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How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism

How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism

By Duncan Whitmore

In Part Four of this continuing series of Fighting for Liberty, we explored the nature of radicalism and its value for the fight for freedom. In this part, we will do the same for conservatism before concluding with some final remarks on reconciling conservatism with radicalism as part of a libertarian political strategy.

While a precise definition of conservatism is debatable, it seems reasonable enough to summarise it as a preference for traditional customs, conventions, cultures, and morality in addition to the institutions which uphold them. Contrary to the popular view of conservatism as rigid and uncompromising, it is not averse to change; the dedicated conservative is not trying to trap humanity in a time warp. He does, however, recognise that existing institutions – standing on the shoulders of centuries of human experience – must provide the starting point for any prospective change. In the words of Edward Feser, paraphrasing J L Austen: “[T]hough tradition […] might not always give us the last word, it must always give us the first word.”1 As such, change is likely to be relatively slow and undertaken within an evolutionary “arc of continuity”, with each new building block placed carefully upon one underneath instead of demolishing the entire foundation in revolutionary fervour. Another, more explicitly pro-freedom way of describing it, is a preference for “spontaneous” or “organic” order generated gradually by millions of individuals as opposed to consciously engineered order from the centre.

In the last part, we noted that libertarians – in contrast to Marxists and social engineers – simply do not have the option of demolition, of wiping the societal slate clean before merely “hoping” that liberty will prevail as the dust settles. Thus, adherence to conservatism in the manner described may assist the libertarian movement in two ways:

  • It can help to nourish the non-state institutions that would be necessary to support social co-operation in the absence of the state, sensitising us to the level of cultural diversity that a given society can sustain;
  • Given that liberty has flourished in the Western world more extensively than in any other, we should look to the specific cultural and institutional history of the West to determine why this is so.2

To at least some extent, therefore, we can see that libertarians need to adopt conservative attitudes.

However, it is abundantly clear that any efforts of modern conservatism to preserve freedom have been an abysmal failure, and if such conservatives today identify with freedom at all then it is either residual or in name only. In the UK, for instance, we are saddled with a governing Conservative Party that has not only implemented the greatest peacetime power grab in history as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, but is seemingly committed to vast state spending, the rampant greening of the economy, and the authoritarian policing of speech and censorship. While, therefore, such conservatism cannot be our model, it is useful to understand how it arrived at where it is so that libertarians can avoid its pitfalls if they are to adopt conservative attitudes as part of their strategy.

Tradition and Principle

The basic flaw with conservatism as described is that it is likely to be of limited value as both a theory and a political strategy unless it is anchored to more fundamental principles – in other words, unless it can provide clear, substantive reasons why specific traditions and institutions should be preserved (or, as Feser indicated, at least given the benefit of the doubt). As libertarian philosopher Gerard Casey says:

[H]owever 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.

The long and short of it is that if conservatives fail to ask these kinds of question then other people most certainly will, and they will answer them in accordance with whichever political persuasion to which they are attracted.3 Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that these latter people are fanatical revolutionaries; we could cast them in the best possible light by assuming that they do, indeed, accept the existing state of affairs as the default position (as conservatives demand). Even if we did this, it would still be the case that, once they become convinced that a practice in question represents a grave injustice, then conservatism presents no further argument. For if the practice is deemed to be unjust, then so too, by extension, are the products of that practice equally unjust – the traditions it has created, the cultures it has influenced, and the lives it has benefited. The only legitimate cry would be for the immediate abolition of the disputed practice, convention or institution, regardless of how entrenched it had become, and regardless of the consequences: let justice be done though the heavens fall.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the practice in question was, indeed an affront to freedom or an otherwise obvious injustice. For instance, if slavery was an endemic practice in a given society, the importance of every societal superstructure – cultural practices, traditions, institutions – that had been built with the toil of slaves would be subordinate to the inherently evil nature of slavery, however good and beautiful these things may be independently. If, for example, we were whipping slaves into building a great pyramid, we could never justify ongoing construction by pointing to the splendour of the proposed monument, nor by the need to continue a tradition of great architecture. If these things cannot subsist on anything other than the perpetuation of rank injustice then they deserve to be torn down without delay.

