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.


Anonymous said…
This was an interesting post. I think there may be a number of areas in which you defined something in such a general way that I wouldn't even call them "conservative" per se. For example, if "traditionalism" simply means the aknowledgement that things start somewhere, then I don't have a problem with it. But I tend to associate "traditionalism" more with an obcession or romanticism towards the past in a way that often coincides oppressive norms and institutions.
Anonymous said…
This was an interesting post. I think there may be a number of areas in which you defined something in such a general way that I wouldn't even call them "conservative" per se. For example, if "traditionalism" simply means the aknowledgement that things start somewhere, then I don't have a problem with it. But I tend to associate "traditionalism" more with an obcession or romanticism towards the past in a way that often coincides oppressive norms and institutions.
Gary Chartier said…
I think there could and should have been a couple of additional categories. For instance, it seems to me that “traditionalism” as I define it here is one dimension of conservatism, but that a desire to maintain established institutions, patterns of behavior, and lines of authority is another; perhaps I might have called this “preservationism”—it is certainly incompatible with the libertarian ideal, and often with the libertarian principle. I also think I should have added a category for the people who value what they see as traditional hierarchies, especially those marked out by gender (this seems to me a bit different from the view that a healthy society requires relationships of command and obedience, since the focus is specifically on the purported merits of men, say).
Anonymous said…
Right. Well, for the majority of the "types" you established, you seemed to be going for a moderate vindication of them. Which, according to most of your definitions and explainations, I don't particularly object to.

However, there are certain associations in my mind with things like organicism and traditionalism that give me a lot of concern, insofar as it is manifested as a tendency to engage in apologetics for questionable norms and institutions simply on the grounds of their "traditional" or "emergent" nature.

I also have concerns about "localism". Not "localism" in the more economic sense that Kevin Carson often promotes, but in a more political sense in which what effectively reduces to mini-states is endorsed by focusing so much on decentralization that any sense of coherancy falls away.
Gary Chartier said…
Interesting: I'm not sure I'd have described my agenda here as "moderate vindication." I'm happy to identify, quite enthusiastically, as a leftie, and there are many elements of conservatism I want unequivocally to reject. I don't think, at least at the level of generality at which we're engaging here, that I'd disagree with you at all about organicism and what I've suggested calling "preservationism" (I think this is different from "traditionalism" as a basically epistemological thesis). And, while micro-states are doubtless better than macro-states in many (not all) ways, they can obviously be oppressive and they certainly don't admit of any more credible justification than macro-states. I'm sympathetic to localism if it's understood as simply a matter of rootedness, a sense of place, local loyalty--I'm a passionate southern Californian. But I'm certainly also aware of the real potential for exclusion and subordination on the part of local communities and therefore of the real value of the availability of cosmopolitan alternatives.
Anonymous said…
Perhaps I phrased it wrong by saying "moderate vindication". I guess my burning ultra-lefty side was expecting a more explicit denunciation of conservatism, and you defined a few of these forms of conservatism in ways that, frankly, I would be forced to consider myself one at some level. I didn't read this post as an over-arching defense of conservatism, but you defined some things in such a general way, and tried to be so nuanced, that it came off a bit like a combination of criticism and reconciliation.

I tend to be biased towards cosmopolitanism. In this respect, I don't quite mesh well with localism as much as even some of the other left-libertarians do (I've had some interesting exchanges with Jeremy Wieland about this before), although I understand that there are different manifestations of localism.
quasibill said…
I'm hesitant to re-engage at all here, given the likelihood of the loudest, most intellectually lazy or dishonest personae on the intertubes to begin their chants of "tribalist! racist!1!1!", but I have to compliment you on this post. Fine distinctions are important, even though many eschew them for easy rhetorical points while preaching to their respective choirs. You've done an excellent job in providing some fine distinctions, IMHO. One need not be an apologist for any given creed to recognize that, at some level, there is a kernel of truth in it. In fact, one MUST engage in this sort of fine line drawing if one is to engage in actually meaningful *discussions* with those you disagree with (as opposed to cheap rhetorical theatrics).

