Many in the libertarian world believe that “conservatives and liberals are both equally terrible” and that “one cannot be both libertarian and conservative/liberal.” What is meant by these catch phrases is that any self-described liberal or conservative ought to be routinely rejected by virtue of his willingness to use such “mainstream” labels. The problem with this is that it fails to consider the many historical uses, nuances, and development of the terms. The battle cry of “neither liberal nor conservative!” is far too swift and careless.
Unfortunately, in the libertarian movement (and society at large) there is a growing disdain for institutions of western civilization such as churches, religion, authority, the nuclear family, and “old world” social habits. Moreover, contempt for individuals who advocate traditional understandings of marriage, morality, sexuality, and epistemology is commonplace. This so-called “New Libertarianism” demands certain things of the libertarian that the present writer, along with Old Guard libertarians, simply cannot agree to. For this reason, conservative Christians are reluctant to adopt the label of libertarian. Jeffrey Tucker comments on this New Libertarianism in the following:
[T]here are some non-negotiables, and they aren’t only about the ban on the use of power. As an extension of the above point, this generation puts a premium on civilized thinking and behaving that includes absolute exclusion of bigotry in all its forms. Racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes are not only tacky, but embody the opposite of the tolerance that old liberalism identified as a main bulwark against State oppression. This necessarily means a special identity with groups that have been victims of State oppression and remain so in many parts of the world.
[… T]he fundamental history and drive of feminism and the anti-slavery movement, historically understood, are about empowering every member of the human family with the freedom that is his or her right.
If we love capitalism, we must remember that it alone has done more to bring about that empowerment than any political change. For this reason, we should embrace the ideals of feminism in the same way we embrace the anti-slavery cause. It is our cause, our banner, our history, our movement. We should never give this up to the oppressor class.
Due to these trending and popular sentiments, one may witness an interesting case of “reactionary” attitudes against the use of the word “conservative” more than the word “liberal.” Some libertarians are attempting to take back the word “liberal” from the Statist Left, despite their ironically contradictory push to reject both “liberal” and “conservative.” Regardless, “conservatism” as a label is rejected by the New Libertarian to a far greater extent than “liberal.” Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult to persuade conservatives at large to “come join the libertarian movement!” A large portion of the libertarian movement considers the conservative layman a natural enemy. This makes for an awful libertarian strategy and one that is skewed toward cultural leftism/marxism.
Partly to blame for this is the running assumption in the mainstream political world that Democrats are “liberal” and therefore “big government” and Republicans are “conservative” and therefore “small government.” Libertarians who (correctly) reject this formulation, often without careful thinking, (wrongly) exclaim “conservatives and liberals are for big government!” It is more accurate to say that Republicans and Democrats are big government parties and they adopt conservative and liberal themes and rhetoric so as to better attract voters. Whether big government policies are actually liberal or actually conservative depends on one’s use of such words.
The fact remains that “conservatism” today is perceived by the New Libertarian proponents as backward, anti-liberty, unenlightened, and fascistic. Therefore it is believed to be antithetical to the libertarian creed. However, there exist “Propertarian” libertarians who would like to both defend the term “conservative” and refer to themselves as such.
The assumption that conservatism is in itself a political philosophy is misleading. Surely it has political ramifications and self-described “conservatives” have a long history of utilizing the State to protect and preserve whatever happens to be the present order of things. The European Conservatism that was opposed by the radical individualists and the classical liberals, and later the socialists, (see this post on the rise of statism) was antithetical to individual property rights and liberties (or at least the definitions of those things as understood by said radicals). However, just because conservatism has expressed itself in that way in the past, it does not necessarily follow that all aspects of it require such anti-libertarian, state-driven activity. Conservatism is more holistic than a strict political/legal theory and is not at odds with libertarianism (which is itself a strict political/legal theory).
Conservatism is useful in referring to culture, morality, and epistemology. If one believes, as libertarians do (by definition), that the State is not to interfere with the life and property of the individual, then this in no way precludes him from also assenting to a certain set of cultural preferences. Since libertarianism is a strictly political/legal philosophy, it does not address the issue of whether the appreciation for and practice of certain cultural and social norms are acceptable. Libertarianism simply has no say in the matter.
Some theories of knowledge and knowledge acquisition should be categorized as conservative such as traditional Augustinian rationalism. In a world where behaviorism, naturalism and “science tells all,” it is certainly true that such rationalists hold to an allegedly “archaic” understanding of the mind and the soul. Further, their entire defense of libertarianism is based on a pre-classical liberal understanding of natural rights. Murray Rothbard has this to say:
Nineteenth-century liberalism rested its defense of liberty not on natural rights or moral principle, but on social utility and – in the case of the classical economists – economic efficiency. The classical liberal defense of liberty tended to be based not on the perception of freedom as essential to the true nature of man, but on universal ignorance of the truth.