Unfortunately, however, the left tends to identify injustices where they do not exist, demonising the institutions of Western civilisation as products of colonialism, racism and patriarchy that perpetuate nothing but inequality and oppression. Thus, in their minds, the very existence of these institutions – the hallmark of conservatism – is the problem to be tackled. Without substantive arguments to show the fallacies of this way of thinking, the conservative as we have described him would be silent, and freedom would wither.

Even more problematic in this regard is that the conservative presupposes that a prosperous human society is an agreed objective. Even though we may denigrate socialists, egalitarians and social engineers as the purveyors of destructive philosophies, most of them are likely to be sincere in their quest for a flourishing society; the only disagreement is how that society should be achieved. But what do we do about the activist who rejects this aim? What if this latter person desires the very opposite of human flourishing, preferring instead the subjection of the world to a regime of deliberately engineered pauperism? Worse still, what if this person hates humanity and actively wants to see humans suffer as much as possible? To this person, the conservative would have no answer. As Feser, commenting on Hayek’s brand of traditionalism, explains:

[T]he more or less non-controversial claim that promoting […] well-being is a good thing constitutes a value judgment: Nothing in the empirical facts described by Hayek logically necessitates that one prefer the institutions Hayek prefers. Someone could respond: “I agree that certain traditional practices do have all the consequences Hayek and other defenders of tradition say they do; I just don’t care about those consequences.” To this, Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution seems to provide no rejoinder.

The problem, then, is that Hayek’s position never really addresses the question of morality at the most fundamental level. It tells us a great deal, both in general, and with specificity at least where economic results are at issue, about what sorts of consequences can be expected to follow from what sets of traditional practices. But it does not tell us why we should care about those consequences in the first place, or how we should balance them against other consequences we might want to bring about.4

While we can agree with Feser that those bent on misanthropy are indeed, in the grip of “ideological delusion, if not madness”, they are also not without influence. Fundamentalists wedded to environmentalism view the Earth and all its natural greenery as inherently sacred and beautiful whereas humanity, to them, is a cancerous growth; Malthusian de-populationists are similarly concerned about rampant consumerism and the alleged depletion of natural resources. Both groups are at the foundation of the fight against the so-called “climate emergency” and “carbon neutral” zeal that is the purported aim of mainstream political parties.

Conservatives and the State

If the conservative is devoid of more substantive principles, then it follows that he is more likely to view traditional values and institutions as ends in themselves rather that ends which serve the needs of free individuals. Consequently, he will be more willing to use the power of the state to curtail freedom directly in order to protect what he thinks are the true values. At the domestic level, this takes the form of various prohibitions (against alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, pornography, etc.), pro-marriage and pro-family laws, the infusion of religious rites and morals into state institutions, the criminalisation of homosexuality and sexual relations out of wedlock, and blanket anti-abortion laws.5 In other words, what were once non-violently enforced cultures, customs and morals governed by decentralised, voluntary institutions such as families and congregations become matters of law to be enforced by the threat of prison.

Even from his own point of view, the conservative is in error by failing to recognise that the degradation of traditional morality and institutions is the result of state interference, namely the egalitarian nature of democracy, the welfare state and paper money inflationism, all of which we have described before. Thus, with his resort to the use of the state, he ends up growing the very institution that is at the root of every problem he identifies. From the point of view of liberty, however, any growth of the state is obviously a bad thing. To make matters worse, the conservative has failed to confine his penchant for statism to the domestic realm. The threat allegedly posed to “our way of life” by communism during the Cold War and by Islamic terrorism since 2001 have seen conservatives championing the engorgement of the permanent warfare industry and the spying and surveillance state, all of which has proven to be a far greater threat to liberty than the problems they were supposed to solve.

Liberal Drift

The conservative’s final problem is that, without more substantive principles that are able to sift the good from the bad, he is likely to succumb to the phenomenon known as “liberal drift” – the tendency for conservatism today to defend whatever it was that liberalism was pressing for a generation ago. In other words, what was revolutionary and an affront to tradition yesterday has now morphed into being a defendable tradition today simply because it has perpetuated.

