What Libertarianism Isn't

by Edward Feser

The notion that the political alliance between libertarians and conservatives is contingent and inherently unstable has become a clich, and a tiresome one at that, usually made by persons who have little understanding of either libertarianism or conservatism. And despite appearances, the recent testy exchanges between the conservative National Review's Jonah Goldberg and the libertarian Reason magazine's Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel do nothing to confirm the clich.

It is not that the idea of a fusion of libertarianism and conservatism does not raise important and difficult philosophical issues; it does. The emphasis within traditional conservative thinking on authority, including the authority of a strong (though limited) state, on an organic conception of society, and on obligations between human beings that do not rest on contract, do appear at least on the surface to sit uneasily with the individualism usually taken to be essential to libertarianism. Those of us sympathetic to u201Cfusionismu201D (Frank Meyer's well known label for libertarian conservatism) believe that this appearance is misleading, but we wouldn't deny that it takes some doing to show that it is.

The recent debate barely begins to address these substantial questions, though, and focuses instead on the status of another essential, and far less problematic, feature of conservative thinking: the preservation of traditional morality – particularly traditional sexual morality, with its idealization of marriage and its insistence that sexual activity be confined within the bounds of that institution, but also a general emphasis on dignity and temperance over self-indulgence and dissolute living. The scorn for these values (or at least for those who speak up for them) shown by the likes of Gillespie and Postrel has led Goldberg to denounce what he calls their u201Ccultural libertarianism.u201D

The trouble is, there just is nothing particularly u201Clibertarianu201D about this cultural libertarianism. There is, in particular, nothing in libertarianism that entails that one ought to be in the least bit hostile to or even suspicious of traditional morality or traditional moralists. There is thus no reason whatsoever why libertarians and conservatives ought to be divided over the question of traditional morality. And ironically enough, while Goldberg himself realizes this – he does qualify his attack as one on u201Ccultural libertarianism,u201D not u201Clibertarianismu201D full stop – the libertarians Gillespie and Postrel seem not to. For them, it appears, traditionalists constitute a force on the political Right that libertarians ought to oppose as staunchly as they do the socialists to their Left. This, at least, is the inference one naturally draws from their tendency to bifurcate between (on the one hand) those who want to impose, through force of law, their moral views on others, and (on the other hand) those, like themselves, who refuse to offer the faintest criticism of anything and everything done between u201Cconsenting adultsu201D – as if there were no third position, viz. that of those who reject the use of state power to enforce traditional morality, but are nevertheless critical of those who flaunt it. (It is also the inference one naturally draws from Gillespie's preoccupation with drugs and pornography, not only as political issues, but cultural ones. Why waste precious space in a libertarian magazine waxing rhapsodic about the freedom to read dirty magazines, or regale readers with tales of personal drug use, if such things were not seen somehow to be relevant to libertarianism? Why not merely say u201CDon't criminalize these practicesu201D and be done with it? After all, Gillespie would presumably never tax his audience's patience with effusive descriptions of automotive repair manuals or accounts of his personal experiences with Tylenol, even if these products were in imminent danger of being banned by the state.)

Gillespie and Postrel are, of course, not alone in failing clearly to understand, or at least clearly to articulate, the position they represent. One hears constantly in the popular media of self-styled u201Clibertarianu201D celebrities whose libertarianism amounts to little more than an enthusiasm for legalized abortion and homosexual chic – think Bill Maher, Camille Paglia, or William Weld. But as one soon realizes upon learning of some of the other enthusiasms of such people – gun control, the Clinton health care plan, the extension of anti-discrimination laws to homosexuals, etc. – their understanding of libertarianism (and that of the media types who propagate this abuse of the label) is pretty shallow in the first place. Gillespie and Postrel are another story though, being, as they are, representatives of one of the most important and influential journals of libertarian opinion. It matters when they mischaracterize (even if, as we can charitably assume, inadvertently) the libertarian position. It is worthwhile, then, to set the record straight and understand why, Gillespie and Postrel notwithstanding, libertarianism is by no means hostile to traditional morality – and indeed, why it ought to be solidly supportive of it.

There are, to my knowledge, five sorts of argument for libertarianism. They are:

  1. The utilitarian argument, the suggestion that a free market and free society best fulfill the goals – prosperity, alleviation of poverty, technological innovation, and so forth – which libertarians and their opponents share in common. This is the sort of argument free market economists like Milton Friedman put the most stress on.

