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.
Michelle Bachmann

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
M=”Free Market”

(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….

13 thoughts on “No Bridge Between the Libertarian and Conservative Worldviews

  1. Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States” destroys the premise of that article you linked to. Russell documents how libertine individualists, the supposed cause of Deneen’s collectivist State, are actually responsible for many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

    However, i do think that the long run evolutionary equilibrium of the liberal State is totalitarianism. This is because civil society and the State are not in harmony, as theorized by the 17th-18th century liberal political philosophers, but in conflict, as predicted by the 19th century libertarian political philosophers. But this conflict has nothing to do with libertine individualism corrupting the State inexorably toward some all-powerful welfare State.

  2. The interesting thing about the writings of Deenan and the crowd at FPR is that their ideal social and economic structures are in many ways parallel to the ideals put forth by many anarchists (more-so with mutualists, but also with communal anarchists). However, these conservatives place a big emphasis on cultural identity as the basis for organization, which creates a major conflict with libertarianism. Still, their provincialism makes their ideal more compatible with libertarianism than the nationalism and corporate-capitalism of mainstream conservatism.

    There may be some place for tactical alliances between (some) conservatives and libertarians, but you are absolutely correct that there is no overlap in fundamental values. The shared references to “liberty” (with different definitions) may even exacerbate divisions between conservatives and libertarians because it just confuses any discussion of how our interests overlap.

    1. Actually, I can’t think of anything further apart than Tucker’s Mutualism vs Deneen’s FPR. Tucker was morals/rights by contract and libertine/Free Love Social structures. Utter anathema to something like FPR.

      I find Deneen’s social theory to be utterly delusional…to think you can return to ancient human “kin” social structures. The reality is not “small tribes/communities,” but “small networks,” which means a small degree of separation between any two humans on the planet.

  3. My knowledge of Mutualism is largely filtered by Kevin Carson, but as I understand it, one of the big points is that the state subsidizes long-distance trade (both infrastructure and regulation) and large organizations. These are major contributors to the break-up of self-contained communities, resulting in the “small network/world” reality that we live in.

    That is what I was focusing on when I asserted that there are parallels between some aspects of “crunchy conservatism” (like FPR) and mutualism. The parallels exist in terms of what scale of organization dominates social and economic life, and how power is distributed within those organizations. For instance, FPR has dedicated some space to promoting the ideas of distributism.

    Of course, anarchists tend to be either indifferent or hostile to the idea of marriage as a foundation for society. Personally, I’m indifferent, so the difference between conservatives and Tucker does not seem like a big deal to me… for me, it’s just a lifestyle choice, and I expect that many people will continue to choose something resembling heterosexual marriage. Even though Deneen made a big deal about marriage, I interpreted his ideal to be that heterosexual pairing would be encouraged only by freely-formed communities, and that the state (or the society outside of such communities) would only encourage marriage to the extent that it recognized/enforced contracts in general.

    This is the place that I disagree with Deneen most strongly, but I’m not clear on how mutualists tend to view the enforcement of such contracts.

  4. Btw, why aren’t you posting any more? I enjoy reading your posts…

    But back to the topic at hand. For better or worse, historical path dependency applies. That is, most people are not going to be willing to trade in “small network stuff” like cell phones, internet, social networks, consumerism, mass entertainment for communitarian teological ethics. Whether or not these things would have spontaneously emerged(or emerged as quickly) is beside the point. And I do not think “small network” would collapse if there were no subsidies(to the extent they exist). In other words, the “Free Market” is not path independent.

    The ultimate diving line between libertarianism and other social theories and/or justice theories is the libertarian separation of ethics from law/justice. This simply means that libertarianism, as a social theory, is unconcerned with moral foundations. I call this thinking like an anarchist.

    In libertarianism there are 2 strands of this thinking:

    (i) the hayekian/Scottish tradition of the Sensory order and the spontaneous origin of institutions not directed by any designer or any specific ethical basis for justice

    (ii) Morals by contract or bargain.

