Liberty and Society – a Reply to Ben Lewis
By Duncan Whitmore
In a recent post on this blog, the present writer offered an explanation as to why the intellectual accomplishments of Austro-libertarians have been disproportionate to their relatively meagre success in effecting real world change. We concluded that the attempt to merely spread ideas of the justice of non-aggression and the truth of “Austrian” economics is, in spite of its importance, not enough. Libertarians must also learn how to mould these ideas so that they speak to people’s aspirations within the prevailing conditions in which they live.
In a short post on the blog of Bastion Magazine – a relatively new publication which shares similar intellectual and political priorities to those of Mises UK – Ben Lewis has chimed in with something similar, addressing what he calls “the inconsistency of libertarian consistency” – that while conservatives, according to him, concede that libertarianism is a more logically consistent philosophy, this feature does not necessarily make the latter a superior system of thought should it be also inconsistent with “the real life nature of man and society”. These sentiments are in the same vain as three of his earlier blog posts where he discusses voluntary social relations, social duties and his reasons for being a conservative.1
To be fair to Lewis, not every view examined in this essay is necessarily one that he has stated explicitly and it would be wrong to ascribe to him a belief in every matter that is subjected to criticism. However, in the interests of thoroughness, we will examine not only what Lewis has actually said but also that which could be reasonably interpreted or inferred from what he has said.
In principle, Lewis’s argument is correct, for it is true that
A system of thought’s logical consistency is only as good as its first principles, and with the wrong first principles even a logically consistent philosophy can reach the wrong conclusions.
In other words, however brilliant your powers of deduction, there are no marks for “error carried forward”. If, for instance, you start from the incorrect premise that humans can fly then it may be internally consistent to conclude that the best way for you to travel from your home to the supermarket is to jump out of your first storey window. However, the obvious result of any such attempt is likely to be a long stay at the hospital, if not the morgue.
Thus, Lewis is also right when he says specifically of libertarians:
[I]f their definition of rights is wrong – if, for instance, individual rights are limited by some concept of the good, or by a transcendent source, or by some requirement of human dignity – then all the logical consistency in the world isn’t going to get them to the right conclusions.
Of course, libertarians would not agree that their definition of rights is wrong, but in principle, yes, if that definition is wrong then so too must be our conclusions.
This, however, paves the way to Lewis’s main preoccupation, which is not with “a philosophy’s abstract consistency” but, rather, “its consistency with the real life nature of man and society.” While he is right to suggest that this is a more important consideration than “mere” logical consistency, there shouldn’t really be any deep chasm between the two: logic is a feature of reality, and so if we know that the premises are true in reality then what we deduce from them correctly must also be true in reality, even though we may need to supplement our deductions with empirical knowledge to gain the fullest understanding. Indeed, we should go farther and condemn the notion that an idea can be good in “theory” but bad in “practice”. For the whole point of theory is to determine what will/should work in practice, and so if a theory does not (or cannot) work in real life then it is bad in theory and in practice.
Unfortunately, however, Lewis seems to suggest that this is precisely the case with libertarianism: that it is “a logically consistent system constructed to guide human relationships that is foreign to the way that most human relationships, are actually conducted” and thus it is ill-suited as a basis for a practical, realistic social order. Here, we must part company with Lewis, for nothing about this assertion is remotely true.
Libertarianism concerns only a single aspect of human interaction: where and when it is just for one individual to use violence against another, and where and when a particular relationship between individuals may be legitimately compelled (or repelled) by violence.2 Addressing this question (and only this question) of violence between individuals does not mean, as Lewis suggests, that libertarianism is “a thoroughgoing abstraction of all society in that it reduce [sic] actual social arrangements, including political ones, to highly rationalistic principles”. Rather, the question is meant to serve only as the starting point for social thought because – in light of the very need to ensure that our “first principles” are right – libertarians try to understand the nature of the parts before attempting to understand the nature of the whole.
We look first to the individual because the individual is the fundamental unit of human society: it is the individual who thinks, feels, desires, chooses and acts; it is the individual who is motivated by the prospect of gain and the terror of loss; it is the individual who feels the pain of hunger and the relief of satiation; that even where the individual feels joy at the happiness of another person he feels this as an individual; that when he shares values with (or is influenced by) other people he is still, fundamentally, one of many each holding those values individually. To ignore all of this and to dive into the development of social theory by beginning in terms of abstractions – “society,” “rights”, “obligations”, “duties”, “values”, “choices”, “benefits”, “good”, “bad”, “markets”, etc. – without first knowing precisely which entities these concepts pertain to (and the qualities of the same) is to wallow in ignorance, the sociological equivalent of trying to build a house without knowing what the bricks are made of.
