Published March 26, 2021
While the Libertarian Party may be a political afterthought, libertarian ideology is not. Many Republican voters have assimilated libertarian ideas into their understanding of conservatism, so are irked by much of the American right’s turn away from free-market orthodoxies and toward economic populism. Although I am sympathetic to this shift toward more family-friendly economic populism, I still believe that libertarianism may offer important insights.
If a new synthesis between conservative and libertarian ideas is to develop, however, it will have to begin with humility, which is where conservative and libertarian political philosophy should overlap in shared recognition of human fallibility and finitude.
Last century, right-leaning intellectuals and writers sought to unite American conservatives and libertarians by asserting the interdependence of liberty and virtue. This fusionism urged conservatives to recognize that virtue could only be fully realized under liberty, and it urged libertarians to acknowledge that liberty was unsustainable without virtue.
Of course, there was a problem: whose virtue, which liberty? The old fusionism required a shared, or at least broadly overlapping, understanding of liberty and virtue.
This commonality diminished over the decades, and the collapse of the Soviet Union abroad, as well as cultural changes at home, have left the two camps with fewer common concerns and priorities than before. A renewed fusionism will require conservatives and libertarians to find a common cause, beginning with a shared humility and awareness of human limitation.
There will still be differences. Conservative humility emphasizes deference toward the tried-and-true of what has worked in the past; libertarian humility emphasizes the propensity for even the most well-meaning plans, and especially government initiatives, to go awry. But each side should be able to recognize the other’s merit, and a shared appreciation for human limitation can bring admirers of Edmund Burke and of Friedrich Hayek together.
Such an alliance will be weakened, perhaps even broken, by hubris, which tempts each side in its own way. Thus, although I have sympathies in their direction, I fear that many of the right’s emerging economic populists and nationalists have forgotten the need for humility.
In projecting the efficacy of their proposed programs — for the revitalization of family, the bolstering of the working class, the succor of the poor, and other worthy goals — they often appear to ignore the risks of regulatory capture, moral hazard, and similar problems. Effective government is difficult, and even successful programs will have trade-offs and unintended consequences. These dangers are sometimes overemphasized to the point of paralysis, but this is no excuse to err in the opposite direction.
Conservatives know that society is complex, and governing well, or even passably, is difficult; this is why we prefer reform to radical, revolutionary change. Thus, Anglo-American conservatism has emphasized that those who haughtily presume that they will easily bend government and society to their will are likely to fail, perhaps disastrously. Those on the right who are newly willing to deploy government power in the style of the European throne-and-altar right would do well to humbly reflect on their own limits before beginning. Rulers, as well as the ruled, are sinful creatures in need of restraint.
Libertarians, in turn, delight in reminding conservatives of the limits and dangers of government power, but they often indulge in their own forms of hubris. Philosophically, instead of focusing on human limitations, many libertarians rely on rigid and absolute systems that ignore the realities of human nature and life. Conservatives are right to be skeptical of libertarian arguments based on abstract systems of rights derived from an ahistorical, imaginary state of nature or social contract.
We are not, for instance, born as rational, autonomous individuals. Rather, we only attain limited degrees of independence and reason through often-difficult effort and instruction. A political philosophy that presumes a populace of rational, independent individuals without accounting for how such persons are formed is self-sabotaging. As the old fusionism insisted, those who would defend liberty must attend to the preconditions for sustaining liberty — virtue, family, faith, and community.
Thus, among the ironies of modern libertarianism is that, although its flagship publication is called Reason, that magazine frequently features articles presuming that reason is the slave of the passions — a tool for fulfilling our idiosyncratic desires, rather than what should control them. There and elsewhere, much of today’s libertarianism has a propensity toward techno-utopianism and a preoccupation with porn, pot, and prostitution. The prudential case for liberty is replaced by a celebration of juvenile libertinism — sex, drugs, and maybe some electronic dance music thrown in for good measure.
This libertine outlook is justified by apparently humble reasoning: who is to judge whether one way of life is better than another? But this relativistic pose proves more than it means to. After all, who then is to say that liberty is better than the alternative?
The assertion that human beings deserve liberty, or have a right to liberty, presumes truths about human beings and what is good for them. These truths cannot then be ignored by a regime that legitimates itself through them. It is arrogant to reject the wisdom of the ages about human flourishing and the life well-lived.
In the end, the libertarian insistence that all shall be well if we just let “free minds and free markets” do their thing is a mockery of religious belief. It puts man and the market in place of God. It is hard to govern well, but that does not mean the attempt should be forsaken in a drugged haze amidst the glow of streaming webcam sex shows. Such a society has simply embraced another form of tyranny and is content to be enslaved to base desires.
If we are to avoid this, as well as the follies of governmental good intentions gone awry, conservatives and libertarians must both check their pride to work toward a new fusionism. Their common ground begins with humility.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.