  2. The natural rights argument, which emphasizes the idea that individuals have inviolable rights to life, liberty, and property that it is morally wrong for anyone, including the state, to violate even for allegedly good reasons (such as taxation for the sake of helping the needy). This approach has been favored by libertarian philosophers from John Locke to Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, and also has an intuitive appeal to the u201Clibertarian in the streetu201D who resents the suggestion that the government has any business telling him what to do in his personal life, or with his money or personal property.

  3. The argument from cultural evolution, associated with F.A. Hayek, who held that societies embody cultural traditions which compete with one another in a kind of evolutionary process, the most u201Cfitu201D traditions – those most conducive to human well-being – being the ones that survive and thrive, driving their rivals into extinction, or at least onto the historical sidelines: hence capitalism's victory over communism, a culture which respects private property, contract, and the rule of law being superior in cultural evolutionary terms to one which does not.

  4. The contractarian argument, which (greatly to oversimplify) argues in general that all moral claims rest on a (hypothetical) u201Csocial contractu201D between the individuals comprising society, and in particular that a libertarian society is what rational individuals would contract for. This sort of argument is represented by such libertarian theorists as Jan Narveson and James Buchanan.

  5. The argument from liberty, which claims that freedom per se is intrinsically valuable – valuable for its own sake – and that the best political system is therefore the one that maximizes freedom.

None of these arguments plausibly supports the idea that libertarianism is incompatible with a strongly traditionalist moral outlook.

One might find this a surprising claim to make about argument 5 – an argument one might assume to be the paradigmatic libertarian argument, and one that frequently crops up in popular discussions of libertarianism. But in fact the u201Cargument from libertyu201D (as I've called it) is, paradoxically, probably the worst argument anyone has ever given for libertarianism – and is, in any case, not the sort of argument given by the best known libertarian writers. The reason why is not hard to see: u201CFreedomu201D is a notoriously vague term, and all sorts of things libertarians would reject can be, and have been, defended in the name of freedom – redistribution of wealth (to give the poor and middle class greater u201Cfreedom from wantu201D), an interventionist foreign policy (to help increase the u201Cfreedom from fearu201D of oppressed peoples throughout the globe), public education (to maximize u201Cfreedom from ignoranceu201D), etc. Libertarians are indeed interested in freedom, but when one examines their arguments – especially when those arguments try to show that libertarianism does not entail maximizing a quasi-socialist u201Cfreedom from wantu201D etc. – it is clear that what is fundamental to libertarian thinking is not freedom per se, but something else, such as natural rights: I ought to have the freedom to use my earnings as I see fit, the libertarian says, but not because freedom per se is a good thing – after all, the thief would also benefit from the freedom to use my earnings – but rather because they are my earnings, because I have a moral right to them.

It is thus really irrelevant whether the u201Cargument from libertyu201D is one that would support a rejection of traditional morality – which it undoubtedly would on some interpretations (just as it would also support an embrace of traditional morality: u201Cfreedom from sinu201D). For the argument isn't a good argument for libertarianism in the first place.

Argument 4 (the contractarian argument) is a much better argument for libertarianism. But radically different political philosophies have also been defended in contractarian terms – the philosopher John Rawls, famous for his liberal egalitarian theory of justice, is a contractarian of sorts – and while defenders of this approach would (plausibly) argue that a libertarian social contract is the most rationally defensible one, most libertarian theorists have vied away from this approach in favor of one of the remaining three alternatives. In any case, there is nothing about this sort of libertarianism that requires hostility to traditional morality. Whether or not traditional morality can be defended on a u201Csocial contractu201D approach is an interesting and important question, but it is an entirely distinct question from that of whether libertarianism can be so defended.

The same is true of argument 1, the utilitarian argument. Whether or not one thinks the free market best u201Cdelivers the goodsu201D that libertarians and non-libertarians alike value is an entirely distinct question from whether one thinks that traditional morality is also justifiable in such utilitarian terms. Some utilitarian libertarians might think it is, others that it isn't; in either case, their libertarianism per se is irrelevant.