We look also to violence because the actions of each individual must always take place through physical space by diverting physical means so as to satisfy ends and fulfil values – i.e. to change an aspect of the world to something “better” than it was before. The imposition of physical force against him necessarily limits this ability, imposing a wall or boundary around his capacity to fulfil his ends and values. Understanding first where violence may or may not be applied to an individual is, therefore, critical, because it defines the scope of his moral agency, the sphere within which he may exercise his volition and act. You cannot dive into espousing a moral theory by preaching the morality (or immorality) of certain acts unless you know whether a person is, in fact, free to act in the first place. How can there be, for example, a moral obligation to support your family if you haven’t yet established whether a person has property in his earnings? Without having determined the extent of a person’s self-ownership over his body, how can you fix upon him social duties to care for his children, wave to his neighbours, or help old ladies across the road? Thus, Lewis’s approving reference to Richard Weaver, who speaks of “the necessity […] of accepting duties before you begin to talk of freedoms”, is backwards – a person cannot accept a duty unless you have first established that he is free to fulfil that duty. It is true, of course, that an individual may have to comply with certain social duties in order to maximise the protection and preservation of his freedom (which seems to be Lewis’s point), but that still requires us to know, beforehand, precisely what the scope of his freedom is.
As Lewis will be aware, the libertarian’s answer to this question of violence between individuals is self-ownership and private property, summarised as the non-aggression principle – that no one may initiate physical force against your person or property without your consent. Liberty is therefore defined as your ability to act with your own body and your property (of which you are the first user or the first user’s voluntary successor in title) without physical imposition from others; this means, in turn, that all social relationships must be conducted on a voluntary basis (a concept which, as we shall see later, Lewis misunderstands). Libertarianism therefore defines the scope, or the playing field, in which social relationships may be conducted – it does not say anything about the vast array of possible needs, interests, desires, incentives, emotions, restraints and so on which could motivate those relationships, nor does it determine directly what is required in order to ensure that the boundary of non-aggression is preserved and respected. Libertarianism is the beginning of a complete understanding of human society, not, as Lewis suggests, its distillation into a tiny residue.3
The “logical consistency” of libertarians refers to the fact that libertarians apply the non-aggression principle uniformly to all human relationships, a view that can appear “inflexible” and “dogmatic” to those who give the matter a mere cursory thought. But the general result of this endeavour is little more than ensuring equality before the law and treating like cases alike. If it is wrong for Bob to commit murder it is also wrong for John to commit murder; if it is unjust for Sally to steal then it is also unjust for Kate to steal; and so on.4 Such a notion has always been a basic tenet of justice, and in the same way that people will readily agree that murdering, stealing and raping is wrong, so too are they likely to agree that no one should be able to murder, steal or rape – without exception.5 Thus, nothing that libertarianism is saying is shockingly new at a fundamental level, nor is there anything so highly abstract and “rationalistic” that is difficult to grasp. Indeed, it is almost laughable that Lewis, quoting Russell Kirk, implies that libertarians are trying to benefit people in a “novel” way with some “fancied new” theory when really libertarianism is little more than a clarification of much older and well grounded principles.
Neither is it the case that the flourishing of the non-aggression principle to a “logically consistent” extent requires us to behave in ways contrary to human nature (or “to the way that most human relationships are actually conducted”).6 In the first place, it is important to realise that the infliction of violence is not an immutable fact of human interaction in the same way that a cat will always chase a mouse or a cheetah will kill an antelope. Unlike these animals, we humans possess the ability to control and choose our actions, and it is within the power of every sane adult human being to refrain from acting violently towards everyone else. Thus, the imposition of violence is always and everywhere a choice. Even where we are tempted by moments of passion or emotional inflammation, we are expected to control these impulses, with the full weight of the law holding us responsible if we fail to do so (and, in any case, such moments are utterly remote from the complex social phenomena with which political philosophy is concerned). The reason why systematised violence in forms such as the state is so prevalent is because a sufficient number of people have become convinced of its legitimacy and efficacy, not because they represent some form of inevitability – it is open for people to choose a different path. The problem that libertarianism faces, therefore, is how to convince people that such forms of violence are either a) morally abhorrent and/or b) unsuitable for bettering their lives (preferably both). One of the lingering reasons why the consistent application of libertarian principles tends to appear unrealistic is that the conclusions are at odds with everything we have been taught to believe is true – that there are social institutions which violate these principles but we have, nevertheless, come to believe that they are legitimate and/or necessary. Indeed, just pointing out that the state should not build the roads is probably enough to see a libertarian laughed out of the room.
Influencing people’s choices away from violence requires, according to Lewis, “a vision of man as a rational chooser, willingly and consciously adopting every belief, every duty, and every virtue.” This is really the heart of his complaint – the notion that, for libertarianism to be successful, humans must brush aside all existing “social relationships based on love and trust” and everyone must come to view the entire world in terms of “abstract concepts of liberty and coercion”. But to frame the matter in this way is to confuse the process of defining just outcomes (non-violent social relationships) with the motivation for achieving those outcomes.
