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Friday, May 1, 1992

A Dictionary Of Conservative And Libertarian Thought


From American Conservatism to Austrian Economics, from the Enlightenment to Entrepreneurship, from Environment to Family, from Libertarianism to Manchester School, from Prejudice to Public Choice, from Religion to Revolution, from Totalitarianism to Utopianism, from Voluntarism to Welfare, this reference work supplies definitional discussions from the viewpoint of conservatism, libertarianism, and classical liberalism, and does so on 91 topics of keen interest to the student of political and economic thought.

The British editors—Nigel Ashford is senior lecturer in politics of Staffordshire Polytechnic and Stephen Davies is senior lecturer in history at Manchester Polytechnic—employ 11 contributors from both sides of the Atlantic and do a good job of explaining and economizing for the busy reader oftentimes complex ideas. Too, they furnish with every entry a short list of relevant books for further reading.

In addition, they provide an appendix of brief identifications and the main works of 188 conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals cited in the text—thinkers such as Lord Acton, James Buchanan, Frederic Bastiat, Hilaire Belloc, John C. Calhoun, Adam Ferguson, Milton Friedman, Edward Gibbon, Nathan Glazer, Alexander Hamilton, F. A. Hayek, Gustave Le Bon, Bruno Leoni, Frank Meyer, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nozick, Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, Wilhelm Roepke, Murray Rothbard, George Santayana, Jean Baptiste Say, Lysander Spooner, Jacob Viner, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Some illustrative excerpts:

ANARCHISM: [D]octrine that supposes that it is possible for there to be an orderly and predictable social order in the absence of the state. This simple definition, however, conceals a wide variety of anarchist thought. Furthermore, it begs some key questions in political thought. Does anarchism mean that order is possible without government of any kind or merely that it can be achieved without the modern, coercive state? Does it hold that law and rules are required but that an enforcement agency with a monopoly of power is dispensable? Is it the case that anarchism entails a revolutionary change in human nature to be viable or merely the removal of existing, arbitrary social institutions?. . .

CLASS: For the classical liberal, and even more the libertarian, a class is simply a category, an aggregate of individuals sharing a common market position. Classes are open both in the sense that they have no clear or obvious boundaries and in that the arbitrary category boundaries used by the social observer or market researcher are permeable. Individuals can move up or down from one class to another as they make use or fail to make use of the opportunities the marketplace offers for acquiring income, wealth, skills, or qualifications . . . .

HUMAN NATURE: Classical liberalism and conservatism exemplify sharply contrasting views of human nature. Indeed, it could be said that the differences between the two political philosophies resolve into differences in beliefs about the powers, limitations, and prospects of human beings. On the view of the classical liberal, in order to flourish human nature needs to be emancipated from a multiplicity of social, cultural, and religious hindrances. Among the most noteworthy of these are restrictions on free trade, class structure, national boundaries, and religious dogmatism. The fact that such hindrances have grown up as a result of human activity, and therefore show human nature at work, is only partly recognized by the [classical] liberal . . . .

POLITICS: The question was once set in an Oxford philosophy examination: “Power politics—what other sorts of politics are there?” Certainly all politics must be concerned in some way with power. But, equally certainly, those conflicts of interest between states which are resolved wholly or mainly by appeals to force or the threat of force are not the sole sort. For there are also the paradigmatically peaceful internal politics of long- established democracies, where the only appeal to force is usually tacit, and to the lawful force sustaining orderly procedures and preventing intimidatory intrusions. There are, no doubt, such similarly nonviolent politics even in the Vatican . . . .

WAR: In the Western intellectual tradition there are broadly two ways of looking at war. One sees it as inevitable, even good under certain circumstances. The other sees war as the consequence of particular things or conditions, hence in theory at least not inevitable, and always bad—even if no moral alternative exists. This second school of thought can be further subdivided into the pacifist variety which argues that war is never justi fied and the ‘just war’ type wherein war is justified only if certain strict conditions apply and the war is fought in a particular way. Briefly, the war must be fought in self-defense, it must have a just end, it must be the last possible resort, and the expected benefits must exceed the costs. The fighting must be limited in scope and confined to combatants, it must be done according to certain rules, and it cannot include wanton cruelty. Both the pacifist and just war arguments derive mainly from Christian theology . . . .

The above abbreviated smorgasbord does little justice to the richness of the ideas and arguments presented here. In all, quite a Baedeker to the issues facing the intellectual on the right, be that person a conservative, libertarian, or classical liberal.

Dr. Peterson, Heritage Foundation and Mises Institute adjunct scholar, is the Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina.


  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.