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

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