Conservatism vs. Libertarianism

Returning to the subject of political ideologies, I take up a post that had languished in my drafts folder for these past 18 months. It begins by quoting an unintentionally prescient piece by Michael Warren Davis: “The Max Bootification of the American Right” (The American Conservative, April 13, 2018). It’s unintentionally prescient because Davis boots Boot out of conservatism at about the same time that Boot was declaring publicly that he was no longer a conservative.

By way of introduction, Davis takes issue with

an article from the Spring 2012 issue of the Intercollegiate Review called “The Pillars of Modern American Conservatism” by Alfred S. Regnery. Like the [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] itself, it was excellent on the main. But it suffers from the grave (albeit common) sin of believing there is such a thing as “modern” conservatism, which can be distinguished from historic conservatism….

The trouble with “modern” conservatism … is that historic conservatism didn’t fail. It has not been tried and found wanting, as Chesterton would say; it has been found difficult and not tried….

The genius of fusionists (what is generally meant by “modern” conservatives) like William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer was joining the intellectual sophistication of traditionalism with the political credibility of libertarianism. The greatest traditionalists and libertarians of that age—Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek, respectively—protested vehemently against this fusion, insisting that their two schools were different species and could not intermarry. It was inevitable that “modern” conservatism would prioritize the first principles of one movement over the other. That is to say, this new conservatism would be either fundamentally traditionalist or fundamentally libertarian. It could not be both.

Regnery’s article proves that the latter came to pass. “Modern” conservatism is in fact not conservatism at all: it is a kind of libertarianism, albeit with an anti-progressive instinct.

Consider the subheadings: “The first pillar of conservatism,” Regnery writes, “is liberty, or freedom… The second pillar of conservative philosophy is tradition and order.” This is an inversion of the hierarchy put forward in What Is Conservatism?, a collection of essays edited by Meyer and published by the ISI in 1964. According to Meyer’s table of contents, essays with an “emphasis on tradition and authority” (Kirk, Willmoore Kendall) rank higher than those with an “emphasis on freedom” (M. Stanton Evans, Wilhelm Röpke, Hayek).

The ordering is no coincidence. This question of priorities became one of the principal logjams between the Kirkians and Hayekians. As Kirk explained in “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” published in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age:

In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can 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 freedoms they praise.

This seems rather straightforward in terms of domestic policy, but we should consider its implications for foreign policy, too. The triumph of the “emphasis on freedom” is responsible for the disastrous interventionist tendencies that have plagued all modern Republican administrations.

We again turn to Kirk in his essay for What is Conservatism? titled “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom.” Here he warned:

To impose the American constitution on all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription.

That is why traditionalists oppose regime change in the Middle East. Freedom may follow tyranny only if (as in the Revolutions of 1989) the people themselves desire it and are capable of maintaining the machinery of a free society. If the public is not especially interested in self-government, they will succumb either to a new despot or a stronger neighboring country. We have seen both of these scenarios play out in post-Ba’athist Iraq, with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of Iranian hegemony.

It is also why traditionalist conservatives are tarred as pro-Putin by liberals and “modern” conservatives. If Putin is indeed a neo-Tsarist, we may hope to see Russia follow C.S. Lewis’s maxim: “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” Communism is the error, and while Putinism is by no means the solution, we may hope (though not blindly) that it represents a return to the pre-communist order. Those are, if not optimal conditions for true liberty to flourish, at least the best we can reasonably expect.

More important, however, is that we recognize the absurdity of “modern” conservatives’ hopes that Russia would have transitioned from the Soviet Union to a carbon copy of 1980s Britain. We do the Russian people a disservice by holding President Putin to the example of some mythical Tsarina Thatcherova. That is simply not the “ancient and winding way” Providence has laid out for them.

Such an unhealthy devotion to abstract liberty is embodied in Max Boot, the Washington Post’s new conservative [sic] columnist. Consider the opening lines of his essay “I Would Vote for a (Sane) Donald Trump,” published last year in Foreign Policy:

I am socially liberal: I am pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-immigration. I am fiscally conservative: I think we need to reduce the deficit and get entitlement spending under control… I am pro-free trade: I think we should be concluding new trade treaties rather than pulling out of old ones. I am strong on defense: I think we need to beef up our military to cope with multiple enemies. And I am very much in favor of America acting as a world leader: I believe it is in our own self-interest to promote and defend freedom and free markets as we have been doing in one form or another since at least 1898.

Boot has no respect for Authority, Tradition, and Prescription—not in this country, and not in those manifold countries he would have us invade. His politics are purely propositional: freedom is the greatest (perhaps the sole) virtue, and can be achieved equally by all men in all ages. Neither God nor history nor the diverse and delicate fibers that comprise a nation’s social order have any bearing on his ideologically tainted worldview.

Boot, of course, was hired by the Post to rubber-stamp the progressive agenda with the seal of Principled Conservatism™. Even he can’t possibly labor under the delusion that Jeff Bezos hired him to threaten Washington’s liberal establishment. Yet his conclusions follow logically from the pillars of “modern” conservatism.

Two choices lie before us, then. One is to restore a conservatism of Authority, Tradition, and Prescription. The other is to stand by and watch the Bootification of the American Right. Pray that we choose correctly, before it’s too late to undo the damage that’s already been done.

Boot was to have been the Post‘s answer to David Brooks, the nominal conservative at The New York Times, about whom I have often written. Boot, however, has declared himself a person of the left, whereas Brooks calls himself a “moderate“, which is another way of saying wishy-washy. Both of them give aid and comfort to the left. They are Tweedeldum and Tweedle-dumber, as a wag once observed (inaccurately) of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey (opponents in the 1968 presidential election).

Returning to the main point of this post, which is the difference between conservatism and libertarianism, I will offer a view that is consistent with Davis’s, but expressed somewhat differently. This is from “Political Ideologies“:

There is an essential difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions not just because they embed accumulated wisdom. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions because they bind people in mutual trust and respect, which foster mutual forbearance and breed social comity in the face of provocations. Adherence to long-standing social norms helps to preserve the wisdom embedded in them while also signalling allegiance to the community that gave rise to the norms.

Libertarians, on the other hand, following the lead of their intellectual progenitor, John Stuart Mill, are anxious to throw off what they perceive as social “oppression”. The root of libertarianism is Mill’s “harm principle”, which I have exposed for the fraud that it is (e.g., here and here)….

There’s more. Libertarianism, as it is usually explained and presented, lacks an essential ingredient: morality. Yes, libertarians espouse a superficially plausible version of morality — the harm principle, quoted above by Scott Yeonor. But the harm principle is empty rhetoric. Harm must be defined, and its definition must arise from social norms. The alternative, which libertarians — and “liberals” — obviously embrace, is that they are uniquely endowed with the knowledge of what is “right”, and therefore should be enforced by the state. Not the least of their sins against social comity is the legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage” (detailed arguments at the links).

Liberty is not an abstraction. It is the scope of action that is allowed by long-standing, voluntarily evolved social norms. It is that restrained scope of action which enables people to coexist willingly, peacefully, and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. That is liberty, and it is served by conservatism, not by amoral, socially destructive libertarianism.

I rest my case.