To most conservatives the term “libertarian” conjures up visions of pot-smoking homosexual draft-dodgers and dogmatic Lockeans who exalt the individual at the expense of God and family. Russell Kirk, the godfather of latter-day traditionalist conservatism, describes “the representative libertarian” as “humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull. At least the old-fangled Russian anarchist was bold, lively, and knew which sex he belonged to.” This is from an essay Kirk entitled “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians.”1 An older Kirk essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” was considerably less charitable.
Rationalists can complain all they want that these criticisms are ad hominem but for the conservative they remain valid. Traditionalist conservatism has as its object the traditionalist lifestyle of dutiful obedience to religion, family and civilizational norms. Serious conservatives evaluate policies and political philosophies according to how conducive they are to these institutions. It stands to reason therefore that a political movement that seeks to do away with legal prohibitions against drugs, sodomy and pornography should be unappealing to conservatives. (Though plenty of conservatives do appreciate booze, girls and "art.")
Conservatives and libertarians can go around in circles all day on FreeRepublic and in periodicals like National Review or Modern Age debating the merits of Locke or Paine and the distinction between liberty and libertinism. It’s all well and good: these discussions are entertaining and occasionally change minds. But the debate is also fundamentally misleading. Whether libertarians are right in their particulars is beside the point. The more important question is how the modern state relates to the institutions of family, church and community that traditionalists want to conserve.
What good has the modern state ever done for these institutions? Assuming it has done any, has that good outweighed the harm? The federal highway system has eroded the sense of place by making it easier to leave your community. The federally developed internet has done more for pornography than an army of Larry Flynts ever could. The modern state outlaws murder and theft, but murder and theft were controlled much more effectively in older societies — the classical polis and medieval Christendom — that by today’s standards were practically stateless. And it’s the modern state which gives legal protection to the class of murderers known as abortionists.
Any examination of the state’s track record, no matter how cursory or thorough, will show the same thing: that the modern state has been as unremittingly destructive of religion, family and community as it has of individual lives. This has led some thoughtful conservatives of the past century to embrace the label anarchist, not in the sense of opposing all authority but specifically opposing the artificial authority of the modern nation state.
JRR Tolkien, the British novelist and traditionalist Catholic, wrote in 1943: "My political beliefs lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy." Those who knew him described Auberon Waugh, another Englishman and champion of high culture, as "very, very hard on the police force, something not a lot of Conservatives would have approved of. He was an anarchist really. He detested all forms of political activity and he was suspicious of all politicians of either party."
On this side of the Atlantic most conservatives prior to 1945 were staunchly anti-statist and were not duped by the myth of "limited government." Consider this passage from Albert Jay Nock’s 1928 essay "Anarchist’s Progress":2
"Everyone knows that the State claims and exercises the monopoly of crime that I spoke of a moment ago, and that it makes this monopoly as strict as it can. It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of citizen or alien. There is, for example, no human right, natural or Constitutional, that we have not seen nullified by the United States Government. Of all the crimes that are committed for gain or revenge, there is not one that we have not seen it commit — murder, mayhem, arson, robbery, fraud, criminal collusion and connivance."
Traditionalists should have no difficulty understanding why the modern state is so corrupt and destructive. Such is the inevitable result of concentrating power in human hands. Without the state men would still be dangerous, but would not have at their disposal an institution in which power is so concentrated and unchecked. Reforming the state is impossible and utopian: to reform the state would require reforming human nature. By contrast there are historical precedents for anarchy and near-anarchy (again various medieval and classical forms of human organization) and even today there are small, independent communities such as Monaco and Liechtenstein, Singapore and Hong Kong, that are happier and more prosperous than any nation state. The most conservative political authority of all, Aristotle, certainly thought that mankind’s natural form of organization was the city-state, which is much more humane in scale than the anonymous mass-societies of the modern nation-state.
The enormous wealth and power of the modern state have never been put to use for the good and there is no reason to think they ever will. Some Christian conservatives are gradually coming to realize this. In a seminal 1998 address Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority, declared that there is no moral majority in this country and perhaps there never was. Weyrich recommended cultural secession to conservatives. Which begs the question — why only cultural secession? No matter how much home schooling you do or how many Christian radio stations there are, the law and political authority of the land in which you live will always affect you. Cultural secession and a defensive stance toward politics are not enough. Just ask the Branch Davidians.
Whatever truth there may be to Russell Kirk’s libertarian stereotype, it should be plain to see that the real threat to the institutions of church and family and to every kind of human decency does not come from pot-smoking homosexual hippies, but from the relentlessly centralizing and secularizing modern state. With that in mind even if conservatives refuse to be libertarians, they should certainly be anarchists.
- Kirk, Russell. “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians.” Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative / Libertarian Debate, George W. Carey, ed. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
- Nock, Albert J. “Anarchist’s Progress.” The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture 1900-1945, Robert M. Crunden, ed. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.