The natural rights argument (argument 2) gives us the same result, though it is a little easier to see why some libertarians might think this one stands in tension with traditional morality. If I have an absolute right to my property and to my own body, it follows that the government cannot stop me, say, from fornicating or using drugs – thus says the libertarian, and thus the appearance of tension between libertarianism and conservatism. But as (almost) all libertarians know, the tension is only apparent, and only to those not used to making rather obvious distinctions (journalists, political hacks, television personalities who've just discovered the word u201Clibertarian,u201D etc.). Libertarianism entails that the state must not impose traditional scruples through force of law; it does not entail that that such scruples are not valid. What is not legally binding on us may nevertheless be morally binding on us. Some libertarians may, of course, dislike and disagree with traditional moral rules; but others might believe strongly in them, even though they would not advocate imposing them on others through the power of the state, and they do not cease being libertarians for that.

That, as I say, is obvious. It is nevertheless not surprising that so many people seem not to see it. With some people – the celebrity u201Clibertarians,u201D television commentators and other journalists – garden variety muddle-headedness is no doubt the primary culprit. With journalists (most of whom are on the Left), there is the extra element of a political motive, viz. scaring unwary voters into thinking that anyone who disapproves of homosexuality (or whatever) simply must be in favor of sending the police into your bedroom (and perhaps scaring unwary and untutored libertarians into believing the same nonsense, thus hoping to splinter the Right).

It is, however, surprising that high-profile libertarians like Gillespie and Postrel do not see it, or at least do not seem too much in a hurry to acknowledge it. And it is even more surprising that they seem to see some justification for their reticence in argument 5, Hayek's defense of the free society in terms of cultural evolution. Both writers have appealed to Hayek in support of their advocacy of openness to the cultural changes decried by traditionalists, Postrel in her book The Future and Its Enemies, Gillespie in defending himself against Goldberg; and they have, in particular, made much of Hayek's famous claim not to have been a u201Cconservative.u201D But such an appeal evinces a rather tendentious and selective reading of Hayek.

For starters, it cuts no ice breathlessly to refer to Hayek's essay u201CWhy I Am Not a Conservativeu201D and wave it like a talisman against the embrace of the dreaded traditionalists. For (as Goldberg has wearily had to point out again and again) Hayek's target in that essay was essentially the statist conservatism of the European tradition, not the Whiggish and liberty-oriented conservatism of the Anglo-American tradition; and his attack had more to do with the use of the state to prop up decaying social institutions than with the question of the value of those institutions themselves. More to the point though, is the substance of Hayek's position, not the label he wanted to give it; and it is a commonplace among Hayek scholars that, no sooner had Hayek rejected the u201Cconservativeu201D label than his thought took a turn in a decidedly conservative direction. (In scouring Holy Writ for proof-texts they can use against their opponents, without regard for context or the niceties of sophisticated exegesis, Gillespie and Postrel thus rather resemble the Fundamentalists they wouldn't be caught dead in the same political movement with.)

Hayek's theory of cultural evolution – spelled out in The Fatal Conceit and elsewhere – was a defense of tradition, rather than an attack upon it, a defense inspired by the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, himself. (Hayek took to describing himself late in life as a u201CBurkean Whig.u201D) Hayek's view was that those fundamental moral and cultural institutions which have survived through the centuries are, for the very reason that they have survived, very likely to serve some important social function, so that we ought to be wary of tampering with them even if we do not always know precisely what function they serve. Changes to such institutions are not to be ruled out absolutely, but they are always to be carried out tentatively and carefully, in piecemeal fashion; and the burden of proof is in any case always on the innovator, not on the conservers of tradition. Some changes may indeed turn out to be beneficial, and the society in which they take place will thrive as a result and outdo its competitors; but others may well be harmful and dysfunctional, with the result that the society which abandons the old ways may suffer damaging effects and even, in the worst case, ultimate dissolution or collapse.

Hayek applied this defense of tradition not only to the institutions of private property and contract which underlie market society, but also to the family and religion, which he as much as Burke considered bulwarks against the power of the state over the individual, and sources of the moral education without which the individual cannot develop the fortitude and self-reliance to resist the lure of state dependency. And he condemned the notion that liberty ought to be conceived of as freedom from moral restraints – as (in Bertrand Russell's words) u201Cthe absence of obstacles to the realization of our desiresu201D – as a nave and dangerous rationalist fantasy, an instance of what he called u201Cthe abuse and decline of reasonu201D in modern intellectual life. (And, we might now be tempted sadly to add, an instance of the abuse and decline of Reason.)

