Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

REVISED AND UPDATED, 01/29/14

Are there such things? If there are, are they the same thing?

A prominent libertarian of my acquaintance once said to me that a libertarian may be a person of conservative mien. His implication was that a libertarian — one who favors (at most) a minimal, night-watchman state — might be conservative in his personal views about, say, the kinds of behavior in which he would engage, even while “tolerating” behavior, by others, in which he would not engage. A person of such character might be considered a conservative libertarian.  Such a “conservative” libertarian would not, for example, take a homosexual “marriage” partner or abet an abortion, even though he would (in all likelihood) insist that such things should be allowed by the state (as long as the state is in the business of allowing or disallowing such things).

What, then, is a libertarian conservative? Is he, in effect, the “conservative” libertarian of the preceding paragraph — unwilling to invoke the power of the state against acts in which he would not engage? Is that all there is to it?

Hardly. I have played fast and loose with the idea of conservatism by portraying it as a kind of prudishness or finickiness. Conservatism, properly understood, is not those things.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us begin with libertarianism. It is, as I say in “Parsing Political Philosophy (II),” a “big tent” that accommodates anarchists and minarchists. Later in that post — and in many others (e.g., here) — I dismiss anarchism as a viable political philosophy. Turning to minarchism, I write:

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and successfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”…

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

Does minarchism square with conservatism? It all depends on what one means by conservatism, and on the brand of minarchism one has in mind.

There is, in my view, a “core” conservatism, which Russell Kirk articulates in his six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

(1) …Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Kirk’s canons, at first glance, seem orthogonal to minarchism, if not opposed to it.  But they are not they are compatible with right-minarchism (as defined here):

1. Political problems are moral problems. A right-minarchist would say that it is immoral to take from others what they have rightly earned. There are, of course, persons who profess to be religious and yet believe that it is right for government to take from the “rich” and give to the poor (or whatever group happens to find favor with those who control government at a particular time). But a truly conservative view of the matter is found in the Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal. A Christian is exhorted to do good with his income, sharing with others and being as open-handed as possible toward employees, while meeting his family’s needs and maintaining a viable business. The sharing of one’s income and the property that derives from it is a matter of conscience, not a matter for government to decide.

2. Right-minarchism is not in any way a “radical system.” The only kind of “equalitarianism” to be found in right-minarchism is the equality of rights, which are the same for all. Right-minarchists reject utilitarianism — the belief in a transcendent welfare function — as nothing more than an excuse for dictatorship in the name of “society.” Right-minarchists may even believe that tradition is essential to social cohesion, without which violence and suspicion would displace mutually beneficial coexistence and cooperation.

3. Orders and classes result naturally from spontaneous order,

those ‘natural processes’ which are not the product of reason or intention. The classic example is the free market economy in which the co-ordination of the aims and purposes of countless actors, who cannot know the aims and purposes of more than a handful of their fellow citizens, is achieved by the mechanism of prices. A change in the price of a commodity is simply a signal which feeds back information into the system enabling actors to ‘automatically’ produce that spontaneous co-ordination which appears to be the product of an omniscient mind. The repeated crises in dirigiste systems are in essence crises of information since the abolition of the market leaves the central planner bereft of that economic knowledge which is required for harmony. There is no greater example of the hubris of the constructivist than in this failure to envisage order in a natural process (which is not of a directly physical kind). As Hayek says in “Principles of a Liberal Social Order”:

Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.

Right-minarchism fosters spontaneous order, which benefits not only the form of social behavior known as economic activity but all forms of social behavior. Right-minarchism, in short, enables the cream to rise to the top, as the old (pre-homgenization) saying goes. This is true in the economic sphere, where rewards are in keeping with the value that willing buyers place on the products and services of sellers. It is true, also, in the social sphere, where institutions and persons are honored and respected for the value they add to the lives they touch. There are natural “orders and classes,” and they are preferable to the hereditary ones that are imposed by dirigiste systems.

4. Right-minarchism is founded on the intimate connection of freedom and property. There is no freedom without the right to acquire property, that is, to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Leveling amount to theft, and it removes a vital incentive to act in economically and, therefore, socially beneficial ways.

5. Right-minarchists agree that civil order is an essential condition for productive economic and social intercourse. It therefore follows that free civil institutions — family, church, club, and so on — yield traditions that conduce to civil order. Those traditions may evolve with time, but only as their evolution is found to be beneficial.

6. Right-minarchism rules out change for the sake of a politician’s perceived need for change. It allows changes only where such change is beneficial to the parties affected by it.

In sum, there is no essential conflict between Kirk’s brand of Burkean conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism.

This brings me to Friedrich Hayek — a right-minarchist, in my view — who argued as persuasively as anyone against an intrusive state (though he was not averse to a “social safety net”), but who seemingly rejected conservatism. The famous postscript to Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty is called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In the following excerpts, Hayek’s use of “liberal” should be understood as a reference to classical liberalism, the anti-statist position which is the antithesis of modern “liberalism” or “progressivism”:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt [by William F. Buckley Jr. et al.] to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character….

