Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Conservatism and Libertarianism: Some Thoughts on James Miller's Defense of Conservatism

James E. Miller, the culturally conservative libertarian anarchist and prolific author, argued in a recent article that libertarians should not ditch conservatism, in response to libertarian writer Chris Rossini's suggestion that conservatism should be ditched.

He argued that conservatives and libertarians are allies (though not exactly through the same "natural allies" argument used as of old).

First, the start was David Brooks's article in USA Today arguing that social welfare statismt is compatible with conservatism, and that conservatives should be like liberals and become part of the "social justice" phenomenon (which has taken various forms in the Christian community). Chris Rossini effectively responded to the pro-state arguments of Brooks, and Rossini then argued that libertarianism and conservatism should not always be together, echoing the Catholic anarcho-capitalist Lew Rockwell's argument that there comes a time in every freedom lover's life that he should detach himself from conservatism.

James Miller, however, does not seem to think that is the case. While he is opposed to the modern conservative support for war, government, crony capitalism, and banks, and while he can't exactly be considered a conservative himself ("Old-style conservativism is traditionally in favor of a restrained foreign policy. On other issues however, it concedes to aggression"), he does feel that conservatism, as it is not strictly confined to political philosophy, can be matched together with libertarianism. The purpose of this article, then, is not to condemn moral values but to show that conservatism is not compatible with libertarianism, and that it is right for libertarians to detach themselves from conservatism (though this is not to condemn conditional and temporary alliances with them).

How Do We Define Conservatism?

The definition of conservatism is important before one can enter fully into a discussion of conservative-libertarian relations. The word "conservative" usually means holding to traditional values and being wary of change (though not entirely hostile to it). It can mean "sober or conventional" or whatnot. In polity, conservatism means a policy that favors the promotion of tradition through the State, and while conservatives may disagree as to what degree traditional institutions should be promoted by the State, but ultimately conservative polity is about government promoting morality and not merely limiting itself to defending life, liberty and property. Conservative polity can in essence be considered a moral activist program for government that is not entirely in line with the libertarian insistence on the non-aggression axiom and opposition to enforced and coerced morals.

Chris Rossini, in his rebuttal to conservative "social justice" activism, sees conservatism as not all that different from leftism, and I agree in the sense that both political ideologies advocate statism and activism, only in differing forms.

James E. Miller, coming to the defense of conservatism, contrasts conservatism and libertarianism by saying, "The latter [libertarianism] is a political philosophy while the former is something of much more complexity and breadth [conservatism]." On the surface level I agree, for social and cultural conservatives can be libertarians, provided that they stick to the non-aggression principle, oppose victimless-crime laws due to a consistent limited-government/libertarian philosophy and reject interventionism in foreign affairs. And libertarianism does not equal socially liberal values and does not need to be made "thick," despite what some libertarians or non-libertairans will have you believe.

But the real issue with libertarian objections to conservatism is not so much to conservatism as an abstract theory as it is political conservatism, the use of force to enforce conservative values. Many libertarians who hold to socially and/or culturally conservative mores and advocate for them hold the same view too, and Murray Rothbard, himself no social liberal, was a critic of political conservatism and found it to be incompatible with libertarianism. In his critique of John Hosper's pro-war theory, he said this: "Between Conservatism and Libertarianism there are numerous and grave inner contradictions, and the attempt to mix the two will lead inevitably to grave problems and anomalies." So, the objection is really to the conservative advocacy of forced morality, not morality or traditional values per se (though some libertarians do take it to this extreme). 

James Miller later goes on to say:


Conservatism, at its best, is the wisdom to be suspicious of grand proclamations of the state’s efficacy. But it also extends further: it’s a disposition that recognizes man’s flawed abilities and doesn’t heartily celebrate progress, whether it be material, scientific, or knowledgeable. It holds onto tradition because of the guiding light it has provided for centuries before. That doesn’t mean a conservative is correct to oppose all new declarations of liberty. But it acts as a strong bulwark against the insidious longings of thought leaders who want tyrannical lordship over freedom.

This may be true for some conservatives, but political conservatism is essentially a pretentious philosophy, using moral principles and skepticism for all declarations of progress as a basis to attack libertarian principles in the name of "morality." Political conservatives often put faith in the State as a locus of morality, and it perverts tradition (which may or may not be good) and uses it as a reason to support an institutionalized institution of aggression and exploitation. The conservative is not merely a traditionalist (in fact, libertarians can be strong traditionalists) but rather a statist as well. 