This tendency is exacerbated by the logic of state growth. For even if one proposes to use the state to protect traditional institutions and morality, ultimately the expansion of centralised power is inherently leftist and authoritarian, and can only be achieved by destroying allegiance to more traditional and decentralised sources of culture and morality. Thus, unless conservatives unshackle themselves from the state, they will necessarily succumb to flushing away the very things they initially set out to preserve, and freedom with it.

The UK Conservative Party in particular has been a willing victim of liberal drift. The commitment of Boris Johnson’s government to Brexit aside, it was already more or less indistinguishable from Tony Blair’s New Labour of the 1990s even before the COVID-19 lockdowns enticed it to juice up the role of the state. Indeed, in spite of the cries from guardianistas of the dangers of “fascism” and “far right” extremism, every major political influence in the UK is either centre left or farther left. The US Republicans have been somewhat more resilient probably because of the strength of Christianity among the base, a quality lacking in the less God-fearing UK.

Liberal drift betrays the major difficulty that conservatism (as described) faces when defending freedom: that there is no way of telling whether gradual change, in and of itself, is leading us towards a freer society or away from it, and, by extension, whether moral codes, traditions and cultural expressions that happened to have been around for a long time are actually beneficial to preserving freedom.

In general terms, there is no guarantee that “tradition” is a product of collective wisdom as opposed to collective indifference or a refusal for reflection; in fact, it is just as possible for a society to sustain its cumulative stupidity, particularly when people succumb to complacency, group think, or a safety-in-numbers mentality.  In such a situation, a sudden, sharp shock forcing immediate change may actually be beneficial if it awakens everyone from their collective slumber.

More specifically, it is a mistake to believe that the crushing of freedom necessarily comes in a militant revolution or as a result of a specific intervention. It is quite possible for slow change to kill a free society by a thousand cuts, i.e. the kind of insidious, reformist, “boiling frog” process that was preferred by the Fabian Society. As we pointed out in Part Two, total freedom and total despotism are extremes which no society is ever likely to achieve in perfection. Even in the most brutally totalitarian regimes, there will always be a residual degree of freedom and discretion on the part of the individual6; conversely, in the freest societies, there will always be some measure of enforced jurisdiction and control. Everyone else sits somewhere on a spectrum between these two. Thus, the generation of traditions, customs, cultures and morality from the bottom up – i.e. the spontaneous order – is influenced not only by the natural difficulties that people face in this world of scarcity, but also by the level of interference meted out by the state. If the state changes the rules in a certain way, then this change will create a ripple effect that will spread out into the cultural superstructure. If such a change serves to erode older, decentralised institutions, then such a change may pave the way for more state interference in the future, the result of which will be further cultural changes, and so on.

In short, we have no way of determining whether a given tradition is a product of liberty that would, in turn, serve to preserve it on the one hand, or, on the other, whether it is a reaction to state interference that is actively fostering the demise of liberty in the long run.

Critically, such a process can persist for a very long time, often exceeding the lifetimes of any one individual person. Even the Soviet Union, the archetypal collectivist hellhole, took a gut-wrenching seventy years to die, just over the lifespan of the average Russian in 1989.

Less despotic states and practices can last even longer. Indeed, the modern nation state is itself something that has grown organically and has taken many centuries to perfect. In fact, state power could not have accumulated any other way, for when viewed from a disinterested angle, the state is an absolute absurdity to which no reasonable person would ever agree from scratch.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, a group of people – Adam, Brian, Charlie, Diane, Eleanor and Fiona – hoping to form a new community on, say, a desert island. Once they arrive, they discuss how to set up a system of rights and dispute resolution. We can imagine that they will probably agree a basic recognition of private ownership over existing, personal property, with, perhaps, an agreed obligation to share the proceeds of new discoveries. They might also agree to set up a forum for disputes adjudicated by a party neutral to the particular dispute, with them all agreeing to enforce the decision of the adjudicator if it seems fair and reasonable.7 But never in a million years would they say something like the following: “Everything on the island will officially belong to Adam, and Adam has the ultimate say on the disposal of all property. Furthermore, we will give all of our weapons and guns to Adam, and he will be tasked with protecting us from each other. Adam will have the final say in any disputes between ourselves, including disputes we have with him.” Who in their right mind would agree explicitly to grant Adam, a mere one of their number, such extraordinary power? Is this not so absurd that it is unlikely to even be raised as a possibility, let alone considered as a serious option? In fact, even if Adam was to supersede any possible agreement by finding a way to conquer his fellow islanders before establishing these kingly privileges, the long term acceptance of those privileges by the others would have to be the product of a long, slow process that served to transform its obvious absurdity into an apparently sustainable reality.

