Can Conservatives be Libertarians?

Can Libertarians be Conservative?

An overwhelming prejudice in favour of ancient and existing usages has ever been, and probably will long continue to be, one of the most prominent characteristics of humanity. No matter how totally inconsistent with the existing state of society—no matter how utterly unreasonable, both in principle and practice—no matter how eminently absurd, in every respect, such institutions or customs may be—still, if they have but the countenance of fashion or antiquity—if they have but been patronised and handed down to us by our forefathers—their glaring inconsistencies, defects, and puerilities are so completely hidden by the radiant halo wherewith a blind veneration has invested them, that it is almost impossible to open the dazzled eyes of the world, to an unprejudiced view of them.

(Herbert Spencer, The Proper Sphere of Government)

As the opening citation attests, many, perhaps most, people have a deep-rooted predisposition to keep things the way they are. For every person who is avid for change, there are ninety nine who instinctively resist it. This innate resistance to change finds expression in the political philosophy called conservatism. Unlike conservatives, the attitude of libertarians towards change is not derivable from their name. While the libertarians’ name witnesses to their high valuation of liberty, to be pro-liberty is as yet to adopt no particular attitude to the status quo unless the status quo limits or prevents human freedom. Are these political philosophies intrinsically opposed to each other or is it possible to be both conservative and libertarian?

Russell Kirk believes that, apart from their common detestation of collectivism and governments that go beyond their competence, conservatives and libertarians have little or nothing in common. The problem with libertarians, according to Kirk, is their “fanatic attachment…to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence.” (113) Their pathological concern with freedom leads them to adopt an attitude of tolerance to all sorts of views and opinions, a tolerance that leads, in the end, to their own proscription! In Kirk’s view, “It is consummate folly to tolerate every variety of opinion, on every topic, out of devotion to an abstract ‘liberty’” because “opinion soon finds its expression in action, and the fanatics whom we tolerated will not tolerate us when they have power.” (116)

What libertarians dread most of all, it appears, is obedience to the dictates of custom. They are intolerant of any authority and in morals such intolerance can lead to perversity; in the end, “there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism.” (117) As if this isn’t enough, libertarians also suffer from a kind of metaphysical madness inasmuch as, despite their doctrines being repeatedly rejected both logically and practically, they still persist in putting them forward. If stupidity consists in the repetition of the unworkable, like a fly repeatedly banging its head against the window pane, then libertarians must be incredibly stupid.

Are libertarians necessarily utilitarians? Does libertarianism imperil human freedom? Do libertarians disparage or degrade all human values except freedom? Do they reject all government and espouse chaos? Does libertarianism evacuate the world not only of love and friendship but also of duty, discipline and sacrifice?

An unsympathetic critic of conservatism might return Kirk’s compliment and claim that conservatism has its own charges to answer. A crude account of conservatism might be that it amounts, in effect, to a settled policy of resistance to change of any kind or description. If this resistance to change is to be something more than the practical expression of reaction, it must be based on a normative claim, explicit or implicit, to the effect that the way things are is good. In fact, it must be committed to the claim not just that the way things are is good but the way things are is the best, for if it were not the best, why resist change from the bad to the good, the good to the better, the better to the best?

The self-evident absurdity of this position indicates its fundamental unreasonableness. The way things are now is manifestly not how they have always been. A hundred years from now, things will be different in ways as yet unimaginable. A “no change” policy would commit a conservative not just to the normative claim that the ways things are now is the best but to the absurd claim that the way things are now is the best—until tomorrow.

You may remember that in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as the members of the People’s Front of Judea (not to be confused with the splitters of the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea) conspire to kidnap Pontius Pilate’s wife, the question is asked—what have the Romans ever done for us? The answer is—nothing; well, nothing apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order.

The fundamentalist conservative has to believe, like Voltaire’s hero Candide, that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds—until, of course, things improve. Ted Honderich remarks that “if conservatism were at bottom a defence of the familiar…we should have a mystery on our hands, the mystery of how an egregious idiocy could have become a large political tradition.”

