself a “Buchananite.” I will take one extra sentence to emphasize that Buchanan is very good on the war issue, even going to far as to question America’s involvement in the Second World War. But this should not influence us to uphold his entire program, for it too has statist foundations.
Hoppe introduces section three with a hard-hitting statement: “Most contemporary conservatives, then, especially among the media darlings, are not conservatives but socialists –either of the internationalist sort (the new [right] and neoconservative warfare-welfare statists and global social democrats) or of the nationalist variety (the Buchananite populists). Genuine conservatives must be opposed to both. In order to restore social and cultural normalcy, true conservatives can only be radical libertarians, and they must demand the demolition –as a moral and economic perversion –of the entire structure of social security.”
Libertarianism and the Natural Order
That libertarianism and cultural conservatism are at odds with one another not only misunderstand’s libertarianism’s narrow definition, but it also forgets, in Hoppe’s words, that “most, though not all, leading libertarian thinkers were, as a matter of empirical fact, social-cultural conservatives: defenders of traditional, bourgeois morals and manners. Most notably, Murray Rothbard, the single most important and influential libertarian thinker, was an outspoken cultural conservative. So was Rothbard’s most important teacher, Ludwig von Mises.” This alone does in no way show that cultural conservatism and libertarianism are necessary for each other, but it should be persuasive to convince the reader that the two are not at odds with each other, contrary to the message of many socially progressive libertarians today. This also seems to contradict, so far as I can tell, many false assumptions that cultural conservatives have about libertarianism.
The libertarian views his definition as true for all time and ethically applicable to all people. That is, the principle is not a modern convention, a result of evolving humanity. Hoppe says it like so: “[L]ibertarians are convinced that the principles of justice are eternally and universally valid (and hence, must have been essentially known to mankind since its very beginnings). That is, the libertarian [principle] is not new and revolutionary, but old and conservative.”
Beyond this, Hoppe points out that conservatism (which tends to be “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive”) focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks while libertarianism (which is “rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist”) focuses on the “concepts of property, production, exchange, and contract.” And therefore the former is the “concretization” of the latter. Conservatism needs a theory and libertarianism has practical expressions –that is, a natural and physical order. If conservatism desires to return to a “moral and cultural normalcy,” it needs libertarianism’s consistent and defensible antistatism.
Why then is “much of modern libertarianism… culturally leftist?” It is not due to “any such leanings among the major libertarian theoreticians,” says Hoppe. “Rather, it was a result of a superficial understanding go the libertarian doctrine by many of its fans and followers.” This is important, and it is something I mention on occasion. But Hoppe adds something even more profound. He states quite emphatically that the tendency to misunderstand and misapply libertarian doctrine is “inherent in the social-democratic welfare state, of promoting a process of intellectual and emotional infantilization (recivilization of society).” Because of democracy’s emphasis on “majority vote” and “popular demand,” democracy actually works against the very idea of a principle that is applicable to all people at all times. The masses of this generation, growing up in a society where “democracy” is screamed at them from all sides, are inculcated to assume that ethics and culture is relative, subjective, and conventional.
The Implications of Private Property
The idea that the individual is not allowed to transgress against the person and property of his neighbor has profound implications that seem to contradict many of the tendencies of modern libertarianism, especially of those who are culturally egalitarian and progressive. Concepts like egalitarianism, equal opportunity and outcome, nondiscrimination, and victimology have nothing to do with libertarianism. Our working definition of libertarianism presupposes private property and “private property means discrimination,” says Hoppe. To own property means that no one else owns it. It also means that the property owners, perhaps on a case by case basis, perhaps on some other basis, either affirm or deny the ability of others to use their property. The house-owner discriminates against thieves and arsonists. The antique shop owner discriminates against children under the age of 15, unless accompanied by an adult. The women’s book club, held weekly at Susan’s house, discriminates against the men.
In short, to use Hoppe’s words, “I may attach conditions to your using my property and I may also expel you from my property. Moreover, You and I, private property owners, may enter and put our property into a restrictive (or protective) covenant.”
The implications of private property are huge. In fact, private property is the solution to so many Christian concerns about modern and progressive presentations of libertarianism. When we talk about public display of homosexuality, drug use, and drunkenness, we presuppose the very situation of the modern democratic state, which “has largely stripped private property owners of the right to exclusion implied in the concept of private property.” Indeed we presuppose “public property” itself! “Discrimination is outlawed. Employers cannot hire whom they want. Landlords cannot rent to whom they want. Sellers cannot sell to whomever they wish; buyers cannot buy from whomever they wish to buy.”
Perhaps what comes next is even more eye-opening for the Christian conservative reader: “[In the modern democratic state], groups of private property owners are not permitted to enter into whatever restrictive covenant they believe to be mutually beneficial.” Two owners of two houses who have the same preferences and moral standards should be able to agree to the types of people allowed on their property. And cannot fifty similarly-minded property owners live in the same area, with the roads managed by a private owner agree, by contract, on the standards of their community? Whoever owned the land in the area, whether one property owner or many of them in the form of a “joint stock company,” would only sell to new and interested parties on condition that the covenant was agreed upon. This is how communities and small towns were once built. And yet, this is impossible in a world of State-owned property, State-enforced anti-discriminatory laws, forced integration, and egalitarian policy measures. Communities are owned, permitted, and created by State-fiat.
After discussing the implications of egalitarianism and social liberalism, Hoppe notes: “In distinct contrast, a society in which the right to exclusion is fully restored to owners of private property would be profoundly unegalitarian, intolerant, and discriminatory. There would be little or no “tolerance” and “open-mindedness” so dear to left-libertarians. Instead, one would be on the right path toward restoring the freedom of association and exclusion implied in the institution of private property, if only towns and villages [as developed naturally –CJE] could and would do what they did as a matter of course until well into the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States.”
Rather than going our separate ways and to our separated communities based on differing lifestyle preferences, modern conservative and liberals fight over the State’s laws for a one-size-fits-all solution to be applied to everybody and enforced by a socialized police force. Is it any wonder why citizens are at each other’s throats, constantly divided over state policy, and at ill-will with one another? To get what you want from the State is to turn half the community against you and for that half of the community to get what they want is to turn the State against you. We currently must choose: do we want the mob or the State to threaten our way of life?
The further practical considerations of a private property order are beyond the scope of this article. But perhaps we should add in the fact that the Christian idea of a “Civil Magistrate” in no way implies a publicly owned “State.” Civil Magistrates are simply the officer tasked with enforcing law. The State is an entirely different beast, for it is the monopolization of the law and order in society. The modern State has destroyed the honorable Civil Magistrate and has exempted itself from the mentioned libertarian principle. The State is the antithesis of governance, law, and order, three necessities of a civil society.
At any rate, the current article is most certainly not enough to make anyone an advocate of Rothbardianism. But I do hope that it challenges preconceived notions about libertarianism, which is about individually owned private property and nothing else.