January 21, 2015

Being Conservative and Libertarian

By In Articles, Society and Culture

One argument from many in the libertarian world, to which I belong tautologically, that I think is immensely unhelpful is that “conservatives and liberals are both equally terrible.”  Or perhaps in another way, “libertarianism is at odds with conservatism/liberalism.”  Or: “you cannot be a true libertarian if you consider yourself conservative or liberal.”  What is meant by these things is that any self-described liberal or conservative ought to be routinely rejected by virtue of his willingness to use such “mainstream” labels.  The problem with this is that it fails to consider the many historical uses, nuances, and development of the terms.  The battle cry of “neither liberal nor conservative!” is too swift and careless.

I see in the libertarian movement (and society at large) a rising reaction and revolt against key aspects of civilization such as churches, religion, authority, and the family.  I also see a rising contempt for individuals, like myself, who advocate Biblical understandings of marriage, morality, sexuality, and epistemology.  This so-called “New Libertarianism” demands certain things of the libertarian that the present writer, and certainly the Reformed Christian in general, simply cannot agree to.  For this reason, conservative Christians are hesitant about adopting the label of libertarian.  This New Libertarianism has been described by Jeffrey Tucker when he writes:

[T]here are some non-negotiables, and they aren’t only about the ban on the use of power. As an extension of the above point, this generation puts a premium on civilized thinking and behaving that includes absolute exclusion of bigotry in all its forms. Racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes are not only tacky, but embody the opposite of the tolerance that old liberalism identified as a main bulwark against State oppression. This necessarily means a special identity with groups that have been victims of State oppression and remain so in many parts if the world.

[… T]he fundamental history and drive of feminism and the anti-slavery movement, historically understood, are about empowering every member of the human family with the freedom that is his or her right.

If we love capitalism, we must remember that it alone has done more to bring about that empowerment than any political change. For this reason, we should embrace the ideals of feminism in the same way we embrace the anti-slavery cause. It is our cause, our banner, our history, our movement. We should never give this up to the oppressor class.

Because of these trending and popular sentiments, we are seeing an interesting case of “reactionary” attitudes against the use of the word “conservative” more than the word “liberal.”  Some libertarians are attempting to take back the word “liberal” from the Statist Left, ironically doing so as they also claim to reject both “liberal” and “conservative.”  Regardless, “conservatism” as a label is rejected by the New Libertarian to a greater extent than “liberal” and therefore it is increasingly difficult to convince those conservatives in society to “come join the libertarian movement!”  The libertarian movement, sad to say, considers the conservative layman a natural enemy. This makes for an awful libertarian strategy and one that is skewed toward cultural leftism.

Part of the reason for this is that the running assumption in the mainstream political world is that Democrats are “liberal” and therefore “big government” and Republicans are “conservative” and therefore “small government.” And so the libertarians who (rightly) reject this formulation often without careful thinking (wrongly) exclaim “conservatives and liberals are big government!”  I think it is more accurate to say that Republicans and Democrats are big government parties and they adopt conservative and liberal themes and vocabularies so as to better attract their constituents.  (See the “Two Types of Socialism” here). Whether big government policies are actually liberal or actually conservative depends on our use of such words.

But the fact remains that “conservatism” today is seen by the New Libertarian proponents as backwards, anti-liberty, unenlightened, and necessarily fascistic.  Therefore it is seen as antithetical to the libertarian creed.  Well, as a “Propertarian” libertarian who refers to himself as conservative, I like to defend the term conservative.

As I have often stated before, the assumption that conservatism is in itself a political philosophy is misleading.  Surely it has political ramifications and a long history of utilizing the State to protect and preserve whatever happens to be the present order of things.  The European Conservatism which was opposed by the radical individualists and the classical liberals, and later the socialists, was antithetical to individual property rights and liberties (or at least the definitions of those things as employed by the radicals).  However, it is my contention that just because conservatism has expressed itself in that way in the past, does not mean that all aspects of it require such anti-libertarian, state-driven activity.  If conservatism is more holistic than just a strict political theory (which concentrates only on the State), then it cannot be fundamentally at odds with libertarianism which is indeed a strict political theory.  That would be, as the saying goes, comparing apples and oranges.

One of the ways in which I think conservatism is useful is in referring to culture, morality, and epistemology.  In short, if one believes, as the libertarian does by definition, that the State is not to interfere with the life and property of the individual, this in no way precludes him from also assenting to a certain set of cultural preferences.  Since libertarianism is a political philosophy and regards State activity, it does not even address the issue of whether the fondness for certain cultures and social norms is acceptable.  Libertarianism simply has no say in the matter. Thus, if I were to find some way of describing my outlook on the world around me, conservative is a decent, broadly understood word.