The history of money illustrates this transformation more specifically. As Austro-libertarians well know, money originated gradually out of trade of real goods and services, with precious metals such as gold and silver normally emerging as the superior monetary commodities on account of the fact that they are durable, fungible, malleable, portable, relatively scarce and of a generally stable supply. One’s wealth was, therefore, secure with commodity money. Never, therefore, would our islanders say “Let’s ditch all of this gold and silver; they are barbarous relics! Money will now consist of printed paper issued solely by Adam. Each of us is required to accept these pieces of paper in trade. Adam can print as much of this paper as he likes, and if he wants to buy something from us, we have to accept his newly printed paper in exchange.”8

Instead, the replacement of commodity money by paper took centuries to accomplish in a process described succinctly by Rothbard9, beginning with the monopolisation of minting before proceeding through steps such as the concentration of the monetary commodity in bank vaults and the use of money substitutes (such as banknotes) in trade. This then allowed for severance of the substitutes from the underlying commodity, with the former continuing to circulate as a now untethered monetary medium. This final step was achieved in full only as recently as 1971, and was itself the culmination of several intra-steps between the inflation of World War One and Nixon’s final closing of the gold window.

Similarly, most libertarians will agree that the UK and US today have slid farther and farther from the libertarian ideal, to the point that we may now well be on the cusp of an era of digital despotism distinguished by regimented control and surveillance. And yet each polity has existed with minimal interruption to its constitutional structure since 1688 and 1864 respectively. Thus, such a slide owes itself not to sudden and violent revolutionary events (although instances of these, like the two world wars, were not absent), but to cultural, institutional and moral changes that occurred in the intervening centuries. To a person alive today, many of these changes will have been with them for their entire lives, appearing not as destructive, cancerous tumours gnawing away at the flesh of a free society, but as sustainable “traditions” that are upholding rather than undermining our way of life.

A good example of this is the changing attitude towards marriage, family, and sexual ethics. As we have explained before, the impetus for this change has come from the welfare state which has usurped the traditional functions of the family, namely the support and raising of children, and care in times of unemployment, sickness and old age. Traditional, sexual morality supportive of the family has declined in tandem, with a much greater tolerance for childbearing out of wedlock, casual sexual relations and homosexuality. However much this transition is in accordance with the libertarian ethic – there is nothing aggressive, for instance, about homosexual acts between consenting adults – it is likely, as we argued in Part Four, that society was not able to sustain this increased level of moral and cultural diversity without threatening the institutions that uphold freedom. To the extent that the family acted as a decentralised source of allegiance that greased the wheels of social co-operation, its demise is likely to be inimical to liberty in the long run. Yet conservatives today – most of whom would have come-of-age after the 1960s sexual revolution, and are yet to witness any societal collapse on its account – are increasingly reconciled to this apparent form of progress and liberation.

Freedom and Conservatism: the Chicken and the Egg

All of this drives us towards an inescapable conclusion: that, ultimately, freedom is not the product of conservatism but, rather, conservatism is a product of freedom. There cannot, for instance, be a genuinely organic order unless we already have a society of free individuals. When it comes to social phenomena such as money, language, law, and market prices, we categorise these as products of a spontaneous order precisely because they are they are products of individual human purpose, and not of centrally imposed, human design. In fact, any attempt at creating these things via the latter either fails completely or radically changes their nature: money and law become corrupt; no one will speak an engineered language; and fixed prices will lead to market chaos.

