Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Can a Libertarian Also Be a Conservative?

For interested readers, here’s the text of my (unsuccessful) submission to this year’s Chris R. Tame Memorial Prize essay contest.

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Depending on the meaning of conservative, it may be that a libertarian should be a conservative, that a libertarian might be a conservative, or that a libertarian should not be a conservative.

A libertarian, I take it, is someone who is for liberty and against aggression. The libertarian doesn’t like to be pushed around, and doesn’t like to see other people pushed around, either. The libertarian will likely affirm some version of what I will call the libertarian principle, and will have good reason as well to embrace the libertarian ideal.

In its strongest form, the libertarian principle holds that someone may rightly use force against the person or property of another only to prevent or end an unjust attack or to secure compensation for the damage done by such an attack. On weaker versions, the initiation of force, while infrequently permissible, must meet very demanding requirements.

The libertarian ideal calls for real freedom in all aspects of life. The libertarian need not, and likely will not, suppose that just any action that does not involve the misuse of force is morally reasonable. Conduct that is not aggressive can, and frequently does, amount to the mistreatment of others. Often, this mistreatment will reduce their freedom to make choices about their own lives. Someone motivated by the libertarian ideal will challenge such mistreatment even while granting that it may be narrowly consistent with the libertarian principle and may not reasonably be met with the use of force.


Whether a libertarian can or should be a conservative will depend on what a conservative is. I consider ten sorts of conservative here—the traditionalist, the organicist, the fallibilist, the localist, the hierarchicalist, the culturalist, the fundamentalist, the constable, the marketeer, and the warrior.

For the traditionalist, reasoned discourse is embedded in a tradition. We all start somewhere; we’re always already on the way. There is no way to avoid beginning with the intellectual inheritance we receive from parents and teachers, friends and neighbors, churches and synagogues, books and films. And there is, in addition, good reason to take it seriously: inherited convictions have already been sifted; there has been considerable opportunity to assess their significance and implications. Being a traditionalist doesn’t mean ignoring challenges to tradition, nor does it require the unrealistic assumption that traditions are hermetically sealed and clearly demarcated. The traditionalist can perfectly well engage in potentially transformative critique. But the traditionalist’s critique won’t proceed from the assumption that intellectual activity can avoid beginning somewhere.

By an organicist, I mean someone who thinks that a society or community is more like an organism than it is like a machine and who is consequently doubtful that societal problems can reasonably be understood as engineering puzzles to be resolved using technical expertise. The organicist is deeply suspicious of the view that deliberate planning is an effective way to promote a community’s flourishing, doubting that any rational decision-maker possesses, or could possess, the knowledge and skill required to do a better job at structuring social institutions than the generations of people who have slowly shaped and reshaped those institutions. The organicist maintains that the social world created by the winnowed wisdom of the past deserves far more respect than any utopia constructed by the deracinated intellect of a would-be rational planner.

The fallibilist’s emphasis is not on the preservation of hallowed social institutions but on the value of distributed knowledge. The fallibilist doubts that any one actor knows or could know all the things known by all the members of a society. Like the organicist, the fallibilist emphasizes the planner’s fallibility—but, in this case, not as a reason to preserve, say, the church or the monarchy, but rather as a reason to leave people’s voluntary interactions alone.

For the localist, a sense of place is a vital component of human flourishing. The kind of intimate knowledge of one’s roots and one’s companions offered by links with a particular place enables one to live a genuinely human life. And local institutions operate on a human scale, permitting people to make decisions about matters they actually have some chance of comprehending and allowing individual voices to be heard and to make a difference.

The hierarchicalist supposes that people flourish in ordered relationships of authority, deference, and mutual responsibility. On the hierarchicalist’s view, the existence and maintenance of social rank acknowledges the differences in ability, temperament, and training that actually obtain among people in any society. Everyone benefits when those equipped to command do so and when those suited to be followers understand and accept their places in the order of things.

The culturalist believes in the objective superiority of the intellectual, scientific, literary, æsthetic, and political convictions and products of a particular cultural tradition—practically speaking, almost always his or her own. People in all cultures ought to acknowledge the preeminence of these convictions and products, and attempts to downplay their importance—by arguing for the influence of gender bias on science, urging the inclusion of texts by authors from marginalized groups in the literary canon, or seeking to render educational curricula multicultural—should be rejected as prejudiced attacks on reason and objective value.

The fundamentalist seeks to preserve a set of religiously inspired norms of right conduct. These often concern family, gender, and sexuality, but they may also have to do with criminal punishment, military strength, or existing patterns of ownership which are thought to enjoy divine sanction. From the perspective of the fundamentalist, these norms are worth conserving through the use of force and social pressure because their value has been revealed (and perhaps because respecting them has been commanded) by God (or an equivalent source of supernatural sanction).

