Jonathan Cole’s A Kirkian Critique of Libertarianism has nothing to do with the captain of the Enterprise but a lot to do with the future of freedom. It also has relevance to the nature of Catallaxy. Dating back to founder Jason Soon’s earliest iteration of the site nearly 20 years ago, tensions have existed here between proponents of a stately-theistic order on one hand and Soonian-Davidsonian rationalists on the other. The latter have been untroubled by ‘social issue’ upheavals but concerned only to maximise individualist liberties over against the encroachments of government. The same occasionally fraught stand-off is seen in the Liberal Party, in the animosity between Never-Trumpers and Drain-The-Swampers and the bitter showdown between Acton Institute marketeers and the new ultramontane Marxists gathered around the pope. Shatner’s Kirk could have brought us all together by the end of the show with a Zen aphorism. Like, “It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned” (The Return of the Archons). Which is actually a more eirenic threshold for dialogue than the damning critique Cole cites by US conservative Russell Kirk.
For that Kirk, libertarianism is “a genteel form of anarchism” and one of history’s “absurd ideologies” – one that will only ensnare conservatism in “ideological fanaticism.” Why Cole cares about that isn’t clear. He has previously interrogated conservatism itself, checking its preoccupations against biblical theology. Comparing popular conservative tenets to the Good Book – sola scriptura – is an oldie but a goody. The only thing easier than finding a polemically convenient verse in the Bible is pointing to the polemically convenient absence of one. Upper case Tradition, the Doctors of the Church, the Leonine canonisation of God-given private property rights – even the antecedents of markets in ancient and medieval ecclesiastical economies – these complicate the picture and make wack-a-mole consistency policing more difficult. Cole does something similar here, this time with Atlas Shrugged as the sacred text whose theology conservatives have no business espousing.
His introduction of the Kirkian “ordered liberty” that conservatives value but which libertarians purportedly despise proceeds from the idea of freedom as a necessarily delimiting choice of one thing chosen over another. Well and good but this is nothing more than a re-statement of opportunity cost. These chosen and foregone courses of action create a matrix of actualised freedoms that can only co-exist beneficially for all in a “social world constituted by authorities, laws, conventions, customs and cultural norms.” There is also the conventional reference to traffic regulations as proof of the necessity of state-enforced order. Ultra-Austrians would cite the British Cabstand Junction Trial in response but let’s agree that road rules are swell.
While there are utopians who believe an infinity of choices – rather than norms, courts and states – is antidote enough to complexity, they are rarefied straw men in a discussion of conventional libertarianism. The spontaneous order of Smith and Hayek is founded on historical reality and doesn’t require proponents to become bomb throwers. Cole’s assertion that libertarians who do not seriously want “radical change” in the existing order are no libertarians at all but, rather, classical liberals or incrementalists is therefore fair – if the classification of isms is important to you. One could also argue that only the Amish are true conservatives. Everybody else gave up horse-drawn plows and braces. There is a tension here between seeing libertarianism as scarcely real but warning of the danger it poses to conservatism. It can’t be both. Again, it’s not clear why Cole is so eager to slap conservative hands reaching into the Randian bicky tin.
At root, this drift towards libertarianism or rightist disestablishmentarianism – which is real and consequential – is not a complicated phenomenon. Left-wing statism now predominates in Western governance. It follows that conservatives have no interest in conserving a new order they see as hostile to their values, especially when a Uniparty (or a War Party or a Deep State) has not only disenfranchised them but corrupted the philosophy of the parties they formerly supported. To put it another way: traditional conservatism has fallen out of favour with conservatives. The base-loathing left turn of the Liberal Party, the suspension of democracy itself by British remainers, the attempted coup against the President of the United States and simmering hostility to Brussels in some reaches of an immigrant-overloaded EU are all drivers of rebellion.
It is not, as Cole asserts, contemporary conservatism that “drifts further and further from its erstwhile anchor in Christian anthropology.” (Moorings he elsewhere doubts). It is government and – more shocking – virtually all of the institutions that traditionally protected liberty (press, universities, courts, even some churches) that have not merely drifted from the anchor but fired up the oxy-torch and cut it loose. This is why conservatives have become more open to libertarianism than before, conceiving it as a counter-revolutionary program to enervate the same illegitimately large, capricious and culture-destroying state. While it’s true the LDP doesn’t subscribe to a lapsarian view of man (Cole decries its insistence that people are “intrinsically good”) the left’s Jansenist miserabilism is the heresy laying waste to order today; not Robert Nozick or John Galt.
Which brings us back to Captain Kirk. “It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned.” That is remarkably close to how former conservatives now think about politics. Much of what had always been gifted by the old order has been obliterated. Taking it back is their … continuing mission.