Conservatism vs. libertarianism

Opening remarks in a debate at The Freedom Festival, Bournemouth, 2015:


“O liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” cried Marie-Antoinette on her way to the guillotine.

Indeed the Enlightenment shifted liberty to the fore of political desiderata. Since that shift, and largely because of it, the world has suffered the most oppressive tyrannies in history.

This brings us to the fundamental distinctions between conservatism and libertarianism, which are often confused with each other.

The key question for a conservative is ‘what is it that you’d like to conserve?’ The key question for a libertarian is ‘liberty for whom, from whom and to do what?’

There is only one answer to the conservative question that makes the issue intelligible.

It’s the Christian, specifically apostolic Christian, way of life that defined and shaped the cultural, social and political institutions of the West over the past 2,000 years. It is this way of life that in modern times has been under sustained attack from all sorts of quarters.

From this the definition of conservatism flows as naturally as wine out of the bottle, for it’s clear what it is that conservatives wish to conserve: Christendom, whatever is left of it.

Because Christendom has so many facets, not just religious but also social, political and aesthetic, conservatism must reflect them all – never forgetting that they are indeed facets of the same whole, rather than unconnected phenomena.

For example, it’s hard to imagine a true political conservative preaching the social delights of a classless society, as John Major once did when he was still prime minister.

Nor should a man get a free ride when claiming to be a social liberal but a fiscal conservative, which presumably means he loves the welfare state but hates to pay for it.

To a conservative, political liberty isn’t an aim in itself – it’s but a natural by-product of a just order.

An individual’s right to political liberty, understood as the state placing no unreasonable restraints on human behaviour, depends on society accepting the individual’s definition of an unreasonable restraint.

This right is therefore suspect, for its exercise involves an obligation imposed on others. In general, ‘liberty’, along with all its cognates (liberal, liberation, libertarian and so forth), is a word fraught with semantic danger: one man’s liberty is another man’s licence and yet another’s anarchy.

For example, is the absence of anti-homosexuality laws a factor of liberty or licence? If the answer is the former, as it has to be in our PC times, then we ought to ponder the fact that the first modern country without such laws was Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1934, a place and period not otherwise known for a laissez-faire attitude to life.

Libertarianism is often confused with conservatism, mainly because of their shared commitment to limiting the power of the central state over the individual.

For a conservative this commitment is rooted in Christendom, which shifted the social focus from the collective entity of Hellenic polis to the individual.

Libertarians, on the other hand, have replaced the Virgin with Ayn Rand, Jesus Christ with Murray Rothbard, faith with ideology and hence a realistic assessment of man’s nature with unbridled and unwarranted optimism.

The states of Christendom followed the church principle of subsidiarity, with power devolved to the lowest sensible level. To use modern terminology, localism trumped centralism.

On the other hand the modern post-Enlightenment state created in the name of liberty is innately centralising.

Hence even the absolute monarchs of Christendom never had anything near the power enjoyed by our post-Enlightenment presidents and prime ministers.

Both conservatives and libertarians accept that a free market is a sine qua non of civilised society even though libertarians assign a much greater importance to the economy in the general scheme of things.

They tend to preach what I call totalitarian economism, claiming that, once the economy is free, everything else will follow, which strikes me as primitive philosophically and wrong factually.

However, libertarians also seek to curtail the influence of tradition as conveyed through benign associations, such as guild, parish, or township, lying at the foundation of any traditional order.

Originally created mostly for the purpose of keeping people safe from encroachment by kings, in time those institutions assumed the role of the formulator, educator and custodian of the social and moral order.

It was such institutions that gave physical shape to the three pillars on which, according to Burke, government should rest: prejudice, which is intuitive knowledge; prescription, which is truth passed on by previous generations; and presumption, which is inference from the common experience of mankind.

Fully paid-up libertarians have to reject these, as they tend to reject the resulting institutions. That is why, while a part of their creed overlaps with conservatism, temperamentally it has more in common with socialism and especially anarchism.

The ideal libertarians see in their mind’s eye is abolition of the state, and there they converge not only with Bakunin but also with Marx.

While the historical roots of libertarianism can be traced back to so-called free thinkers, mainly in Britain and France, its modern home is the United States.

This reflects the difficulties with defining political conservatism there.

British conservatism, on the other hand, practically defines itself.

The triad of ‘God, king and country’ may be as simplistic as all slogans tend to be, but it’s more precise than most, encapsulating neatly the essence of British conservatism, both its transcendent inspiration and political expression.

A monarch ruling by divine right or some similar claim to legitimacy represents the transcendent aspect of such a system, a factor of constancy linking generations past, present and future.

At the same time, an elected parliament is a temporal institution translating the people’s interests into political action and preventing the monarch from becoming a despot.

To achieve a workable balance, Parliament’s power must be real but limited, the monarch’s power limited but real, and they should both feel accountable to the institution that is itself accountable to God only.

Hence the triad of ‘God, King and country’, in which the first element reflects transcendent continuity, the third temporal interests represented in Parliament and the second the link between the two.

Regarded in this light, the slogan stops being just that, becoming instead the philosophical premise of British conservatism.

It’s important to remember that the triad lists its elements in a descending order of importance. Thus eliminating the first element, God, as has effectively been done in Britain, largely invalidates the second one, king, and runs the risk of destroying the third, country.

Conservatism then becomes problematic, as demonstrated by today’s Conservative party, which is neoconservative at best and downright socialist at worst. But at least British conservatives have a past model they can hope to revive.

Americans, on the other hand, excised the second part of the triad, King, and effectively fused the other two, God and country, together.

Falling victim to this surgical procedure was the philosophy of political conservatism, indeed its clear definition.

The American secular creed of exceptionalism stepped in to fill the vacuum thus formed, but this creed can draw believers from all sorts of political groups.

How would an American conservative answer the question ‘what would you like to conserve?’ In all likelihood he’d say the Constitution of the United States.

But the American republic, just as the French one, is revolutionary, dedicated to marginalising, rather than conserving, the political heritage of Christendom.

That’s why Americans who decry statism gravitate towards various surrogates of conservatism, such as neoconservatism or libertarianism.

But surrogates they are, and I dare say that neither of them is philosophically, historically or emotionally close to true conservatism. It would be more accurate to say that they are antithetical to it.


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