I will point out that there is another sense of being an organicist, one in which one respects the *process*, without specific reference to the outcome, because there is a belief that the *process* has a value in itself, and that if the process is allowed to become widespread, without significant interference (even for ostensibly pure purposes), outcomes themselves will continually improve everywhere.

It's similar to the argument against drug warriorism. Undoubtedly, in some instances, allowing individuals to make choices for themselves will lead to worse results for given individuals. But respecting the *process* of personal sovereignty will slowly but inevitably lead to the internalization of values that reduce the probability of bad outcomes.

In any event, excellent work. I can't emphasize it enough.
Gary Chartier said…
Brainpolice: I think "a combination of criticism and reconciliation" is very fair. I have no time at all for many varieties of conservatism, but I have lots of time for others. Perhaps this reflects the extent to which I've learned from, e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre, who's politically very much a leftist but who's also a traditionalist in the sense in which I've used the term here, and also a sort of culturalist.

Re. cosmopolitanism vs. localism: I suspect I'm biased because the locality to which I'm deeply loyal is also among the most cosmopolitan in the world. As I said in the piece, I'm no fan of a sort of localism that serves as a cover for repression and conformism; I just value the chance to sink my roots deep in a particular place. I have no bruden to argue that everyone else has to do so, or to excuse abuses by close-knit groups (I have had too many opportunities to observe such abuses).

quasibill: Thanks for the kind words. I certainly think the sense of "organicism" you spell out can be seen as an aspect of some sorts of conservatism and also that it's worth valuing. I tried to capture this sort of idea in my discussion of fallibilism (I had Hayek in mind here, as I suspect you may), but perhaps the latter term covered other bases and this idea really deserved its own distinct heading.
PlanetaryJim said…
A conservative in the British sense is a monarchist, central banking enthusiast, and war monger. A conservative in that sense is also racist, sexist, a defender of the Protestant faith against all other religious ideas, homophobic, and xenophobic to a fare thee well.

No one who is actually libertarian is any of those things.
Gary Chartier said…
I think you're clearly right about that, Jim.
Anonymous said…
I'm not certain that the conservatives in the American sense are particularly better, it's just that they sometimes use quasi-libertarian rhetoric and the American libertarians have tended to be in alliance with them since the New Deal era (which is a big error in my view). They have problems for different reasons. The paleos tend to be hyper-protectionist nationalists and rigidly socially conservative, and the neos tend to be internationalist warmongers and lovers of executive power.
Gary Chartier said…
Yeah--I wouldn't want anything I've said to reflect significant ideological sympathy with movement conservatives; I just think conservatism as an intellectual, cultural, and political phenomenon is sufficiently complex that it's important to attend to the nuances.

Also, I think it's one thing to say that there's noting about being a libertarian per se that precludes being this or that sort of conservative; it's quite another thing to say that, all things considered, being this or that sort of conservative is a good thing. Presumably it's not the case that all wortwhile moral and political beliefs are entailed by (even a relative thick version of) libertarianism.
Nathan Byrd said…
I appreciate the breakdown, too, and I was wondering if you're planning to do a similar treatment of "liberal" (not the best term, I know) and/or libertarian? I find little allegiance in either left or right, but I did appreciate the nuances. Using quasibill's distinction, I would describe myself as an organicist, fallibilist, and marketeer; but I'm wondering to what degree those labels are not better contained within the libertarian camp anyway.
Gary Chartier said…
nfactor13: a parallel analysis of libertarianism’s relationship with the varieties of liberalism would be fun, though some other projects probably claim a higher priority than that one. I expect you’re right: the categories in which you find yourself are at least as likely to make you at home in the libertarian camp; but I had an assigned topic to work with, so examined the dynamics of conservatism.

I do identify wholeheartedly with the left, but I think doing so is compatible with embracing, e.g., fallibilism and traditionalism in epistemology.
Would you like us to publish that on the Libertarian Alliance Blog? It can go under your by-line.

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