The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well

The evidentiary trail begins with Daniel B. Klein‘s “I Was Wrong, and So Are You” (Atlantic Magazine, December 2011). The article’s teaser proclaims: “A libertarian economist retracts a swipe at the left—after discovering that our political leanings leave us more biased than we think.” Perhaps.

In any event, here is some of what Klein has to say in the Atlantic piece:

Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not….

The Wall Street Journal piece was based on an article that Zeljka Buturovic and I had published in Econ Journal Watch, a journal that I edit….

But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions….

Writing up these results was, for me, a gloomy task—I expected critics to gloat and point fingers. In May, we published another paper in Econ Journal Watch, saying in the title that the new results “Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” More than 30 percent of my libertarian compatriots (and more than 40 percent of conservatives), for instance, disagreed with the statement “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person”—c’mon, people!—versus just 4 percent among progressives. Seventy-eight percent of libertarians believed gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. Overall, on the nine new items, the respondents on the left did much better than the conservatives and libertarians. Some of the new questions challenge (or falsely reassure) conservative and not libertarian positions, and vice versa. Consistently, the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.

The articles to which Klein refers are “Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans” and “Economic Enlightenment Revisited: New Results Again Find Little Relationship Between Education and Economic Enlightenment but Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” (Those links lead to abstracts and links to the full text of each article, in .pdf format.) Both papers explain how answers were scored and how respondents identified their political leanings. The choices offered were progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, and libertarian.

The questions asked are listed below (in italics), with the “unenlightened” (or “incorrect”) answers in parentheses. My comments (in bold) are followed by the correct answers, from an enlightened libertarian perspective.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a preference for arrogantly imposing one’s aesthetic views on others. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a strong streak of paternalistic arrogance. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

3. Overall, the standard of living is better today than it was 30 years ago. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality or indoctrination in the standard leftist view that most people are doing worse than they used to, which (in the left-wing view) justifies redistribution of income. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

4. Rent-control laws lead to housing shortages. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that lower rents are preferable to more and better housing. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

5. A company that has the largest market share is a monopoly.  (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a presumption that “largest market share” means dominance of a market, and is grounds for government action. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

6. Third-world workers working overseas for American companies are being exploited. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a value judgement that third-world workers would be better off doing whatever it is they did before the arrival of American companies, even though they probably choose to work for American companies because it makes them better off. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The unenlightened answer is “agree.”

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Free trade can lead to unemployment in certain industries and areas, at least temporarily, but not in the long run (unless welfare programs discourage job-seeking and relocation). And free trade benefits American consumers. Agreement indicates an unwillingness to concede that change is always in the air, and that the effects of international trade are no different in kind than the effects of changes in patterns of domestic trade. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that higher wages for some offsets the loss of employment by others. (This is a typically arrogant left-wing view of the world, in keeping with left-wing positions on most of the preceding questions.) The unenlightened answer is “disagree.”

9. A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This, the first of the “new” questions is truly ambiguous and requires a judgment that no one is entitled to make. Does a dollar “mean more” in relative or absolute terms? And how can anyone know what a dollar “means” to someone else? As it happens, the marginal utility of a dollar need not decline. An additional dollar represents an opportunity to buy something new and different or add to one’s store of wealth. In the latter case, more is preferable to less over a very large range of additional dollars. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

10. Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This is almost certainly a true statement. Those who disagree with it make two implicit judgments: (1) Abortion is a moral abomination because it ends an innocent life and (2) the net effect of making abortion illegal would be to reduce the number of abortions. Disagreement is therefore rational. Disagreement signals a superior moral stance; the enlightened answer is “disagree.”

11. Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime. (Unenlightened: Agree)

I must quote myself:

The legalization of drugs will make them affordable only by those persons who can afford to pay the inevitably inflated prices that will result from government licensing of vendors, restrictions on the number and location of vendors, and restrictions on the amount of drugs an individual may purchase in a given period. (Regulation and paternalism go hand in hand.)….

…[G]overnment restrictions would open the door to a black market, operated by the usual suspects. In the meantime, drug-users would continue to expose themselves to the same inhibition-loosing effects, and many of them would still resort to crime to underwrite their drug intake.

Legalization is a paper panacea. Agreement with the proposition indicates a healthy grasp of reality. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

12. Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Those who agree with this statement probably make two implicit judgments: (1) Drug use has untoward social consequences (e.g., impoverishment of families and crime) and (2) the net effect of making it illegal would be to reduce the incidence of those consequences. Opposition to drug use is therefore rational. The unenlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “disagree.”

13. Gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. (Unenlightened: Agree)

This is almost certainly a false statement. But those who agree with it are making the rational judgment that gun-control laws of the strict (confiscatory) kind favored by the left will do little or nothing to disarm criminals, while leaving law-abiding citizens without guns. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

14. By participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens. (Unenlightened: Agree)

“Immigrants” these days are mainly illegal ones. Leftists don’t care about that because anything that sticks it to “the man” is good, in their adolescent-rebellion worldview. Nor do they care much about the cost of subsidizing the housing, health-care, and education of illegal immigrants — and those costs probably nullify the gains from lower labor costs that accrue to well-to-do leftists who employ nannies, yard men, and other types of unskilled labor. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

15. When a country goes to war its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement with this statement reflects  the myth that World War II rescued America from the Great Depression. It did, but not because the war brought with it full employment of labor; the war also brought widespread rationing, so that resources could be diverted to the war effort. The war ended the Great Depression indirectly, in two, related ways. There was a “saving glut,” which generated demand for products and services once the war had ended. And businesses were ready and willing to respond to that demand because the war and FDR’s death brought a (temporary) end to the anti-business, anti-growth policies of the New Deal. The enlightened answer is “disagree” because wars consume resources and usually don’t have the  after-effects of WWII.

16. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Both parties to a voluntary transaction believe that it will make them better off, and they will be right in most cases. The “correct” answer (“disagree”) hinges on “necessarily” and plays into the leftist view of voluntary transactions between individuals and businesses, where businesses are seen (by leftists) as exploiters. “Agree” is the correct answer with respect to the expectations and motives that drive voluntary exchange; “disagree” is favored by those who wish to discredit voluntary exchange and replace it with paternalistic regulation. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

17. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction (Unenlightened: Agree)

Here, again, we find the qualifier “necessarily.” As with question 16, it serves to deflect attention from the normal course of events to the outliers that (in the minds of leftists) justify government action. For if anyone is affected (or even offended) in the slightest by a voluntary transaction, the “externality” thus created is grounds from some kind of government action, in the left-wing view of the world. The importance and negative effects of externalities are vastly overrated. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

My interpretations are deliberately provocative. But my point is that, the 17-question survey can be seen as a libertarian Rorschach test. An enlightened libertarian would see through the questions, as stated, to the deeper issues and give what I call enlightened answers.

I used the enlightened answers to compare the positions of self-described leftists, conservatives, and libertarians with each other and with the positions that an enlightened libertarian would take. The next two paragraphs describe my method.

In tables 1 and 2 of “Economic Enlightenment Revisited,” Buturovic and Klein (B & V) give, for each question, the percentage of respondents offering answers that are “incorrect” (in their view), overall and by ideological category. I used the values given in tables 1 and 2 to obtain weighted percentages of “incorrect” answers for “leftist” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as progressive and liberal. Similarly, I obtained weighted percentages of “incorrect” for “conservative” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as conservative and very conservative. I took the percentages for self-identified libertarians straight from the tables.

I then had to account for the fact that an enlightened libertarian would have answered eight questions (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17) “incorrectly,” according to B & V. For example, 30.5 percent of self-described libertarians answered question 9 “incorrectly.” But B & V’s “incorrect” answer is, in fact, the correct one from the standpoint of an enlightened libertarian; therefore, 100 – 30.5 = 69.5 percent of libertarians answered question 9 incorrectly. I made similar adjustments for all eight of the wrongly graded questions, and did so for leftists and conservatives as well as libertarians.

Without further ado, here is a question-by-question comparison of the three ideological categories with respect to the answers that an enlightened libertarian would give:

This leads to two observations:

1. Persons responding to the survey who self-describe as leftists did better than self-described conservatives and libertarians on only two questions: 12 and 15. To put it another way, libertarians and conservatives generally come closer than leftists to enlightened libertarian positions.

2. More significantly, it is obvious that self-described libertarians and conservatives are closely aligned on 14 of the 17 questions. Further, that would be true even if I were to accept B & V’s version of the “correct” answers.

Klein’s retraction is misguided. Many of the answers that he considers correct are, in fact, consistent with the wrong-headed views of extreme libertarians — a vocal but unrepresentative minority of libertarians.