    Only on the political side is libertarianism concerned with moral foundations. But this concern is limited to debunking moral claims for obedience to political authority. In particular, making mincemeat of any ethical foundation for justice that allows for a derivation of such a claim of moral violation.

    From this, I think it is fairly obvious why I don’t see much parallelism between libertarianism and “crunchy cons” and “front porch republicanism.” However, this doesn’t mean that libertarians and “crunchy cons” don’t share similar moral judgements. But keep in mind, I define libertarianism as a social theory, not as a moral theory.

    Now I will admit that not everyone agrees with my definition of libertarianism. There is not an unsubstantial segment that treats libertarianism and/or anarchism–as a social theory–as mere corollary to a moral theory. Whether natural rights or Natural law or randian Objectivism or the incessant whining of some social anarchists regarding bourgeois ethics, the similar theme is the necessity of a common moral foundation.

    An example of this thinking is this recent post at BHL:

    I find that argument to be nonsense. Here it is: (i)The question of God’s Existence or non-Existence is an objective claim–that is, it exists or it doesn’t exist. (ii) From this, one can thus make objective claims about ethical foundations. For example, if you ethical foundation derives from religion and God does not exist, then your ethical foundation is objectively false. (iii) From this, there thus exists some basis for objective claims about ethical foundations (iv) thus there exists some basis for an objective standard regarding moral claims. (v) Moral subjectivism is thus ruled out.

    Two counter-points:

    (1) Nothing can be proved to be objectively true; something can only be “proved” to be objectively false. Since the claim of God’s existence is an unfalsifiable claim, it thus is actually not an objective claim, even though logically, in the classical sense, the proposition is either true of false. This is the distinction between logical truth and objectivity. And thus unravels the rest of Cohen’s argument. I won’t even go into the irony of quantum logic, that is of system states that can be a linear superposition of both a true and false proposition. For example, the semi-conductor; the particular state of matter that allows him to electronically post that logical truth propositions imply objectivity

    (2) Libertarian social theory does not imply “moral subjectivism.” The very act of the “bargain” works against “moral subjectivism” because the bargain is an act of cooperative agreement. There needs to be a distinction between universal moral foundations(ethical framework) and universal moral judgements. Moral judgements like murder, theft, fraud, etc are universal across moral foundations. In this sense, then, common ethical foundations are not a necessary condition for universal moral judgements.

    if we view Law in the Bastiat sense as a correction of injustice and not an instrument, we arrive at an inverse of the BHL Rawlsian framework of justice as an overlapping consensus. It’s injustice that is the actual overlapping consensus for law.

    And, as verified experimentally by modern social science, markets universalize moral judgments across different moral foundations.

    In this sense, then, Laissez Faire, unconcerned with moral foundations, nonetheless ends providing a moral framework for a social order.

  5. Thanks for the response. The proper conception of objectivity is definitely something that requires more examination (though I know that philosophers have beat this issue to death…and I find their arguments mostly unconvincing).

    As for my posting (on my blog), it’s mainly an issue of time. Both that I have more pressing matters (work, family, and doctors), but also that I’m generally not convinced that it is a productive use of my time… it takes me a long time to put together a post, often much longer than I intend to dedicate to it at first. But I’ll try to put something up occasionally.

    For instance, I have a half-written essay on conservatism right now (actually, I think I have several half-written essays on conservatism and its variants, such as nationalism).

    Your comment above about the impossibility (or impracticability) of Deneen’s deep, local community reminds me of one of my objections to that kind of conservatism … it seems even more utopian than communism. What’s worse, to hope for something that has never been seen yet (but is consistent with observed trends) or to hope for something that once existed (to some extent) but did not survive? Talk about fighting the tide of history!

    On that point, the thing that is really missing from the essay I linked to is any discussion of economics. You can “build community” as much as you want, but when half the town is unemployed, all of that community stuff is tossed out the window. I think that Deneen is aware of this, but none of that stuff in the essay has any foundation without an economic agenda.

    Another funny thing about conservatives, is that they seem to think that ideology drives politics and culture, without regard for the material conditions of life. I guess that’s a very non-scientific way of looking at the world… treating ideas as something other than empirically formed tools to help us deal with the world.

