As someone who had libertarianism poured into my morning milk as a child, I am in some ways still “in recovery.” However, I have lived a long time the American conservative movement, as it grew from obscurity into an intellectual movement, then into a national political triumph, and then as it squandered much of the intellectual capital in the political realm, at the same time as most of the conservative institutions have focused their energy primarily on politics. The breadth and depth of conservative thought has been simplified from a symphony to a one-note samba.
We need to have the differentiation of thought to recognize that there are different realms within which we live: the personal realm with family and friends; our community of faith; our professional realm; the economic realm; the local civic realm; and the political. At home and with our closest friends we want convictions to be at least harmonious with our own. We seek out a community of faith where we share one creed. In the economic realm, we encounter people of all kinds of convictions, but we can still do business with them, or choose not to. In the professional realm, we prefer people of similar convictions, but don’t always have that opportunity. At the local civic level there is a diversity of beliefs and motivations, but as long as the interaction remains civil, it is acceptable. In the political realm, in a two-party system, of necessity we may have fellow travelers as political allies who do not share our cultural views or religious convictions, and whom we would not necessarily choose as friends, but who are necessary to form a coalition for victory. Or we can remain pristine and pure, and relinquish political control to people who will use the concentration of power to limit our freedoms, take more of our earnings, and pervert the law for us and for future generations.
This leads to some very uneasy coalitions. For the conservative movement of the 1950s until 1990, communism was the glue that held the coalition together, as various strands joined forces to oppose the threat all agreed must be met, just as politicians of different stripes rallied together in two world wars. Do libertarians and conservative start from totally different points of reasoning? Absolutely. Do they share an understanding of the human person? No. Do they value culture and community in the same way? No. There are differences with neo-cons and paleo-cons and crunchy-cons, and all the other cons, too.But alone, none of these factions has enough sway to dominate elections. Such is life. And it may even be a good thing—at least the Founders thought so.
I had a conversation with an old FEE style libertarian over lunch not long ago. What is the highest goal of human life? For him, the answer is freedom. And I had the impertinence to ask him: Freedom for what? How can the answer not take virtue or transcendence into account? At that, he threw down his napkin and announced lunch was over. I was stunned. But as I was driving home reflecting, I realized (or remembered) it’s a closed system, which is why libertarian thought is so appealing to minds in search of airtight solutions. And it does not allow dissent.
The rich soil of faith, family and friends is where community is formed, where relationships flourish, where roots go down that nourish us. It is sometimes unpredictable, even messy, and the order that emerges is organic. This is where the little platoon lives and breathes, where stories are told and legacies are passed down. This is where truth emerges as we dig in the soil. This is where those of us who are rooted in Christ seek to walk out our faith in tangible deeds of sacrifice, loyalty and love, in relationship with people whose names we know. And the eternal language of love is written in the hearts of those whose lives we touch.
The political realm should protect our ability to do these things. In fact, political order in a republic depends on the virtues that are formed there. We need the political fellow travelers who may not share the same rootedness, but who agree that the political realm should protect these freedoms. We won’t agree on everything, not even on the highest goal of human life. But libertarians are necessary allies in a political coalition that may just barely muster enough votes to rebuke the present administration. The problem is not libertarians vs conservatives. The problem is the political operatives snatching huge hunks of what was the private sphere, spending the nation into oblivion, and trying to plant democracy in unready soil. And unfortunately, they are in both parties.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.