A Libertarian Comment
essay appeared in Modern
Age, 5, 2 (Spring 1961), pp. 217-220.
Age is to be warmly congratulated for its articles on "Conservatism
and Freedom" in the Fall, 1960 issue. Certainly, there is no
more important intellectual task than launching a dialogue toward
a synthesis of the two most important intellectual currents on the
American "Right" today: the conservative and the libertarian.
Modern Age can make, and has begun to make, a notable contribution
toward that dialogue. As a libertarian, I have been aware for some
time of the importance, not only of converting authoritarian conservatives
to the cause of freedom, but also of convincing the libertarians
of the great importance of recognizing the existence of an objective
moral order. As both Messrs. Meyer and Evans point out, there can
be no truly moral choice unless that choice is made in freedom;
similarly, there can be no really firmly grounded and consistent
defense of freedom unless that defense is rooted in moral principle.
In concentrating on the ends of choice, the conservative, by neglecting
the conditions of choice, loses that very morality of conduct with
which he is so concerned. And the libertarian, by concentrating
only on the means, or conditions, of choice and ignoring the ends,
throws away an essential moral defense of his own position.
was particularly impressed by Frank Meyer’s admirable article. I
pass over reluctantly the temptation to quote extensively from his
essay. I don't think there is anyone in the "conservative" camp
who has as great an understanding of, or sympathy with, the libertarian,
or "classical liberal" tradition. In contrast to Mr. [M. Stanton]
Evans, for example, who chides the libertarian for believing that
liberty is the highest moral end for man, Meyer sees that the best
libertarians have realized, with Lord Acton, that liberty
is the highest political end, i.e., the highest end that
is proper for government, the organized arm of coercion, to achieve.
I am a devoted adherent of a large part of the Aristotelian-Thomist
philosophical tradition; but one part of that tradition has been
politically disastrous for the West: the Greek notion that
the State is somehow the most important ethical institution
in society, and that therefore what is good for men to pursue is
automatically good for the State to pursue. There, I believe, is
the critical error of the authoritarian conservative creed, of the
old-style "natural law" tradition before its proper corrective in
the individualist, natural rights variant of that tradition as coined
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
perhaps, is the gravest failure of the Meyer and Evans articles:
the failure to distinguish, in discussing classical liberalism,
between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century versions of that
creed. Their strictures apply, and properly so, to the nineteenth
century version, which, admittedly, is much more common today: Benthamite,
utilitarian. even positivistic a version particularly prevalent
among neo-classical economists. It is this wing of liberalism that
has been remiss in recognizing objective moral values. The older
seventeenth and eighteenth century version, however, was quite different:
it believed staunchly in an objective moral order of natural laws,
discoverable by man's reason; and, as part of that moral order,
it discovered the importance of individualism and the natural rights
of person and property as the proper political end. It therefore
worked, though often unwittingly, within the Thomist natural law
tradition of the West, adding a full libertarianism to that tradition.
Whether or not the older libertarians were Christians theologically,
they were certainly Christians philosophically. Neither Meyer nor
Evans, therefore, do proper justice to those libertarians of the
Enlightenment who have, in a sense, already anticipated our dialogue
and our synthesis.
from this general caveat, I have only a few minor criticisms of
Mr. Meyer's article. Meyer recognizes the primacy of reason, and
realizes that simple reliance on tradition is an impossible task.
Because of the infinite number of historical traditions handed down
to us, we must select and choose; and our only weapon in this selection
is our reason. And yet, despite his basic recognition of the primacy
of reason, Meyer leans too far over on the "conservative" side of
this dialogue by emphasizing that reason must operate "within tradition,"
and not in any sort of "ideological hubris... ignoring the
accumulated wisdom of mankind." Now when Mr. Meyer recognizes that
the conservatives must employ reason to select between true and
false traditions, he has placed himself above and not within tradition,
and necessarily so. A man cannot be within something, and yet judge
it from all outside standard. Here I think Meyer has fallen for
what is essentially a straw man version of the libertarian, rationalist
creed. Every intelligent rationalist recognizes the great value
of studying past thinkers and past accumulations of knowledge: for
no man is omniscient, and therefore it is an enormous time saver
and gain in efficiency, knowledge and clarity, to build on the best
writings of the past, instead of trying to spin out all the laws
of the universe de novo, which is to act as a savage with
no inherited record of civilization to help a man on his
path to knowledge and wisdom, While modern historicists and relativists
scoff at such accumulated wisdom, certainly no genuine rationalist
libertarian will do so. But to say this does not give up the supremacy
of reason quite the contrary.