My theory of knowledge and knowledge acquisition too should be categorized as conservative in the sense that I am profoundly Augustinian.  In our world of behaviorism and naturalism and “science tells all,” it is certainly true that I hold to a seemingly archaic understanding of the mind and the soul.  Further, my entire defense of libertarianism is based on a pre-classical liberal understanding of natural rights (by natural rights I mean God-given rights, as revealed in the Scripture –not the Thomist-influenced “rights found in nature”).  Murray Rothbard once wrote something that is overlooked these days:

Nineteenth-century liberalism rested its defense of liberty not on natural rights or moral principle, but on social utility and – in the case of the classical economists – economic efficiency. The classical liberal defense of liberty tended to be based not on the perception of freedom as essential to the true nature of man, but on universal ignorance of the truth.

This is very important.  Rothbard stated this during an overview of the libertarianism of Frank Meyer.  Meyer, Rothbard claimed, was a libertarian who didn’t know it because he misunderstood the libertarian creed.  Rothbard wrote:

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”.

Importantly, this paragraph shows how I too cannot be put even in the category of “classical liberal.”  I am utterly against its utilitarianism and economic defenses of liberty as the principle justification for individual rights.  My worldview is Biblically based and I am a convinced presuppositionalist in the tradition of Gordon H. Clark.

More can be learned from Rothbard’s consideration of Frank Meyer.  Meyer’s complaint about the libertarians was that they were essentially libertines; that is, they did not care about culture, tradition, morality, family, or community.  This clearly is a common conservative critique of libertarianism.  The problem with it is that it misunderstands libertarianism, which allows for the individual to care immensely about those things!  Some libertarians are libertines indeed. But some caucasians are libertines too and no one ever points the finger at the caucasian because libertinism is not required by virtue of being a caucasian.  In any case, I am a libertarian who thinks is extremely important to have a thriving church, a virtuous society, and to honor one’s parents.

Frank Meyer considered himself a “fusionist.”  His claim was that he wanted to “fuse” the individual responsibility and individual moral agency of libertarianism with the ethics and virtue concerns of the traditionalists (which included people like Russell Kirk) into a third option.  He didn’t want to be solely a traditionalist, because of their collectivist tendencies, and neither did he want to be a libertarian, because of their libertinism.  But as Rothbard pointed out, his problem was not with libertarianism, but rather with certain libertarians who personally did not appreciate virtue and community and all the rest.

Rothbard pointed out the following of Meyer’s so-called Fusionism:

Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way, a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate the law of the excluded middle.

In fact, Frank Meyer was, on this crucial issue, squarely in the libertarian camp.

Meyer’s fusionism, essentially, was libertarianism coupled with social conservatism.  Stated differently, Meyer was not rejecting libertarianism like he thought he was.  He, like far too many conservatives, simply misunderstood its narrowness.  It is vital to point out here that Meyer’s appreciation for community and tradition does in no way modify the libertarian creed.  Rather, his cultural preferences and concerns existed alongside his libertarianism.

Finally, I will quote from something that I have written previously in summarizing the views of Hans Hermann Hoppe in his outstanding and very highly recommended work on Democracy.  I wrote:

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.”

Thus, since the State intervenes in the Natural Order, those who are conservative and do appreciate the Natural Order of things, should be libertarians.

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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.

Thus, conservatism and libertarianism are different things and can (and I think should) work with each other.

This is why I am not fond of the knee-jerk reaction of “conservatives love to grow government!”  It really depends on how the term is being used. I might even respond with, “well, clearly they aren’t that conservative.”  Sure, there is a tradition of Conservative Statism. But the term has more uses than that. And no one can say that Hans Hoppe, himself clearly a cultural and sociological conservative (progressivist libertarians despise him for this) wants to expand the State.  I am a culturally conservative libertarian, I reject cultural liberalism, and I reject the rejection of the term conservative.

____________

As a related issue, read my article on the greatness of the American Old Right here.

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 reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • RA Jameson

    Perhaps this would be easier if a clear, succinct definition of “conservative” was given. I know that definitions are, rightly, very important to you and you even reference their importance in the last paragraph. But unless I missed it, I didn’t see the term defined as you would like to see it used.

    Clearly the root of the word indicates your desire to see “something” conserved. What is that, exactly (is it “natural order”, but then, even that term needs defining)? Second, how will you go about “conserving” whatever it is that you would like to “conserve”?

    I find your citing of Hoppe to be…curious. Though on the whole, the book is tremendous, the specific chapter you referenced is concerning. Very much so, and especially for Christians. As you and I have discussed in the past, I am far more willing to live among (read: accepting) my democratic Christian brothers and sisters, as I’m called to do, than I would be to live among non-Christian libertarians. But for Hoppe, that makes me, non-conservative. Too tolerant. I have included his quote below, for easier reference.

    If being “conservative” looks anything like Hoppe is advocating, I’m not sure I want any part of it. His position is clearly opposed to “love your neighbor as yourself” when he declares, “the most extreme form of intolerance and discrimination” be used against those that have “ill manners”. Really? And “true libertarians must visibly and ostentatiously dissociate themselves” runs contrary to our missional task. As Gospel believers, we don’t run from those that live contrary to our values or even the “natural order”, we run head-long into them, declaring an empty grave, a defeated enemy, a risen King. And through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we fully anticipate that our Gospel “success” will be followed by demonstrations of obedience to our Lord.

