No Bridge Between the Libertarian and Conservative Worldviews
“I think that marriage is very important. It is the fundamental unit of our government. And I think it is important that we do uphold marriage and also the family.“
I’m a bit surprised by this Bryan Caplan post, Bridging the Conservative-Libertarian Impasse. Writes Caplan:
A puzzle inspired by last night’s debate: Conservatives and libertarians were almost equally likely to praise “liberty.” You’d think this shared value would facilitate a constructive dialog. But it didn’t – not even for the subset of “economic liberty.” Why the impasse?
The “debate” in question refers to a recent libertarian vs conservative student debate held at Cato. Caplan’s explanation for the apparent impasse that emerged.
For libertarians, to believe in liberty is to believe in massive rollback of the state. For conservatives, to believe in liberty is to oppose further expansion of the state (at least in the economic realm). For conservatives, “liberty” means defeating Obamacare. For libertarians, “liberty” means separation of health and state – which means abolishing even ultra-popular programs like Medicare.
Caplan, here, is being much too particular. This “impasse” can be generalized into a broader, fundamental difference.
The Libertarian Worldview
Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order. This, of course, is quoting Proudhon.
The Conservative Worldview
Liberty is the product of institutional order
Once the differences between these two worldviews are properly generalized, it’s easy to recognize the inherent conflict. For conservatives, “liberty” is only possible under the “right” institutional order, and this order requires a particular moral fabric. Thus, it is easy to see why conservatism often views moral interventionism by the State as a necessity. Conservatives may give nod to “free markets” and “civil society,” but these institutions, from the conservative point of view, require “moral institutions,” such as the “traditional family,” in order to function properly(or at all).
Now it would be unfair to universally tarnish conservatism as a philosophy that views the role of the State to enforce fundamentalist Christian moral judgments. But in relation to the “free market,” or, say market exchange in a civil society, it is fair to characterize the conservative position as requiring a moral or ethical foundation for such a market. In symbolic logic, we would write:
(i) ~MF –> ~FM
MF=Moral or Ethical Foundation
(i) simply means that an ethical foundation is a necessary condition for a Free Market
We can rewrite (i) as:
(ii) FM –> MF
which means, alternatively, that a free market implies an ethical foundation.
But the obvious question is: the free market is a sufficient condition for what ethical foundation? Free exchange is pursued to increase one’s utility. But what specific ethical foundation is required to view increasing one’s utility as a “moral good”? And as I have pointed out in a previous post, the “Free Market” is not a sufficient condition against negative externalities or fraud. So what specific ethical foundation is required to view fraud or negative externalities as “morally bad”?
What should be apparent is that the “Free Market” is not a unique foundation for any specific ethical system. It is exactly this point which explains why the likes of Russell Kirk rejected any libertarian foundation or synthesis with conservatism. For Kirk, conservatism was rooted in an ethical foundation of a transcendent order. Civil Society reinforces this order. Anything that potentially upsets “the order” has to be tempered by respect for “prudence” as a political value.
I specifically mention Kirk because I came upon this Frum Forum synopsis of the debate which concluded that the conservatives bested the libertarians by invoking “a defense of prudence as a conservative virtue.” But this more or less is the Kirk argument against libertarianism. I’ll concede that’s a conservative argument to make, but you can’t make it while pretending to share the libertarian premise about the “value” of the Free Market.
The libertarian definition of a “Free Market” is one that is “free” of the intent of political and/or moral ends. In practice, this means a market that is “free” of protectionism. The Kirkian “Prudence Principle,” which is a form of protectionism, thusly violates the very premise of the Free Market.
This violation is not something that a follower of Kirk would dispute, particularly if we reference Kirk’s own “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” as an authority on the matter.
The reality, then, is that libertarians and conservatives do not hold shared values regarding either liberty or the Free Market. This appears to be the flawed assumption repeated by both Caplan and the FrumForum writer, Ajay Ravichandran.
Given the lack of actual “shared values,” it’s easy to see why the pursuit of liberty as a political value can lead to wildly divergent conclusions. When asked how does one bridge these differences, the proper answer is a rhetorical re-formulation of the question: How would one propose to bridge the differences between Laissez Faire and Protectionism?
There is no bridge….