Conservative Critique of Libertarianism
Libertarianism and conservatism are frequently classified together as right-wing political philosophies, which is understandable given the content and history of these views. Both philosophies are hostile to the egalitarianism that has motivated socialists and modern liberals and to the statism with which egalitarians have sought to implement their program. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, was a Whig who sympathized with Adam Smith’s economics, whereas John Locke, the intellectual ancestor of natural rights libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, gave his own doctrine of natural rights a theological foundation. Conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition have generally tended to follow Burke in endorsing the free market, and belief in Lockean natural rights has often been associated with the sort of religious worldview that most conservatives find congenial. Accordingly, some conservatives have drawn the conclusion that libertarianism and conservatism are complementary tendencies that are best understood as merely different aspects of the same basic political outlook (e.g., as representing, respectively, the freedom and order that are both grounded in the same natural law, and whose unique balance within Western civilization proves that both are the inevitable outcome of a process of cultural evolution). The most influential defender of this fusionist position was Frank S. Meyer, and his views did much to shape the contemporary conservative movement. But it also has been criticized by other conservatives, who tend to regard the similarities between libertarianism and conservatism as superficial, masking a deep philosophical divide that makes the two views ultimately irreconcilable.
Conservatives who hold this view generally regard libertarianism as merely one utopian modern ideology among others and as no less beholden to bloodless and rationalistic abstractions than socialism and fascism, even if the abstractions (“liberty,” “rights,” and “the market,” rather than “class,” “race,” or “the people”) are different and less dangerous. As Michael Oakeshott said disparagingly of F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” Russell Kirk’s criticism of libertarianism along similar lines is perhaps best known. His arguments are stated in, among other places, his essay “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” and are representative of conservative misgivings.
Kirk’s first objection is that libertarians no less than Marxists deny the existence of the “transcendent moral order” to which conservatives are committed and “mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.” In response, many libertarians would say that libertarianism does not necessarily deny that such a moral order exists, but holds only that it would be wrong and self-defeating to attempt to enforce it through the intervention of government. To do so would interfere with an individual’s right of self-ownership, respect for which entails allowing for the possibility that individuals will sometimes abuse their rights by acting immorally. However, some conservatives argue that this reply misses the point of Kirk’s objection. The sort of transcendent moral order Kirk has in mind, they would say, presumably involves something like the natural ends or purposes attributed to human beings by traditional Thomistic natural law theory or God’s ultimate ownership of human beings as affirmed by Locke in his version of natural law. This sort of order puts definite constraints on the kinds of natural rights that human beings can coherently be said to have because the point of our having natural rights, according to these theories, is to facilitate the realization of our natural ends or purposes (according to traditional Thomists) or to safeguard God’s property (according to Locke). For traditional Thomistic natural law theorists, this entails that there can in principle be no right to do what is contrary to our natural ends or purposes and, hence, no right to do what is intrinsically immoral (e.g., using illicit drugs or viewing pornography). For Locke, it entails that there can be no right to do what would violate God’s rights over us (e.g., committing suicide). The thrust of Kirk’s objection, then, would seem to be that, in insisting on a right to do many things that traditional natural law theories, whether Thomist or Lockean, would regard as immoral, libertarianism implicitly rejects the metaphysical foundations on which many conservatives take our moral obligations to rest.
Kirk’s second objection is that order is prior to either liberty or justice because liberty and justice “may be established only after order is reasonably secure.” However, he argues, libertarians “give primacy to an abstract Liberty” and thereby “imperil the very freedom that they praise.” To this notion some libertarians reply that Kirk has things backward: Respect for individual rights to life, liberty, and property is in their view the foundation of order, because it makes possible the voluntary transactions out of which order—whether economic order, or indeed, for some libertarians, even legal and social order—spontaneously arises via an “invisible hand” mechanism. This disagreement brings us to Kirk’s third criticism, which is directed at the libertarian view that “what holds civil society together … is self-interest, closely joined to cash payment.” For Kirk, the market mechanisms appealed to by libertarians necessarily presuppose a moral framework within which the members of society view each other as more than merely potential trading partners with whom they might contract for mutual benefit. Society, he says—and in this comment he echoes Burke—“is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn.” This line of thought has been pursued most systematically in recent years by Roger Scruton, who argues that the economic, political, and legal institutions of a free society can function only against a background of mutual trust between citizens, which requires a shared sense of membership in a community defined by social ties and loyalties—religious, ethnic, and cultural—that run far deeper than considerations of abstract right and rational self-interest.