The constable is horrified by the sense that the bonds and norms sustaining a civilized society are rapidly dissolving, and thus aggressively supports the maintenance of ‘law and order’. Fearing disorder, the constable is quite prepared to use whatever means seem necessary to suppress rioters and the violent, but also those whose unconventional behavior—drug use, say, or sexual non-conformity—seems to threaten established boundaries and practices. The constable rejects as naïve and sentimental the attempt to explain misconduct as the result of social rather than individual pathology and challenges as unfair to actual and potential victims, and to all those supportive of social order, attempts to refashion the criminal justice system in ways that enhance the legal rights of criminal suspects. The constable is suspicious of individual rights of self-defense because they undercut the power of the authorities to maintain order. And the constable insists on the merits of retribution and deterrence as central goals of the legal system.

The marketeer seeks to conserve a sphere of economic life that is free from the intrusion of the state, one in which hard work is rewarded and the strong and capable are acknowledged for their skills and gifts. The marketeer resents the state’s incursion into a formerly autonomous region of society and regards much of this incursion not only as inept and restrictive of freedom but as involving the objectionable coddling of the weak and lazy.

The warrior’s primary concern is the establishment and maintenance of strong internal and external defenses against threatened attacks by alien forces. The enemies with whom the warrior is concerned may vary: they may be Communists or jihadists, for instance. Whoever they are, however, the warrior is committed both to deterring and defeating them militarily and to preventing their insidious infiltration and subversion from undermining the institutions of the warrior’s society. This commitment characteristically entails support not only for substantial military spending by the state (and often the active employment of military force to threaten or attack the foe of the day) but also for the use of heightened surveillance, limitations on the procedural protections available to those suspected of terrorism or espionage, the use of torture, restraints on speech and assembly, and other changes in law and policy the warrior regards as necessary to defeat the enemy.


No doubt one person may be both a localist and a constable, a traditionalist and a warrior. There is nothing mutually exclusive about these categories. But it is useful to distinguish diverse strands of conservatism, some of which are, and some of which are not, compatible with the libertarian principle and the libertarian ideal.

The libertarian can quite comfortably identify as a traditionalist. Traditionalism is essentially a thesis about epistemology, and accepting the libertarian principle and the libertarian ideal is surely quite compatible with endorsing this thesis: the libertarian can (but need not) maintain without contradiction or tension that a rational argument must begin from within some tradition or other.

The libertarian can also be an organicist. Support for established social institutions can be quite consistent with the libertarian principle, provided they do not maintain themselves using aggression. Whether it is also compatible with the libertarian ideal is another matter. The ideal will obviously be incompatible with support for established institutions that restrict freedom in one way or another without using force—that limit people’s employment opportunities because of ethnicity or sexual orientation, that constrain marriage partners on the basis of religion. But it will pose no barrier to accepting others which do not limit freedom or which enhance it.

The libertarian certainly may, and almost certainly should, be a fallibilist. The truth of fallibilism provides one of the strongest arguments for the libertarian principle and the libertarian ideal alike.

Localism is certainly consistent with both the libertarian principle and the libertarian ideal. There is nothing about supporting geographically localized institutions and communities that violates the principle. And support for such institutions and communities need not run counter to the ideal—indeed, it can help to foster freedom by safeguarding and extending structures that make it easier for people to control their own lives. But a larger, more cosmopolitan, anonymous environment may offer some people much greater freedom to shape their own identities and relationships than a relatively self-contained community in which behavior is closely monitored and conformity is enforced. The libertarian ideal does not rule out localism, but it disposes the libertarian who embraces it to regard some varieties of localism, which value small-scale communities precisely because they can (or without regard to the fact that they do) enforce conformity and exclude or regulate various sorts of minority groups, with well-deserved suspicion.

Purely voluntary social hierarchies are narrowly compatible with the libertarian principle: if people want to defer to others, the libertarian will say, no one has any business using force to stop them from doing so. But preserving the constraints on freedom created by hierarchies will be inconsistent with the libertarian ideal; people who own this ideal cannot be hierarchicalists.

In addition, though it does not justify regarding genuinely voluntary hierarchies themselves as unjust, the libertarian principle will certainly provide good reason to challenge injustices that leave people with few choices in the real world apart from the acceptance of hierarchical conditions. The violent dispossession of smallholders and the arbitrary use of state power to provide land grants to hierarchs or their ancestors create conditions in which force may or may not currently be necessary to sustain hierarchical institutions and behavior patterns; but the forcible nature of the events making possible those institutions and patterns clearly calls into question the justice of current conditions, and thus their compatibility with the libertarian principle. Of course, it is doubtful that many, if any, actually existing hierarchical societies are even currently voluntary: the threat of state and private violence clearly helps to maintain deferential attitudes and behaviors; the libertarian principle certainly calls for libertarians to reject hierarchicalism in these societies.

