Article originally found here.
It is often posited by libertarians something to the effect that “libertarianism allows one to be personally culturally conservative or culturally liberal, after all, libertarianism is focused only on political questions and the use of force in society, especially the use of force wielded by the state.” And those who call themselves both “conservative and libertarian” take up a personal dedication to virtue, religious morality, and culturally conservative behavioral and lifestyle preferences.
Such preferences often come in the form of a certain refrain from vices (such as drugs), a bias toward historically typical western social norms against “alternative lifestyles” (especially sexual ones) and a lack of interest in displays of crass and degenerate, attention-seeking behavior. All this is coupled with their political libertarianism in the sense that they refuse to justify the use of state power in order to make others behave in accordance with their conservative cultural preferences.
This understanding of conservatism can be called “cultural conservatism” or “values conservatism.” So often, when the libertarian wishes to explain that he is both conservative and, at the same time, a libertarian, this is often the conservatism that he has in mind. Liberty is important, says the culturally conservative libertarian, but so is virtue. As individuals, we must not abuse our liberty, even if we have the right to do so.
This cultural conservatism is therefore focused on individual behaviors and lifestyles—standards of personal ethic and the want for a society in which many (if not most) other participants more or less voluntarily comply with the same standards. This is not uniquely true of the libertarian cultural conservative; in fact, this type of emphasis on the personal values of the citizenry largely characterizes the modern conservative movement, especially on the neoconservative religious right. In any case, whether the cultural conservative is a statist or a libertarian, the fact of the matter is that this particular expression of conservatism is focused on individual behavior and lifestyle.
This understanding of conservatism is essentially a curious extraction of specific lifestyle values from within a much broader and meaningful sociological tradition of conservatism that the modern conservative movement has in large part rejected. In this sense, culturally conservative libertarians as well as culturally conservative non-libertarians, are almost completely unaware of the long-lost understanding of conservatism as its own body of sociological insights that present a challenge to key concepts of our modern political framework such as a democracy, universal rights, equality of opportunity, tolerance, and sociological individualism. Sociological conservatism found goodness in certain individual behavior, but emphasized that such behaviors must be present within a certain social framework so as to provide a sustainable reinforcement mechanism that did not rely on coercion and state-enforcement.
Thus, modern “values conservatism” was a revolt against the older sociological conservatism; it became a political and state-oriented force to act as the opposition against the socially progressive liberals, both within the social framework of a liberal-democratic political order. Both the modern conservative movement and the progressive left operate within the dominant socio-political framework of a democratic society and a universalist, liberal social order under the assumption of a neutral political body that represents the general will of the masses. Such is the nature of liberalism’s understanding of the state.
Values conservatism as a political force came to dominate the conservative movement in America at the dawn of the Cold War and the rise of Bill Buckley’s National Review. Often, those interested in the distinctions of the conservative movement in America will distinguish between the Neoconservatives and the Paleoconservatives to describe this difference. But there is more importance difference to be made here.
The postwar American right, before the Neocons ever came to dominate the conservative movement in America, had already abandoned the older conservative tradition that looked to anti-revolutionaries such as Edmund Burke. That is, by the time the neocons stormed onto the scene, there was already something “new” about Cold War era conservatism. The answer lies in the rise of what Paul Gottfried refers to as “West Coast Straussianism,” who took up Leo Strauss’ anti-realism, anti-Burkean and pro-universal values conservatism. This was the creation of the modern conservative movement and the collapse of an Old Right (see Gottfried’s “A Conservative Farewell to History” in The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right. It was this New Right which let the Neoconservatives into the movement in the 1970s.
Here, conservatives began to emphasize the importance of universal values that would flourish best in a democratic arrangement and that non-democratic socio-political orders that thrived in other parts of the world represented threats to the progress characterized by the triumph of liberal democracy. This values conservatism, taking up the rhetoric of universals and ideals that transcended particular national and regional boundaries, therefore took on the liberal biases toward international focus and a battle for the future of the entire globe.
All this marked a betrayal, and indeed, a deadly one, of the much older, pre (and anti) democratic nature of conservatism as a sociological tradition. This tradition of conservatism was much more particularly focused on analysis of the institutions and frameworks that necessitated the making and sustenance of a sound society in a particular sense. For more elaboration of the thinkers and insights of this tradition, see Robert Nisbet’s The Sociological Tradition.
Rather than emphasizing universal ideals and values, the sociological conservative sought to analyze the preconditions of a healthy community in much more realist, empirical terms. This older, sociological Conservatism was indeed the chief philosophy against the excesses of a blossoming liberal-democratic order of the eighteenth century. While one can point to conservatives in the Anglo tradition (Russell Kirk) or the heirs of the eviscerated American South (Richard Weaver) as representative of an older conservatism, the greatest modern expositor of the sociological conservatism would be Robert Nisbet, who looked to the contributions of the forgotten (and rejected) continental (French and German) conservative opponents of the French Revolution; critics of the entire project of Enlightenment thinking and modernity at large.
Here, we find a conservatism that is viciously against democracy, not merely because “majority vote undermines rights” as even many libertarians understand, but because it rips apart traditional authority structures and politicizes what was once an organic nexus of social relations built on a developed landscape of cascading authorities that emphasizes duties and responsibilities that simply cannot be recovered in the modern liberal social order.
This sociological conservatism recognizes six key aspects to a healthy society (taken from Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality). I won’t elaborate on them all:
- The relevance of the past in stability of the present. Far from what has become a complete and obnoxious caricature of conservatism, this conservative emphasis on tradition is not worshipful, but is rather aware that there is a certain unity to be found in a common recognition of a mutual heritage and way of life. This bias does not oppose change, but rather rejects the priority of meta-changes in the development of society into the future. The search for constant upheaval is tiresome, empty, and will rip apart the fabric of the natural social order.
