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Russell Kirk

Dr. Kirk uses strong words to oppose a conservative alliance with libertarians. In light of the recent discussion of this issue on this online journal I think it may prove fruitful to let Dr. Kirk join the conversation by way of excerpts from his essay “Chirping Sectaries.” The entire essay is well worth reading.

Is the state “at best a necessary evil” as Brad Birzer stated in his recent essay? Not according to Edmund Burke who says: “He who gave us our nature to be perfected by virtue, willed also the necessary means of it perfection.—He willed therefore the state.—He willed its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection.” (Quoted in The Conservative Mind, p.33)

Excerpts from Kirk’s “Chirping Sectaries”

Any discussion of the relationships between conservatives (who now, to judge by public-opinion polls, are a majority among American citizens) and libertarians (who, as tested by recent elections, remain a tiny though unproscribed minority) naturally commences with an inquiry into what these disparate groups hold in common. These two bodies of opinion share a detestation of collectivism. They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy. That much is obvious enough.

What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are old fangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century. They carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill (before Mill’s wife converted him to socialism, that is). To understand the mentality of the libertarians of 1981, it may be useful to remind ourselves of a little book published more than a hundred and twenty years ago: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

…If a person describes himself as “libertarian” because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life–why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.

It is not such well-intentioned but mislabeled men whom I am holding up to obloquy here. Rather, I am exposing the pretensions of the narrow doctrinaires who have imprisoned themselves within a “libertarian” ideology as confining and as unreal as Marxism–if less persuasive than that fell delusion.

Why are these doctrinaire libertarians, with a few exceptions, such very odd people–the sort who give hearty folk like Marion Montgomery the willies? Why do genuine conservatives feel an aversion to close association with them? (Incidentally, now and again one reads of two camps of alleged conservatives: “traditionalist conservatives and libertarian conservatives.” This is as if a newspaperman were to classify Christians as “Protestant Christians and Muslim Christians.”A libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi.)

Why is an alliance between conservatives and libertarians inconceivable? Why, indeed, would such articles of confederation undo whatever gains conservatives have made in this United States?

Because genuine libertarians are mad–metaphysically mad. Lunacy repels, and political lunacy especially. I do not mean that they are dangerous; they are repellent merely, like certain unfortunate inmates of “mental homes.” They do not endanger our country and our civilization, because they are few, and seem likely to become fewer. (I refer here, of course, to our home-grown American libertarians, and not to those political sects, among them the Red Brigades of Italy, which have carried libertarian notions to grander and bolder lengths.) There exists no peril that American national policy, foreign or domestic, will be in the least affected by libertarian arguments; the good old causes of Bimetallism, Single Tax, or Prohibition enjoy a better prospect of success in the closing decades of this century than do the programs of Libertarianism. But one does not choose as a partner even a harmless political lunatic.

What do I mean when I say that today’s American libertarians are metaphysically mad, and so repellent? Why, the dogmas of libertarianism have been refuted so often, both dialectically and by the hard knocks of experience, that it would be dull work to rehearse here the whole tale of folly. Space wanting, I set down below merely a few of the more conspicuous insufficiencies of libertarianism as a credible moral and political mode of belief. It is such differences from the conservatives’ understanding of the human condition that make inconceivable any coalition of conservatives and libertarians.

  1. The great line of division in modern politics–as Eric Voegelin reminds us–is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats–that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.
  2. In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.
  3. What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.
  4. Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that “in Adam’s fall we sinned all”: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed; so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect. Thus the libertarian pursues his illusory way to Utopia, and the conservative knows that for the path to Avernus.
  5. The libertarian takes the state for the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is ordained of God. In Burke’s phrases, “He who gave us our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state–He willed its connexion with the source and original archtype of all perfection.” Without the state, man’s condition is poor, nasty, brutish, and short-as Augustine argued, many centuries before Hobbes. The libertarians confound the state with government. But government–as Burke continued–“is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” Among the more important of those human wants is “a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can be done only by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue.” In short, a primary function of government is restraint; and that is anathema to libertarians, though an article of faith to conservatives.
  6. The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego; the conservative finds himself instead a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required–and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding. The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas: that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men. The cosmos of the libertarian is an arid loveless realm, a “round prison.” “I am, and none else beside me,” says the libertarian. “We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet,” replies the conservative, in the phrases of Marcus Aurelius.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1981). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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2 replies to this post
  1. The discusssion did not end with Kirk's uninformed piece above. Your readers would benefit by reading Hornberger's direct response to Kirk here and Rothbard's excellent corrective article which can be found here which was written two years prior to Kirk's piece which he obviously did not see fit to read before writing the above. Had he done so he probably would have been taken more serioulsy as a conservative critic of libertarianism. Please note Myths #3,4, and 5 which contradict Kirk's own assertions. Its as if Kirk deliberately chose to create a caricature of Rothbard's description and pass it off as libertarianism. Machan also corrected Kirk here and Rothabard's interaction with Meyer is also relevant reading but enough with the link dumps.

    As a libertarian in the natural rights tradition of Rothbard, et al, it seems the only encounter Kirk had was with the utilitarian wing of libertarianism. I am no enemy of classical conservativism as found in Burke, Kirk and Nisbet. Reading Kirk's The Mind of a Conservative I find very little I disagree with if there is anything at all to disagree with. I cant find anything at all to disagree as well with his Ten Principles. Once again Rothbard's piece should dispel any surprises that a libertarian could do so. I think it is sad that the older conservatives quickly rejected their libertarian leanings early on. Buckley did not stay close to Nock sadly enough and Kirk's first intellectual encounter with one of the founding mothers of libertarianism, Isabel Paterson, had a very small influence on him. Also I wonder why Kirk and other traditional conservatives have never given Burke's long forgotten A Vindication of Natural Society its due. I dont personally accept evrything he says but it does seem he had, to use the dreaded a word, an anarchist element to his early thought. His later preface where he claims only satire is very disingenous at the very least.

  2. JR, thank you for the very thoughtful post and the very interesting links. Of course the differences between conservative and libertarians should be only carefully generalized. As you point out, many conservatives (including me) have much common ground with a number of thoughtful libertarians. I will continue to disagree with the Benthamite utilitarians and those who think they can separate freedom from the "contract between the living, the dead and the yet to be born."

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