It is true that libertarianism determines, rationally, just social outcomes by deduction from basic principles. Indeed, determining just outcomes should be a rational process. If you are hauled before a court accused of a crime then you expect the judge, lawyers and jury to scrutinise the evidence and then critically apply the discovered facts to relevant principles in order to determine your culpability. You would be aghast if the judge decided the matter after merely sticking a wet finger in the air or from having prayed for a sign from some pagan god. The recognition that we are each responsible for our freely chosen conduct, and the identification of principles against which to examine that conduct are two of the hallmarks of civilisation. But it does not follow from this that everybody must be prepared to engage in the same kind of complex, rationalistic thought process in order to produce a world that, more or less, conforms to the non-aggression principle.
For a start, nothing about abstaining from violence requires, under normal circumstances, any kind of intense powers of concentration or serious moral exertion that would elevate the non-violent human to the level of a hero. Most of us manage to get through our day easily enough without killing, assaulting, stealing from or raping anyone else. In fact, avoiding violence is probably one of the easiest of rules to fulfil, for, unlike moral duties and aspirations that require positive action, it could be achieved by the laziest sloth. Moreover, given that physical boundaries between persons and property are objectively clear, it is certainly far easier to do than comply with rules which enforce subjective boundaries in which reasonable, honestly held opinions can be penalised as “hateful”, “offensive” or as a display of one of the numerous invented “phobias”. This is before we even mention all of the thousands of pages of artificial rules and regulations that states enact through legislation.
More pertinently, however, libertarians have no desire to abolish social phenomena that would make it even easier for people to abstain from violence. Take, for instance, two elements that Lewis mentions specifically, love and trust. Such concepts go hand in hand with our recognition of each other as equally dignified and autonomous beings (i.e. something that approximates with “self-ownership”), and so an increase in love and trust would almost certainly lead to less violence. Thus, far from wanting to abolish relationships based upon love and trust, libertarians should want as many of them possible. Although any community needs at least some explicit conception of justice in order to thrive, it is not the case, as Lewis implies, that everyone needs to go round thinking of themselves as “liberty-bots” in some kind of fantasy “Libertyland”, all of whom have consciously, proudly and dutifully sworn to uphold the non-aggression principle. Any ideas, motivations and institutions which are conducive to reducing the prevalence of violence (and sustaining that reduction) would do. Indeed, the libertarian qua libertarian would be perfectly happy if the entire world was to turn itself into a patchwork quilt of voluntary religious communes.
This stance is often misinterpreted as meaning that libertarians have little regard for the precise configuration of society and societal institutions. In Lewis’s words, “as long as [man’s] social environment is entirely voluntary, who cares what it looks like?” This too confuses the definition of liberty on the one hand with the determination of a strategy that would motivate people towards it on the other.
True enough, when it comes to defining a state of liberty, libertarianism is indifferent as to whether you should want to live as a sadomasochist or as a pious ascetic, and if a group of like-minded people sharing “unusual” values can find some way, however unlikely, of making their community work without bothering anyone else then they should be allowed to do so.7 True also is the flip side – that an institution or community whose values are manifestly evil and horrific should be uncompromisingly censured and destroyed. Let justice be done though the heavens fall. For “habits, customs and precepts”, and even a civilisation itself, are not worth saving if they cannot subsist without, say, the brutal enslavement of other people.
However, when it comes to devising a workable strategy for ensuring that a social environment does, indeed, become and remain voluntary, the task is actually a lot more restrictive and far more difficult to accomplish than it might first appear. In the first place, it is ridiculous to suggest, as Lewis does, that libertarians have no regard for “the fate of all the institutions and traditions that […] form the basis of their own opinions on liberty”. No libertarian can sensibly endorse a strategy that will see the demise of his own ideas. But libertarians are also quite well aware of the fact that we are not beginning from a clean slate, and that whatever comes tomorrow must, in some way, be born out of all the institutions, ideas, thoughts, desires, attitudes and interests that exist today. (Indeed, in this sense, conservative appeals for “continuity” amount to little more than repetitions of the obvious truism that where we are able be at two o’clock is dependent upon where we are at one o’clock).