    But for Hoppe, being conservative and being missional are completely at odds with each other. For this reader of TRC, I find that conflict…confusing, troublesome.

    • C.Jay Engel

      I think part of my point is that conservatism is difficult to define. This is a primary reason that I have in refusing to summarily reject it —there is too much at stake that may be miscommunicated if I leave it behind. It has been used by the Kirkians to described a certain psychic “mood” of caution and discretion in accepting social changes, it tends to be skeptical of programs to change the world and it recognizes that newer is not always better. In fact, this is part of my claim: that conservatism is distinctly not a system like libertarianism and is in fact “a mood.” Thus, it should not be said that conservatism and libertarianism are two competing systems; instead, they are horses of different colors and the libertarian may adopt conservatism in general if he so desires. I recognize, and happily accept, that you do not.

      “Clearly the root of the word indicates your desire to see “something” conserved.” Yes, the root of the word suggests this. But it is more nuanced than this. It is not as if the conservative looks out into the world and picks some things that he would like to actively conserve. It is rather that in his approach to social life, he has a tendency to look back to “forefathers” and those who have gone before us to understand how they solved problems. It refers to an appreciation for the development of a culture and society, and its usefulness is obviously dependent on the context. In today’s America, there is almost nothing that presently exists that is worth conserving; but there are a few: churches and private property (which barely exists, as you and I’d agree). But even if the socialist revolution had eradicated all that was good about traditional American society, one could still be a conservative because this label refers to his mood, his outlook, his reaction to the social revolutions that have swept the world since the Progressive era. Conservatism is a historical phenomenon in that it really developed as a response to the Progressive and revolutionary trends of the 20th century. The conservative has an innate desire to press back against this; to, in Buckley’s words (I’m not at all a Buckleyite, but he said some things that are useful to the conservative), “stand athwart history and yell ’Stop!’” Don’t get me wrong, one certainly does not need to be a conservative to be a libertarian, but one can also be both.

      The important thing, following Hoppe, is to point out that the State is never to be used as the means to accomplishing conservative goals. In fact, the State is largely the engine of socialism and revolutionary tendencies. What makes conservative appear to be pessimistic is the fact that most of them have swallowed the fact that the world is constantly changing and multitudes largely don’t share their views.

      You and I have discussed Hoppe often enough. I don’t think your refusal to practice exclusion of various people groups qualifies you as being non-conservative in Hoppe’s eyes (you are a non-conservative for other reasons). I think that is a misreading of Hoppe. I think that he has developed is own practical path to a libertarian/conservative society and one doesn’t have to embrace them at every point to every extreme extent in order to be a conservative.

      It is important to mention that the aspect of Hoppe’s book that you are troubled by is only the practical application of the previous book describing his conservative libertarianism. What is important is understanding that the first 75% of the book is quite opposed to modern “left-libertarianism” and offers a rightist view of the political doctrines of property-based liberty. Whether you agree with the practical solutions at the end, I think, is a side issue; especially if there are only a few paragraphs that “trouble” you.

      Your “TRC” comment was a cheap shot:)

      In friendship and Christ,
      C.Jay Engel

      • RA Jameson

        Holy cow, I feel like an idiot. “TRC” was a some kind of slip, completely unintended, and I offer you my sincerest apology. I think it was sloppy on my part, considering the time you spent, both in writing the article and in your response. It should have read “TRL” as you will NEVER have to defend your libertarian credentials with me.

        • RA Jameson

          Two comments, and then I offer you the final word, should you desire, in this conversation.

          1) I can always count on you to be very precise and intentional in the words you choose. Whether you are defending (admirably) Clark’s “Two-Person Christ” because of his definition of “person” or rightly helping me differentiate between being “Van Tilian” vs. being “Presuppositional”, you are stalwart in the battle for clarity. Yet with “conservative”, you appear to be satisfied with using a term that is “difficult to define”. You are certainly not required to define it, though you are very consistent in using it as a label for yourself. Which, if nothing else, I find out of character for you. Knowing that the word is more often than not poorly defined and sloppily used, your dedicated association with the word causes me to think that a clear, precise definition would be helpful for me, and for many who enjoy reading your thoughts.

          2) For Hoppe, “conservative” is far more than a “mood”, but an affection for the “natural order”. I don’t even know what that means. Again, the book is brilliant in its deconstruction of democracy, but you’re right, his application of conservatism is not my kind of thing. His point, and your, that the State must not be used as a means of achieving the “conservative” end is vital. In that sense, I can easily see how you, and Hoppe, can be both Libertarian and Conservative. Though I still wish I knew what the latter really meant.

          Blessing to you my brother, please keep up the good work.