Kirk’s fourth objection alleges that libertarians “generally believe that human nature is good and beneficent, though damaged by certain social institutions,” contrary to the conservative view that human nature is imperfect and imperfectible, at least in this life. Presumably, what Kirk had in mind here was the kind of celebration of man and of the power of human reason that one finds in writers like Ayn Rand, although not all libertarians have put the same emphasis on this theme that she did. Still there is a tendency in libertarian thinking to attribute the shortcomings of existing societies less to individuals than to institutions, especially governments. Kirk’s fifth line of criticism takes more direct aim at this attitude, contrasting the libertarian view that “the state is the great oppressor” with the conservative view that “the state is natural and necessary for the fulfillment of human nature and the growth of human civilization.” This idea is again inherited from the Thomistic natural law tradition, which regarded the state, no less than the family and the Church, as a social institution having an objective nature that does not arise from human convention or contract.
In the course of making this argument, Kirk also complains that “libertarians confound the state with government; in truth, government is the temporary instrument of the state.” The state, he maintains, is the organic social whole of which government is but the executive organ, whose primary function is the restraint of those individual passions and interests that might threaten the common good. Some libertarians (such as adherents of the public choice analysis of governmental action) would object that government officials are motivated by selfish passions and interests no less than are private individuals. However, conservatives tend to argue that in the modern world this fact holds true largely because of the predominant individualist ethos, which models all human relations on market transactions and government on the private firm so that even the occupants of governmental offices inevitably regard them as a means of personal advancement. The older ideals of noblesse oblige and of government as a sacred trust vouchsafed to men by God for the public interest rather than private gain were destroyed when the traditional view of the state as a divinely ordained natural institution gave way to the classical liberal view of the state as merely a human artifact created by a social contract entirely for the furtherance of private interests. From the conservative point of view, the libertarian critique of the pathologies of the modern state is analogous to a doctor’s diagnosis of a disease that he has inflicted on his patient.
Kirk’s final objection to libertarianism is that it “fancies that this world is a stage for the ego, with its appetites and self-assertive passions” and eschews the “duty, discipline, and sacrifice” on which the preservation of society depends. This view is “impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas; that is, the libertarian does not respect ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or love of country.” These charges might seem unfair especially because many libertarians are religious and patriotic. Kirk’s criticism, however, is presumably directed not at the personal motives of libertarians, but rather at the implications of their philosophy. What conservatives tend to object to in libertarianism is its insistence that we can have no enforceable positive obligations to others to which we do not explicitly consent. Most conservatives argue that we actually have many such obligations: to our parents, children, and other kin; to our country; and, at least in some circumstances, to those members of society who are in extreme need. These obligations are not based on an egalitarian conception of justice, to which conservatives would object no less vehemently than libertarians do, but rather on an organic and frankly inegalitarian view of society in which, to quote a line from Marcus Aurelius cited by Kirk, “we are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet.” Not all of us have equal honor or equal duties, but each of us nevertheless plays an irreplaceable role in the overall social body with the strongest members having, if not a duty to renounce their strength, at least a duty to use that strength to help the weakest. Conservatives hold that this help should come primarily from families, churches, and other private agencies closest to those in need, but a role for government, especially at the local level, cannot be dogmatically ruled out.
Thus, Scruton objects to Nozick’s claim that taxation amounts to forced labor, holding that “if we are to concede such an argument, then we abolish the conservative enterprise, and cease to acknowledge the web of obligations by which citizens are bound to each other and to the state.” If, as many conservatives hold, the state is a natural institution that exists to provide for the common good, then it has a right to a portion of our income so that it will have the wherewithal to perform its proper functions. Although conservatives tend to favor strong private property rights, many of them regard property as having a social function that entails that at least under certain well-defined circumstances others can have a rightful claim to a part of our surplus wealth.
How a libertarian might reply to such conservative criticisms will probably depend, in large part, on whether he is attracted to Meyer’s fusionism. A libertarian who is already sympathetic with the Burkean traditionalist and natural law premises to which conservatives appeal will find that he has to take conservative objections seriously and try to find some way of retaining these premises while avoiding the conclusions Kirk and others would draw from them. Those committed instead to a utilitarian or contractarian version of libertarianism will probably be unlikely to find such conservative premises attractive in the first place and are bound to be less troubled by the conservative critique.
Carey, George W., ed. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998.
Hamowy, Ronald. “Liberalism and Neo-Conservatism: Is a Synthesis Possible?” Modern Age 8 (Fall 1964): 350–359.
Kirk, Russell. The Politics of Prudence. Bryn Mawr, PA: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993.
Meyer, Frank S. In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1996.
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991.
Scruton, Roger. The Meaning of Conservatism. 3rd ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Originally published .