The survey results evidently reflect the views of sensible libertarians, who understand that true libertarianism is found in traditionalist conservatism. The closeness of their positions to those of conservatives is heartening evidence of a de facto libertarian-conservative fusion.

A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance

I am a pro-defense, conservative libertarian.

By conservative libertarian, I mean that I am a libertarian who understands that liberty depends on the preservation of the traditional institutions of civil society (e.g., marriage, religion, voluntary charity) because it is those institutions that make possible mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. And it is those things that enable a people to coexist peacefully and cooperatively, to their mutual benefit. It is those things — not the statutes, ordinances, codes, and regulations that may be overlaid on them — which constitute the rule of law. Without the rule of law, liberty and the enjoyment of its fruits is impossible.

The alternatives to a robust civil society are chaos, from which warlordism springs, and the police state. Police and courts are a necessary evil, because bad things happen, even where civil society is strong. But, as civil society is weakened by the intrusions of government, police and courts become more necessary because dependence on police and courts to maintain the rule of law further weakens civil society, which leads to the need for even more intrusion by police and courts, and so on, toward the dark night of oppression.

In any event, I part company with those libertarians who believe that private agencies can and should perform the functions of police forces and courts. Private agencies, each acting on behalf of their clients, will sooner or later clash, warlord-style. Or the vacuum of statelessness will be filled by those who seek power for its own sake and for the riches it can bring them. Better an accountable state than an unaccountable warlord.

The same is true when it comes to defense against foreign powers — whether they are states or terrorist groups. Yes, some very wealthy Americans might pool their resources and provide defense, from which everyone might benefit. But the might of a defense force can easily be turned inward and aimed at particular individuals and groups who are out of favor with the proprietors of the defense force.

An accountable, state-run defense force, on the other hand, should be used to defend Americans and their legitimate overseas interests, and to do that decisively. Either get in and win, or stay out. But always remember that staying out — or delaying action — enables an actual or potential enemy to gather strength.

Enough of that. How did I become a libertarian, of the kind that I am?

My disillusionment with the predictably “liberal” worldview that I acquired as an undergraduate came in stages, beginning in the late 1960s. The urban riots that had begun earlier in the decade and reached a zenith in 1968 were evidence of the futility of solving the “black problem” by throwing tax dollars at it. What was needed instead of welfare was robust economic growth and jobs — especially for black males. The intellectual clincher came for me in the mid-1970s, when — as a defense analyst — I grasped the limitations of warfare models.

What is the connection between the limitations of warfare models and the proper role of government? A mathematical model of a fairly well-defined phenomenon — combat involving certain types of weapons — is unlikely to yield an accurate prediction of the outcome of combat. Therefore, it is even more unlikely that emotionally justified government programs — designed mainly to benefit this and that interest group — will perform as predicted. Or, even if they deliver something like the expected benefits, they will also have unanticipated, negative side effects.

The evidence against social and economic engineering is staggering. See, for example, the 144 issues of Regulation that have been published since the magazine’s inception in 1977. Or consider just four salient examples of the social and economic engineering that have had untoward results:

1. Social Security. On the surface, this seems to have helped millions of old persons live more comfortably. It has in fact led people to save less for their retirement, causing them to be more dependent on Social Security and reducing the nation’s rate of saving, with adverse consequences for growth-inducing capital investment. Add to that the inevitable political consequences of a popular program that brings in revenue — the expansion of benefits as a vote-getting measure and the expenditure of “contributions” on other government programs — and you have an explanation for a large chunk of the burgeoning federal deficit.

2. Health care. The creation and expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, coupled with employer-supported health insurance (a result of tax policy), have led to the over-consumption of health-care services with little effect on health. (There is an authoritative, scientific RAND study to support that contention.) It is therefore largely because of government actions that drugs and medical services have become so expensive in the U.S. Another contributor to the apparently high cost of health-care in the U.S. has been the invention and improvement of life- and health-saving drugs, procedures, and equipment. Such things do not come cheaply. But put them all together and you have what the proponents of government intervention like to call a “broken” system. That it is “broken” largely because of government intervention does not faze the proponents of still more intervention.

3. Welfare. Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained well the contributions of government welfare programs to what he called “he cycle of poverty and disadvantage” among urban blacks. For his pains, he was labeled a “racist” and accused of “blaming the victim.” The evidence of subsequent history is on Moynihan’s side.