This is very important. Rothbard stated this during an overview of the libertarianism of Frank Meyer. Meyer, Rothbard claimed, was a libertarian who didn’t know it because he misunderstood the libertarian creed. Rothbard wrote:
Meyer’s strictures against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism “stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political and social matters.” Meyer’s mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As [Tibor] Machan points out, “Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective”.
Importantly, this excerpt reveals that Augustinian rationalists cannot be accurately categorized as “classical liberal.” They do not stand on utilitarianism and economic defenses of liberty as the principled justification for individual rights. They certainly are able and often willing to make the economic cases for freedom a la Ludwig von Mises. However, their principle justification derives from the moral, rather than the economic, realm.
More can be learned from Rothbard’s consideration of Frank Meyer. Meyer’s complaint about the libertarians of his day (the 1970s) was that they were essentially libertines; that is, they did not care about culture, tradition, morality, family, or community. This also happens to be a common contemporary-conservative critique of libertarianism. The problem is that it mischaracterizes libertarianism which actually allows for the individual to care immensely about those items! It is true that some libertarians are libertines, but only outside of or in addition to their libertarian disposition.
Frank Meyer considered himself a “fusionist.” He wanted to “fuse” the individual responsibility and individual moral agency of libertarianism with the ethics and virtue concerns of the traditionalists (which included people like Russell Kirk) into a third option. He did not want to be solely a traditionalist, because of their collectivist tendencies, nor did he want to be a libertarian, because of their apparent libertinism.
Rothbard pointed out the following in Meyer’s so-called Fusionism:
Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way, a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate the law of the excluded middle.
Frank Meyer was, on this crucial issue, squarely in the libertarian camp.
Meyer’s fusionism was essentially libertarianism coupled with social conservatism. He, like many conservatives, simply misunderstood its narrow scope. It is important to note that Meyer’s appreciation for community and tradition in no way contradicts or expands upon the libertarian creed. Rather, his cultural preferences and concerns existed alongside his libertarianism.
Finally, consider the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism as expressed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his book Democracy: The God That Failed.
Hoppe’s thesis is that libertarianism would be served well by the companion of cultural conservatism and that the only way to save Western civilization is to embrace it, contrary to the desires of (most) libertarians who would instead prefer to embrace cultural marxism. This advocacy and defense of cultural conservatism should not be interpreted as adding to libertarianism’s narrow scope/definition. That is, such advocacy should not be confused with the idea that libertarianism ought to be transformed into a “thick” philosophy. Rather, it is simply extolling the benefits of voluntarily embracing certain traditional socio-cultural norms.
Hoppe understands that conservatism can be interpreted in different ways. He mentions two: “someone who generally supports the status quo” and “someone who believes in the existence of a natural order, a natural state of affairs.” The implication of the second sense is that the democratic State necessarily and harmfully interferes with the natural state of things. That is, the democratic State breaks down and destroys an order of private property, natural authority, societal structure, and capital production in pursuit of egalitarian ends. The conservative (in the Second “natural order” sense) recognizes the necessity of particular social units, unlike leftists; namely, “nuclear families (fathers, mothers, children, etc.) and households situated on private property and in cooperation with a community of other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, and indispensable social units.”
The libertarian views his definition as true for all time and ethically applicable to all people. That is, the principle is not a modern convention or a result of evolving humanity. Hoppe has this to say: “[L]ibertarians are convinced that the principles of justice are eternally and universally valid (and hence, must have been essentially known to mankind since its very beginnings). That is, the libertarian [principle] is not new and revolutionary, but old and conservative.”
Beyond this, Hoppe points out that conservatism (which tends to be “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive”) focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks” while libertarianism (which is “rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist”) focuses on the “concepts of property, production, exchange, and contract.” And therefore the former is the “concretization” of the latter. Conservatism needs a theory and libertarianism has practical expressions –that is, a natural and physical order. If conservatism is to return to a status of “moral and cultural normalcy,” it needs libertarianism’s consistent and defensible anti-statism.
Thus, one may conclude that conservatism and libertarianism are two separate, yet symbiotic, philosophies.
The majority of today’s self-proclaimed mainstream “conservatives” are not genuinely conservative (at least not in the second “natural order” sense). They too have taken to political correctness and a dependency on the state as the cornerstone of society that would have made Teddy Roosevelt, a pioneer of political Progressivism, grin in delight. Conservative Inc., as paleo-conservative Paul Gottfried refers to them, is largely worthless and their wearing of the conservative label is entirely unjustified, having little to do with actual conservatism.
Thus the off the cuff claim that “conservatives love to grow government!” is tenuous at best. It really depends on how the term is being used. One may respond “well, clearly they aren’t genuinely conservative.” Of course, there is a tradition of Conservative Statism. However, the term contains other meanings. For instance, it can not be accurately alleged that Hans Hoppe, a cultural and sociological conservative, wants to expand the State. Now, more than ever, there is a need for libertarians to reject cultural marxism and reclaim the term “conservative.”