Similarly, there cannot be gradual change within an arc of continuity unless each individual – as libertarian ethics dictate – is restricted to acting only in relation to his private property and through voluntary co-operation with other individuals. All of this necessarily limits the impact of those actions to spheres those individuals can appreciate and understand.10 It is the overlapping of our individual spheres with those of others to whom we come in contact that builds societal institutions gradually from the bottom up. In contrast, it is the sweeping edicts of political leaders imposed upon vast swathes of other people’s property that imposes the kinds of sudden, revolutionary change that conservatives oppose.

Likewise, we can say that cultural or traditional institutions driven by minute changes from the bottom up over centuries are good not because of their longevity per se but because they have been created by a just system of free individuals. Moreover, having been generated purely by voluntary interaction, we know that those traditional practices are of a genuine benefit to free individuals in making their lives better, and are not just a reaction to some prior state interference.

Further, free individuals who have responsibility for their own lives and who can flourish only through voluntary associations will, in turn, have to nurture relatively conservative values: patience, prudence, judiciousness, foresight, thrift, empathy, hard-work, reliability, trustworthiness, and so on. In contrast, they must eschew destructive behaviours such as laziness, slovenliness, impatience, unreliability, and untrustworthiness. It is the free individual who will have to cultivate institutions such as families, communities, congregations and civic institutions in order to regulate behaviour and social ethics, in addition to supporting both himself and those for whom he cares. On the other hand, someone who can rely, say, on the welfare state would have no need for them.

Thus, although all of the products of freedom can sustain and strengthen freedom in a kind of “feedback loop”, to champion either tradition, continuity or other conservative values directly is to mistake the façade for the foundation. Freedom itself must come first.

Conservatism and Radicalism – a Libertarian Synthesis

Here, then, is the key to reconciling the radical and conservative aspects of libertarian political action. Libertarians must be radical in rejecting the state and all forms of state interference in society; but we must be conservative by insisting that this radical fervour is generated from the bottom-up. Freedom cannot be achieved by taking over the state, repealing or passing laws from the centre, or imposing upon people a political or institutional structure that we think will make them a freer people, or will preserve a culture of freedom. In short, if freedom is to thrive then people have to want to take it for themselves before rebuilding their own institutions. It cannot be dictated to them from on high.

It is this latter aspect to which we shall turn in Part Six.

*    *     *     *     *


1Edward Feser, Hayek on Tradition, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 17, no. 1 (Winter 2003), 17-56 at 19-20 [emphasis in the original].

2Indeed, one of the reasons why libertarians and conservatives often appear to be fellow travellers is because the institutions that conservatives tend to champion are the products of a freer age.

3And often – as we have seen with the political left – this will be aggressive and uncompromising.

4Feser, 49 [emphasis in the original].

5The heavily contested nature of abortion, which makes it a problem for all legal and moral theories, means that the most peaceful solution possible is for it to be resolved at the most local level possible. Blanket anti-abortion laws imposed from on high are an attempt to use the state to enforce the conservative stance upon everyone.

6And, in fact, social and communal ties can actually be stronger in such a society if shortages of basic goods lead to a resurgence of black markets and informal networks based on a high degree of trust.

7For an empirical discussion of how this played out on the American frontier, see Terry L Anderson and Peter J Hill, The Not So Wild Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, Standard Economics and Finance (2004).

8Moreover, the absurdity of the role of central banking in fostering economic progress is laid bare here; for none of our marooned islanders would believe that their first task in survival should involve printing a load of paper in order to “stimulate” the economy.

9Murray N Rothbard, What has Government Done to our Money?, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2010).

10In economic terms, all physical effects of a lawful action are internalised to the property of the voluntarily participating parties.

One comment

  1. Duncan, another fine article – thank you. Though you put it in different words, I think you are agreeing with my position that ethics should drive politics, and not vice versa as is found under statism.

    I think of the basic tenet of conservatism as being “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This works well enough in normal times. The problem we face today is that the political system is broke – in both the ethical and economic senses. If we are effectively to ally with conservatives, our first task, I think, must be to try to bring them to the realization that the system as it stands is broken beyond repair.

    Your desert island analogy is a good one. It shows up clearly the idiocies that lie at the foundations of the state. However, I suspect it may go a bit past (or over the heads of) those who have not yet seen through the sham called “democracy.” To extend your fable to show also the idiocies of what “democracy” has become today might make a useful tool for public outreach in the future.

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