August 1, 2014

Responding to Various Kirkian Critiques

By In Articles, Philosophy

Let me start by saying that I consider myself conservative. Especially when the word is used in an epistemological, religious, or cultural sense.  And it is also my position that the Conservative Russell Kirk was a far better conservative than the neoconservatives which arose in the 1980s.  Despite some areas of sever disagreement with him, I don’t mind Kirk all that much, except for when he rudely misrepresents libertarianism.  While not a Kirkian, I do appreciate a decent amount of his ideas.


The American Thinker recently posted a piece on “Russell Kirk vs. the Libertarians.”  The article, perhaps much like Russell Kirk himself, misunderstands libertarianism and interestingly makes the same mistake as “individualist conservative” Frank Meyer made decades ago.  Kirk and Meyer were at odds with each other when both conservatives debated whether conservatism was to be properly an individualist doctrine (to oppose the socialistic collectivism) or a traditionalist doctrine (a midway between individualism and collectivism).  Meyer’s mistake in rejecting libertarianism was, as pointed out by Murray Rothbard, in assuming that libertarianism was necessarily a utilitarian doctrine that discounted the role of universal law that binds all of mankind equally.  Rothbard observed that Meyer had a problem with only a certain tradition of libertarianism, not libertarianism itself. In short, Meyer overlooked the natural law tradition of libertarianism which did affirm God and traditional ethics.  Writes Rothbard:

Meyer’s strictures against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism “stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political and social matters.” Meyer’s mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As [Tibor] Machan points out, “Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective”.

Rothbard concluded that Meyer was technically a libertarian after all, even if he didn’t realize it, because it was Meyer’s view that the State should not –indeed cannot– use force to make people moral.  Meyer’s frustration with a libertine presence within the individualist movement was merely a frustration against certain lifestyles, none of which are necessary for the deductive political theory of the libertarian.  In fact, libertarian thinkers like Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe, and myself also express concern with progressivist lifestylism.

Now, to return to the article on Kirk, we see the same misunderstanding as Meyer.  Kirk was quoted to say: “What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have.”  And yet, this quote is provided with exactly zero explanation.  That is, the readers are no told why a “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive” (Hans Hoppe: “Democracy“) philosophy cannot be held in common with a “rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist” (Hans Hoppe: “Democracy“) one.  Conservatism and libertarianism are two different perspectives; conservatism refers to the “is” and libertarianism refers to the “ought.”  There is nothing contradictory between two different types of analysis.  In fact, it is this very quote by Kirk which Hoppe, a conservative himself, dismissed as ridiculous when he wrote: “This view is entirely mistaken.  The relationship between libertarianism and conservatism is one of praxeological compatibility, sociological complementarity, and reciprocal reinforcement.”  It is only by misunderstanding the claims of the libertarian creed that one could possibly say that they cannot have anything in common.

For the rest of this article, I will simply respond to four of the Kirk quotes that the authors provided.

Number One:

The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle — that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil order, and indeed of human existence.

This is an oft-utilized critique of libertarianism by conservatives.  That libertarians, being ideologues, have only one chief purpose in life: individual liberty.  The problem with this is simple: there is never any citation to show that we believe such a thing!  Seriously, which libertarians said this?  Now, it may be true that there are libertarians in the world who really do care about nothing except individual liberty, but why would this feature of a given individual bind all other libertarians to it?  Perhaps many a conservative can be found that loves the idea of the computer-less society, opining that smart phones and other devices have ruined social interaction.  Russell Kirk himself refused to use computers and drive cars.  Can we say that conservatives are hell-bent on eliminating technology?  By no means!  Personal preferences should never be used against the theory as a whole.

On a personal level and in my own view, the “whole end… of human existence” can be summarized best by the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

As for the nasty smear word “ideologue,” if the word means “uncompromising and dogmatic commitment to a set of ideas and beliefs,” one wonders if the conservatives should be called the same for their opinion that murder is forever wrong.  Ideologies are not the problem. Bad ideologies are.

Number Two:

In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States…

It is fascinating that the first sentence posits that “order is the first need of all.”  For is this “order” not an abstraction like the liberty of the libertarian?  Moreover, using the same poor logic that we dismissed above, should we conclude that the conservative is an “ideologue” that has a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle — that is, to the notion of order as the whole end… of human existence”?

Now, we must point out that if the conservative is critiquing the liberty as held by the libertarian, then he must use the word in the same sense as the libertarian uses it.  For the libertarian, liberty is the situation in which no person is victim to the initiation of aggression by another individual.  Where there is zero initiation of coercion against person and property, there liberty lies.  The presupposition in the libertarian mind is one of property rights, by which the libertarian means that no other individual has any legal claim to the body or exterior property of the person himself.  And only the voluntary interaction of the persons can give rise to society and economy and markets.  This is how the libertarian describes liberty.  But is this not ordered?  Far from being an “abstract” order, as is the case of the Kirkian conservative, we have a very realistic order that is realizable at the very same time as is liberty itself.  Our definition of liberty includes within it, a defensible order.  This is monumentally unique in political theory.

Finally, all frameworks of social orders, including the constitutional order, provide some degree of freedom.  Some orders, such as Mussolini’s provide very little freedom and other orders, such as, say Hans Hermann Hoppe’s “property-rights order,” provide the maximum amount of freedom.

Number Three:

What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn…

If I were to ask what binds society together, and you used one of the two above answers, you would either say something like: “self-interest;” or else you would say: “society is a community of souls.”  Only one of these is an actual answer, the other one is attractive rhetoric that evades the question.  Whether self-interest does bind the society depends on how one uses the phrase.  At any rate, if it is self-interest to claim that I find joy in spending time with my family and my community, I am not sure what the complaint is here.  If the concern is centered around “cash payment,” the reader might be pleased to hear that I have never received a dime from any of my neighbors.

Number Four:

Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that “in Adam’s fall we sinned all”: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect…

There is a lot here. First of all, my Calvinist worldview takes me even farther than Kirk as I believe that human nature is totally depraved, not just “compounded of both good and evil.”  Thus, I think that the critique in the first sentence applies, ironically, more to Kirk than to myself, a strict libertarian.  What this shows is that libertarianism does not in fact rely on an optimistic view of human nature.  It should also be pointed out that my view of human nature informs me that the politician is far more susceptible to corruption and evil deeds than Kirk might think. Thus, I refuse to give him any power whatsoever.  An evil man with a legal monopoly on force that is not bound by the individual rights of others is far worse than the evil man who has zero right to initiate aggression against his neighbor.

But the fact remains that libertarianism does not necessitate the theory of the optimistic view of man.  There is nothing in its formulation that requires a good nature of man.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to
  • Jim Hale

    C. Jay, so good to find this excellent rebuttal of “Chirping Sectaries” after googling “Rothbard response to Russell Kirk.” It would be fascinating to see if Kirk had toned down his critique if he could’ve known that the conservative movement was on its way to being hijacked by neocons, and that paleoconservatism would nearly be extinguished just 15 years after his famous Rothbard smear was written.

    You really hit the nail here: “…human nature informs me that the politician is far more susceptible to corruption and evil deeds than Kirk might think.”

    Funny, ain’t it, that paleoLIBERTARIANS are now on the rise!