In fact, conservatives are not opposed to change, only to certain kinds of change. One way of attempting to capture the essence of the conservative approach to change is given by the contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton who remarks that the desire to conserve “is compatible with all manner of change, provided only that change is also continuity.” Continuous change, according to Scruton, is good, discontinuous change bad. Once again, this criterion seems implausible. If something is really bad its continuation is certainly no better than its termination. When, for example, the fundamental injustice of slavery finally penetrated the conscience of the civilized world there was only one thing to be done—abolish it forthwith. Such abolition was radically discontinuous with what had gone before—indeed radically discontinuous with human history from its earliest records— but who will argue that this change was not for the better? What conservative is prepared to defend the perpetuation of slavery simply to avoid the discomfort of discontinuity?

In their focus on tradition, conservatives touch on something important which, however, may not have quite the significance they attribute to it. It is true that much of what we are is simply given to us and is not a matter of choice. The family we belong to, the nation we conceive of as ours, the language we speak, the way we speak it, indeed, many of our ideas—all these are important, perhaps constitutive, parts of what we are, parts of our very identity, if you will, and yet not a matter of choice. One calls to mind the hero of the Gilbertian satire HMS Pinafore who is proud to be an Englishman.  Although, as the boatswain proclaims, “…he might have been a Roosian, a French, or Turk, or Proosian, or perhaps Italian” he remains an Englishman “in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations.” Even if one changes one’s political allegiances and obtains a new passport, it is scarcely possible to cease to be in some fundamental sense a member of the nation you were born into.

A key point of tension between conservatives and libertarians is precisely this question of coercion, but if it is granted that one should not be coerced into observing customs or traditions, Rothbard, for one, was more than happy to go along with much of conservative thought. In a late essay, he called his fellow libertarians to order, remarking that libertarians often mistakenly assume “that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange” forgetting that “everyone is necessarily born into a family” and “one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions”.  Yet, despite being partially constitutive of our identities, tradition can have, at best, an heuristic function, for however much something has been done, for however long, and by however many, questions can always be asked—is this right? is this good? is this the best?—and these questions subvert any ultimate normative claim that tradition can make.

Misunderstandings can arise from a failure to recognize the severely limited ethical scope of libertarianism. It is not intended to be, nor is it, a complete ethical system; it is rather an overarching constraint on any such system. Libertarianism does not imply that all modes of conduct are equally valuable or have equal merit. There may well be those who think of themselves as libertarians who think this, but such a view, despite Kirk’s assertion that liberty descends into a maelstrom of licence, is not a necessary consequence of libertarianism as such. A libertarian may choose to be a libertine, but there is nothing in libertarianism to constrain him to be one. Tibor Machan asks, “Is libertinism implicit in the advocacy of liberty as the highest political principle?” and he answers, “No—libertarianism only prohibits the forceable quelching of indecent conduct, not its vigorous criticism, opposition, boycott or denunciation in peaceful ways.”

Conservatives are committed to the centrality and priority of the notion of order. While to a large extent, the principle of order is primarily manifest in little societies, such as families or local communities, it culminates in the state which, from the conservative point of view, is the guarantor of the conditions which allows its constituent communities to flourish. Libertarians, on the other hand, are sometimes portrayed as if they considered social disorder to be something desirable. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there may be individual libertarians who, bizarrely, judge that a disordered, Hobbseian-state-of-nature is a consummation devoutly to be wished, most libertarians, just as much as conservatives, desire to live in an ordered society. The difference between conservative and libertarian is not whether order is desirable; it is what kind of order is desirable and where that order is to come from. For the libertarian, genuine order arises intrinsically from the free interaction among individuals and among groups of individuals; it does not descend extrinsically from on high.

It is clear that conservatives and libertarians accord liberty different priorities. Nisbet claims that for libertarians “individual freedom, in almost every conceivable domain, is the highest of all social values” and is so “irrespective of what forms and levels of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual debasement may prove to be the unintended consequence of such freedom.” On the contrary, I should say that for libertarians, liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of being most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all. Human freedom can be used for all sorts of actions directed to all sorts of purposes which are then susceptible to moral evaluation, but unless human action is free from coercion, moral evaluation is intrinsically impossible. Libertarians value freedom as a hard core without which morally significant human action is simply not possible, but while libertarianism as such has nothing to say beyond asserting and defending individual liberty, this is not at all the same as thinking that libertarians in living out their lives are concerned with nothing other than liberty. This would be as absurd as to think that someone who insisted on the absolute necessity of water for human survival should be taken to assert that water was the only thing needed for a rich and interesting diet. As if to contradict Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, whose credentials as a libertarian none can doubt, remarked that “Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life” and he agreed with Lord Acton’s dictum that “freedom is the highest political end, not the highest end of man per se…”

I have been arguing so far that conservatism and libertarianism are not necessarily opposed to each other. Indeed, many people on the left of the political spectrum believe that conservatism and libertarianism are in effect one and the same thing, and even some conservatives are inclined to think that libertarians are their natural allies. But this isn’t necessarily so. While on some issues there are factual overlaps between the two schools of thought, especially in the area of trade, business and economics, in other areas conservatism and libertarianism diverge sharply.

