Rothbard to Meyer on Conservatism

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March
7, 1956
Woodstock, N.Y.

Dear
Frank,

That
Fischer [John Fischer, “Why Is the Conservative Voice So Hoarse?”
Harper’s Magazine, 212 #1270 (March 1956), pp. 17–18,
20, 22] horror in Harpers' set me thinking on this whole "conservatism"
shebang. The time has come, I believe, for me to try to blast
conservatism out of the water.

The
Fischer article exemplifies the fact that perhaps the chief sin
in contemporary debate is utter failure to provide definitions.
Since no one defines "conservative," anyone can be lumped
in the term at the user's pleasure. How will you define conservatism?

It
seems to me that a "conservative" can be rationally
identified in one of the following ways:

(a)
Someone who wants to preserve the political status quo. I say
"political" because no one wants to preserve all of
the status quo on all matters. Well, in that case,
Stalin after he captured power was a "conservative"
as far as Russia was concerned; Hitler was a "radical"
in 1929, a "conservative" in 1939, etc. There is no
point to this, since it applies only to form, and not to content.
In what conceivable way are you a conservative in this sense?
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Alsops are the conservatives now.

(b)
Someone who identifies himself with the historical Conservative
parties of the 19th Century in Europe. In that case, it means
to identify oneself with authoritarianism and hatred of individual
liberty and laissez-faire capitalism. The Prussian Conservative
Party was formed to block emancipation of the serfs, and
to maintain protective tariffs; the Conservative Party in England
imposed Corn Laws and Factory Acts, and crushed Ireland. Russell
Kirk may want Church (Anglican, Lutheran), landed gentry, and
servile peasantry, but you certainly don't.

So
there we are. In neither of these two senses are you and I at
all conservatives. But to give you every possible benefit of the
doubt, let us press on.

(c)
A conservative is someone who wants to preserve the good things
in the existing political situation. But who doesn't want
to preserve the good things. Isn't it a matter of what each person
thinks is good? So everyone could be called a "conservative"
on this ground, which makes it a nonsensical definition.

(d)
Perhaps you are a "conservative" because you wish to
conserve the "western heritage." But the Western heritage
contains quantitatively more bad than good from our point of view – more
murder than laissez-faire. So what you really want to promote
is not the heritage en bloc but part of it – which parts
to be picked out by reason. So where can conservatism come in?

(e)
And finally, maybe you are a conservative because you prefer gradual
to radical change. But do you really? Suppose the unlikely event
that the Statists were willing to surrender, after an overnight
conversion to liberalism. Suppose they all came to you and. said:
all right, if you wish, we'll establish liberty tomorrow. Would
you refuse?

Cordially,
Murray

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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