When conservatives don't understand libertarians
I would like to respond to a recent article from Adam Garrie in The Mallard, a blogsite for conservative students. The article argued for a very sensible conclusion: ‘moderate traditional conservatism and realistic libertarianism compliment [sic] each other’.
Of course they do. Traditional conservatives remind libertarians of processes embedded in our history – parliamentary sovereignty, common law, constitutional monarchy – that are the most conducive to individual liberty. Revolution is less likely to install libertarianism than evolution. In turn, libertarians remind traditional conservatives that the utopia is a society wherein each is allowed to live in their freedom as they please – not a society where liberty is constrained by government, institutions, or anyone else.
This is a well-established concordat, rooted in the works of Scottish conservative philosopher Adam Ferguson. He said that society – the ‘result of human action, but not…human design’ – evolves through the multitudes of uncoordinated, voluntary interactions of countless individuals. The classical liberals Friedrich August von Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman would later adapt this concept into spontaneous order, apply it to the market, and bring it to the beating heart of libertarianism.
Is this the point that the author repeats? No. He ignores centuries of literature to instead suggest his own deal between libertarians and conservatives – a deal which libertarians, and even some conservatives, would find impossible to accept. I have no doubt that he intended well, but his treatise couldn’t be less sensitive to a proud tradition of centuries of classical liberal and libertarian thought. He has completely misunderstood libertarianism.
Recapping the argument
The author writes nostalgically about a long-forgotten ‘kinder gentler Britain’ of psalms, grammar schools and limited divorce where ‘one could smoke in a pub’ and ‘the streets were policed through consent’ – a libertarian utopia made possible through traditional conservative values.
The author claims that those values were usurped by an ‘assault on liberty’ from ‘big government leftists’ that replaced them not with ‘pictures of Hayek’ but ‘the dogmas of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky’.
So the author concludes that the libertarian state requires the strong moral values of traditional conservatism in order to abolish leftism:
“Socialists and communists are always ready to fill the void left by the absence of tradition…Libertarians could only achieve the same if they abolished leftist parties and that of course would be deeply un-libertarian (as well as deeply un-British).”
Run a mile, libertarians
It’s deeply unsettling that the point needs reminding, but 1960s Britain was not libertarian at all. Before ‘the still widely misunderstood social revolutions of the 1960s’, as the author calls them, LGBTQ+ rights were criminalised. Women, paid a pittance compared to men, were prevented from achieving their dreams by a society steeped in sexism. Marital rape was still legal. Race riots abounded on the streets of Britain.
In the economy, this was the epoch of the Three Day Week and capital controls before colour television, during which the mean Briton was three times poorer than today. The ruling orthodoxy of the day was Keynesian, whether the political party in power sported blue or red.
‘Fine’, you might say, ‘we can fix all that’. But many libertarians are profusely not church-going psalm enthusiasts; many oppose a one-size-fits-all nuclear family model; many think as a matter of rights that that divorce should be easily-accessible. The author has catapulted that fundamental libertarian vision – that utopia wherein each is allowed to live in their freedom as they please – out of the window. To accept the deal, libertarians would have to abdicate their libertarianism.
The inadvertent potshots at key tenets of libertarianism go much deeper. In his conservative-libertarian society, the author would abolish ‘alien “human rights diktats”’. Off you pop, Thomas Paine: it turns out we don’t need immutable transnational rights against state power after all. Goodbye everyone from John Locke to Ayn Rand: pack up your bags and leave.
Nor would we have ‘internationalism’ and ‘globalism’. That’s right: free traders, leave the room. Auf Wiedersehen Richard Cobden, au revoir Adam Smith, hasta la vista Milton Friedman.
The libertarian study of history is rooted in the belief that globalism and internationalism have enormously enriched the world in the last half-century, bringing over a billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990. Indeed, some libertarians are even passionate supporters of open borders. But none of that. The author has told us that we were wrong all along and the last few decades have been nothing but decadence from the 1960s.
What about the author's final proposition? Well, many libertarians do object to a democracy where ‘leftist’ thought is abolished by the state. But they would equally object to a democracy where leftist thought is abolished by ‘tradition’. The end is the same - and libertarians object to the end as much as the means.
So we come back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), with all its consequentialist arguments for allowing individuals to experiment with different lifestyles – a society that champions individuality over conformity, experimentation over dead traditional dogma. The author would do well to read Chapter 3 in full.
How to give conservatism a bad name
In 1,200 words, the author has guillotined libertarianism. We are left with virtually no libertarian agreeing with his brand of traditional conservatism. We must refuse the deal.
What about those traditions – parliamentary sovereignty, common law, etc. – that I said moderate conservatives could remind libertarians about? The author has told us that they led to leftism. So I presume those are also on the chopping block. Are moderate conservatives happy about this?
If the author wants to defend conservatism from libertarianism, he is barking up the wrong tree. He will find no libertarians – indeed, few people at all – willing to join his quest to return to the 1960s. His article gives both conservatism and libertarianism a bad name.
I’m rather reminded of Hayek’s thoughts on this. Curse his long sentences, but this one is worth quoting in full:
"Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place."
That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Libertarians are repulsed by paternalism, nationalism (rather than patriotism), and power-adoring tendencies. 'Traditional moral values' violate all three.
We’re not living in the 1960s now because people, acting individually, voluntarily and without coordination, made desirable changes in the 1960s – like the social revolutions. Conservatives and libertarians alike should be championing them as the products of spontaneous order, not vilifying them. We are fundamentally optimistic that human progress is more or less infinite. Why preserve a long-abandoned 1960s society?
Though I do think Hayek misunderstood conservatism. Conservatism, whenever it is misinterpreted as conserving an outcome, is irreconcilable with libertarianism. Hayek got that bit right. But conservatism, whenever it is correctly understood as conserving a process, is much closer to libertarian thought, and perfectly compatible with it.
Conservatives don't need to be anti-libertarian, paternalistic, nationalistic, or power-adoring – if they stick to conserving processes that preserve spontaneous order like the free market, the nation-state and common law, and if they reject conserving outcomes like psalm-reading, grammar schools and limited divorce.
That, after all, is the centuries-old pact between conservatism and libertarianism.
Ludwig Liberty is a pseudonym attributed to all anonymous contributors to our blog.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Oxford Hayek Society.