I Am a Reactionary Libertarian: Or Why I Believe in Fusionism

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The
ascension of the influence and power of the neoconservatives in
the Bush administration has focused attention on the cleavage between
so called conservatives and libertarians. This cleavage is not a
new phenomenon as is well documented by Jude
Blanchette
in his bibliographies regarding this debate. However,
Blanchette also cites the opposite inclination in the person of
Frank Meyer, who "was a long-time editor of National Review
and the originator of what Brent Bozell called u2018fusionism.'
It represented Meyer’s noble attempt to unite conservatives and
libertarians under a banner of anti-statism and tradition."
In this essay I will not attempt to explain Meyer's fusionism from
the 50s and 60s, but my own view of fusionism. Furthermore, as socialists
pilfered and then made a mark of derision the political label "liberal,"
the neoconservatives have stained "conservative" for me.
So this essay also explains why I call myself a reactionary libertarian.

I
believe freedom is, and should be, limited. Freedom of the individual
is limited by the nature of our species and the nature of each of
us as individuals. Many writers from ancient history, such as Moses,
to modern times, for example Jose Ortega y Gasset, have expressed
this fundamental truth. Two relevant passages from Ortega y Gasset's
classic The
Revolt of the Masses
(1930) are given below.

It
is not that one ought not to do just what one pleases;
it is simply that one cannot do other than what each of us has
to do, has to be. The only way out is to refuse to do what
has to be done, but this does not set us free to do something
else just because it pleases us. In this matter we only posses
a negative freedom of will.

Without
commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our
existence is that of the "unemployed." This is the terrible
spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds
itself today. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions,
it feels itself empty. An "unemployed" existence is
a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live means
to have something definite to do – a mission to fulfill –
and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something,
we make it empty.

Recognizing
that freedom should be limited; by what human authority should liberty
be constrained? Edmund Burke addressed this question in his Letter
to a Member of the National Assembly
(1791).

Men
are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their
disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, – in
proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, – in
proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding
is above their vanity and presumption, – in proportion as they
are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and
good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot
exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be
placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more
there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution
of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their
passions forge their fetters.

In
other words, the best society is one in which people are self-restrained.
But beyond the individual what are the "controlling powers"
that Burke refers to? First and foremost, of course, is the family,
both immediate and extended. Through the family society is able
to place great control on its members, especially children. But
the key to the success of the family is the fact that this control
is based on intimate knowledge of the individual and that the power
should be tempered by love.

Like
the force of a magnet weakens as an object is moved away from it,
as an individual moves away from the family societal power weakens
along with the knowledge of the individual. Of special note is that
beyond the family individuals put themselves under the power of
societal institutions voluntarily by choosing where to live and
what organizations to join. Thus comes the influence and controlling
power of friends and neighbors, schools, religion, employers, clubs,
and perhaps local covenants of neighborhood associations. I would
even argue that local governments could be included in this list
even though they do employ force. The nature of these institutions
in the case of traditional village life in Germany has been described
on LRC through the beautiful and evocative essays of Sabine
Barnhart
.

The
role of society can be summarized by the famous passage of Burke
in his Reflections
on the Revolution in France
(1790).

To
be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we
belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it
were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series
by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.

Even
though intellectuals such as Ortega y Gasset and Burke have described
these truths, they are not intellectual concepts. The limits to
individual freedom set by society are more likely to have been organically
grown than conceived. The particular need and value of traditions
is based on wisdom that is often beyond individual knowledge or
reason. The concept of organic knowledge can be understood through
the observation of French cuisine, which evolved by the layering
of knowledge and wisdom, generation upon generation. Individual
dishes invariably incorporate a remarkable set of ingredients or
techniques. The intricate knowledge of a great chef is amazing.
Yet, no individual or organization alone could have conceived it.
Of course individuals do invent new dishes and new techniques. But
they must be within the limits of nature. Reform is possible with
human society, but prudence is necessary. To simply be new and different
is usually to be fleeting and in error. Perhaps readers would agree
that much of modern art fits into the last category.

