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conservativeConservatives value individual liberty as much as libertarians, but they deny that freedom from coercion is the only form of liberty.

It cannot be repeated often enough: The issue dividing conservatives and libertarians is not whether there should be a public philosophy by which we are governed, but which philosophy should govern us, conservatism or libertarianism.

The “conservatism” that Professor Wenzel describes frightens even me. Fortunately it bears little resemblance to the American conservatism I am defending. Wenzel’s libertarianism, on the other hand, is Descartes with a Burkean face. Beneath the modest surface lies a rationalist principle that threatens the very foundations of free government.

American conservatism seeks to conserve the principles of the American founding. Those principles are based upon a steady and sober recognition of the complexities of human nature, and of a respect for the accumulated wisdom of centuries that have arisen in response to those complexities. They are rooted in the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” laws that are not discovered a priori, but are won from reflection and experience, and which limit and guide the will. These laws of nature are the only foundation for free government. Whenever I use the word “conservative,” this is what I mean.

Our Constitution is a magnificent institutional framework for realizing these principles of justice. On no plausible reading can it be regarded as a libertarian document. The enumerated powers go well beyond the harm principle, and the Tenth Amendment acknowledges the reserved powers of the states. One does not need to be a libertarian to oppose the unconstitutional expansion of the national government; one only needs to be a localist, a decentralist, a Constitutionalist.

Libertarianism’s Burkean face professes respect for the Constitution. In Wenzel’s words, it “trusts institutions that help generate and transmit knowledge”; “eschews our limited reason in favor of reason nestled within tradition”; and “recognizes the need for virtue and self-governance.” Conservatives are ready to applaud.

But then Descartes strikes through the mask, demanding that the social order be made subject to a single, revolutionary, universal abstract principle. The harm principle is libertarianism’s cogito, its Archimedian point with which to move the world.

These two identities, Cartesian rationalism and Burkean traditionalism, cannot coexist. They are in fact the opposite and extreme terms of the modern predicament. Rationalism reduces reason exclusively to a priori, mathematical or logical truths, and traditionalism, reacting to rationalism, repudiates reason altogether for the sake of local and particular attachments.

Conservatism denies that rationalism is the only form of reasoning, or that reason is hostile to local and particular attachments. By affirming classical forms of reasoning that were unjustifiably repudiated by modern philosophy and science (analogy, epagoge, dialectics, etc.), conservatism possesses the intellectual resources to give both reason and tradition their rightful due while avoiding the errors of rationalism or traditionalism.

Wenzel repeatedly mischaracterizes conservatism as resting upon “assertions of private preferences,” but he offers no evidence to support this claim. Conservatism rests on the capacity of reason to discover truths that are in principle accessible to every mature human being. The conservative case against slavery, like the conservative case for marriage, rests upon public arguments and evidence that every human being in principle can recognize and acknowledge.

Wenzel further contends that conservatives fail to appreciate the knowledge problem. But Wenzel commits a category mistake here by falsely applying the “knowledge problem” in economics to moral knowledge. These two forms of knowledge are of a fundamentally different order.

The “knowledge problem” in economics arises from the fact that the information required for the best use of resources (natural or human) is widely dispersed and in principle beyond the capacity of any human mind to possess as an integrated whole. Moral knowledge, however, is not concerned with the relative value of scarce resources; it is concerned with the proper ends, goods, and principles of human action that constitute human flourishing.

The decentralized price mechanism is truly a “marvel” (to use Hayek’s term) in its ability to solve the knowledge problem. For this and other reasons, conservatives support the free market. But the price mechanism cannot tell us whether to prefer prostitutes to pencils, and any society that does so will not be free for long.

The fully reasonable judgment that certain actions (such as commerce in sex or highly addictive drugs) are contrary to human flourishing does not necessarily entail that they must be prohibited by the law. Even a superficial glance at the principal writings from the natural law tradition makes this clear.

In the first place, the requirements of the natural law are not always clear, and our understanding of the law is subject to development.

In the second place, even when the requirements of the natural law are clear, this does not necessarily mean that the human law should enforce them. The conservative fully agrees with Wenzel that state actions often have negative unintended consequences on the common good, and that this may be a good reason to refrain from legal prohibition.

Finally, conservatism affirms as one of its central truths the primacy of civil society. Human flourishing is not achieved in the state, but in a plurality of natural associations and authorities, beginning with the family. These associations, as the late John Paul II wrote, “stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.”

But what is the common good? For Wenzel, the “only common good” is “a broad institutional framework within which individuals can peacefully cooperate.” This framework, he suggests, must be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good. Anything else is a violation of individual liberty.

Here again is the typical libertarian sleight of hand, which presents libertarianism as the neutral alternative to a partisan conservatism. But libertarianism is not neutral in principle or in effect.

In principle, the libertarianism ethic rests upon a voluntarist (or autonomous) notion of the self (what Wenzel calls “methodological individualism”). According to this notion, the self is prior to and outside of the ends it chooses. We do not choose ends because they are good; they are good because we choose them. This leads to a moral claim that no association or authority may make valid claims upon a human being unless that human being has explicitly consented to them. To treat any human being otherwise is to sacrifice his or her individual rights to the private preferences of another individual or group of individuals.

