Can a Libertarian also be a Conservative?

Robert Henderson

If there was ever an essay title  which begged questions it is this one. What is a libertarian and what  a conservative? What is liberty? What is  Left, what is Right?  The problems of definition run so deep that they efficiently sabotage the question “Can a Libertarian also be a Conservative?”

Take libertarianism. The range of views which huddle under the libertarian banner range from the absolutists who want no government  at all  with everything decided by  voluntary agreement, to those who accept varying degrees of state intervention from a minimal state comprised of justice, police, defence and the tax raising powers needed to fund such a  state, to those like Hayek who accept that the state should provide a bare level of subsistence for those unable to work.

But the confusion does not stop there. Question any libertarian closely and  you will invariably find that they are inconsistent in their beliefs. For example, a libertarian will often claim to be  absolutely opposed to censorship  in the abstract but then start making exceptions for the difficult cases such as child pornography or racism.

Or take the central tenet of libertarian thought , the primacy of property, a concept which  for libertarians stretches beyond the common use meaning of the word to such things as the property a man has in his labour or his right to have a say in any government which taxes him. At the level of common usage – goods and services which a man owns – property  is underpinned for the libertarian  by a commitment to laissez faire economics , both within the domestic market and for international trade. Yet many, probably most,  libertarians  accept without question such gross interferences with a free market as anti-monopoly laws, limited liability and copyright.

Nonetheless there is a general thrust to libertarian thought; that   individuals should live lives largely untrammelled by government  and  society should be primarily arranged on the basis of agreement between  individuals. Institutions, culture  and  history are not a necessary part of a libertarian’s  life although they may contingently form part of it.

With conservatism the immediate problem of definition is the pedantic fact that a  a conservative is one who wishes to maintain the status quo. If a libertarian lived in a society which was already thoroughly libertarian, they would presumably wish to maintain the status quo and hence be  a conservative in that context.

But of course conservative has a particular political connotation and that is infinitely  more problematical. We have a party called Conservative in Britain but it is not  a party which would have been recognised as conservative two centuries ago. Semantic drift over the past two centuries

while libertarianism and the natural tendency of human beings to find ideologies imperfect  and to consequently wish to amend them.  However, although no objective certainty is possible, an examination of  the terms will reveal what they share and if there is any absolute bar to their mixing.

The Duke of  Wellington epitomises the mentality of the Ancien Regime.  He objected to the practice of   private soldiers cheering their officers because it came close to the expression of  an opinion. He believed that his private soldiers were the scum of the earth but admired them. He was resolutely opposed to any extension of the franchise – he described the first post-Great Reform Act House of Commons as containing “more bad hats than he had ever seen”.

In 1809 when the party we today call conservative or Tory  was known only as Tory, a thorough going conservative (if the term had existed as a political denomination)  would have been someone who supported the landed interest against the Whig commercial interest,  was for the Old Colonial System and against the idea of free trade, both in the domestic market and with the rest of the world,  looked with a jaundiced eye at  British foreign adventures  and  thought the British Constitution  a model of perfection,  which perfection nullified the need for any  reform of rotten boroughs or expansion of the franchise.

But if that was the feeling of the natural Tory in 1809 there were ideological rats gnawing away at the innards of the of the Party.  Pitt the Younger had been in sympathy with the idea of free trade but his plans were thwarted by the French Revolution.

Once lodged within some supposedly Tory hearts the idea lay there like  a dormant disease for the better part of 40 years, every now and then flaring up but never seriously challenging the existing Tory order.  Then came the Great Reform Act of 1832 and  a newly bourgeois House of Commons changed the balance of political power. With that came the opportunity of laissez faire.   Surprisingly the man who gave it practical effect was a supposedly Tory Prime Minister  Sir Robert Peel . He for the second time in his career  (1) broke a solemn promise to his party and began a series of reforms – of which the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 is the most famous – which gradually  emasculated the Old Colonial System until it was finally died at the  beginning of the 1860s.

The effect of Peel’s embracing  of laissez faire policies was to cause a split in the Tory Party which kept them out of power for more than twenty years.  During that time the Whigs, who were in the process of evolving into the Liberals,  avidly embraced the policies of  laissez faire and free trade. (2). Just as Old Labour transmogrified into NuLabour and the Conservatives into NuTory  during long spells in the political wilderness  through a desperation for office so did the Tories in the mid-nineteenth century.  The  party split after 1846  but  the party which was left and which developed over the next 25 years saw  laissez faire  firmly ensconced within it without becoming utterly dominant. It was a party divided between  Tories and Conservatives.