4. Deficit spending. This canon of Keynesian orthodoxy has led to bouts of wasteful spending and a larger federal debt, both of which cause the displacement of private outlays on consumption goods (including health care) and job-producing, growth-enhancing capital investments. Deficit spending is stoutly defended by believers in big government, even though (a) it did not cure the Great Depression (conventional wisdom to the contrary), (b) its sudden withdrawal at the end of World War II did not cause a new depression (despite “authoritative” predictions to the contrary), and its recurrence in the form of “stimulus” did not alleviate the Great Recession. There are many reasons that deficit spending does not work as advertised, but its defenders will hear none of them because they are persons of faith in big government, not facts and reason.

Were it not for these and other government interventions, Americans — even the poorest ones — would be much better off than than they are, because they would strive to do better for themselves and because they would earn much more from their striving. In addition, there would be significantly more voluntary charity for those many fewer persons who really need it. That is a real “social safety net.”

Despite the foregoing, social and economic engineering by government persists for five reasons:

  • Ignorance — which includes the kind of blind faith in the power of government to do “the right thing,” as discussed above.
  • Smugness — the self-satisfaction that comes from having supported or voted for a certain cause as a token of one’s “enlightenment,” “open-mindedness,” or “compassion.”
  • Power-seeking — as politicians cater to and shape the preferences of certain voting blocs, for the sake of gaining and holding office and the power that goes with it.
  • Rent-seeking — the effort to gain an economic or social advantage at the expense of others, an advantage that is mainly illusory because one group’s gains must be paid for, politically, by supporting the efforts of other groups to acquire gains.

Appeals to “fairness,” “social justice,” “equality,” and other such high-flown concepts are good indicators of ignorance, smugness, power-seeking, and rent-seeking.

Am I right about the essential bankruptcy of social and economic engineering by government? All I can say is that I came to my views as a result of observation and reflection. I did not inherit them from my parents (who were inarticulate in such matters), nor did I absorb them from my professors (who, if anything led me in the opposite direction). I believe in the rightness of my views — of course. But whether I am right or wrong is not for me to say. What I could say has been said well by an economist named Russell Roberts that I will quote him:

I am willing to admit that I have trouble thinking of a natural experiment that would get me to change my worldview. It would take a lot of natural experiments in lots of different settings before I became convinced, for example, that government can spend our way out of a recession or that bailouts are a good way to deal with systemic risk. I have a worldview. I’m an ideologue. I have a philosophy of what makes the world a better place. I stand by that philosophy because I think its principles if implemented more widely would actually make the world a better place. It would take a lot of evidence to dissuade me from my views on economic freedom and the proper role of government. Those principles color the way I see the world. I think that’s true for almost all of us. What distinguishes is honesty about what we believe and why.

Now you have a good idea — if you didn’t already — of what I believe and why I believe it.

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Related and supporting posts: Too many to list. Go here and browse.

Positive Liberty vs. Liberty

There is a special kind of liberty known as “positive liberty,” which is inimical to “liberty,” as that term is properly understood. To show why, I begin by expanding on an earlier post, where I offer the following definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

Liberty, thus defined, is liberty — full stop. It is neither negative nor positive. It is a modus vivendi that is accepted and practiced by a social group, in keeping with the group’s behavioral norms. There is no liberty if those norms do not include voice and exit, because willing coexistence then becomes problematic. (For a further elaboration, see “On Liberty” and scroll down to “What Liberty Is.”)

However, peaceful, willing coexistence is likely (and perhaps only) to be found where a close-knit social group lives by the Golden Rule:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself….

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.


Self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by voluntary adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms; the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).

The attainment of something that all Americans would recognize as liberty is next to impossible. The United States does not comprise a single, close-knit social group, nor even a collection of close-knit social groups. It is a motley, shifting conglomeration of (mostly) loose-knit groups with widely varying social norms and conceptions of harm. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that America is a nation of strangers.

It follows that the only kind of state-sponsored liberty which is possible in America is so-called negative liberty, that is, a regime of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

But we are far from such a regime:

[M]ost government enactments deny negative rights; for example, they

  • compel the surrender of income to government agencies for non-protective purposes (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • compel the transfer of income to persons who did not earn the income (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • direct how business property may be used, through restrictions on the specifications to which goods must be manufactured (violating property ownership)
  • force the owners of businesses (in non-right-to-work-States) to recognize and bargain with labor unions (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to hire certain classes of persons (“protected groups”) and undertake additional expenses for the “accommodation” of handicapped persons (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to restrict or ban smoking (violating property rights and freedom of association)
  • mandate attendance at tax-funded schools and the subjects taught in those schools, even where those teachings run counter to the moral values that parents are trying to inculcate (violating freedom from force and freedom of association)
  • limit political speech through restrictions on political contributions and the publication of political advertisements (violating freedom from force and freedom of association).