It is true that the libertarian movement as a whole has, for a long time, been deficient in the development of such a realistic strategy for spreading liberty (and Lewis is absolutely right when he says that “there are problems [in Western society] that are not likely to be fixed by the standard libertarian appeals to limit or abolish the state”). It is true also that there are libertarians who do indeed believe in a kind of entirely new, “rationalistic” social order based on the view that all modes of conduct are equally valuable, have equal merit and should be equally loved and respected provided that they are not aggressive. Thus, such libertarians preach ethereal values such as openness, tolerance, equality and so on, yearning for an anarchistic paradise in which lions will lie down with lambs. However, competent libertarians have been aware of the futility of this line of thinking for quite some time. As Joseph R Peden, a colleague of Murray N Rothbard, warned us nearly fifty years ago:
There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of libertarian philosophy […] [This] should warn us that libertarianism can quite easily become an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which once approaches the complexities of social reality.9
And, more recently, Hans-Hermann Hoppe:
Many libertarians hold the view that all that is needed to maintain a libertarian social order is the strict enforcement of the non-aggression principle (NAP). Otherwise, as long as one abstains from aggression, according to their view, the principle of “live and let live” should hold. Yet surely, while this “live and let live” sounds appealing to adolescents in rebellion against parental authority and all social convention and control (and many youngsters have been initially attracted to libertarianism believing that this “live and let live” is the essence of libertarianism), and while the principle does indeed hold and apply for people living far apart and dealing with each other only indirectly and from afar, it does not hold and apply, or rather it is insufficient, when it comes to people living in close proximity to each other, as neighbors and cohabitants of the same community […] The peaceful cohabitation of neighbors and of people in regular direct contact with each other on some territory – a tranquil, convivial social order – requires also a commonality of culture: of language, religion, custom and convention. [Emphases in the original]10
True also is the fact that applying the non-aggression principle consistently to all possible areas of human interaction creates the depiction of the world that represents an ideal that will probably never be realised in totality (just as the total elimination of, say, rape – an undoubtedly virtuous aim – represents an ideal that will never be fully realised). There will always be rapists and there will always be people (and groups of people) who attempt to promote their ends and values through force and through violent social structures. But the fact that achieving any kind of “perfection” in eliminating rape is impossible does not mean that we should stop looking for ways in order to reduce its occurrence. Similarly, therefore, when it comes to the problem of systematically violent social structures, there is nothing to stop libertarians from finding ways that work towards their ideal, or from accepting measures that represent an enormous improvement over the current situation – i.e. outcomes that may be more “realistic” goals. As Jeff Deist has said, “better, not perfect, ought to be our motto”. Indeed, the problem isn’t necessarily about eradicating particular social orders – it is how to render their capacity for violence relatively inert. For instance, most libertarians would probably be content if the largest and most powerful states in the world were broken up into smaller territories, principalities and free cities such as Hong Kong or Singapore. Technically these would still be states, of course, but they would be considerably less oppressive and destructive than the bloated behemoths which we must put up with today, with their reduced sizes probably being enough to sustain a world of heightened peace and prosperity. Thus, in order to wrestle allegiance away from today’s monolithic states, it would be an appropriate strategy for libertarians to promote elements such as national and local pride, custom, culture, religion, tradition, and all those other “realistic” aspects of human society which Lewis presumably (and rightly) holds dear.
It is also the case that the application of libertarian principles to certain areas can produce difficult and discomforting results – such as with abortion and (as Lewis mentions) the rights of children.11 These, however, are difficult areas for all social theories, and nobody is likely to develop any solutions that are greeted with universal enthusiasm rather than polarisation. Actually, the fact that libertarians who address these questions – such as when or whether abortion is legal, the scope of a parent’s legal duties or when a child may exercise “adult” rights – often have to engage in torturous reasoning and/or reach peculiar, even alarming conclusions is probably an indication of libertarian’s realism rather its inadequacy. For, like the precise boundaries of aggression generally, it shows that these are probably not matters that can be settled a priori, and that the most viable solution possible is to leave them to individual, local communities based upon their own values, customs and conventions to decide, rather than attempt to dictate a single “correct” view that can be applied uniformly to everybody.
Institutions, Associations and Social Duties
When it comes to the importance of institutions and associations, Lewis implies the old canard that, because libertarians focus on individual rights, libertarianism must be at odds with the fact that “man […] invariably depends for his development and protection on a variety of social structures and orders that he has not rationally accepted and that impose on him duties as a condition of belonging.” However, nothing about libertarianism is incompatible with these social structures, nor with the duties they impose – and libertarians certainly do not want to throw them “into the waste bin for the sake of logical consistency”. Such a view can only come from a misconception of the purpose of social structures, their relationship to individuals, and the nature of rights. This is a matter we have addressed in more detail before but it is worth restating again in briefer form because the entrenchment of this misconception deceives critics of libertarianism into thinking that they have some sort of trump card labelled “society” that can be played as a marker of some deep insight, whereas all that is actually revealed is their own superficial understanding. Such superficiality usually has its basis in at least one of several basic observations such as the antecedent existence of society to all living individuals, the fact that society and social groups are referred to as distinct entities with particular characteristics and values, and the fact that the magnificence of the whole is enough to dwarf the significance of the parts.
The superior productivity and accomplishments of associations are enough to give them the appearance of transcending the importance of any individual. Such transcendence is even stronger when an association has existed for many decades, centuries or even millennia, and the mere whims of a single person seem trivial compared to generations of traditions and culture inherited from our ancestors. What is and what makes up “England” and all things “English” is the product of centuries of evolution that is seemingly disembodied from the particular purposes and lives of all Englanders today, who, on average, have been alive only for a few decades.
No part of this apparent transcendence, however, means that an association takes on an importance that precedes that of the individual members, for it is still the case that an association’s only purpose is to serve the needs of the individuals who comprise it. This is true even where people adopt what Lewis calls the “duty of stewardship”:
[S]ociety is not something to be tinkered with or flippantly disregarded, but is something to be accepted as a gift from previous generations, preserved and improved upon, and passed on as a gift to subsequent generations. This duty of stewardship is why Russell Kirk considered the primary task of conservatism to be “[r]eawakening men’s minds to the eternal contract of society, which affirms that we do not simply live for ourselves, in the fleeting moment, but instead live to justify the faith and labor of our ancestors, and to transmit life and justice to our posterity.”