- The importance of the non-rational aspects of a healthy community: nostalgia, memory, prejudice, family traditions, patterns, and feeling. Society is not something you can hoist ideals onto as if the recipients would just adapt to the enlightened ways of thinking. Thus, exporting the “ideas of liberty and equality” to the Middle East is pure nonsense as societies are developed organisms made up of complicated human beings, not rational constructs in and of themselves.
- Society cannot function without centers of authority. The attempt to undermine authority and create a society of social equals will result in the masses all being equally dominated by an all-powerful state, which rises to fill the void in the absence of mediating institutions (churches, clubs, associations, local government, landlords, and especially, extended family structures). It is the propensity of the state to take the role of these institutions onto itself, and it is helped along unknowingly by those who perceive of society merely as a collection of atomistic individuals without mediating institutions.
- The complete incompatibility between liberty and equality.
- The social institution of privately-owned property is a bulwark against totalitarianism; this is true not only of individual property ownership (as even Marxists are okay with), but also variations of corporate land ownership. Nisbet writes of “property held in both deed and historical tradition by the great semi-public ecclesiastical and civil foundations, including monasteries, universities, and charitable institutions. In the name of natural rights individualism, the Jacobin rulers declared corporate property non-existence in as much as, under natural law theory, only individuals could hold proper title to property.”
- The importance of religion and personal morality.
Now, it is fascinating that Hans Hoppe, in his essay on Conservatism and Libertarianism found in Democracy: The God that Failed made two definitional decisions that put him at odds with both movement libertarians and movement conservatives. First, he very clearly considered conservatism to be a certain tradition of understanding of the nature and health of social structures, and he refers to Nisbet as the key representative of this formulation. While he of course refers to behavior and lifestyle values as important for the health of society, his broader focus is on natural and organic social institutions, covenant communities, and structures of natural authority. In this way, he is able to reject the bare bones “values conservatism” that can be easily cheered within a democratic-liberal social order.
While this may challenge those with a certain understanding of the libertarian political theory, he makes a tremendously curious (and in my opinion, praiseworthy) move by not taking up the definition of libertarianism that emphasizes non-coercion or individual sovereignty. Rather, the core of his expressed libertarianism is this: libertarianism is a “systematic law code…” which is characterized by “rules concerning the transformation and the transfer (exchange) of originally appropriated resources… and all of [legal ethics], including the principles of punishment, is then reconstructed in terms of a theory of property rights.” In other words “liberty,” the “rights of man,” “non-coercion,” all of these abstracts find their real expression in the social institution of property. There is no such thing as abstract liberty, rights, natural law, and coercion except insofar as they relate to the real and tangible institution of property within a particular social order.
Hoppe then, tremendously, has united Rothbardianism with Burkean realism. Hoppean thought marks a rejection of the more common formulations of libertarianism and turns it into a legal theory described better as propertarianism (not to be at all confused with Curt Doolittle’s project, which I don’t find much value in at all) in which property defines, regulates, and determines the meaning of liberty, rather than the other way around. Liberty then, is subservient to property. Here, in this formulation, individual sovereignty is a myth; property-owner sovereignty is more accurate. If this sounds like it is possible to see this understanding of “libertarianism” as a hypothetically relevant to a feudal order, this is accurate, which is why Hoppe made a reversal of Rothbard’s opinion that liberal democracy was an improvement on older social arrangements. (Though to be clear, that pre-modern world, the result of a thousand years of development, is gone away; it cannot be achieved again—the past must not be a Utopian in our minds).
And therefore, Hoppe can complete his synthesis between his Rothbardianism and sociological conservatism by observing that conservatism (which tends to be “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive”) focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks while libertarianism (which is “rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist”) focuses on the “concepts of property, production, exchange, and contract.” And therefore the former is the “concretization” of the latter. Conservatism needs a theory (Burke himself, after all, referred to something transcendental in his criticism of Warren Hastings’s actions in India) and libertarianism needs a sociological setting that is, a natural and physical order. If conservatism desires to return to a “moral and cultural normalcy,” it needs propertarianism’s consistent and defensible antistatism.
A Comment on the Libertarian Movement
Understood in this way, the meaning and presence of “liberty” in a healthy society is but one component among many. This means that those of us who want to understand the social strife of the modern world and the role of liberty in solving problems will soon come to the conclusion that “liberty” is not enough; it is necessary, but not sufficient. Liberty without other aspects of a sound society will constantly fall in on itself. If this is true, then “libertarianism” as a political point of unity at the expense of other commitments is a constant source of infighting, tension, and frustration; and moreover, it becomes a sort of feed of its own for increased statism as libertarian-onlyism in a political sense tends to become a wedge between family unity, and places people who would, in a non-statist/democratic society, otherwise not get along with each other, into a coalition of opposition against those they would otherwise identify with.
In this sense, of course, the democratic-political atmosphere is the chief culprit; but nonetheless since the continued politicization of identity and unity is the battleground on which libertarian’s troops come together in search of a solution, one gets the feeling that “libertarian politics” is itself part of the problem. At present, I don’t have any real answer, except to play the long (the VERY long) game.
Now, in a time where there is no way out, there is no real solution, this is the very definition of “crisis.” Reaction becomes the new spirit as the framework itself is called into question. Longing for a complete rejection of the modern age, both revolutionaries and reactionaries look to other formats of confrontation to express their rising aggravation with each other, with “the system,” and with the spirit of the age. The precise character and result of such a confrontation will be a curious thing to observe. But one thing is certain in my mind: the confrontation will not be between “liberty” and “power.” It will, whether libertarians like it or not, be between the social left and the social right.
Them’s just the way things are.