Why I’m Not a Libertarian (or a “Conservative”)


[M]ost people who call themselves conservatives are, when you press them, essentially classical liberals, and classical liberals did not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” either. By comparison with their traditional conservative and monarchist foes in the 19th century, they were advocates for centralism and the expansion of the role of the state in the name of reason and liberty. Standardization, rationalization and uniformity in law and regulation were what most classical liberals prized, which is one reason why they tended to be strong nationalists hostile to the customs and privileges of regions and local parlements. The separation of modern strands of classical liberalism from nationalism (i.e., some forms of libertarianism) is a curious by-product of 20th century American politics, and I am guessing that this owes a great deal to influence of exiled liberals from central Europe on the evolution of these strands of American classical liberalism.

[My emphases. – NPO]

In the comments, Daniel McCarthy (to whom I’m personally indebted for giving me the opportunity to review Prof. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power for Young American Revolution) offers a nuanced reply, in which he asserts

Classical liberalism had different strains, some of which were highly centralist and some of which were decentralist. The centralizers generally prevailed in government — just as centralizing non-liberals (like Bismarck) generally prevailed over decentralist non-liberals.

Doubtless, McCarthy is on to something here, but I generally side with Larison (and I’m not entirely comfortable calling Tocqueville a liberal, as McCarthy does; I prefer “liberal conservative”).

And herein lies my fundamental qualm with libertarianism. The ideology (or collection of ideologies) is one of the more true-to-roots modern progenies of classical liberalism, (lacking the pseudo-conservatism of mainstream “conservatives”) — perhaps, according to some libertarians, the successor of Enlightenment liberalism. However, it disavows the State. To me, this is, as I called it before, internally contradictory alchemy. The liberal needs the State.

(McCarthy, in his response, offers a cogent argument in suggesting that the roots of the pairing of liberalism and decentralism in American political philosophy lie with Jefferson and Madison, but I think, at least respecting Jefferson, this assertion oversimplifies matters. Yes, he was very much, in many ways, a liberal, even radically so, but no mere liberal decentralist, he was, as Larison, rather compellingly, long ago asserted, in ways quite conservative, a man not only opposed to consolidation, but to the “power of the ‘moneyed interest'” as well, and a man of the country. That is, rather than merely a “liberal decentralist”, he adhered to and upheld certain liberal and certain conservative tenets.)

Liberals need the state because, ultimately, the foundation of the liberal polity is the individual. Gone is Aristotle’s zoon politikon, and the Philosopher’s fundamental precept, “every community is established for the sake of some GOOD”, specifically the common good, replaced by the Every-man-a-king doctrine of liberalism. Without the State, its origins in necessary contractarianism, mankind, by the liberal creed, exists in a perpetual state of war. Contra liberalism (and, thus, libertarianism), conservatism, rightly conceived, follows Aristotle, appreciating the importance of the individual but recognizing that outside of community, man enters into what Berry calls “vast meaninglessness, […] the freedom of our vices.”

Contemporary libertarianism seeks to dull both edges of the sword; to have its cake and to eat it, too. The libertarian, like the classical liberal, exalts the individual, subordinating any group — the world “community”, the nation-state, the region, or the community — to him; however, he credulously asserts that a society of kings can function without the intervention of the State. He often allows for decentralized government (though is wary even of federalism/subsidiarity, for the local government may expand too much for his tastes, just the same as the national), and offers paeans to communal self-government (that is, anarchy, conservatively understood). This is all well and good, save that the tension remains between the necessarily communal nature of the community government and the “king”‘s desire for self-rule. Without subjugation of the self to the polis — something anathema to the underlying doctrine of individualism —, the libertarian engages in futility, ultimately requiring the development, and consequent overdevelopment, of the selfsame state he sought to avert initially.

Thus, I am not a libertarian; thus I believe that, ultimately, “Fusionism” cannot sustain — as seems to be obvious today —, and that American “conservatism”, really conservative liberalism, is as problematic, if not more so for its untenable attempt to blend conservative values into a framework antipathetic toward community, as libertarianism.


5 Responses

  1. Good to see you recommit to posting again, Nathan. I enjoyed this. I’ve been purposefully avoiding the blogosphere, including my personal screed bukkit.

    I once, and very briefly, called myself a communitarian…for what that’s worth.