All very uplifting, but lost in this lofty rhetoric is the practical reason why we are motivated to engage in such stewardship: that what has been bestowed upon us by our forefathers continues to produce results for us that make our lives better today. If a family is still using Grandma’s recipes – modified and refined down the years – to cook its dinners it is because today’s generation finds that the inherited culinary practices that evolved over decades of experience in the kitchen are still the best and tastiest ways of preparing food compared to the burden of discovering alternatives from scratch. The recipe book does not, to paraphrase Karl Hess, attain any kind of precedence over existing people merely because of its “accreted power or gerontological status.”14 This does not mean to say that there is no value in appreciating directly societal evolution or marvelling at the snowballing achievements of many centuries, nor should a society shirk from cultural rituals that, say, honour its ancestors and what they have bestowed upon us (i.e. something that approximates the Burkean notion of the “eternal society”). But again, the ultimate purpose of all this will be to ensure that we do, indeed, preserve successfully things that make our lives better as viewed by us.15
One of the characteristics of associations is that they impose rules, duties and ethics upon each member – concerning, perhaps, public behaviour, tasteful expression, dress etiquette, manners, courtesy, sexual propriety, commitments to family members and friends, and so on – in order to govern their behaviour. These rules, once more, may not have originated from any human alive today or, indeed, from any particular human at all – their evolution over generations may make their precise genesis a chicken and egg story. However, such rules are imposed not because the needs of the association outweigh the needs of the individual, nor is the individual, by adhering to them, engaging in any “sacrifice” for the “greater good”. Rather, it is because such strictures have, over time, proven to be conducive to maximising social co-operation and, thus, improving the lives of all of the individual members as viewed by them. People therefore accept the rules because the benefits they each gain outweigh the burden of compliance.
Another aspect of some institutions is that their creation is not the product of any individual will or specifically directed conscious thought. Phenomena such as law, language, money, prices, morality, and rights were deliberately “constructed” by neither any individual nor by a committee sat round a drawing board – they emerged gradually from the interaction of humans rather than from conscious design. This seems most obvious in the case of language, even though the precise origins and nature of language are complex and controversial. But it is clear that no one person invented the language that we speak, and nobody decided that we must have rules of grammar. Concepts such as “noun”, “verb” and “adjective” were not created in advance but were, rather, labels resulting from later reflection in order to comprehend successful communication that was already happening. Similarly, a market price is the outcome of the bids and offers of all the buyers and sellers and, thus, creates an orderly rationing of the available supply to demand. No one ever stood up one day and declared, amongst a sea of chaos, that we must have “prices” in order to trade effectively; rather they are probably one of the best examples of the so-called “spontaneous order”.
All of what we have just said should serve to inform us not merely of the absence of conflict between individualism and communitarianism when these concepts are properly understood; rather, we can go much further and declare a full and unbridled harmony between the individual human – the autonomously thinking, desiring, choosing, acting human – and those aspects of societal order and stability which appear to transcend these elements of “mere” individualism. Indeed, a moment’s thought should be enough to indicate that these things should be in harmony, because any admission that they are not would surely entail that genuine societal order and stability would be impossible – or, at the very least, any manifestation of it would serve only as a veneer for buried antagonisms.
Libertarianism and Conservatism
Apart from a general commitment to a smaller state and a shared detestation of socialism, one of the reasons why libertarians and conservatives – the latter from whom Lewis finds “better and more interesting arguments” – are often fellow travellers is that many of the institutions that conservatives are inclined to support date from an era when the state was far less powerful than it is today, and so people needed to turn to other social structures for the meeting of their needs. Indeed, such structures may well flourish again if and when the power of the state wanes. Thus, in many cases the conservative may well be right when he points to the nurture and care we should have for a particular institution as being optimal for the provision of certain human needs. It is, therefore, perfectly consistent for libertarians to adopt conservative attitudes once a definitively just and good institution has been identified, and so in this sense, libertarianism and conservatism are compatible.