The libertarian principle is compatible in principle with culturalism. Libertarians are not cultural relativists, and they rightly emphasize the significance of particular cultural traditions for the emergence of libertarian ideas in the West. On the other hand, while the libertarian principle might permit someone to be a culturalist, libertarians could have good reasons for questioning culturalism, including evidence for the independent emergence of libertarian ideas elsewhere. And the libertarian ideal will prompt the libertarian to resist varieties of culturalism that not only challenge particular ideas but that also lead to the effective silencing and exclusion of particular people—or, indeed, that seem in some way to legitimate aggression against them. Culturalism need not be racist or sexist, but the libertarian, aware of its potential to be both, will embrace it tentatively at best.

To the extent that the fundamentalist employs state power—as through the criminal law—to punish (say) the sexual non-conformist, the libertarian must clearly object: such a use of force is paradigmatically aggressive, undoubtedly in violation of the libertarian principle. And even when the fundamentalist does not employ force to suppress dissent, but uses less overt varieties of social pressure to penalize harmless behavior, the libertarian ideal must surely lead libertarians to disapprove. Libertarians may certainly be religious; but it is hard to see how they could be fundamentalists in the sense considered here.

The libertarian has every reason to value the security of person and property. But the constable often appears to favor the use of force to maintain established social boundaries and conventions, and to value order more than liberty; conflicts with the libertarian principle are almost inevitable. The constable’s dismissal of procedural safeguards for criminal suspects may not itself be aggressive, and need not be inconsistent with the libertarian principle. However, the libertarian, instinctively suspicious that state power can be abused, will be inclined to favor its persistent limitation. Certainly, the libertarian principle will rule out the use of the ‘third degree’ and of torture in the course of interrogating prisoners.

While the libertarian will surely welcome the deterrent effects of the legal consequences suffered by those who harm others, the libertarian principle likely rules out deterrence as an independent justification for the imposition of those consequences. Whether retribution is consistent with the libertarian principle is subject to debate, but it is clear that libertarians have often tended to regard the tort law system as providing a more satisfactory means of dealing with harm to others than the criminal law, not least because the former, unlike the latter, can impose liability only when real harm has occurred and must (ordinarily) proportion damages to the actual extent of the harm. By contrast, the criminal law the constable seeks to enforce can penalize people for conduct whether or not it involves demonstrable harm and whether or not the penalties the law imposes reflect the magnitude of any actually occurring harm.

The libertarian principle is clearly inconsistent with imposing criminal penalties on people for the victimless offense of keeping and using weapons to defend themselves and others. And the constable’s concern to maintain the capacity of the authorities forcibly to secure order seems inconsistent with the libertarian ideal; the libertarian as such has no brief for the preservation of existing structures of authority. Finally, the defence of social order which the constable sees as a crucial objective will often appear to the advocate of liberty as a means of suppressing welcome variety and of enforcing conformity with arbitrary norms. The consistent libertarian will have little or no reason to regard being a constable as appropriate or desirable.

The libertarian is, of course, an enthusiast for markets. For an authentically free market is a prime example of a pattern of social interaction characterized by the absence of aggression. So the libertarian will often have good reason to make common cause with the marketeer. At the same time, however, the libertarian will want to emphasize that in no political environment in today’s world is there anything remotely like a free market. This is both because of ongoing state intervention on behalf of privileged elites and other favored groups and because the conditions of the playing field on which economic actors meet reflect the effects of past injustices that have consistently and violently benefited some groups of people at the expense of others.

The marketeer will often resist interference with the current distribution of property rights in a given society, whatever its origin; but the libertarian will be much more likely to favor potentially radical measures designed to rectify past injustices. In addition, the libertarian has no particular reason to endorse the marketeer’s moralizing about market conditions; and the libertarian who acknowledges the libertarian ideal as an essential component of libertarianism will surely want to emphasize that some economic conditions that do not involve the misuse of force are nonetheless objectionable because they minimize freedom and reduce people’s effective capacities for responsible action. The libertarian will sometimes find the marketeer a useful ally; but the libertarian should not, I think, want to be a marketeer except when being a marketeer does not involve accepting naïve beliefs about the origin or dynamics of actually existing markets.

The libertarian certainly need not be a pacifist. But the libertarian principle counts very strongly against participation in or support for almost all of the wars in which states engage, because they are frequently pursued for unjust ends and are almost always conducted using unjust means. The libertarian principle also counts against torture and interference with civil liberties. And the libertarian ideal militates against the endorsement of a stance whose underlying purpose seems often to be to maintain the power and prestige of the state.


In some cases, libertarians should be conservatives; in others, they may be; in others, they should not be. Libertarians should be fallibilists. And doubtless they should be traditionalists if traditionalism makes sense philosophically. They ought to embrace truly free markets, but they should be marketeers only if doing so is compatible with rejecting assumptions that some marketeers embrace. They may, but need not, be organicists or localists—provided they reject approaches to social life that enforce conformity and suppress dissent. They might be culturalists, but they should be thoroughly wary about some of culturalism’s associations. They have good reasons not to be hierarchicalists, and overwhelming reasons not to be constables, fundamentalists, or warriors.