On top of that,

[s]uch enactments also trample social norms. First, and fundamentally, they convey the message that government, not private social institutions, is the proper locus of moral instruction and interpersonal mediation. Persons who seek special treatment (privileges, a.k.a. positive rights) learn that they can resort to government for “solutions” to their “problems,” which encourages other persons to do the same thing, and so on. In the end — which we have not quite reached — social institutions lose their power to instruct and mediate, and become merely sources of solace and entertainment.

There is much more in the pages of this blog (e.g., here and here). The sum and substance of it all is that liberty is a dead letter in America. It has succumbed to a series of legislative, executive, and judicial acts that have, on the one hand, suppressed and distorted voluntary social and economic relationships and, on the other hand, bestowed positive rights on selected groups to the general detriment of liberty. Positive rights are grants of privilege that can come only at the expense of others, and which are therefore incompatible with the “willing” aspect of liberty.

The clamor for positive liberty ought to set off alarm bells in the minds of libertarians because positive liberty, wrongly understood, justifies positive rights. The last thing this nation needs is what passes for a philosophical justification of positive rights. The first thing this nation needs is a lot fewer positive rights.

Positive liberty is nevertheless on the agenda of the philosophers who blog at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. What is it? According to Wikipedia:

Positive liberty is defined as the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential (this may include freedom from internal constraints); as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint….

…Specifically, … in order to be free, a person should be free from inhibitions of the social structure in carrying out their free will. Structurally speaking classism, sexism or racism can inhibit a person’s freedom….

In other words, it is not enough to have “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.” That kind of liberty — liberty in the fullest sense — encompasses the acts of love, affection, friendship, neighborliness, and voluntary obligation that help individuals acquire the “power and resources” with which they may strive to attain the fruits of liberty, insofar as they are willing and able to do so.

That should be enough to satisfy the proponents of positive liberty at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but I suspect otherwise. I would be more sanguine were they proponents of a proper definition of liberty, but they are not. Thus, armed with an inchoate definition of liberty, they are prepared to do battle for positive liberty and, I fear, the positive rights that are easily claimed as necessary to it; to wit:

  • A lack of “power” entitles certain groups to be represented, as groups, in the councils of government (a right that is not extended to other groups).
  • A lack of “resources” becomes the welfare entitlements of various kinds — for personal characteristics ranging from low intelligence to old age — which threaten to suck ever more resources out the productive, growth-producing sectors of the economy.
  • The exercise of “free will” becomes the attainment of certain “willed” outcomes, regardless of one’s ability or effort, which then justifies such things as an affirmative-action job, admission to a university, a tax-subsidized house, etc.
  • “Classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” and now “beauty-ism” become excuses for discriminating against vast swaths of the populace who practice none of those things.

With respect to the final point, a certain degree of unpleasantness inevitably accompanies liberty. Legal attempts to stifle that unpleasantness simply spread injustice by fomenting resentment and covert resistance, while creating new, innocent victims who are deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In sum, the line between positive liberty and positive rights is so fine that the advocacy of positive liberty, however well meant, easily becomes the basis for preserving and extending the burden of positive rights that Americans now carry.

Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

Are they the same thing? No, they are not, as I will try to explain.

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 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 a “big tent” that accommodates anarchists and minarchists. Minarchists believe that 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 right to be left alone. The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument 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 foreign and domestic predators. This 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 (e.g., a government that does more than protect life, liberty, and property); 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 views about how the cost of protecting 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 Conservative Thought“:

(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 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 what they possess. 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 arbitrary 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 amounts 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, and voluntarily accepted by them.

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….

… [The European type of conservatism] by its very nature … 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….

… 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…. 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….

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.

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, in my view, 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 is in all likelihood a left-minarchist. Left-minarchists — who support state action to impose “equality” of various kinds — dismiss (or are ignorant of) 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-invoked “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?

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
Scott Yenor, “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty“, Law and Liberty, March 19, 2018

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