Both can also agree, in opposing the leftist onslaught, with the warning given by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: that “civilisation is not ‘just there’ – it is not self supporting.”21 In other words, the existence of civilisation and material progress cannot be taken for granted and requires instead our active willingness to engage with the ideas which uphold it while repelling those that seek to destroy it. Indeed, the very fact that each of us today is born into a society which we have no had part in creating can lull us into a false sense of security – that all of the freedoms, wealth and privileges bestowed on us by society are akin to a gift of nature. Ortega’s own words describe perfectly the attitude that underpins today’s typical leftist:
[T]hese spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organization, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin, since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things […] the very perfection with which the XIXth Century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organised, but as a natural system. Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses […] they do not see, behind the benefits of civilisation, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.22
Conservatism, however, can only ever give the appearance of being an attractive starting point for social thought, for it is difficult to think of conservatism as a source of fundamental value rather than as an approach to values, or as a way of thinking. Indeed, when it comes to core conservative values such as tradition, convention, custom, stability, continuity, order, duty, etc., much conservative writing reads like a longwinded appeal for prudence – an excoriation against those who, in striving for something better, inadvertently demolish everything that has gotten us to where we are already, leaving us worse off in the long run. Such prudence isn’t misplaced, of course, although I would suggest that a much firmer foundation for it is the understanding that man’s reason, action and interaction are subject to laws that are as immutable as the laws of physics – laws such as those that Ludwig von Mises uncovered in Human Action. Our understanding of, for instance, how prices work derives from the law of marginal utility, and one cannot act so as to defy this law any more than one can defy Newton’s laws of motion or Euclid’s postulates. It is for that reason that price controls will usually lead to outcomes that are chaotic whereas market prices, with their tendency towards equilibrium, will not. The belief that human society can simply be engineered like a Meccano set in defiance of the specific laws which apply to human action is what truly shows the height of man’s hubris and the misplaced belief in his own omnipotence.
Despite being partially constitutive of our identities, tradition can have, at best, a heuristic function, for however much something has been done, for however long, and by however many, questions can always be asked — is this right? is this good? is this the best? — and these questions subvert any ultimate normative claim that tradition can make.
People may not form the most entirely educated, logical or optimal of opinions in this regard, nor is their view of institutions necessarily underpinned by the most virtuous or noble of intentions (as various coteries of lobbyists and rent seekers demonstrate). Moreover, much of the “heavy lifting” may be carried out by a relative handful of popular politicians, intellectuals, journalists and demagogues. But the crucial point is that people do, in fact, consciously form opinions of what their institutions should and should not do and what we, in turn, should and should not do for them. Indeed, the state itself has to work very hard every single day in order to justify itself, its conduct and the pay packets of its lackeys and bureaucrats. As a case in point, until 2016, globalisation in the form of the consolidation and centralisation of state entities was regarded as inevitable, part of the unstoppable march of progress towards the global brotherhood of humanity. Yet, only a few weeks ago, Britain left the European Union in defiance of more than three years of obfuscation from the entire establishment which did everything it could to make it impossible. Mountains can be moved if the will is there, and, indeed, should be moved when that institutional mountain (such as slavery) is identified as wrong, bad or inadequate.
In fact, it is not always the case that the conservative penchant for only gradual change or change within an arc of continuity is either desirable or even effective. Some of the most successful and long lasting free market reforms – such as in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite, and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas – were achieved (and were achievable) precisely because they were swift, brutal and uncompromising, their inherent justice and economic benefits becoming apparent before any opposition could gain traction.23 This should, moreover, alert us to the further fact that while, in the long run, the gradual evolution of a free society will produce superior results to central planning, progress is not necessarily linear and society may well stray onto horrendously wrong paths, possibly for considerable periods of time. For it is just as possible for a society to sustain its cumulative stupidity as much as its cumulative wisdom, particularly when people succumb to complacency, group think, or a safety-in-numbers mentality, and so it may take a lone, bold individual (or a shock event) to waken everyone from their collective slumber.
All of this points us to a crucial difference between conservatives and libertarians: the libertarian values institutions because they serve the needs of the individuals that comprise them – they provide fulfilment and meaning for his life, but are of an ultimately subordinate status, moulding themselves to him and taking his freedom as an incontrovertible basis. The conservative, however, is more likely to value institutions (or general values such as “preservation” and “tradition”) as ends in themselves – i.e. something that is “above” and “beyond” the individual, and something to which individuals must mould themselves so that the individual’s freedom is, at best, one of many values competing for priority. If this is true, then it is conservatives who may be in greater danger than libertarians of adopting an unrealistic strategy. Unless the conservative understands that the true source of social stability provided by his cherished institutions is their ability to benefit individuals as perceived by them then the stability and order that he seeks will never truly be achieved – for there will be no impetus towards either adopting or preserving any specific institution if it fails to resonate with the particular aspirations of people in the particular economic climate in which they find themselves.24 Crying out for a disembodied “duty of stewardship” or metaphysical partnerships “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” will fall on deaf ears just as much as the rationalistic libertarian expectation that people will nobly and virtuously adhere to notions of “liberty” and “coercion”. Indeed, does Lewis not see that “stewardship” and relationships with ghosts are as hopelessly abstract as “non-aggression”, if not more so? At least the latter gives you some idea as to how to act right here and right now.
