Conservatism, Libertarianism, Socialism, and Democracy

Libertarians have much company in the struggle against socialism. From Ten Books That Shaped America’s Conservative Renaissance:

George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 is the authoritative study on conservatism’s intellectual renaissance. In it, Nash outlines an American conservative movement that was forged, at times uneasily, from three intellectual groups: libertarians, anti-Communists, and traditionalists. . . .

After the 1964 election, and especially after the implementation of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, the conservative movement welcomed what was to become the fourth component of its intellectual coalition. Popularly known as “neoconservatives,” this group of disillusioned liberals, claiming, as one of them put it, to have been “mugged by reality,” migrated to the conservative cause. Reacting in part to the social uprisings of the 60s, in part to the isolationism and perceived “anti-Americanism” ofthe New Left, and in part to the consequences of liberal activism in government, these gifted newcomers came to realize that good intentions do not guarantee good or effective government.

Let’s hear it for the libertarians:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, conservatives of all stripes have denounced the growth of the American welfare state. After World War II in particular, many conservatives were alarmed at the decrease of economic freedom at home and the rise of collectivism overseas. The growth of the omnipotent state was leading to a degree of cultural deterioration that alarmed many thoughtful people.

It was the so-called “libertarians” who responded first to the unwelcome changes that were wrought by this new American “superstate.” The libertarians were attracted to the economic an political teachings of classical, nineteenth century individualists. The principles libertarians believed should guide government were free markets, private property, individualism, and limited government, in short, laissez-faire. The 1930s, the decade of the New Deal, had been uncongenial years for devotees of economic and personal liberty, and it wasn’t until after the war that these libertarian ideas gained a sympathetic hearing.

As has been suggested by a number of scholars, post-war libertarians were buttressed theoretically and philosophically from their association with members of the Austrian School of economics. Since the late-nineteenth century, economists associated with the Austrian School have been forceful critics of all variants of anti-capitalism and collectivism. The most famous of these Austrian economists is Friedrich von Hayek, whose 1944 book The Road to Serfdom was central to the early definition of the conservative movement. It was Hayek’s contention that “[a]lthough we had been warned by some of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, by Tocqueville and Lord Acton, that socialism means slavery, we have steadily moved in the direction of socialism.” The purpose of his book was to explain “why and how certain kinds of economic controls tend to paralyze the driving forces of a free society.”. . . For Hayek, the socialists, under the guise of equality, were setting us back on the road to serfdom—that is, back to a condition ofpolitical and economic servitude and away from the ideal of a free society….

[Ludwig von Mises’s] book Socialism, [a] work that considerably influenced early conservative thinking, powerfully challenged socialist economics as being not only inherently flawed because they are unable to allocate scarce resources efficiently, but contrary to the very nature of the individual as well. Collectivist economics does not recognize the central role played by the entrepreneur in ordinary economic and social organization. For Mises, socialism was far from being a humane alternative to the free market. Rather, at bottom, it was contrary to human nature itself. By denying the human aspect—the role each individual plays in communicating vital economic information—socialism, according to Mises, was doomed to fail.

Hayek and Mises were right about the inhumane character of socialism, but Mises was wrong about its inevitable failure. The neoconservative Irving Kristol glimpsed the truth of the matter:

[Kristol’s] book On the Democratic Idea in America helped to direct and shape the conservative movement. The subject of the book, in Kristol’s own words, was “the tendency of democratic republics to depart from…their original, animating principles, and as a consequence precipitate grave crises in the moral and political order.” Kristol condemned moral relativism as vigorously as did the traditionalists. As against the libertarians, however, he only gave “two cheers” for capitalism. He noted that while he did “think that, within limits, the notion of the ‘hidden hand’ has its uses in the market place,” he also believed that “the results are disastrous when it is extended to the polity as a whole….” For Kristol, “[s]elf-government, the basic principle of the republic, is inexorably being eroded in favor of self-seeking, self-indulgence, and just plain aggressive selfishness.”

Kristol misunderstands libertarianism if he thinks that it tolerates a form of government which enables some to steal from others. But Kristol is right that (limited) self-government has been replaced by unconstrained self-indulgence, operating through government.

As I have written elsewhere, democracy is an enemy of liberty. What should be private, such as the voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual gain, “democracy” has made public. The problem isn’t libertarianism or capitalism, it’s state interference in consensual private matters, which diminshes the general good on the pretext of serving the general good. This passage from Jill Paton Walsh’s A Desert in Bohemia captures the socialist mindset, wherever it prevails:

‘You see,’ said Slavomir, swinging in his chair, and twirling a pencil between finger and thumb, ‘this idea that there is a private sphere which is of no concern to the authorities is a very decadent and dangerous one. No-one has an individuality which is not a construction of society, and no-one can have any right to purse conduct which is not for the general good. What do you say to that?’

‘Who decides what is for the general good?’ said Frantsiek.

‘The party,’ said Slavomir, ‘because they are the most enlightened section of society. . . .’

And there you have it. Our counterpart of “the party” — political “leaders,” abetted by the “intelligentsia,” and goaded by the voting masses — cynically imposes its desires in the name of the general good. Limited government, free people, and free markets be damned.

Related post: A Paradox for Libertarians

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