A Kirkian Defence of Libertarianism

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.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to A Kirkian Defence of Libertarianism

  1. 2dogs

    It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned.

    Earning something also implies a willing grantor.

  2. Entropy

    A magnificent article CL. Says it all, much, much better than I could ever attempt.

  3. struth

    A practical mind could never consent to libertarianism the way it has been promoted on this blog.

    Freedom is not the natural state of affairs, and institution and rule of law, although minimalistic, must be present and upheld.
    We should learn from history.
    From what I can tell, the Libertarian mind sees government as it’s own being, and of it’s own mind, an enemy at all turns, where conservatives value the institutions and rule of law that keeps government small, efficient, and under the citizen’s control, something that cannot be done via libertarian values.
    Controlling government or eradicating it.

    In so much as the left strive for anarchy against capitalism, to bring on ze commo revolution, so the libertarian battles government , for a different end, but in so doing gullibly helps the left fill the vacancy created, with totalitarianism.

  4. Percy Popinjay

    The central matter as far as I’m concerned (being a believer in keeping the state as small as possible and focused on about three central functions) is that human history repeatedly demonstrates that democracy decays across an easily identifiable cycle and that the state remorselessly grows until it inevitably consumes its host.

    How can this phenomenon be prevented, or is it a fundamental aspect of the human condition?

    We are at a very dangerous point in this country (as is all the of West) and I fear it is too late to salvage what has been lost.

    As for “conserving” the insane collectivist idiocy we’ve been remorselessly gifted over the last 50 years or so, fuggedabouddit.

    When it comes to that, I just want to crush, kill and destroy.

  5. herodotus

    Currency Lad Unbound. Bravo!

  6. Iampeter

    Thanks for this post CL and thanks for linking to Cole’s article. This made for good hangover breakfast reading.
    I think Cole’s article is good insofar as it captures everything that is so flawed with conservatism in one spot.
    The quote from Rand starting the article does not “encapsulate the essence of libertarianism.” Not at all. Libertarians are anarchists and Rand was advocating a rights-protecting government, which is as much the opposite of libertarianism as it is of conservatism.
    It’s another example of how unfamiliar conservatives are with political theory that they don’t know it even when they’re quoting it and they quickly fall back on their usual muddied talking points.
    All the usual cargo-cult-like random soup of concepts and terms, ranging from states, freedom, tradition, institutions, religion, etc, trying to rationalize conclusions instead of arriving at them logically and often contradicting themselves. For example, what do conservatives mean by “freedom” and what do they mean by “order” and how are the two even in conflict? Who knows. It’s just an assumption stated as fact which then forms the basis for a whole tangent of discussion. All conservative attempts at discussing politics resemble messes like this.

    But ultimately the differences between Libertarianism and Conservatism are superficial. Libertarians reject all government, which means anarchy, which means individual rights will be violated.
    Conservatives are religious collectivists which means individual rights will be violated.
    The fundamental, as always, is rights, but this is missing from all discussion as usual.

    The real alternative to all these rights-violating, collectivist ideologies, whether they be Libertarian, Conservative or Progressive, is that of the American Founders. It was this ideology that Rand was re-stating in that quote. But she was also contributing to it enormously by tying it to an integrated world view.

    An integrated world view that neither conservatives (largely thanks to anti-reason advocates like Kirk) nor Libertarians have.
    Which is why everything is drifting Left. No one in the mainstream is opposing their positions with any kind of coherent alternatives.

  7. Iampeter

    Oh and I meant to add that I do agree that conservatives should indeed stick to their religion and traditionalist beliefs, just like individualists should reject them.
    The whole “fusion” between individualists and religious collectivists never made sense and needs to come to an end.
    Both will benefit from the separation.

  8. Bruce

    @ 2Dogs:
    It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned.

    Earning something also implies a willing grantor.

    There is a problem with this concept, HUGE problem.

    Asking “nicely” for “freedom” is a fools errand. If you are NOT “free” then you are essentially oppressed. In all of human history there appear vanishingly few instances of an oppressor blithely opening the concentration camp gates and saying, “Off you go. Good luck”. Possibly the closest thing would be the transformation of the British Empire into the Commonwealth, though the Indians and Pakistanis may remember that era a bit differently.

    The sort of people who systematically and without qualms, take the liberty of others are not likely to suddenly develop magnanimity, shrug their shoulders and walk away. This applies ESPECIALLY to modern governments, here and elsewhere. When was the last time a government, at any level, willingly removed an impost from the punters? And did so without multiple new “imposts” to make up the lost “revenue’ and keep the “administrators’ occupied and obscenely remunerated?