Of course, the conservative is not stupidly blind to the role of concrete incentives. He is, for instance, likely to recognise that the state has done much to mould today’s economic climate away from, say, family values, and the benefits of marriage and sexual fidelity as a result of having usurped the major functions of the family and having eased the natural costs and penalties of casual sex and single parenthood. Hence, any conservative desire for a smaller state (and a reduced welfare state in particular) is perfectly congruent with the restoration of more “traditional” institutions. However, whereas the libertarian despises the state in principle and wishes to eliminate it as much as possible so that people can develop their own institutions that work for them, the conservative is more likely to co-opt the state into enforcing upon everyone the institutions and values that he thinks we should all adhere to – or at least enforcing some kind of resistance to radical change. Any resulting society may be “stable” and it may have some resemblance of being “orderly”, but as a true example of convivial living, it will be merely be an illusion. You cannot force upon people “habits, customs and precepts” – as well as “traditional” values, culture and social duties – any more than you can rob them of the same so as to turn them into technocratic, “liberty-bots”.
To be sure, it is unlikely that Lewis would go this far (and if he would then it is not evident from the blog posts upon which we have been focussing). In fact – no doubt because he appears to be a former libertarian – his conservatism seems to be centred, quite genuinely, on determining the societal elements that permit the individual human to flourish:
The essence of conservatism in its original sense is reflection – on the origin, nature, and proper ends of man; on the inherent limitations on him and society; on the influences and structures that help him reach his ends, realize his potential, and control his appetites. And the conservative is willing to assess man’s situation as it really is, not as he wishes it were.
This is a perfectly commendable endeavour, and is, moreover, precisely what libertarians should be doing if they ever want to see an end to the “statist quo”. But this raises an important question: in searching for the “origin, nature, and proper ends of man”, why does Lewis not base this search on man’s liberty? The answer is precisely what we just said of conservatives: that they see liberty as an incompatibility with this search rather than as a foundation, or, at best, something to be “balanced” with other values:
To care about society, and the people who make it up, enough to prioritize remedying its ailments above implementing some abstract scheme of liberty is the mark of a conservative, and those libertarians who do care about more than liberty will ultimately be faced with the task of prioritization – and they will realize that the act of prioritizing the fate of the full human being, rather than the atomized individual, is essentially the act of converting from libertarianism to conservatism.
But liberty is not about the “atomized individual” and, as we have said above, it does not come at the expense of society or vice versa. There is, therefore, no “prioritisation” that is necessary: the free human being participating in society is the “full” human being. The sooner that Lewis understands this the better. For it seems to me that libertarians (and ex-libertarians) who have become disillusioned with libertarianism – either because they have (rightly) recognised the futility of repeating libertarian theory as a political strategy or because they are in search of a “fuller” or more “realistic” understanding of social phenomena – are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. By constructing, and subsequently rejecting, a crude, ill-informed, “atomistic” view of liberty instead of understanding its true implications, their eagerness to leap ahead to thinking about custom, culture, tradition, and civic institutions may well end up repudiating the foundations of a proper appreciation of humans and social relationships that they should have learnt from the Misesian branch of Austro-libertarian thought. This is quite ironic, given the conservative’s penchant for preservation, which surely includes the conservation of existing scholarship. But it is also worrying when it comes not from mere “internet pedants” but from the contributing editor of a publication that claims, explicitly, the Mises-Rothbard school of thought as a primary influence. The liberty of the individual should be the basis of the development of the kind of full social theory that Lewis seeks, not something that is seen as antagonistic towards it. Thus, for conservatives, the act of understanding that society is by, for and consists of free individuals is essentially the act of converting from conservatism to libertarianism.
1Quotations from Lewis in this essay are taken from all four of his blog posts.
2Or, to put it another way, whether behaviour should be categorised as legal or illegal, as opposed to moral or immoral.
3This inherent limitation of libertarianism should always be acknowledged as it is not, and has never pretended to be, a complete social theory that answers every single question.
4Nevertheless, this does not mean that the precise boundaries between aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour must be uniform throughout the entire world. People living in some communities may have a greater tolerance for, say, a neighbour’s loud music than those in other communities. All we are saying is that, conceptually, it cannot be licit for one human being to commit an act of aggression but illicit for another to commit an act of aggression, however “aggression” might be defined.
5The attempt to test this consistency – as some of those “internet pedants” to whom Lewis refers may be wont to do – by asking whether a desperate mother who steals food for her starving children is as guilty of theft as a malicious fraudster is really beside the point. Apart from being a hypothetical case that is deliberately constructed for emotional impact, even its admission as an exception to the general rule of non-aggression would in no way serve to justify the systematic confiscation and redistribution of resources by the state.
6Indeed, it is worth pointing out that if the opposite was true then it would mean that there must (or should) be at least some human relationships based upon violence, and that it must (or should) be licit for at least some humans to be able to inflict violence upon others. The fact that few alternative political philosophies like to point this out quite so explicitly is evidence enough of the non-aggression principle’s inherent attractiveness.
7And, at the same time, everyone else should be free to criticise and ridicule such lifestyles.