It is baffling, then, why anyone should think Hayek's philosophy a club with which to beat off traditionalism. Indeed, where traditional moral scruples are concerned, the Hayekian libertarian ought to regard change with as much caution as he would changes to the institutions of property and contract. Nor is it hard to see why this is so, not just at the level of abstract theory, but at the level of everyday social and political reality. The family, as we've said, is one of the main barriers standing between the individual and the state, for it (rather than the state) is the primary focus of a person's sense of allegiance to something beyond himself, and is also the arena within which a person learns (or should learn) how to become a responsible and self-supporting citizen of the community. When the family is absent in the life of the individual, the state – especially if such other u201Cintermediate institutionsu201D as the church are themselves weakened – tends inevitably to fill the void. Hence the tendency of single mothers, seeking in government assistance a surrogate to absent husbands and fathers, to be among the Democratic Party's most loyal voters; hence the listlessness and waywardness of so many of the children of those mothers, giving rise to further social problems to which the same party is only too willing to offer state-empowering u201Csolutionsu201D; and hence the self-accelerating cycle of moral decline leading to state intervention leading to dependency and further moral decline which has characterized social life in the Western world since at least the sixties. For such reasons, maintaining the stability and health of the family must be a chief concern of libertarians as much as of conservatives.

But a libertine ethos is manifestly incompatible with this concern. For the health of the family depends essentially on the willingness of its members to make sacrifices for its sake, and this means, first and foremost, a subordination of the fulfillment of parents' immediate desires to the long-term project of building a stable and loving home for their children. That, of course, calls for marriage, and also for precisely the opposite of the frivolous attitude with which marriage is currently treated in the Western world – as primarily a vehicle for u201Cpersonal fulfillmentu201D which one can enter and exit at will. A society in which the family is strong is thus a society in which adultery is abominated (even in presidents) and in which divorce, even if occasionally permitted, is frowned upon. Since so u201Cstringentu201D (to the modern mind, anyway) a conception of marriage might make it less likely that men especially will enter into it if (as our mothers used to say) they can u201Cget the milk for free without buying the cow,u201D it follows that taboos against pre-marital sexual relations, pornography, etc. will be almost as strong as the taboos against adultery and divorce in a society in which the family is taken seriously.

Of course, there's nothing terribly original in this mini-defense of traditional sexual morality; but then, the sociological case for that morality is not very difficult to make. Moreover, I would dare say that everyone knows this (except perhaps Postrel, who absurdly challenges Goldberg to u201Cproveu201D that pornography is more damaging to society than religious literature); and everyone knows it whether or not he happens to live in accordance with that morality. But it is no doubt because so very many today do not live in accordance with it that certain libertarians are loath to associate themselves with its defense. Such an association is, they fear, a political loser – a chaining of oneself to the sinking ship of social conservatism, certain doom if one seeks to appeal to hipsters and the hormonally-unchallenged college crowd.

Now one might have hoped that anyone serious about the long-term fortunes of our civilization would want to aim at something higher than what immediate political expediency and magazine marketing strategies might call for – higher, that is, than an alliance of those who want freedom from high taxation and regulation with those who demand, say, the u201Cfreedomu201D to fornicate and abort the consequences. To be sure, aiming higher is a very tall order for any citizen of the u201Csocietyu201D of foul-mouthed, oversexed, and thuggish louts that is now slowly but relentlessly displacing Western Civilization. But it must be done, nonetheless, if the free society is to survive, and libertarians who think otherwise are deluded.

As deluded, it should be added, as those conservatives who think there can be such a thing as a u201Cconservative welfare stateu201D or that the state ought to involve itself in funding u201Cfaith-based organizationsu201D; for I by no means would suggest that so-called u201Ccultural libertariansu201D alone are to blame for any rift that exists between libertarians and conservatives. It is understandable why some conservatives might fear that the war against Big Government is lost, and that they thus ought to turn their efforts to taming the beast rather than slaying it. But they're fooling themselves if they think they will succeed, and badly need a refresher course in Public Choice economics. If the war against Big Government really is lost, then everything else conservatives hope to preserve is lost as well, for the apparatus of the modern secular state is, and for structural reasons inevitably will be, in the hands of those hostile to traditional morality. If it is in the state's self-interest continually to increase its citizens' dependence on it, it follows that it is in its self-interest to undermine any obstacles to that dependence – and thus if, as all conservatives believe, the independence of the individual depends on the sanctity and stability of the family and on a strong and substantial religious belief, it follows that it is in the state's self-interest to undermine the family and religion. So it is no surprise that, as conservatives have so often argued, state policy has in fact had precisely this result. Ergo, expanding the state's tendrils into private schools (via vouchers) and religious organizations (via federal funding) will hardly reverse these effects – in fact in the long run this is liable only to exacerbate them, as the state gradually imposes its will and the Leftism that is its operational ideology on those private institutions.