  9. Bruce

    Maybe we need, not just “Kirk”, but a lot more Kierkegaard.


    “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

    “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

    “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

    “Personality is only ripe when a man has made the truth his own.”

    “Once you label me you negate me.”

    “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

    “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

    “The question is not “To be or not to be,” it is what we should be until we are not.”

    Interesting chap.

  10. Frank Walker from National Tiles

    I’m with Percy.

    I want liberty.

    I don’t care what packaging it has, I just want the product.

  11. Pyrmonter

    @ CL – generally good. But rather than the vagaries of who controls the ‘commanding heights’ – which might conceivably change – surely the better case for why conservatives ought to be accepting of libertarianism (properly defined) is that it allows the demonstration that those social institutions is extols – family, church (mosque, synagogue, chapel), the rule of law, the monarchy – are socially superior? Would the Conservatives on the Cat really be assisted by the sort of conservatism that prevailed in Iberia in the post War years? I sometimes wonder whether that is what some of them hanker after, forgetting what has come since.

    @ Iamp

    ‘Libertarians are anarchists’. No. That is one of the lazy conservatives’ straw men.

  12. struth

    Conservatives are religious collectivists

    Magical thinking of the left.
    It’s my bigotry so it’s correct bigotry.

    What a wanker.

    But ultimately the differences between Libertarianism and Conservatism are superficial. Libertarians reject all government, which means anarchy, which means individual rights will be violated.
    Conservatives are religious collectivists which means individual rights will be violated.

    Good lord.
    It just spews forth historical and religious ignorance.
    And he’s probably not even embarrassed.

    Maybe you need to lay off the grog and give your brain cells half a chance.

  13. Iampeter

    surely the better case for why conservatives ought to be accepting of libertarianism (properly defined) is that it allows the demonstration that those social institutions is extols – family, church (mosque, synagogue, chapel), the rule of law, the monarchy – are socially superior?

    But why would Libertarians want this kind of acceptance? If you need acceptance from someone extolling the “virtues” of something like monarchy then why not just ally with socialists?

    ‘Libertarians are anarchists’. No. That is one of the lazy conservatives’ straw men.

    I think there are lots of people calling themselves Libertarians who are obviously not anarchists but it is what it is.
    From a political point of view, Libertarians start with the arbitrary non-aggression principle, which is not a principle, but which leads to all force irrespective of context being a violation. This means you can’t have any legitimate functions of government. Which leaves you with just anarchy.

  14. calli

    Does Liberty need packaging?

    And I’m always wary of assertions of “[insert ideology here] are…”.

    Excellent, thought provoking post. Thank you.

    Live long and prosper, C.L.

  15. I am becoming more anarchist over time.

    The more you think about it, most government is just make work programmes.

    You have to cast your mind back to the late colonial and early US post colonial system.

    Imagine how they would have conducted a trial for robbery or murder.

    So much less bullshit, public salaries and taxpayer funded wealth redistribution.

  16. dover_beach

    Would the Conservatives on the Cat really be assisted by the sort of conservatism that prevailed in Iberia in the post War years? I sometimes wonder whether that is what some of them hanker after, forgetting what has come since.

    No, no conservative hankers for the such a situation, but given the choices that presented Spaniards in the mid-1930s, yes.

  17. dover_beach

    The other thing I would add to the above is that liberals apply the same question to themselves. Every liberal polity is now in the midst of woke culture and ever expanding government. At some point, you might consider whether liberalism, even its most charitable classical garb, might nevertheless and inexorably lead down that road.

  18. Pyrmonter

    @ Dover

    I took care in writing what I did. The 1930s were a low decade almost everywhere: the choices were usually between the bad and the worse, even in the democracies. The situation in polarised countries like Spain was all the worse. That doesn’t mean we should regard those who might (sometimes) have been the less bad as desirable.

    From 1945 there was no credible threat of communism in either Iberian state; yet they both remained police states, and repressive of groups as ‘threatening’ as masons, liberals, social democrats, linguistic nationalists and protestants.

  19. Fisky

    Pinochet provided the best model of conservatism.

  20. dover_beach

    I wasn’t suggesting they were desirable but the complexion the Nationalists took had a lot to do with the actions and the aims of revolutionary Communists at home and abroad.

  21. max

    Conservatives and Libertarians: Uneasy Cousins
    Robert Nisbet
    Essay – 1/1/1980

    Modern political conservatism, as we find it in a European philosophical tradition from about 1800 on, takes its origin in Burke’s insistence upon the rights of society and its historically formed groups such as family, neighborhood, guild and church against the “arbitrary power” of a political government. Individual liberty, Burke argued – and it remains the conservative thesis to this day – is only possible within the context of a plurality of social authorities, of moral codes, and of historical traditions, all of which, in organic articulation, serve at one and the same time as “the inns and resting places” of the human spirit and intermediary barriers to the power of the state over the individual.