8This consideration is important also at the level of individual policy. It may be the case that a state imposed regulation balances the distorting effects of a prior state interference – for instance, a price control in an industry subjected to state monopoly privilege and insulation from competition. The existence of the price control may create a perception of fairness that quashes hostility towards private enterprise more generally. However, if the price control is removed while the monopoly privilege is left in place, it is likely that a general dissatisfaction about “capitalism” and “profiteering” etc. will take hold, leading to a demand for more state control over the wider economy in the long run. It is extremely naïve to assume that one regulation removed is one step closer to freedom, particularly in such critical and state hampered industries as banking and energy.
9Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7.
10Nevertheless, none of this means that it is categorically impossible for liberty to be appreciated as a good and beautiful thing in its own right, particularly when it is manifest, say, as the entire web of social co-operation and we can marvel at the concrete achievements of relatively freer societies. Indeed, the notion of liberty as a consciously recognised value has penetrated far deeper in the United States, a nation founded explicitly upon the principle of liberation from tyranny with founding documents permeated by natural rights, and so it is probably no accident that modern-day Austro-libertarianism is effectively an American school of thought.
11However, much of this difficulty derives from the fact that we have become so accustomed to legal regulation permeating all areas of life that we have trouble imagining a legal system that doesn’t address what appear to be “natural” duties and responsibilities. This overlooks the possibility that, in a freer society where familial ties may be renewed and re-strengthened, and where the prospect of, say, having a child would be treated less flippantly than it is today, social mechanisms other than the law will exist for aiding and ensuring the fulfilment of parental functions.
12Where rights represent a collective organisation – such as a company – they would do so only for the purposes of commercial convenience, and all of the resulting rights and obligations are de facto held by individuals.
13It is likely that humans existed as social beings similar to other animals long before they developed the capacity for conscious choice, and so we probably never existed as isolated individuals in a state of nature who then made a consciously chosen step to socialise. Today, however, we are able to understand explicitly the benefits and burdens of alternative modes of existence and to exercise a choice accordingly, and so the precise genesis of our social relations is not relevant to explaining the continued sustenance of social structures. In other words, it is not necessary, in order to reconcile man’s liberty with his participation in society, for us to believe that humans existed as atomistic, pre-social, rational choosers who deliberately “created” society to serve them, nor do we need to solve any chicken or egg problem of which, out of society or the individual, came first. In a similar vein, it may well be the case that land occupied by the earliest humans was never consciously homesteaded so as clearly to delineate its first (and, thus, just) user in the way that a purposefully acting human would have done so on, say, the American frontier. However, the homesteading principle still allows us to assess the justice of today’s property titles by assuming that the current user is the just user unless a prior user can prove a superior title.
14Karl Hess, Where are the Specifics? in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, June 15, 1969, Vol. 1, no. VI.
15Moreover, even if an association adopts practices of stewardship purely for the sake of honouring its ancestors and for no other reason whatsoever than pure tradition, then it does so because the bestowing of such honour is a value held by the existing people that comprise the association, not by long dead or, as of yet, unborn persons. Thus, it would still be the case that the fulfilment of such practices is primarily of a benefit to members of the association who are alive today. “Needs” are not necessarily materialistic, and they can easily consist of the desire to abide by a moral code.
16Lewis might object that these two options present no real choice at all – that the individual’s overwhelming need, for his own sustenance, upon social co-operation means that his participation in society must be taken as a given. Apart from the fact that this stance is disproven by the choice of some people to actually live in isolation from society (and that the notion of self-sufficiency influences entire movements such as survivalism), the fact that the alternative to social co-operation is a lonely life of poverty is a difficulty that is imposed by nature, not by other people. From the point of view of political philosophy, your choice is voluntary if it was made without the imposition of force by another person (and so long as you weren’t otherwise behaving as an automaton). Without any such force, the mere fact that your best available option imposes conditions or duties upon you does not render these latter elements “involuntary” in anything other than a colloquial sense.
17The difference may, of course, be relative. Both East and West Germany were “involuntary” states but it is not difficult to understand why the former, rather than the latter, had to build the Berlin Wall. Indeed, watching the movements of refugees is often a good enough way of identifying the freest and least free places on the planet.
19And such change is inevitable when the onward march of economic progress means a widening of the division of labour, an increase in the number of ends that can be fulfilled and, thus, a concomitant expansion and diversification of the social structures that support them. This observation should not be taken to mean that conservatives, or Lewis himself, are against change – a common misconception which mistakes continuity for rigidity. Rather, we are simply trying to point out the precedence of the individual over the associations of which he is a member.
20To give a specific example, take the failed attempt of Catalonia to secede from Spain in October 2017. If it is true that a majority of Catalans were of in favour of this secession, then was its subsequent crushing a victory for “Spain” and for “Spanish integrity”? Or was it the victory of some individuals in Madrid who valued the preservation of Spain’s existing political borders over other individuals in Catalonia who wanted those political borders to change?
21José Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses, 62
24Indeed, any kind of aim for the “stability of the social order” is probably the wrong starting point as it immediately raises the question “stable for whom?” We could probably create a stable society by threatening to shoot everyone who fails to comply with our demands but it would hardly be desirable from the victims’ point of view.