only other quarrel with Mr. Meyer is his fondness for the term "tension"
to describe the proper balance between freedom and value; tension
implies a precariousness and an underlying contradiction which I
don't think exist. Properly developed, the relationship between
freedom and ethics is a peaceful and cohesive harmony, a harmony
of a unified natural law, rather than a precarious tension. In the
political sphere, that harmony comes about through the confinement
of the coercive arm of society to the defense of individual rights
Mr. Evans, on the other hand, my differences are much more serious.
I have already mentioned his confusion of political ends with general
moral ends. He also erects a false dichotomy in believing that the
libertarian wants freedom because he believes man is naturally good
and should therefore be turned loose, while the conservative wants
freedom because he realizes that men can be bad, and therefore wants
to limit potentialities or evil in society. This, too, is a straw
man. Rousseau believed that man is naturally good, corrupted by
his institutions; but only a few libertarians in the past have believed
this, and I myself have yet to meet a libertarian who holds to such
a puerile absurdity. All libertarians whom I have met believe, as
all sensible men do, that man is a mixture or good and evil: that
he is capable or both types of actions, given his free will to choose.
The libertarian wants, simply, to create such institutions in society
that will maximize the channels, the inducements, for doing good,
and to minimize the opportunities to do bad. We want freedom from
the State because the State is the only legal, and by far the most
powerful, channel for committing evil in society; and because, having
freedom, man can exercise his opportunity to perform good actions.
The positive and the negative, the freeing of the good and the checking
of the bad, are two sides to the same libertarian coin. The same
applies, incidentally, to the much abused "philosophical anarchist"
variant of the libertarian creed: no philosophical anarchist worth
his salt believes any longer in man's "natural goodness." Viewing
the State as the legal engine for crime and evil, he wishes to abolish
it, and to substitute various other forms of defense of the property
rights of the individual. The real question that the anarchist poses,
and that no one has really tried to answer, is this: is the State
the only, or the most efficient, possible instrument for defending
the rights of person and property in society?
come now to Mr. Evans' apotheosis of James Madison and the Constitution.
Belonging roughly to the Jeffersonian wing of the inner debate of
the Founding Fathers, I regard Madison as a weak trimmer
and fuzzy compromiser, rather than a sagacious combiner. Without
the unnecessary Madisonian concessions to the profoundly statist
programs and conceptions of Hamilton, the Constitution would have
been a far more libertarian and a far more lasting instrument than
it has proved to be. But there is more involved here: for Mr. Evans,
despite the black record of the present century, persists in believing
that the American Constitution has succeeded gloriously in its mission.
From any libertarian, or even conservative, point of view, it has
failed and failed abysmally; for let us never forget that every
one of the despotic incursions on man's rights in this century,
before, during and after the New Deal, have received the official
stamp of Constitutional blessing. The Constitution has been stretched
a very long way. If Mr. Evans should reply that these tyrannical
acts have been really, and in the strict sense, unconstitutional,
I would hasten to agree.
that is my whole point: that the instruments set up by the Constitution
in particular, the erection of a monopoly Supreme Court with
the final power to decide what is Constitutional embody a
fatal flaw in any constitutional attempt to limit the State. In
short, when you give the State itself the final power to interpret
the very instrument that is supposed to limit the State, you will
inevitably find the Constitution being stretched and distorted,
until it becomes merely a means of lending an unjustified aura of
prestige to the State's despotic actions.
