Stopping the State: Why Conservatives and Libertarians Need Each Other

One of the consequences of the GOP primaries and particularly Ron Paul’s candidacy has been to reignite the debate between self-styled conservatives and libertarians. Recently the Witherspoon Institute’s “Public Discourse” forum invited a conservative to critique libertarianism (Nathan Schleuter) and a libertarian to critique conservatism (Nikolai G. Wenzel). Without intending any disrespect to the forum or the authors, I have to say that I was rather disheartened by both papers. Neither seemed very willing to find points of substantive agreement, and both seemed to be engaged in a sort of tunnel vision regarding the merits of their own ideology as well as the alleged shortcomings of the other.

It is disheartening because of the time in which we live, a time in which conservatives and libertarians need each other in approximately the same way two people freezing in the night need each others warmth if they are going to survive to see the light of day. The few points of agreement that these authors pass over as if they were almost trivial – free markets, the importance of non-political social institutions such as the family, or the U.S. Constitution – ought to be rallying points for all who recognize the grave threat posed by the modern “progressive” state.

It was shocking to me that Schleuter could explicitly acknowledge that American conservatism seeks to preserve “natural law liberalism” without making any connection to libertarianism as such. Where else does libertarianism originate but the original or classical liberalism? On the other hand, it is just as disconcerting that Wenzel defends philosophical relativism while vigorously rejecting conservatism because it rests “on a claim of privileged access to to truth.” Criticisms of this sort will always be bankrupt, because they will always depend on the exact same sort of claims. To say that no one can legitimately make truth claims or even have any knowledge of moral or philosophical truth is to make a truth claim that can itself be subjected to the same sort of criticism.

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Things generally don’t improve when agnostic or relativistic libertarians venture into “truth claim” territory themselves. Murray Rothbard once asked, “Why be libertarian anyway? By this we mean, what’s the point of the whole thing?” Readers can judge for themselves, but I maintain that he never actually answered the question. He tells us how those who are already libertarians ought to be and what they ought to value but we don’t really get the answer we are looking for: why be libertarian to begin with?

Enter an idea called “paleo-libertarianism,” which has more than a few things in common with “paleo-conservatism.” Rothbard himself was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the paleo-libertarian point of view, along with Lew Rockwell and now the wildly popular Ron Paul. Though Rockwell himself appears to no longer approve of the term, I think the basic idea behind it was distinct and accurate enough to deserve its own label.

That basic idea (as I see it) is that the maximization of political and economic liberty is not, as many conservatives and leftists often assert, bad for society but rather a social good; on the other hand, the growth of the state is both a sign of and a further cause of social decay. To put it another way, those things that conservatives value most on the basis  of their “privileged truth claims” about man and the social order – religion, marriage, family, and property to name a few – are best preserved in a “libertarian” political order of very limited government, decentralization, free markets, and above all, freedom of association.

This strikes a lot of conservatives as counter-intuitive if not absurd, because of the widespread acceptance of what I would call the Marxist narrative of capitalism’s historical development, outlined in The Communist Manifesto and other works. Here the processes and institutions valued by libertarians are set at odds with religion, family, marriage, and even private property itself. Marx explains that all of these old associations have been destroyed by capitalism. As he famously wrote, quoting Thomas Carlyle, capitalism makes it so that “no other nexus between man and man” exists but “naked self-interest, than callous cash payment.” Of course Marx sees this process as a necessary precursor to the socialist and communist future that will truly liberate man, while conservatives see it as something to be arrested, but they often appear to agree on the historical facts and their social implications.

I don’t even wish to challenge these facts or implications at the moment. Even if they were granted, it wouldn’t change what has become clear over the last century or so, which is this: that the state cannot replace whatever has been lost in the way of fundamental social institutions required for the development of well-rounded human beings, and that it in fact oppresses and degrades them even more than capitalism allegedly has. Whatever role economic liberalism may have played in disrupting traditional ways of life pales in comparison to what the modern welfare state has accomplished. Besides, critics of capitalism also like to insist that we never actually had a “free market”, except when they are blaming it for every social problem of the last 200 years or so. Either we had one or we didn’t, and if we didn’t, then it can’t be blamed for anything. And yet the state was always there.

So what can a free economy and a “minarchy” actually accomplish for faith and family? First consider that the modern state is directly responsible for the propagation of every kind of anti-social vice. What is it, after all, that makes the prospect of single parenthood, of divorce, of abortion and a state of childlessness a serious option for modern people, and especially women? It is the prospect of the impersonal state replacing the husband and father, and even the children when one reaches old age and has no one to care for them. The state will help you fornicate without the “punishment”, as Obama put it, of having children or having to marry the mother of your children; it will help you remain lazy and unproductive without the punishment of impoverishment; it will help you keep a failing business operational without the punishment of failure – all conditions that would be imposed in a free society, which is not without its own built-in restraints and consequences.

The modern state does all of this in order to perpetuate itself. If the state could cure all social ills, it would become unnecessary. But if it can manage without destroying all social ills then it can become indestructible. This was the ultimate social plan of communism, and it was brilliantly understood in Orwell’s 1984, which has the all-powerful Party distributing booze, porno and lottery tickets to the masses in order to keep them morally corrupt. Our own regime is a little more refined with its high-end pharmaceutical drugs, artificial contraception and welfare spending, but the idea is the same.

This reality must shatter both conservative and libertarian illusions. The state is not the guarantor of social order, and so conservatives who look to it as such ought to stop. A limited government is better for social order than no government, but the modern state is a “cure” that is worse than whatever the disease was, and the libertarian critique of the state as such is invaluable in opposing it.  At the same time the modern state that libertarians despise perpetuates itself by promoting the sort of things that the same libertarians are apt to dismiss as “harmless”, not worth fussing over, or even positive goods. Sexual liberation was supposed to be great, right? Not when it turns out that the breakdown of the family is the health of the state, as much as war ever was. To be opposed to the state without being opposed at the very least on a personal level to various kinds of anti-social and immoral behaviors is at this point completely irrational.

This is all a rather long-winded way of saying that libertarians and conservatives can learn a lot from one another, and would further each others ends if they could get over certain prejudices and hang-ups. The Ron Paul campaign is a great place to start, because social conservatism can’t exist without fiscal conservatism, and fiscal conservatism is impossible in a state of perpetual war.


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