    1. Well, I went ahead and finished my essay about conservatism (one very narrow aspect of it)… “The Value of Radical Political Thought”

      Good post. Some initial thoughts:

      The Damien S comment

      Perhaps its because of the De Jasay influence, but I only see 2 presumptions:

      (1) The presumption of liberty
      (2) The presumption of authority

      Damien S is not expressing a “conservative presumption;” he’s expressing an authoritarian presumption, which rests upon the presumption of having to falsify an arbitrary number of objections.

      For more on this:

      The uses of radical political thought

      I think it may have more to do with motivating a minority than “preparing a majority,” The Logic of Collective Action and the Libertarian Theory of Revolution.

      1. Thanks for the link to Against Politics… I’ll have to look into De Jasey’s ideas some more. It sounds like his fundamental attitude towards ideas may overlap enough with mine that I can actually gain something from reading his work. Typically, when I read philosophy, the author starts so far from my current view that his writing seems like a clever game or utter nonsense.

        I agree that Damien S’s comment looks like a facade for authoritarian presumptions, but the way that he phrased it was in terms of conservation vs. reform. It seems that the “libertarian presumption” as described at Against Politics is built on a fundamentally different foundation than my own libertarian presumption. The libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy that you describe arises from the logical implications using one decision process or another. The presumptions that I describe are just pragmatic strategies for an individual to deal with day-to-day situations. In this case, I presume liberty because to do otherwise would probably result in me getting a bloody nose on a regular basis. Even if I were able to reliably bend others to my will, my attempts to manage their lives would spread my attention too thin. At this level, most people would probably agree with me, but they reject these pragmatic concerns when they think in terms of the state… at which point they could assert that the state is nearly omnipotent, so my concerns do not apply (though new concerns arise, such as the reciprocity of such rules).

        Likewise with the conservative presumption or the pacificst presumption, these are just rules of thumb based on my own experience, values, and emotional proclivities. I don’t pretend that they are objective in any way, but I do expect that most people (at least in Western society) would consider them reasonable. Once we have agreed on a shared starting point, then we have constructed objectivity and can have a productive conversation.

      2. The libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy that you describe arises from the logical implications using one decision process or another. The presumptions that I describe are just pragmatic strategies for an individual to deal with day-to-day situations..

        You have just identified the practical problem with the “Ought-Is” argument. It’s great for philosophical discourse to debunk claims of authority regarding “the Ought”, but it doesn’t help much in regards in how to deal with the actual “Is,” which is the day-to-day reality(which exists despite the fact that the philosophers have debunked it’s legitimacy). For that, perhaps people like Harry Browne are more suitable(although I’ve never read his stuff).

        The “presumptions” were regard to political discourse and claims, not civil discourse.

  6. I have a shitload of drafts as well. Most never get finished because something else came up and by the time i was able to return, I had lost the motivation for that topic.

    Some because they end up being just too damn long and I lose motivation by about 1/2 or 2/3s way in. Of course, “motivation” here is in relation to opportunity costs. For example, this one, “Part II” of a supposed 3-part series, Part II was about the failure of libertarian-conservative fusionism.

    Some, particularly, “Moral Foundations,” because this is an impossibly hard topic, and I end up getting bogged down. I don’t have the luxury of unlimited time to devote to posting so I swear off the subject, until, of course, I come back to it.

    Unfortunately, I interjected that comment above into the argument at BHL, prompting Julian Sanchez to more or less call me an idiot, and the Professor to reject my argument by asking if the scientific method itself is falsifiable. I didn’t have time to think about how to respond til over the weekend, and its not an easy topic to address.

    1. I put a comment on the “subjective” post, pointing out some discussion of “evolutionary debunking arguments”. You may want to look at that, since it provides a distinction between knowledge of science and morality.

      As for me, I don’t even know where to start with that argument. My views are quite fundamentally subjectivist, where any sort of objectivity is just a pragmatic way of dealing with empirical data… so “objective morality” is nonsense to me.

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