one of the great political thinkers in American history, went to
the heart of the matter when he criticized the common reliance on
a written constitution restricting government power:
is a great mistake to suppose that the mere insertion of provisions
to restrict and limit the powers of government. without investing
those for whose protection they are inserted with the means of enforcing
their observance, will be sufficient to prevent the major and dominant
party from abusing its powers. Being the party in possession of
the government, they will, from the same constitution of man which
makes government necessary to protect society, be in favor of the
powers granted by the constitution and opposed to the restrictions
intended to limit them. ..of what possible avail could the strict
construction of the minor party be, against the liberal interpretation
of the major, when the one would have all the powers of the government
to carry its construction into effect and the other be deprived
of all means of enforcing its construction...."1
Constitution, in short, was a noble attempt to solve the problem
of restricting government to its proper sphere; but it was a noble
attempt that failed, and therefore we must begin to search for more
stringent and effective measures.
final comments on the conceptions of conservatism and classical
liberalism, In the first place, I do not like the term "conservative,"
nor does any other libertarian. This term stands in the way of a
constructive synthesis, for it implies not only the "natural conservatism"
mentioned by Frank Meyer the blind and tropistic defense
of whatever status quo happens to exist but also,
more seriously, it carries with it the conservative position
of the nineteenth century, when conservatism was born. For
nineteenth century Conservatism, far from criticizing the Benthamites
from the old natural rights point of view, was essentially a reaction
against all that liberalism stood for: in particular, individual
freedom, and the economic freedom that produced capitalism and the
Industrial Revolution. The Conservative Party of Prussia, the first
effective conservative grouping, was expressly formed to defend
the institution of serfdom threatened by the rising influence of
freedom and free enterprise. The irrationalist, organicist, and
étatist biases of Conservatism all fed and influenced the
supposedly anticonservative socialists of the nineteenth century.
Even today, there is in the concept of "conservatism" an atmosphere
redolent of Throne-and-Altar which has no place in any desirable
"Rightist" synthesis, To put it bluntly and concretely, I would
say to the conservatives, we libertarians will give up Bentham if
you will give up the Crown of St. Stephen,
lastly, having indicated the neglected strengths of the classical
liberal tradition, I must indicate some of the weaknesses of that
tradition, even in its enormously superior eighteenth century version.
The chief defects of Enlightenment liberalism, I believe, are these:
an inordinate passion for democracy, and an inordinate hatred for
institutional religion, particularly for the Roman Catholic Church.
The true liberal should place foremost, in judging government, the
policies that that government pursues; who runs the government is
of secondary, purely instrumental importance, Of course, all other
things being equal, it would be nice to have democratic voting ratify
libertarian policies, but this is of minor importance. Democracy
is simply a process, and once elevated into an end-in-itself, it
becomes a potentially mighty engine for mass tyranny and popular
collectivism. Furthermore, democracy, by encouraging the idea of
equal voting by all men, grants the vote before it is properly earned
and therefore fosters an excessive and dangerous egalitarian tendency
intense hatred of the Enlightenment for the Catholic Church was
a tragic thing; for it severed, on both sides, two traditions which
really had a great deal in common, and set these two mighty forces
at almost permanent odds. This hatred pushed the Enlightenment liberals
into numerous and grave anti-libertarian measures to oppress the
Church: confiscation of church property, outlawing of monasteries
and the Jesuit order, nationalization of the Church, and, perhaps
the gravest of all, the erection of a system of public schools.
For the establishment of public schools makes the grand concession,
the concession that education of the young, one of the most important
functions of society, is properly to be conducted by the coercive
State. And if schools, why not other educational media, why not
radio and television and newspapers, and why not, indeed, every
other social good and service? The very existence of the public
school even if Americanism groups see to it that its textbooks
are not tainted with socialism cries aloud to its little
charges the virtue and sanctity of government ownership and operation,
and therefore, of socialism.
libertarian, then, in building upon the older classical liberal
tradition, must not only abandon utilitarianism and positivism:
he must also abandon that tendency toward a worship of democracy
and an unreasoning hatred of Catholicism that led him, among other
flaws, to the erection of a vast incubus of statism and tyranny,
the public school. And in doing so, he will also take a long
step forward toward that very synthesis of the Right-wing Weltanschauung
that we all recognize as so important in the present-day world.
- John C.
Disquisition On Government (The Liberal Arts Press, 1953),
pp. 25 ff.
N. Rothbard (1926-1995), the founder of modern libertarianism and
the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author of
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
© 2002 Ludwig von Mises Institute
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