Because it has been melded by practical politics and the Conservatism traditionally sees institutions, culture  and  history  as vitally important because they are the priceless artefacts of the organic development of society, the repositories of the collective wisdom of  the evolution of society.

At the same time the party which was now called Liberal was split between  Whigs and the new liberals

But just as libertarianism and conservatism has mutated over time and are both broad ideological churches today , so have other political ideologies. Socialism can run from meaning any state intervention beyond the minimal state –  socialist and  commie are  common epithets directed at Obama in his attempt to provide universal healthcare in the USA – to Marxist-Leninism.

There is a profound practical difference  between the two ideologies. Conservatism has been put to the test of being encased within serious political parties which have formed governments while the libertarian cause has  been more of an aspiration than an organised  political movement. Indeed, there is an inherent difficulty in the idea of  libertarianism being enshrined within a party because. a party implies not only a set menu of policies but the need for enforced discipline on party members. Even more problematic is the idea of a libertarian government because that would mean libertarians forcing their will on those who were not libertarian, a direct contradiction of the idea of voluntary association which lies at the heart of libertarianism.

The worm at the heart of the concept of  liberty is the division between negative and positive freedom. Libertarians eagerly embrace negative freedom but thrust positive freedom firmly away, because negative freedom is simply the freedom to do whatever is not forbidden, while positive freedom requires the intervention of state authority to impose  measures such as a re-distribution of wealth or the  favouring of the poor when it comes to the provision of state-funded education. Indeed, many libertarians would deny that positive freedom is a  semantic fraud akin to “positive discrimination” .

The  consequence of  libertarians denying the need

Negative and positive freedom are not of course concepts which are peculiar to libertarians. Conservatives, even of the “old order” were great supporters of negative freedom. The last thing they wanted was an intrusive state for it interfered with their  social and political power. Nor did the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, who were all for the state allowing them to run their mines and factories as they  chose without such encumbrances as the Factory Acts.

The roots of libertarianism lie in the natural bias of  human beings to follow their own will.  But because Man is the social animal par excellence that will has to be filtered through the will of others. This necessitates, for any viable society, a degree of general concord. That is turn raises problems of  how such concord is reached. In simple tribal societies agreement is reached partly by  accumulated custom, partly by the natural formation of hierarchies and partly by general discussion and agreement.  These three things apply  to more sophisticated and larger societies but other forces come into play in such societies: the need for delegated authority and representation and the magnification of  the power of individuals through their control of ever greater resources  whether privately held or state acquired. This invariably restricts the freedom of the individual. It is consequently pointless for the libertarian to produce a blueprint for a libertarian society which is intended to fit any society regardless of its size and sophistication.

In principle, the libertarian ideal of a society based on individual agreement can be most closely approached at the level of the small tribal society, because it is only at that level that it is practical to have a society which can be run entirely on the basis of personal contact.  The fact that tribal societies are in practice far from the libertarian ideal is another matter, although  in some at least the reality is  probably closer to the libertarian ideal of individual determination and agreement than is any more sophisticated society because  circumstances force all the members to interact with one another.  What matters  is the  practicality of libertarianism within the society.

Once the

There is of course a great deal of difference between  theoretical political  positions and their practical realisation. A naturally authoritarian government  with very limited resources  may impinge far less on  the lives of those it governs than a government which has avowed libertarian intentions but a  much larger treasury, An Englishman living in the first half of the nineteenth century would have had his life little brushed against by the state provided he did not fall into criminal ways or need great enough to drive him to the Poorhouse. What could have impinged upon his freedom were poverty, lack of education,   the still surviving social dominance of landowners, the virtually unrestrained power of employers, especially in industry, and the general restrictions of  the class structure.

There is a lesson for libertarians there. Freedom is not simply  the absence of state control. It is also freedom from  the  tyranny of  those who are  powerful without the support of the state,   whether that be as a group or an individual,  That raises the problem of how libertarians are to create a society which minimises  both state intervention and non-state social control.  Clearly both cannot be realised so that there has to be a trade off between the two. If this is not done, all  the realisation of libertarian non-statist aspirations will achieve is the rapid creation of a plutocracy, a form of society which is antithetical to libertarian ends because it would reinforce and  enlarge the natural tendency within societies to

The honest answer to the question posed by the competition’s essay title is simple:  it cannot be meaningfully answered because there is no such thing as a perfect adherent to libertarian or conservative ideology  or an objectively certain  definition of Libertarian or Conservative. The same applies to any  other political ideology.  That being so it makes no sense to argue whether a libertarian can also be a Conservative even if a conservative is defined as  it has been  defined politically for the past few centuries.

