May 14, 2016

Being Conservative and Libertarian

By In Articles, Society and Culture

One argument from many in the libertarian world 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; and more loosely, traditions, established and “old world” social habits.  I also see a rising contempt for individuals, like myself, who advocate quite non-modern 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, (see my post on the rise of statism) 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. 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, technically, I too cannot be put even in the category of “classical liberal.”  I do not stand on utilitarianism and economic defenses of liberty as the principle justification for individual rights.  I certainly am able and willing, and often do, make economic cases for freedom a la Ludwig von Mises; but following libertarians like Rothbard and Hoppe, place my principle justification on the moral realm, rather than the economic realm.

More can be learned from Rothbard’s consideration of Frank Meyer.  Meyer’s complaint about the libertarians of his day (1970s) was that they were essentially libertines; that is, they did not care about culture, tradition, morality, family, or community.  This clearly is a common and contemporary 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 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.

[…]image2.jpg

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.

To be clear: even on social issues (not to mention the issue of the state), I don’t think the majority of today’s mainstream conservatives are all that conservative; even in the evangelical world. They too have taken to political correctness, fondness of popular culture, and a level of dependency on the state as the cornerstone of society that would have made Teddy Roosevelt, pioneer of political Progressivism, grin in delight. Conservative Inc., as paleo-conservative Paul Gottfried refers to them, is largely worthless and their wearing of the conservative label is entirely self-justified, having little to do with actual conservatism. And I’m not just talking about actual liberals like Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney. I’m also talking about neoconservative-friendly evangelicals like Russell Moore. Conservatism Inc. beginning back with the rise of Bill Buckley and the National Review crowd, has completely obliterated the memory to true conservatism.

At any rate, all the above 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