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving [i.e., toward socialism]. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists….

…Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge….

…It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks….

[T]he main point … is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules….

Hayek’s mentor and colleague, Ludwig von Mises, immediately expressed his agreement with Hayek’s rejection of conservatism:

I completely agree with your rejection of conservatism. In his book Up from Liberalism, Buckley — as a person a fine and educated man — has clearly defined his standpoint: “Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.” (p. 154)….

I quite agree with Hayek and Mises, to the extent that their target is Buckley and his adherents, in whose “conservatism” I could never find a coherent principle, except the one identified by Mises. Buckley’s program, it seems to me, was always one of opposition, expressed so reconditely that it almost defies analysis and refutation. For example, Buckley rightly excoriates the infantile posturing of Murray Rothbard and his anarchistic ilk (here, at “The Right Anarchists”), while at the same time demonstrating the truth of Hayek’s charge that “the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds”; thus Buckley writes:

…The American conservative believes that the state is as often as not [emphasis added] an instrument of mischief as of good….

But no, children, one does not therefore argue against the existence of the state. The conservative harbors the presumption against any growth in state power….

But apparently not a presumption for the reduction of state power.

Returning to Kirk, we find an affirmation of liberty in his essay, “The Best Form of Government,” which he penned in the year that Hayek rejected conservatism (as he understood it). Kirk applies the idea of spontaneous order, of which Hayek was a leading exponent. But Kirk’s understanding of spontaneous order goes deeper than Hayek’s:

Good government is not of uniform design. Order and justice and freedom are found in diverse ways, and any government which intends to shelter the happiness of its people must be founded upon the moral convictions, the cultural inheritance, and the historic experience of that people. Theory divorced from experience is infinitely dangerous, the plaything of the ideologue….

I am saying this: governments are the offspring of religion and morals and philosophy and social experience; governments are not the source of civilization, nor the manufacturers of happiness. As Christianity embraces no especial scheme of politics, so various forms of government are best—under certain circumstances, in certain times and certain nations. And, far from being right to revolt against small imperfections in government, a people are fortunate if their political order maintains a tolerable degree of freedom and justice for the different interests in society. We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom.

Hayek and Mises were right enough, as far as they went, but they failed to delve human nature as deeply as Kirk did.

Where does that leave the relationship between conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism? It is superficial to proclaim the virtues of individualism and spontaneous order while rejecting the indispensable, civilizing role of tradition. A libertarian who is not also a Burkean conservative is on a par with his ostensible opponent, the rationalist of the left:

How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources. (Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7)

What conclusions do I draw from the preceding tour of libertarianism and conservatism? These:

It is entirely possible to be a libertarian conservative, that is, a conservative (of Burkean stripe) who believes that humane values are most likely to survive and thrive under the aegis of a minimal state.  This kind of conservative is an adherent of right-minarchism, which is a species of libertarianism. And for my money, right-minarchism is the only kind of libertarianism that is both coherent and viable.

A libertarian of conservative mien — a so-called conservative libertarian — will favor a minimal state (if any), by definition. But such a person may be “conservative” only in matters of personal taste, and not because he subscribes to the conservatism of Burke and Kirk. He may in fact be in favor of governmental efforts to demolish long-standing social norms. He will give his support to such efforts in the name of liberty and without regard for the true bulwark of liberty: the restraining influence of voluntarily evolved norms of behavior.

In short, a “conservative” libertarian may well be what I call a left-minarchist. And if he is, he will be allied with other left-minarchists who are neither “conservative” in matters of personal taste nor attuned to the indispensable role of social norms.

Perversely, left-minarchists tend to dismiss the importance of social norms in binding a people together in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance. And it is that bond — far more than the threat of state action — which allows us to go about our daily lives in the peaceful pursuit of happiness.

That said, libertarians (of all stripes) and conservatives (“conservative” yahoos excepted) have a common political enemy: the over-reaching state. Libertarians who are tempted to make cause with “liberals” because they happen to agree with “liberals” about the permissibility of certain kinds of behavior should resist the temptation. There is nothing to be gained from an alliance with “liberals,” who will only use libertarian arguments cynically to advance measures that suppress liberty.

And what is liberty? It is not “do as you will as long as you don’t harm others.” That definition, adapted from John Stuart Mill’s oft-evoked “harm principle,” is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific, agreed definition of harm. Liberty — the absence of harm — is therefore a social construct. That is to say, liberty is a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. It comes down to this:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

What could be more conservative?

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Related reading:
Carson Holloway, “Conservatism and Freedom,” Public Discourse, November 8, 2013
Jonathan Neumann, “God, Hayek, and the Conceit of Reason,” Standpoint, January/February 2014 (This is generally applicable to libertarians, though it misses Hayek’s defense of tradition; see this post, for example.)
Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism Is Very Strange,” Boston Review, January 27, 2014
Glenn Fairman, “Libertarianism and the Public Good,” American Thinker, January 29, 2014

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The Meaning of Liberty
A Trichotomy of American Conservatism
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
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Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
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More about Conservative Governance
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True Libertarianism, One More Time
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Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
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