The
800-pound gorilla in the room is government, the institution that
controls through force. Instability of society, in fact of civilization
itself, is due to the pernicious nature of the power of central
government that increases as knowledge of the individual decreases.

A
recent article by Hans-Hermann
Hoppe
described the phenomena of moral decay via government
intervention very well.

.
. . what should be clear by now is that most if not all of the
moral degeneration and cultural decline – the signs of decivilization
– all around us are the inescapable and unavoidable results
of the welfare state and its core institutions. Classical, old-style
conservatives knew this, and they vigorously opposed public education
and social security. They knew that states everywhere were intent
upon breaking down and ultimately destroying families and the
institutions and layers and hierarchies of authority that are
the natural outgrowth of family-based communities in order to
increase and strengthen their own power. They knew that in order
to do so states would have to take advantage of the natural rebellion
of the adolescent (juvenile) against parental authority. And they
knew that socialized education and socialized responsibility were
the means of bringing about this goal.

Social
education and social security provide an opening for the rebellious
youth to escape parental authority (to get away with continuous
misbehavior). Old conservatives knew that these policies would
emancipate the individual from the discipline imposed by family
and community life only to subject him instead to the direct and
immediate control of the state.

Many
other writers for LRC have touched on the importance of local institutions
for the creation and maintenance of civilization. For example, Jeffery
A. Tucker
examined the thought of Albert J. Nock who believed
"that there is something profoundly wrong with the world, and
the biggest thing of all is the State. In Nock’s view, it is the
State that crowds out all that is decent, lovely, civilized. He
demonstrates this not through deduction but through calm and entertaining
tales of how rich and varied and productive life can be when the
State does not interfere." Furthermore, Nock thought that

In
a society without the State, for example, the “court of tastes
and manners” would be the thing that guides the operation of
society, and this “court” would have a much larger role in society
than law, legislation, or religion. If such a court were not
in operation, because people are too uncivilized or too ill-educated
to maintain it, there was nothing the State could do to uplift
people. No matter how low a civilization is, it can only be
made to go lower through State activity.

In
another example, Thomas E. Woods wrote about how Donald Livingston,
professor of philosophy at Emory University, regarded the modern
state in his discussion of The
Real Significance of the Civil War
.

In
the modern age, Livingston observes, we have seen federative
polities giving way to modern states. A federative polity is
one in which a variety of smaller jurisdictions exist – like
families, voluntary organizations, towns and states, and in
medieval Europe institutions like guilds, universities, and
the Church. Each of these social authorities has powers and
rights of its own that the central government cannot overturn.
Each of them is also a potential source of corporate resistance
to the central government. Prior to the rise of the modern state,
political leaders who desired centralization therefore found
themselves up against the historic liberties of towns, guilds,
universities, the Church, and similar corporate bodies.

In
the United States this discussion has often been put in the terms
of state's rights as is even understood by a dubious character such
as Al Sharpton. On a recent Meet
the Press
Sharpton compared aspects of the great tragedy
of race in the US to marriage laws. "Slave owners used what
you’re using. Let each state decide people’s rights rather than
have a federal government protect the rights of people. . . .I think
what we’re trying to see is the right wing to try to bring this
back to state’s rights, and I think that state’s rights is frightening
to those that have been victims by it." Of course, it is not
state's rights that is the real issue but the rule of constitutional
law. If the most powerful entities existing to check the federal
government have their authority usurped what will be the fate of
the hundreds of thousands of smaller entities? Of course history
has shown us the answer; there is no protection.

Thus,
I am a libertarian because I believe that virtually everything the
federal government does today works against the freedom of the individual
and the free institutions of society. Furthermore, it works against
the state and local government authority, while empowering them
to erode the freedom of the people and institutions. And I am a
reactionary because the limits on personal freedom imposed by society
have been under constant attack by government since at least the
Lincoln administration and thus there is much less to conserve than
there is to be regained. I must also say that depending upon my
mood and the discussion I also call myself a libertarian reactionary.

March
8, 2005

Ira
Katz [send him mail] teaches
mechanical engineering at Lafayette College.  He is the co-author
of Handling
Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression
and
Introduction
to Fluid Mechanics
.

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