    Three questions:

    (1) Whence this idea that a libertarian disavows the state, or seeks to avert it? I’m no expert on libertarianism, and I would only surrender a heavily-qualified affirmative when asked if I self-identify as such (for some of the reasons you mentioned above). My breadth of reading may be somewhat limited, but the most cogent argument I’ve yet read in favor of libertarianism is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, wherein he argues that the minimalist state is indeed an absolute necessity to provide for the common defense. I’ve yet to read any self-described “libertarian” book, article, or blog that completely disavows or averts the state.

    (2) How would you distinguish a libertarian from an anarchist?

    (3) What more, other than that necessary to provide for personal protection and common defense, should the individual be obliged to surrender to the polis? His excess income beyond a few standard deviations from the mean? His freedom to choose how to make a living? His freedom to choose how best to educate his children? Yes, I’m making a slippery slope argument here.

    If libertarianism is antipathetic towards community, I’ll disavow it completely. If anything, libertarianism, as I understand it, rejects artificial, coerced, and therefore false community in favor of spontaneous social organization.

  2. Mike, thanks for the challenging response (and for reading and replying at all as I try to get myself back into the groove here).

    Perhaps in my haste, I spoke too sloppily. I suppose that very few libertarians completely disavow that state, although I’m pretty sure that some do — at least amongst certain “left-wing” variants of libertarians (e.g., the mutualists, maybe). Most however, just as I do, reject anything but the most minimal state, as you suggest, in theory if not in practice (I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t really acted in many ways, other than casting a few worthless protest votes, that could possibly bring down the great Leviathan). I’m with them here, but maintain that, by emphasizing the individual, rather than the community (as good liberals do), as the most important unit of society, they ultimately need to rely on the state when the society of “kings” fails, as, I think, it inevitably must. It might be my Catholicism coming into play here, but I am too convinced of the fallen state of man to believe that, without a contractarian state apparatus — something that, by its nature, expands from whatever minimal size it possess when established into something more familiar of the modern nation-state —, this society of individuals — this public, rather than communal, realm, to carry a distinction from Wendell Berry — can function. Man, qua individual is a “utility maximizer”, out, understandably, to increase his own wealth, however he define it. When Person X and Person Y seek, in an individualist society, to increase their wealths by acquisition of the same scarce item, without the state apparatus, blood will be shed. Or so I believe.

    I employ a very specific, perhaps imperfect, meaning of “anarchy”, almost a synonym for “communitarian”, except that it explicitly rejects (anything but the most minimal version of) the state, opting for self-governance emerging organically out of the community. Without community — that is, shared culture and rootedness in a place — anarchy as I envision it isn’t workable and probably has to embrace the State a bit. (I’m thinking along the lines of extreme Anti-Federalism, and call to mind “John DeWitt”, as described by Ralph Ketcham:

    “Each ‘district,’ furthermore, would be a town or ward or region conscious of its own, particular identity rather than being some amorphous, arbitrary geographic entity” [my emphasis].

    Your third question, I think, exacts more of me than I’m ready to offer now, and certainly more than I can offer in a comment box. It is definitely something worth further consideration; however, my short answer is that, in the polis properly understood (or as I conceive of it, anyway), especially one akin to Ketcham’s description of the Anti-Federalist conception of the “district”, the social fabric, that of a community rather than simply a public, would both make more tolerable the “surrender” of certain prerogatives and decrease such need on account of the presence of community, with all that that entails, rather than a simple collection of individuals in a shared location (a bit vague, I admit; I apologize).

    Libertarianism and conservatism, properly embrace, share a rejection of “artificial, coerced, and therefore false community”, for sure. And ideally, I think both favor spontaneous (I’d prefer to say “organic”) social organization; however, I remain unconvinced that the latter can emerge in an individualistic, rather than communitarian, polity.

  3. […] a point that I, following Larison, made, Mr Kain offers a well-aimed jab at individualism that I cannot abstain from repeating: […]

  4. […] liberties, lost in the shuffle was any notion of community rights. As I’ve stressed elsewhere, Gone is Aristotle’s zoon politikon, and the Philosopher’s fundamental precept, “every […]

  5. Interesting posting. If you are interested in federalism, you might be interested in my post on it. See: http://soozah.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/consolidation-what-the-fight-is-really-about/

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