But the principle is clearly false. How many children consent to be under the authority of their parents? Do parents who coercively restrain their toddlers from running into a busy street violate the harm principle? Do citizens have enforceable obligations to support the framework of institutions Wenzel commends by taxation? How about the common defense?

I take it that Wenzel is not a rational anarchist, that he believes that both parental authority and political authority, within due limits, are justified, even when those under those authorities did not consent to them. But what is Wenzel’s justification for these authorities? Something more than the harm principle is required, but Wenzel never hints at what it might be.

Conservatism, on the other hand, is based upon an essentialist understanding of the self. Human beings desire things because they are good, and the achievement of these goods depends upon a number of conditions, including security, wealth, character, education, and freedom. These conditions constitute the common good, and they cannot be acquired without the assistance of political authority, as well as the authority of the family and other civil institutions.

In effect, the libertarian harm principle protects the freedom of some to violate the rights of others. As social libertarian Ronald Dworkin frankly acknowledges, protecting the right of pimps, prostitutes, and pornographers to commercialize sexuality, for example, would “sharply limit the ability of individuals consciously and reflectively to influence the conditions of their own and their children’s development. It would limit their ability to bring about the cultural structure they think best, a structure in which sexual experience generally has dignity and beauty, without which their own and their families’ sexual experience are likely to have these qualities in less degree.” No serious person can argue that the repeal of traditional obscenity laws in all fifty states by unelected federal judges has not had the effect Dworkin describes.

Reader take note: These are individuals being harmed, not reified social wholes. And so it is not true, as Wenzel says, that “individual liberty is not a main concern of conservatism.” Conservatives value individual liberty as much as libertarians, but they deny that freedom from coercion is the only form of liberty. When it is abused to obstruct the liberty of others to live according to the truth, and to undermine the moral and cultural conditions required for a free society, it is unjust and no longer deserves the protection of the law.

In the end it is libertarians who are guilty of social engineering. The earliest defenders of classical liberalism—John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, or whomever you choose—never dreamed that by opposing mercantilism and protectionism they were promoting the elimination of traditional morals legislation. They knew that a free society depends upon a certain moral character and that law plays an important though subsidiary role in securing that character. Classical liberals were not libertarians. They advocated the free market, not the total market.

It was the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century who were the first advocates of free love, open marriage, and the elimination of traditional morals legislation. Lenin, not Locke, was the first to introduce no-fault divorce to the world. The effects on society were so disastrous that Stalin was forced to shore up marriage by restoring many of the traditional provisions. This has not prevented libertarians from promoting the elimination of legal marriage altogether, despite overwhelming evidence correlating divorce and cohabitation to crime, poverty, failure in school, alcoholism, drug abuse, physical harm, mental and emotional illness, depression, and suicide.

Progressivism is the American version of European socialism, and today’s progressives understand that central economic planning and radical moral autonomy go hand in hand. In buying into the latter part of the progressive agenda, libertarians unwittingly promote the former. In their legitimate fear of Orwell’s 1984, they ignore the lessons of Huxley’s Brave New World.

Finally, Wenzel draws from Public Choice Theory to argue that political institutions cannot provide for true deliberation. Public Choice Theory assumes (purely for methodological purposes) that “the interest of [a person’s] opposite number in the exchange be excluded from consideration” (to quote James Buchanan). This assumption is an important corrective to the opposite assumption that human beings miraculously become public-spirited when they hold political office. Worked into a theory, it offers good reasons for being suspicious of political solutions to social problems.

But this assumption cannot be the basis for a complete understanding of human nature or of politics without being viciously circular. One cannot demonstrate that politics is about maximizing private preferences by assuming it in one’s premise. And as a premise it leaves a good deal to be explained. Why, for example, does empirical evidence show a closer correlation between ideology and voting than between self-interest and voting? Or why do we object to the buying and selling of votes?

“If men were angels,” Madison famously writes in Federalist 51, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Libertarianism would have us believe that men are such devils that no government should be allowed, and at the same time are such angels that character, virtue, and liberty will arise “spontaneously” from mere market processes. But human beings are neither devils nor angels. They need government in order to be free, and they need freedom in order to govern well. This is not the Jekyll and Hyde of libertarianism; it is the paradoxical truth of the human condition that lies behind conservatism. We ignore it at our peril.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

This essay originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. Reprinted by permission. Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.

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17 replies to this post
  1. I cannot see what is to be gained by an attack on libertarianism.

    Libertarianism is probably one of the few doors that Leftists have to come into sympathetic contact with anything of a right-wing flavor.

    But, apparently, it is necessary to hold to some kind of ideological purity. The natural law, the natural law!

    The natural law is here defined as "laws that are not discovered a priori, but are won from reflection and experience". From the text above, I take it, 'prostitution is bad' and 'drugs are bad' are examples of such laws. These principles are rooted in "reflection and experience". The libertarian law, 'coercion is bad', is not rooted in reflection and experience, but is "discovered a priori". And, one could not say of the libertarian axiom, apparently, that "the requirements…are not always clear, and our understanding…is subject to development."