Libertarianism has one and only one basic principle—that all should be free to do whatever they wish to do provided only that in so doing they do not aggress against others. This principle is both simple and initially attractive; what is not quite so simple or attractive (at least to the conservative) are its consequences. When conservatives realize what these consequences are they tend to have second thoughts about the principle. H. L. Mencken thought that liberty was too strong a drink for many people and that what they really wanted was security. What tends to divide libertarians from conservatives is the conservatives’ failure to realize, or their unwillingness to concede, that toleration is not equivalent to endorsement. It should be obvious (but apparently it is not) that to tolerate something is not the same thing as to approve of it. If toleration required approval, toleration would not be a virtue. What value is there is being prepared to tolerate only those things of which you approve? The libertarian may adopt any of a number of moral attitudes towards various issues—drugs, prostitution, and so on—but the only question for him qua libertarian is not whether these modes of activity are to be commended or are a fitting mode of human activity taken in the round, but only whether in engaging in such activities a person is infringing on the liberty of another. If the answer to this question is no, then this mode of activity cannot be coercively prohibited however much it may be disapproved of. Of course, in a society constructed on libertarian principles, one has the right to license or to refuse to license whatever behaviour one chooses on one’s own property, and others may do likewise. It would follow, therefore, that in such a society that one would be within one’s rights (however inexpedient it might be to do so) to prohibit types of behaviour of which one morally disapproved to licensees on one’s property on pain of the withdrawal of the licence, just as one is entitled to require a visitor to one’s home to leave if his behaviour should become unacceptable, or for any other reason whatsoever, or for none. Such a right subsists whether a property is owned by one person or by a whole community. In such a way, then, could conservative principles obtain traction in a libertarian society.

So: are conservatism and libertarianism intrinsically opposed to each other, or is it possible to be both conservative and libertarian? The answer to this question, like the answer to many others, is—it depends. It depends primarily on the position one starts from. As we have seen, conservatism is rooted in a disposition to resist rapid and fundamental change and to accept only those changes that are, as it were, reformative and organic. The conservative values order and virtue above all else, while liberty is only one value among others and is in no way preeminent. The libertarian, in contrast, takes liberty to be the fundamental and necessary precondition of a life that is truly human. It is not the only value—the libertarian recognizes love, friendship, altruism, courage, charity—but none of the other values can come to be unless we are free. It is true that some sort of behavioural simulacra of these virtues can be produced by coercion, by regulation and by force, but they are ghoulish animated corpses from which the real life has departed. If one starts from a conservative position, holding to conservative values, one will always be prepared to sacrifice freedom to other more important values. One can be, at best, a libertarian for the sunny day but not for the days of snow and ice. If one starts from a libertarian position, one can adopt and adapt conservative values in a way that supplements and embodies one’s commitment to freedom provided that, in so doing, one does not compromises one’s primary commitment to freedom.

If one starts from a conservative position, one is unlikely ever to become libertarian or to endorse libertarianism unless one undergoes a political philosophical conversion. However, if one starts from a libertarian position one can, without necessarily being obliged to, accept the heuristic value of tradition and the antecedent (yet rebuttable) normativity of custom and habit. I have tried to show that libertarianism is not necessarily reducible to libertinism. One more or less certain way to prevent its collapse into libertinism is for it to adopt the cultural core values of conservatism and this libertarians are free to do. Conservatism, on the other hand, is always at the mercy of the questions—whose tradition? which customs? what habits? If it develops a principled and rational response to these questions then it has ceased to be radically conservative and has begun to move in a direction that, I believe, will lead it to espouse the fundamental position of liberty as the sine qua non of all the virtues and thus to transmute into a form of libertarianism.

This article was presented to the ASC and is based on a longer paper, “Conservatism and Libertarianism: Friends or Foes?”, due to be published in Reflections on Conservatism, edited by D. Ozsel.