But most conservatives who delude themselves into making peace with the legacy of Leftism at least have the good taste to do so reluctantly; Gillespie, on the other hand, seems positively giddy over the prospect of a libertarian political alliance with the Left. Yet it is, I would suggest, no less a delusion to suppose that there is even any short-term political gain to be had by making an appeal to the u201Csocially liberalu201D segment of the electorate. Part of the reason this is a dubious strategy is that the vast majority of politicians and voters with any free-market sympathies at all also tend to be culturally and morally conservative, and are thus likely to be put off by a movement that thumbs its nose at the things they hold most dear, leaving the pro-market house unnecessarily divided against itself. But another reason is that those who are not morally and culturally conservative are, generally speaking, resolutely hostile to the ideals of the free market and limited government, and are thus simply poor recruits for any non-conservative libertarian u201Cthird way.u201D For the most part, Hollywood producers and starlets are not both pro-gay rights and pro-growth, lesbian Wiccans are not yearning for a pro-choice but anti-affirmative action candidate, and college students were not drawn to the anarchist barricades in Seattle merely because they thought it might be a good place to get high and get u201Claid.u201D

This, as the Marxists would say, is no accident. Nor is it an accident that there is a strong correlation between a society's level of secularization and libertinism on the one hand, and the size and scope of its welfare state on the other. (Compare the USA, which may be going to hell in a hand basket on both counts – but still has a ways to go – to Sweden, which has been there for decades.) For the truth is that it is libertarianism and conservatism that naturally go together, just like… well, just like love and marriage (if you'll pardon so quaint a notion) – and that libertinism and Leftism also go together (like illegitimacy and state dependency, you might say). This is clear not only from the Burkean-Hayekian considerations adduced earlier, but also from the facts that so many libertarian natural rights theorists ground those rights in concepts drawn from the Aristotelian and Natural Law traditions in moral philosophy – traditions famously conservative in their moral implications – and that, from Friedrich Engels to Betty Friedan, the chief proponents of socialism and chief opponents of the family have tended to be the same people. For the same fundamental moral vision and the same sorts of arguments ultimately underlie respect for both the free society and traditional morality; and hostility toward both also has the same psychological and philosophical roots.

If I had to sum up the common moral vision of libertarians and conservatives, I would say it is a commitment to the idea of the dignity of man. On this vision, a human being is not a mere animal, but a rational being with the power of free moral choice, a person – a creature made, as religious conservatives would put it, in the image of God. And because he is this, he (a) cannot legitimately be used as a resource for others, a source of labor and property which may be appropriated by the state for its purposes without his consent, and (b) is subject to the demands of a moral law which require him to live in a way which accords with his unique dignity, rather than in thrall to his every fleeting inclination. Libertarians stress (a) and conservatives (b), but both are united in their insistence that a man ought not to be a slave, either to another's desires or to his own. And it is this insistence that separates them from the Left, which in its various factions tends to portray human beings in dehumanizing terms, as little more than clever animals, or as cogs in a vast social machine, helpless victims of forces beyond their control – and thus neither fit to rule themselves nor capable of living up to any morality that would require putting chains on their appetites.

Spelling out the common moral vision of libertarianism and conservatism in a complete and philosophically adequate way is not something I pretend to have accomplished here. But hopefully I have said enough to indicate why libertarians and conservatives ought to make the articulation and development of this common vision a chief concern, and why they must shore up the alliance between them that flows naturally from this vision but has been needlessly under strain of late. Libertarians in particular ought to stop chasing the mirage of a third way u201Cbetween Left and Rightu201D and recognize in traditionalist conservatives their natural allies. True libertarianism isn't u201Ccultural libertarianism.u201D It is instead a profound vision of human beings as free, not properly subject to the arbitrary will of any man or any government – and if it is to succeed, and deserve to succeed, it ought to be committed also to the promotion of an ennobling and inspiring use of that freedom.