Conservatism and Libertarianism: Cousins by Marriage
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Conservative philosophy is based on conserving traditional values and power relationships. The conservative ethic is based on the handed-down religion and culture of the area. The power relationships conservatives seek to preserve include the state, the church, and the prevailing hierarchy of power, including powers based on race, sex-gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Classical liberals base their philosophy on reason. Where the consequences of reason are incompatible with tradition, then liberals seek to overturn the tradition. Reason informs liberals that there is no inherent master-slave relationship among human beings. Liberals have therefore sought legal equality among the races, sexes, ethnic groups, and religions. Moreover, classical liberals sought to eliminate arbitrary restrictions on human action, since reason tells us that such restrictions violate human equality, making the rule-makers superior to the ruled. Liberals also sought to decrease power based on inheritance, as with monarchies, and base political power on the democratic consent of the governed.
The American revolution of the 1770s was a war between the liberals, who sought to replace the rule of the king by a democracy, and to assure liberty, against the conservative royalists. In founding the United States of America and authoring its Constitution, the revolutionaries created a new status quo, and therefore a new tradition. British mercantilist governmental economic controls were largely replaced by private enterprise, so the new American power relationships were based on property, including land ownership. In America, churches were separate from government, and so there came to be a tradition of tolerating various religions, but conservative values were still derived from traditional Christianity.
In early America, conservatives sought to keep the power relationships of slavery and of male supremacy, while the liberals sought to end slavery and have more equality. There was a logical inconsistency between the American tradition of legal equality, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and the actual inequality of slavery and the inferior status of women. So American conservatives, though not leading the fight for more equality, accepted equality once it was established. This was also the case in the struggle to end racial segregation and to assure equal voting rights for women and African-Americans, as well as justice for American Indians.
American conservatives today are split between the more libertarian faction that seeks to preserve the early American spirit of liberty and the more authoritarian faction that emphasizes traditional values based on religion and patriotism, to be imposed by force. Libertarian conservatives still seek to preserve and promote traditional religious and patriotic virtues, but not by the force of government. Authoritarian conservatives place more value on tradition than liberty, and seek, for example, to enact a Constitutional amendment to ban burning the American flag. The authoritarian conservatives want censorship and oppose the legalization of what they consider to be vices, such as gambling and medical marijuana.
During the 1800s, liberals in the United States and Europe split into two very distinct groups. The socialists observed poverty and sought more equality in wealth as well as in political rights. Not understanding the cause of poverty, they sought to treat the effects, to equalize wealth by redistributing income from the rich to the poor or, going even further, to nationalize the economy and have it owned and operated by the state. Welfare-state liberals today still want heavy government restrictions and taxes to help the poor, including middle-class deprivation.
The libertarian faction remained committed to comprehensive liberty. Libertarians understand that it is government intervention and not the market that causes unemployment and poverty. Even when libertarians do not understand the role of land in the economy, and the implicit subsidy granted by government to landowners, they are nevertheless liberals in the classic sense of seeking to base their political philosophy on reason rather than tradition.
Libertarians and welfare-state liberals are therefore cousins in their foundational philosophy, both based on reason and seeking equality, but opposites in policy, libertarians seeking a minimal state and socialists and welfare statists seeking greater state power. Socialists and welfare statists are basically liberals who do not understand economics. Geo-libertarians understand economics best, since they understand that basing public finance on land rent would fulfill the libertarian goal of avoiding the inequalities of arbitrary taxation and arbitrary subsidy.
Libertarians and conservatives are cousins in economic policy. Both favor private enterprise and oppose the ownership and control of the economy by big government. But the foundations of their agreement are distinctly different. Libertarians want liberty because reason tells us this is right, while conservatives want economic liberty because that is the American tradition. Libertarians and American conservatives are cousins by marriage. They got married during the American revolution, when liberals established a liberty-based status quo. To the extent the American Constitution is classically liberal, so too are American conservatives.
But most conservatives, being committed to conserving the status-quo and tradition, do not wish to establish complete liberty. Many conservatives support trade limitations, the taxation of labor, and restrictions on what they consider to be vices contrary to traditional values. The various traditions conservatives seek to impose by law create inconsistencies and confusion in conservative thinking.
One conservative who sought to reconcile conservatism and libertarianism and achieve consistency was Frank Meyer, his major essays collected in the book In Defense of Freedom. In his essay, "Why Freedom?," Meyer argued that when people are forced to do good, they lose the ability to be truly virtuous.
The book Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative Libertarian Debate examines how libertarians and conservatives differ and also how they can make common cause. This dialogue has been fostered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute . Through such dialogues we will be better able to understand our beliefs and come to a better understanding of the ethical and political philosophy that would enable us to have social harmony and prosperity. Since dialogue implies using reason to examine alternatives, it seems to me that ultimately, beliefs based on reason will prevail.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2002 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
What are your views? Share your opinion with The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?