What can be said is that most people who sail under the Conservative flag today  share much with libertarians, at least in their theoretical policy positions. They favour  a minimum of state interference in most aspects of  national life, the main areas of policy where this does not apply being policing and penal policy. Such people  are supporters of laissez faire economics,  although they often oppose completely free movement of labour.  They are for low tax.  They  support the idea of the family, something which a libertarian should support because the family is a bulwark against the state. They favour strong defence, something acceptable at least to libertarians who are not absolutists.  They support private healthcare and  private schools and ideally would wish universities to be independent of government.

A  card-carrying Libertarian could not be a card carrying political Conservative in any of the words’ historical or present senses. What he can be today is someone who embraces those aspects of  modern political conservatism  which accord with or at the least come nearest to meeting libertarian desires.  In theory at least, there are plenty of those.

But there is more hope for most libertarians than merely making do with aspects of conservatism,  for as pointed out above  few who call themselves libertarians are thorough going believers. They, like every other person, can  choose political ideas which are deemed to be politically incompatible  according to a particular creed or the  traditional  Left-Right political classifications.

Political ideas at bottom are simply conveniences  which human beings accept or reject insofar as they find them useful and congenial. Logical necessity extrapolated from an ideology counts for nothing.  For example, the more extreme believers in laissez faire economics build a theoretical construct which insists that free trade must logically include free movement of labour. The logical necessity exists only within their man made and self-conscious ideology, and is irrelevant  to real life  because it is self-evidently possible to operate a political policy of free trade in goods and services while preventing mass immigration.

There is no shame in  ideological eclecticism, merely an acknowledgment of  the impracticality or impracticality of political ideas and a recognition that  all ideologies are inadequate descriptions of reality and contain contradictions.  Political ends should be aspirations  towards the ideal.

For only liberty, only a free market, can organize and maintain an industrial system, and the more that population expands and explodes, the more necessary is the unfettered working of such an industrial economy. Laissez-faire and the free market become more and more evidently necessary as an industrial system develops; radical deviations cause breakdowns and economic crises. This crisis of statism becomes particularly dramatic and acute in a fully socialist society; and hence the inevitable breakdown of statism has first become strikingly apparent in the countries of the socialist (i.e., Communist) camp. For socialism confronts its inner contradiction most starkly. Desperately, it tries to fulfill its proclaimed goals of industrial growth, higher standards of living for the masses, and eventual withering away of the State, and is increasingly unable to do so with its collectivist means. Hence the inevitable breakdown of socialism.   Murray N. Rothbard

Cicero quotes Cato as saying that the Roman constitution was superior to that of other states because it “was based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many: it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all men living at one time possibly make all the necessary provisions for the future without the aid of actual experience

and the test of time.” Chapter Four, Freedom, Reason, and Tradition; The

Constitution of Liberty ISBN 0-226-32084-7, University of Chicago Press | 1960 | Friedrich A. Hayek

There are many things specifically in laws and governments,” wrote Chief Justice Hale in the seventeenth century in a critique of Hobbes, “that mediately, remotely and consequentially are reasonable to be approved, though the reason of the party does not presently or immediately and distinctly see its reasonableness…Long experience makes more discoveries touching conveniences or inconveniences of laws than is possible for the wisest council of men at first to foresee. And that those amendments and supplements that through the various experiences of wise and knowing men have been applied to any law must needs be better suited to the convenience of laws, than the best invention of the most pregnant wits not aided by such a series and tract of experience…This add to the  difficulty of the present fathoming of the reason of laws, which, though it commonly be called the mistress of fools, yet certainly it is the wisest expedient among mankind, and discovers those defects and supplies which no wit of man could either at once foresee or aptly remedy…It is not necessary that the reasons of the institution should be evident unto us. It is sufficient that they are instituted laws that give a certainty to us, and it is reasonable to observe them though the particular reason of the institution appear not.”

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  • contructiveconservative  On February 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Interesting thoughts.

    I agree that definitions have changed over time which can sometimes lead to confusion, or even willful misrepresentation.

    From an American point of view, my answer to the question is “No”.

    I found that although there is a certain attractiveness to be found in Libertarian-ism, that it was in the differences that I found myself to be a Conservative. Obviously this suggests a difference between the two.

    Just my take.

  • Claire Khaw  On February 6, 2012 at 1:49 am

    If we just had a one-party state, then we wouldn’t need to worry about labels.

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