The American Right has long enjoyed a conflict between libertarians and conservatives. The split goes back to such figures as Russell Kirk, the godfather of conservatism. Early National Review writer Frank S. Meyer fashioned what was called ‘fusionism.’ Meyer attempted to take the conservative desire to encourage right living and combine with the libertarian hatred of government intervention and make them allies in their pursuit of smaller government.
In line with this old vein of argument, some remarks were given which highlight how this split is present even today. Heritage Foundation’s Dr. David Azerrad gave some very interesting remarks about the libertarian-conservative split.
Azerrad admits that the term ‘conservative’ is often just a label. This is especially so in our capitol where:
“A lot of conservatives in DC have come to define conservatism as ‘whatever the left wants but a little bit less of it,’ or ‘whatever the Left wants, except whatever they wanted 20 years ago.’ No wonder so many patriotic Americans who care about limited government have become turned off by conservatism and say, ‘You know what I’m a libertarian.’”
He’s correct. Conservatism, which formerly opposed international adventures, has come to mean, for some, that we must fight for freedom in every corner of the globe. Conservatism which once demanded the end of Obamacare, stopped fighting once the fight become real. In fairness, a lot of this is due to politician’s failures and less to the weakening of our ideas.
Azerrad defined libertarianism as, “…a radical ideology that fetishes freedom. And would sacrifice America at the altar of individualism.” And as a “…simplistic and simple-minded dogma, that teaches people to hate the government more than they love their country.”
He’s partially correct. Mr. Libertarian himself, Murray Rothbard, brilliantly exposed the malfeasance of government in countless ways. His works on economics, history, and political theory are more influential now than when he lived. But if you look at some of his followers, Azerrad’s accusations ring true.
Rothbard-inspired libertarians often go so far in their hatred of the State that even the Founders are not to be trusted because they created a government, a State. Well yes, because government is somewhat unavoidable and will always arise, whether we like it or not. Libertarian standards of good conduct are so high that no man of affairs ever rises to being admirable for them. There are times it seems as if, for hard-cord libertarians, everyone else is a statist.
Conservatism unites around shared objects of affection. We hold good things from posterity, and we ought to pass them on if we can. This is the heart of conservatism.
Libertarianism unites around a shared desire to enjoy the maximal liberty possible. And anything which serves to threaten that liberty is the enemy.
Azerrad pointed out a further difference between libertarians and conservatives in how we ought to legislate:
“The issue is: which kind of morality do you want to legislate? Do you want to impose on the country, selfish, anti-political libertarian morality, that has no concern for the well-being of its fellow citizens, or for the well-being of future generations. Or do you want to legislate sustainable, conservative morality, that wants to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.”
Libertarianism isn’t quite as terrible as Azerrad makes it out to be. But it does have limits. Libertarians don’t focus on civil society, on the role of social institutions like the family and church in shaping individuals use of freedom. They often fail to look at the moral foundations of social life and of the market economy.
Conservatism’s vision of politics is of a different tenor than that of libertarians. Conservatism focuses, as Azerrad does, on posterity. Conservatism trusts to ‘the capital of ages and of nations,’ not trusting men to ‘trade on his own small, stock of reason.’ Liberty is of value, but not all liberty is good.
Azerrad acutely points out how conservatism looks at posterity, which gives us good things, and to our posterity, which ought to receive them. It tries to ensure that the blessings of liberty are preserved for others.
Jefferson held that ‘the earth belongs to the living,’ maybe so. But liberty belongs to the generations of man. And if we fail to pass on that liberty as embodied in ways of life, laws, constitutions and institutions then our liberty will fail to subsist on the earth.