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Libertarianism and the Conservative Movement

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Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.

At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.

Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.

Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”

When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)

I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, I think you may be making the same error with libertarianism that people often make with the word “individualism”. Your rightly distinguish
    between political libertarianism and world-view libertarianism. However, the latter should be called “libertinism”, not libertarianism. Few libertarians are libertines; those who are libertine tend to be the libertarian left who merely want to get rid of drug laws. Most libertarians have strong moral values but they don’t want the state enforcing them, except for those laws protecting life, liberty and property.

    Here is Hayek in “Individualism: True and False” found in “Individualism and Economic Order”:

    “The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville
    and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke-the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on ecoomic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.2 In the nineteenth century I find it represented most perfectly in the work of two of its greatest historians and political philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton. These two men seem to me to have more successfully developed what was best in the political philosophy of the Scottish philosophers, Burke, and the English Whigs than any other writers I know;

    “This second and altogether different strand of thought, also known as individualism, is represented mainly by French and other Continental writers-a fact due, I believe, to the dominant role which Cartesian rationalism plays in its composition. The outstanding representatives of this tradition are the Encyclopedists, Rousseau, and the physiocrats; and, for reasons we shall presently consider, this rationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism. It is because only the first kind of individualism is consistent that I claim for it the name of true individualism, while the second kind must probably be regarded as a source of modern socialism as important as
    the properly collectivist theories.3

    “I can give no better illustration of the prevailing confusion about the meaning of individualism than the fact that the man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism, Edmund Burke, is commonly (and rightly) represented as the main opponent of the so-called
    “individualism” of Rousseau, whose theories he feared would rapidly dissolve the commonwealth “into the dust and powder of individuality,”4 and that the term “individualism” itself was first introduced into the English language through the translation of one of the works of another of the great representatives of true individualism, De Tocqueville, who uses it in his Democracy in America to describe an attitude which he deplores and rejects.£> Yet there can no doubt that both Burke and De Tocqueville stand in all essentials close to Adam Smith, to whom nobody will deny the title of individualist, and that the “individualism” to which they are opposed is something altogether different from that of Smith.”

    • Roger, here’s a line from tomorrow’s Comment piece: “Such libertarians who absolutize individual freedom are better identified as libertines, given Christian insights about the relationship of the human person to the moral order.”

      • Roger McKinney

         Excellent point! If libertarians were libertines no Christian could be a libertarian. Ron Paul is an excellent and very moral Christian and a libertarian, too.

  • Roger McKinney

    I apologize for the appearance of my comment. I typed it in Word and pasted it. It looked better in the box than it does when it is posted. Don’t know how to fix that other than type in the box and not paste.

    • I think a good way to do it would be to compose it in Notepad rather than Word if possible.  What it does is copy the Word “code” over into the box and then tries to auto-magically remove it upon saving so it doesn’t have a bunch of Word formatting/code in the website.  The result is extra spacing since Disqus is filtering it strangely.

      • Roger McKinney

         Thanks! I tried that and it seems to work.

  • Roger McKinney

    I read Hunter Baker’s article and my first reaction is that the marriage cannot be saved unless both sides are far more honest in their treatment of each other. Baker is simply dishonest in his treatment of libertarians in his article. Here are examples:

    “America is not about unfettered freedom.” In the history of liberal or libertarian thought, there never has been a proponent of unfettered freedom. Even the anarco-capitalists who hate the state and consider taxation to be theft don’t promote unfettered freedom. In an anarco-capitalist state private agencies would enforce common law determined by private courts.

    “Freedom without a strong moral basis ends up being an empty promise.” No libertarian has ever or would ever disagree, except maybe for followers of Rand. Libertarians place an enormous emphasis on morality. They don’t believe that the state can promote morality. Prohibition was the greatest failure of the morality police in history but conservatives haven’t learned a thing from it. Families and churches promote morality. If they can’t do it, it can’t be done.

    “If everyone has to rationally suspect others of immoral behavior in order to protect themselves, then the value of exchange is severely undercut by the cost of self-protective action.” Again, no libertarian in history has promoted lawlessness. All libertarians everywhere and at all times have insisted on the rule of law to protect life, liberty and property.

    That’s enough of the blatant dishonesty on Baker’s part. Now for the failures of conservativism:

    “Just as an example, consider the social conservative push toward policies that encourage marriage rather than cohabitation and discourage divorce.”

    And how has that worked out? Conservatives can never admit failure under any circumstances but they have failed to promote marriage and prevent drug use through the power of the state. People today are far more likely to take drugs than before Nixon launched his war on drugs. The American lust for drugs is destroying Mexico. A century of conservative efforts at legislating morality has made the US far less moral. 

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  • Roger McKinney

    PS, someone is bound to bring up Ayn Rand, but I don’t consider her a libertarian. She even gave her philosophy a different name to distinguish it from libertarianism. Mises was libertarian and Rand considered him socialist-lite. 

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  • Jordan,

    Great piece- I was at the event on Wednesday and it’s always interesting to hear an Acton perspective. I agree with most of what you’ve said expect one part:

    “Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise.”

    I would make the argument that there is room for morality in the “utility function,” economically speaking. There are several constraints to choice under a libertarian political philosophy and world-and-life view, anything from price to personal preferences. Libertarianism just simply allows each personal to act upon these tastes & preferences without any constraint by a centralized government authority. I agree that there are many Libertarians out there who see freedom of choice as an end or a virtue even, which it is not, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find a Libertarian who agree that there is no form of constraints within a Libertarian philosophy.

    Maybe I misunderstood what you meant, but I’m thinking about writing a post for AEI’s Values & Capitalism blog about a similar topic so if you could just respond and explain your view a bit more that would be awesome, thanks!

    • Thanks, Elise. I didn’t mean to say that the Weltanschauung-libertarians would deny that there are incentives, even rising to the level of some form of constraint or another, embedded in the varieties of human action. But this kind of constraint as “tastes & preferences” wouldn’t have to correspond in any way to a transcendent, ultimate, rational, objective, and knowable moral order, a divine lawgiver, a moral authority, and so on. The harm principle is probably one example of a nearly universally-agreed upon libertarian constraint. But if your only concern is to note sharply the appropriate limits of coercive/governmental action, I’m not sure that would be enough on its own to qualify you as a world-and-life view libertarian, at least according to the distinction I’ve laid out here.

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  • Michele Arpaia

    Hi Jordan,
    is Jeremy Shearmur presentation somewhere published online?

    Thank you.