When Napoleon was asked upon whom he would most like to wage war, the vertically-challenged dictator replied, â€œMy allies.â€ With this in mind I would like to turn my intellectual guns on the libertarians â€” the so-called â€œalliesâ€ of conservatives.While superficially conservatives and libertarians have a political alliance based on a mutual support of the free market and opposition to the omnipotent State, philosophically we are mortal enemies.
The philosophical war between conservatives and libertarians began two hundred years ago when the first aristocratic French head was placed on a pike as declaration of war to prescriptive society. Libertarians are the disciples of the Enlightenment and staunch supporters of the French Revolution. They are the bastard children of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are the disciples of the eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke. It was his fiery diatribe against the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France , that gave conservatives their philosophical substance for the next two centuries. Burke railed against the atrocities of the Jacobin revolutionaries as well as Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau, whom he viewed as responsible for the revolution.
Unfortunately, most modern-day conservatives and libertarians are ignorant about this 200 year old quarrel. Most believe the alliance based on superficial common interests is sound political practice. But the conservativesâ€™ pact with the libertarians has been most harmful to the cause of true conservatism as expounded by Burke. More often than not you hear so-called conservatives constantly singing the praises of the free market and stressing individualism rather than speaking about tradition and the spirit of community. The libertarians have so polluted the intellectual waters of true conservatism with their ideological filth that many conservatives now have trouble distinguishing between the two. In light of this, I would like take this opportunity to remind my fellow conservatives of the extreme philosophical chasms which have always separated conservative man from libertarian beast.
The most fundamental difference between conservatism and libertarianism is one of ideology. Libertarianism is an ideology based upon abstract ideas and doctrines such as the free market, absolute liberty, and radical individualism. The libertarian foolishly believes that if his abstract ingredients are properly mixed within the social cauldron, an earthly utopia will bubble forth.
Conservatism, as H. Stuart Hughes declared, is the negation of ideology. Ideology is founded upon abstract ideas which possess no relation to reality, whereas conservatism is founded upon history, tradition, custom, convention, and prescription. As Russell Kirk put it, â€œ[C]onservatism…is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.â€ The conservative puts his faith in the wisdom of his ancestors and the virtue of experience, rather than the abstract jargon of â€œsophisters, calculators, and economists.â€ He knows that there are no simple political formulas to solve all the worldâ€™s troubles.
Next, conservatives and libertarians disagree over what binds civil society. Libertarians view civil society as something artificial â€” a dissoluble agreement made to furnish individual self-interest. In their repugnant view, society is a â€œpartnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.â€ Society is merely a machine with interchangeable and separable parts, says the libertarian.
In contrast, the conservative declares that society is not a paltry economic agreement or a mechanical device, it is a spiritual and organic entity. The conservative, imbued with the spirit of Burke, sees society as a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born â€“ a community of souls. Each social contract in each particular state â€œis but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower and higher natures…â€
It is not true that the legitimacy of the state is dependent solely upon tacit consent, as the libertarians would have us believe. The social contractâ€™s legitimacy is the work of history and traditions which go far beyond any single generation. The present is not free, as political rationalists tell us, to redesign society according to abstract doctrines or theoretical dogma. As Russell Kirk put it, â€œSociety is immeasurably more than a political device … If society is treated as a simple contraption to be managed on mathematical lines, then man will be degraded into something much less than a partner in the immortal contract that unites the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, the bond between God and man.â€
The next philosophical issue at which conservatives and libertarians cross swords is the concept of liberty. Libertarians believe that liberty is the first priority of any society. But the liberty they value so highly is solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty. Theirs is an abstract liberty divorced from order and virtue. The libertarian views liberty as a good thing in and of itself and constantly strives to maximize it, no matter the cost.
The conservative believes that order is the first priority of society, for it is only within the framework of an enduring social order that a true and lasting liberty may be attained. To the conservative, the only liberty is â€œa liberty connected with order: that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.â€ When considering the effects of liberty, the conservative hears Burkeâ€™s words ringing in his ears: â€œThe effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.â€
Individualism is the next battlefield on which conservatives and libertarians slip the dogs of war. Libertarians possess an ideology of individualism which denies that life has any meaning other than the gratification of the ego. They envision a utopia of individualism where man exists for his own sake and human beings are reduced to social atoms. Selfishness is a virtue, says the libertarian.
Conservatives recognize that that basic social unit is not the individual but the group â€“ autonomous groups such as family, church, local community, neighborhood, college, the trade union or guild, etc. These groups intermediate between the individual and State and help preserve social order. As Robert Nisbet pointed out, â€œRelease man from the context of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demoniac fears and passions.â€ The conservative values the spirit of community and agrees with Marcus Aurelius that, â€œWe are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet.â€
Both conservatives and libertarians support the free market economy, but they differ in the degree of their devotion. Many libertarians worship the free market as if it were a religion â€” indeed many have no trouble replacing the cross with a dollar sign. But libertarians do not confine their zeal for the market to the economic arena. They believe the market is an abstract doctrine to be applied to all facets of life and social problems. The libertarians are really just inverted Marxists, who substitute the free market for socialism as not only the dominant economic system but also the overriding social and political influence. Indeed, they are guilty of the same dialectical materialism as Marx.
Conservatives know that society is too complex to be reconstructed according to abstract economic doctrines. They think too highly of man and society to distill everything in existence down to the production and consumption of material goods â€” the nexus of the cash payment is indeed a weak social link. The laws of commerce are no substitute for the laws of convention.
In conclusion, libertarianism is as much an anathema to true Burkean conservatism as Marxism and it should be fought against equally as hard. As Russel Kirk once said, â€œAdversity sometimes makes strange bedfellows, but the present successes of conservatives disincline them to lie down, lamblike, with the libertarian lions.â€
[The Michigan Review (Volume 17, Number 9)]