    Turning now to the foundations of contemporary libertarianism, of classical liberalism, we can go back at least as far as John Locke’s Second Treatise if we choose, to the writings of Montesquieu in France in the eighteenth century, those of Jefferson in America, and Adam Smith in England. But the securest and most vivid source of libertarianism seems to me to lie in J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859, the same year in which Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared (which has its own relation to classical liberalism and thus contemporary libertarianism, through its central thesis of natural selection, the biological version of what the classical liberals called the free market, using the phrase in its widest sense).

    It is in On Liberty that Mill expresses at the beginning of the essay the famous “one very simple principle.” Mill writes: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually and collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection…. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” I suggest that Mill’s “one very simple principle” is the core of contemporary libertarianism. It is necessary, though, to note Mill’s immediate qualifications to the principle, qualifications which may or may not be acceptable to the majority of libertarians in our own day.

    If modern conservatism came into existence essentially through such a work as Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, it is because the Revolution, so often in the name of the individual and his natural rights, destroyed or diminished the traditional groups – guild, aristocracy, patriarchal family, church, school, province, etc. – which Burke declared to be the irreducible and constitutive molecules of society. Such early conservatives as Burke, Bonald, Haller, and Hegel (of The Philosophy of Right) and such conservative liberals as the mature Lamennais and of course Tocqueville, saw individualism – that is, the absolute doctrine of individualism – as being as much of a menace to social order and true freedom as the absolute doctrine of nationalism. Indeed, they argued, it is the pulverizing of society into a sandheap of individual particles, each claiming natural rights, that makes the arrival of collectivist nationalism inevitable.

    Even so, reading the libertarian journals and reviews of the last several years, I am convinced that there is a much larger egoist-hormone in libertarian physiology than there is in conservative. More and more, one has the impression that for libertarians today, as for natural law theorists in the seventeenth century, individuals are alone real; institutions are but their shadows. I believe a state of mind is developing among libertarians in which the coercions of family, church, local community, and school will seem almost as inimical to freedom as those of the political government. If so, this will most certainly widen the gulf between libertarians and conservatives.

    Which leads me to a second major difference between the two groups. The conservative philosophy of liberty proceeds from the conservative philosophy of authority. It is the existence of authority in the social order that staves off encroachments of power from the political sphere. Conservatism, from Burke on, has perceived society as a plurality of authorities. There is the authority of parent over the small child, of the priest over the communicant, the teacher over the pupil, the master over the apprentice, and so on. Society as we actually observe it, is a network or tissue of such authorities; they are really numberless when we think of the kinds of authority which lie within even the smallest of human groups and relationships. Such authority may be loose, gentle, protective, and designed to produce individuality, but it is authority nevertheless. For the conservative, individual freedom lies in the interstices of social and moral authority. Only because of the restraining and guiding efforts of such authority does it become possible for human beings to sustain so liberal a political government as that which the Founding Fathers designed in this country and which flourished in England from the late seventeenth century on. Remove the social bonds, as the more zealous and uncompromising of libertarian individualists have proposed ever since William Godwin, and you emerge with, not a free but a chaotic people, not with creative but impotent individuals. Human nature, Balzac correctly wrote, cannot endure a moral vacuum.

    To argue, as some libertarians have, that a solid, strong body of authority in society is incompatible with individual creativity is to ignore or misread cultural history.
    it was strong social and moral authority the creative minds were living under – not the oppressive, political-bureaucratic, limitless, invasive, totalitarian governments of the twentieth century.

    It might be noted finally that the greatest literary presences thus far to appear in the twentieth century Western culture have nearly all been votaries of tradition and cultural authority. Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Yeats, and others all gave testimony to authority in poem, essay and novel, and all, without exception, saw the eventual death of Western culture proceeding from annihilation of this authority in the names of individualism and of freedom.
    On balance, I would hazard the guess that for libertarians individual freedom, in almost every conceivable domain, is the highest of all social values – irrespective of what forms and levels of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual debasement may prove to be the unintended consequences of such freedom. For the conservative, on the other hand, freedom, while important, is but one of several necessary values in the good or just society, and not only may but should be restricted when such freedom shows signs of weakening or endangering national security, of doing violence to the moral order and the social fabric.

  22. Fisky
    #3199280, posted on November 1, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    Pinochet provided the best model of conservatism.

    It’s a fun joke that attacks the hypocrisy of the left (Allende’s criminality for example) but visitors to the site may not get it like we do.

Comments are closed.