Saturday, August 16, 2014

Why libertarianism is not conservatism

Thomas Hobbes
It's not hard to imagine why it is that more and more conservatives are converting over to libertarianism.

For one thing, it's a whole lot easier to be a libertarian. Like every other ideology, libertarianism dispenses with all other principles than one. It eliminates the need to think about anything other than the one political doctrine. In many ways, it's the path of least resistance.

Libertarians are the political world's One-Note Johnnys: Johnny can only sing one note/And the note is this: freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice has the political advantage of being a procedural belief. It is mechanical rather than organic. It is a political and social mechanism into which you can put a substantive belief on one end, and automatically get a specific policy prescription out the other. In this respect it is in complete alignment with the scientistic spirit of our time.

Classical conservative political philosophy requires thought and wisdom, but libertarianism, as a fully Hobbesian position, involves no real substantive thought at all, only a political calculation.

This position has gotten popular recently because by lopping off any substantive principles addressing the common good (such as those concerning marriage and the family) from their body of belief, they are absolved from having to engage in the difficult job of defending these essential institutions. Freedom of individual choice alone is insufficient as a basis for their defense and from this perspective marriage and the traditional family can be thrown to the political wolves with perfect political consistency and in seeming good conscience.

It also dispenses with the need for any intellectual heavy lifting.

Libertarianism cannot be considered a conservative political philosophy. A conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to one axiom, to which all other considerations are subordinate.

Reductionist in its essence, libertarianism is an ideology, not a philosophy. In this respect, it is closer to American liberal socialism than to conservatism. In socialism's case, the one exclusive note is social justice (or, rather, their version of it) and to that one note the rest of their song must submit.

Libertarians are stillborn conservatives―as are socialists. This is what Allan Bloom meant when, in The Closing of the American Mind, he referred to "right-wing liberals" and "left-wing liberals." Libertarians are not conservatives at all: They are right wing liberals.

Libertarianism differs from conservatism in that it considers the freedom of the atomistic individual as an end; whereas conservatism considers freedom a means to the end of the common good. Libertarianism is John Locke for the non-thinker; it is Thomas Hobbes for Dummies.

The other means by which the common good is brought about include, among other things:
  • a belief in an permanent and perennial moral order that transcends the individual;
  • that tradition and custom are better indicators what is and what should be because they reflect the wisdom and knowledge of men over time and cultures rather than the narrow perspective of those who happen to be living now;
  • that political solutions require long-term thinking, not just a surrender to the individual whims of the hour;
  • that what works in one time and one place may not be the best thing in another time and another place;
  • that man is morally flawed and therefore Utopia is impossible;
  • that economic freedom presumes the respect for private property;
  • and that a properly operating society requires more than just the government and the atomistic individual, but also voluntary associations like the family, the church, and the civic group
These are, of course, restatements of Russell Kirk, the father of the modern conservative movement. But the Russell Kirks of conservatism have disappeared or fallen silent in the United States, and their place has been taken by the libertarian ideologues.

But libertarianism is an universal political solvent that will eventually destroy itself, largely because to justify itself it cannot depend on a calculus. It must have a substantive reason to ground its belief that the interest of the atomistic individual is supreme, but it cannot supply it.


Eric said...

Words words words. Labels labels labels. What seems truly dismissive to me is to judge anyone's intellectual or political prowess by the name for their ideology. That in of itself seems most lazy.

Martin Cothran said...

You make it sound as if I used the etymology of the word "libertarian" to condemn libertarians. Maybe you could explain how I used the "name" to judge someone's "prowess."

Old Rebel said...


You raise a valid point.

Libertarians have concocted an entire political philosophy around a mythical creature they call "the sovereign individual." They ignore man's fundamental social nature and base every issue on whether it advances "individual liberty."

Therefore, they embrace open borders and same-sex "marriage," no matter that such positions will erode the culture that sustains the liberties they think they're advancing. The end result of such policies will inevitably be making big government even bigger.

Libertarians must be exposed as the frauds that they are.

KyCobb said...

It would be great to see some "intellectual heavy lifting" instead of the facile rationalizations which have been argued for the same sex marriage ban. Old Rebel's comments are a perfect example. One wonders how we have any liberties left to sustain since the US had open borders that allowed in countless millions of immigrants who were supposedly "eroding" the culture, or how granting the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples will erode the culture or undermine liberty. The "intellectual heavy lifting" rarely advances beyond the level of Tevye pointing his finger in the sky and bellowing "Tradition!", which is effectively what Martin did in this post, except he used a few more words. We are supposed to simply accept that the wisdom of people who thought segregation was a good idea exceeds our own, because Martin says so. Martin, however, is correct that libertarian disregard for the common good is childish and immature. Libertarians remind me of nothing so much as a three year old grasping at toys and yelling "mine!"

byff said...

Your post neglects the fact that not all libertarians are willing to "dispense with the heavy lifting." Libertarianism is not fully distinct from conservatism. There is substantial overlap, and I for one exist in that overlap.

The political landscape isn't a two-way continuum. It has at least two axes, from left to right and from authoritarian to libertarian. A right-libertarian, such as myself, supports quite a few conservative policies while still arguing in favor of reduced government interference in our lives.