The libertarian historian Ralph Raico says of conservatives in his response to a conservative scholar:

A final aspect of van den Haag’s attack deserves extended comment. It is an old conservative swindle, going back to Edmund Burke. It has been customary for conservatives to lay claim to our whole social inheritance of traditions, meanwhile asserting that libertarians — or classical liberals, or French philosophes — are aiming at the total destruction of all tradition. In that time-honored spirit, van den Haag states: "Libertarians are antinomians, i.e., opposed to law and traditional institutions … Libertarianism is opposed to all conservative traditions, to tradition itself” (emphasis added). 
Now, I must confess that when I read this, I was filled with astonishment. Can this really be true? Are we really such barbarians? After all, there are many different sorts of traditions; many of them obviously desirable. Can libertarians actually want to destroy all of them? Are libertarians looking forward, for instance, to the day when the tradition of cello-playing finally dies out? When literary critics no longer give a damn for the life of the English language? When friends no longer help each other out in trouble, or celebrate a marriage or the birth of a child? Are we all gleefully anticipating the moment when the last practitioner of French cuisine expires in bitterness and despair? (As far as that last one goes, I have to say, No way! I happen to know all of the top libertarians, and I’ve never met a group more sincerely appreciative of good food, and especially of French cuisine.) All of these represent traditions; and the cello-haters have yet to emerge as an important faction within the movement. So, when van den Haag says that we oppose "tradition itself," what can he mean? 
It soon becomes clear what it is that troubles van den Haag, as it troubles other conservatives. Under libertarianism, he complains, "Society is denied the ability to impose or even publicly cultivate norms and bonds. Only individuals and private groupings can do so" (emphasis added). For conservatives, on the other hand, he says, "institutions form a social order, ultimately articulated and defended in essential respects by the state, through the monopoly of legitimate coercive power exercised by its government." 
Well, as you can see — things are becoming a little clearer. It isn’t after all "tradition itself" that van den Haag is defending against the Visigothic hordes of the libertarian movement. Nor does he really believe that we want to deny the right of non-governmental groups publicly to cultivate social norms — no libertarian would use force, for instance, to prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from renting Yankee Stadium. What worries van den Haag is that, with the growing influence of our movement, coerced, state-en forced traditions are now threatened and may not survive.


In choosing political or social positions, two alternatives have been offered: custom or tradition on the one hand, the use of reason to discern natural laws and rights on the other; in short, tradition, or the use of reason to discern abstract principles on which to stand one's ground outside the customs of time and place. Here, too, is a profound difference between traditionalist and libertarian. The traditionalist is at bottom an empiricist, distrusting rational abstraction and principle, and wrapping himself in the custom of his particular society. The libertarian, as Lord Acton stated, "wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is." Or, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has summed up Acton's viewpoint, "the past was allowed no authority except as it happened to conform to morality."

Also he says:

Are there any other obeisances that libertarians may properly make to tradition? Simply to say that, in life, not all questions are matters of moral principle. There are numerous areas of life where people live by habit and custom, where the custom can neither be called moral or immoral, and where pursuit of custom eases the tensions of social life and makes for a more comfortable and harmonious society. It would be a false and perverted rationalism to say that any custom which cannot be proven on some other ground to be "rational" must go by the board. We can then conclude as follows: (a) that custom must be voluntarily upheld and not enforced by coercion; and (b) that people would be well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of custom, other things being equal. In a world, for example, where every man takes off his hat in the presence of ladies, an individual should be free not to do so, but at the risk of being generally judged a boor. If, on the other hand, this person's constitution is such that he would be likely to suffer a bad cold by exposing his pate, then we have here a higher moral consideration overriding the social harmonies of custom.

The fact that conservatives are often supporters of statism should make one think twice before considering a conservative-libertarian alliance, because the conservative philosophy is rooted in a markedly different philosophy (statism) and the libertarian philosophy (liberty) is not the same as the conservative philosophy.

Later on, Miller states:


The conservative cause isn’t to eschew every new idea or technological innovation because it threatens a way of life ingrained in society over the course of a few millennia. It says that we will forever be flawed beings, and that caution should be intertwined with prudence. Libertarians who desire true human liberty would be na├»ve to immediately accept any kind of change because it comes off as freeing. If freedom is precious, it should be treated as such and not taken for granted.

I understand that the conservative ideology as Miller describes is perfectly compatible with libertarianism's non-aggression principle. But the political conservative ideal is just that: rejection of any ideal that doesn't subscribe to their statist ideals of coerced morality and statism as a locus for moral value. While libertarianism shouldn't accept every single change, it doesn't mean that we should jump on the conservative bandwagon. There is a happy balance: treating freedom as precious and being skeptical of statist changes while accepting any change in the direction of liberty and freedom from the State. 

So, while I do appreciate skepticism of certain reforms, it is my conclusion that libertarianism and conservatism are both compatible and incompatible. If conservatism is social and cultural conservatism, then it is compatible with libertarianism. However, if conservatism branches out into political conservatism, then it becomes incompatible with libertarianism and should be discarded as such.

I would like to close with Lew Rockwell's words here:
What does conservatism today stand for? It stands for war. It stands for power. It stands for spying, jailing without trial, torture, counterfeiting without limit, and lying from morning to night.
There comes a time in the life of every believer in freedom when he must declare, without any hesitation, to have no attachment to the idea of conservatism.

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