Why I Am Not a Conservative

Professor Bainbridge is shocked, simply shocked, by a passage from Randy Barnett’s post about “Libertarians on War”. Bainbridge says:

Do people really believe this crap?…The government as a whole is “unjust”? Please. I doubt whether Barnett believes such nonsense, but his post implies that some people do. Unfathomable.

Here then we find the essential difference between sensible conservatism and the lunacy of libertarian anarchy.

Bainbridge paints libertarians with too broad a brush. Admittedly, there are some sophomoric anarchists among us. Then there are thoughtful libertarians (Barnett and myself, among many) who understand that government has an important, if limited, role to play in the affairs of humankind. Government’s most important role is as the protector of life, liberty, and property.

Bainbridge goes on to quote A Nickel’s Worth of Free Advice, which quotes Russell Kirk:

[I]n any tolerable society, order is the first need. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is reasonably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract Liberty. Conservatives, knowing the ‘liberty inheres in some sensible object’, are aware that freedom may be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the Constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order the libertarians imperil the very freedom that they praise.

Wrong, but not too bad. At least Kirk is on the verge of saying the right thing about the role of government. But then he says:

Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.

I agree with Kirk if he means that the state may — in the name of protecting life, liberty, and property — protect us from — and punish — such acts as fraud, theft, assault, and murder. If he means that we must be censored or prosecuted for engaging in solitary and consensual acts that do not harm others, then he has gone down the slippery slope toward oppression. That’s what I fear Kirk has in mind when he says:

The libertarians contend — so far as they endure any binding at all — that the nexus of society is self-interest, closely joined to cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Calling society a “community of souls” is sheer romantic nonsense, and it’s but a step away from justifying a theocratic welfare state. There’s a lot more to libertarianism than “self-interest, closely joined to cash payment,” but I’d rather have such a “cold” society than Kirk’s suffocating Father-knows-best society.

In my “cold” society, those who choose to believe in “a community of souls” may practice that belief among themselves. They may even practice any form of “love of neighbor” they wish to, as long as their neighbor consents. But they may not impose their beliefs and practices on me. That’s libertarianism for you.

Finally, Bainbridge shouldn’t be too quick to condemn libertarians because some of us are kooks about government. “Kook” is an old and still valid adjective for many conservatives. But I wouldn’t dream of applying it to Professor Bainbridge.