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Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate

There Is No Coherent Conservative Position

Libertarians and conservatives seem to want to get along; how else explain this book’s existence? It was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a now-conservative organization founded by libertarian journalist Frank Chodorov as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. What happened when Chodorov passed control of his organization to more conservative characters is emblematic of the conservative/libertarian divide that this book explores but fails to bridge: they removed “individualist” from the name, cobbling together a contentless phrase to maintain the initials.

Fear of the unbridled individual is at the root of the conservative/libertarian conflict over freedom and virtue. The conservative fears that people unleashed from the power of the Leviathan state will bring society to rot and ruin; indeed, at least one writer here (Frederick Wilhelmsen) argues that it already has. Libertarians think that, given the corruption of man that conservatives are so prone to emphasize, granting corrupt men power to enforce their vision of virtue is dangerous and that for various reasons both moral and prudential, violence (the root of all state power) should be used solely to repel or reverse assaults on one’s own person or property.

The essays collected here limn some of the difficulties that arise when libertarians and conservatives debate. The debate isn’t settled because the combatants don’t clarify the two positions or even prove that there is in fact a coherent conservative position. Even the libertarian side seems incoherent, with John Hospers, author of a book called Libertarianism and first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, having trouble sticking to the basic Millian position that state power oughtn’t be used except to prevent harm to others. “Freedom is a great thing,” he opines, “but one should not run the danger of destroying oneself in the pursuit of it.”

Anthologies raise more issues than a brief review can note; I here concentrate on a couple of themes. The obvious, though unintended, lesson of this book is that there is no coherent conservative position. Some people seem to choose the term for sociological reasons of loose affinity and thus define it to mean whatever they believe. Comparing the views presented here by such supposed conservatives as Richard Weaver and L. Brent Bozell shows that the word means, as Humpty Dumpty said, whatever we want it to mean. Bozell thinks enforcing virtue through violence quite proper; he claims that within the Christian metaphysic he posits as essential to both conservatism and American civilization, “freedom is hardly a blessing; add the ravages of original sin and it is the path to disaster.”

Weaver, on the other hand, thinks that “the conservative in his proper character and role is a defender of liberty. He is such because he takes his stand on the real order of things and because he has a very modest estimate of man’s ability to change that order through the coercive power of the state. He is prepared to tolerate diversity of life and opinion because he knows that it is fight within reason to let each follow the law of its own being.” In this, Weaver finds himself embracing the libertarian argument, derived from Scottish enlightenment thinkers and promulgated most thoroughly this century by F. A. Hayek, that man can and does form complex workable orders without government control or management.

One issue that is perhaps even more divisive between libertarians and conservatives comes up frequently: war and peace. Conservatives tout the importance of an activist U.S. world military to fight off Soviet communism, or now that that is dead, what Robert Nisbet here sees as the “aggressive, imperialist totalitarianisms in the world.” The only specific examples he gives are China and Cuba. While none of the libertarians collected here talk about foreign policy, the conservatives clearly are irritated that many libertarians refuse to bow to the exigencies of U.S. world imperialism.

This volume is worthwhile for interesting contributions from both sides, such as M. Stanton Evans’s intriguing contention that pre-enlightenment traditions contain more support for limited state power than many moderns customarily suppose and Doug Bandow’s argument from an evangelical Christian perspective that, contra Bozell, state power has no useful role to play in the enforcement of Christian morality.

But essays like Russell Kirk’s, where he condemns libertarians as “metaphysically mad,” and obsesses over his notion that libertarians are disproportionately gay and very unpleasant characters besides, show that however much they may find themselves allied in specific instances against state encroachment, the relationship between libertarians and conservatives is apt to remain one of occasional alliance and persistent mistrust.