    This seems rather arbitrary. What is ultimately to be our common ground on what the natural law is? Shouldn't we rather focus on creating a genuinely republican form of government rather than working on what particular laws we want to pass?

    This is just "moralism". It's not "conservatism". Perhaps I am not a "conservative" either. Maybe I am just a classical republican.

    The author is very keen on a political agenda of 'moral laws'. Prostitution, drugs are in his sights, although he admits that more damage might be caused by restricting them than by regulating or allowing them. He seems to be dead certain of obscenity laws–and apparently "serious" opposition is impossible. And, he knows why the markets have problems. They are in need of moral regulation primarily.

    "The conservative case against slavery, like the conservative case for marriage, rests upon public arguments and evidence that every human being in principle can recognize and acknowledge." But, not every human being has. Unless one has a very narrow historical/cultural range in mind.

    There is an insoluble political problem which the author just does not seem to take seriously, that people disagree on things that they regard as fundamental. Like the libertarians, he has found an "Archimedian point with which to move the world", i.e., the natural law. And, he seems to think it is not only the solution to all fundamental policy questions but is or will be a common basis for a given society.

    In his ideological system, everything is more or less fair game for state intervention, and he may personally be in favor of a small state, but the question is then, how are we going to resolve our particular differences? Not everyone is going to go for "natural law", and even among those who do, they can always find a reason to draw their swords.

    He ridicules the notion that "We do not choose ends because they are good; they are good because we choose them." But, when you are forging any social or political unity, both are in fact true, because the unity as unity is a good in itself, but it is not the only good, and it must be weighed with other goods. It must concern itself with the 'relative values of scarce resources' such as unity, consent, authority, morality, liberty, etc.

    Insofar as libertarianism is an obsession with consent, it is wrong. Insofar as it makes consent its centermost principle, I would side with it over an abstract appeal to moral law. But, I just don't believe moralism and conservatism are identical.

    It's been a long time since I read Kirk, but I remember the term "prudence" coming up again and again. Although mention is made here of "reflection and experience", it appears to be little more than a rhetorical prop for the author's particular strain of moralism.

  2. It was not Lenin, but Mill, who first advocted no-fault divorce. He quotes Humboldt, ""[Marriage,] having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it." (ch. 5) And he extends the principle to polygamy,"Still, it must be remembered that this relation is as much voluntary on the part of the women concerned with it, and who may be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the marriage institution; and however surprising this fact may appear, it has its explanation in the common ideas and customs of the world, while teaching women to think marriage the one thing needful, make it intelligible that many a woman should prefer being one of several wives, to not being a wife at all."

  3. What is to be gained by an "attack" on libertarianism is a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, its benefits and flaws.

  4. JT Overstreet, when you talk of moralism are you referring to classical natural law, essentialism, and that sort of thing? What Edward Feser has eloquently defended as 'Realist Conservatism'?

    Not only would I say is 'Realist Conservatism' not a mistaken and overly rigid moralism, but that it is the only basis upon which a solid conservatism can be built. Only on a appeal to the fixed truth of human nature, can any traditional or imaginative conservative appeal to the permanent things be grounded.

    The fact that some people may not recognise a truth is irrelevant to whether it is a truth. The truth has its rights and we should respect them.

    Traditional conservatism is so different from libertarianism and much of the right that converting left-liberals to libertarians hardly seems like much of a tactic in furthering the traditional conservative cause.

  5. Nathan Schlueter, I liked your essay, however I think it has a central problem. That is, it doesn't explain the origins and nature of classical natural law (I take it is the kind you are referring to) and its view of the self strongly enough. Only when you do this at length and with great force can the basic distinctions be made between traditional conservatism built around it and modern thought, libertarian and otherwise, and the tracing its relationship to the issues of human institutions, the state, and politics.

  6. Westcountryman, what I mean by moralism is something like the doctrinaire attempt to solve problems by recourse to a moral code.

    The economic crisis is, I think, a good example. Why are we going through this? Greed. Well, that's an easy answer, but was the greed a cause or an effect of some other condition? In my estimation, the creation of an artificial monetary standard has done untold damage, not merely economically, but also socially, morally, politically, and on a global scale. But, many conservatives have decided to blame Big Business, because they have decided that those guys are moral cretins. And, maybe they are, but was that really the problem? A moralist just doesn't really care.

    He has an agenda. I suspect that it is a religious agenda ultimately, but it is at least a moral agenda.

    Libertarians are fighting mad about the gold standard, because they know what it means, but for the moralist conservative, it doesn't rate. They don't have much of an opinion about it, although they might generally be in favor of a gold standard. Even then, that is one of the 'lower things' and doesn't deserve a lot of scrutiny.

    It's been 20yrs since I read Nisbet's Quest for Community, but it made a profound impression on me with respect to how sudden 'material' changes impact one's spiritual condition. Morality is not just a product of adherence to a code; it is bound up within the organic soundness of social institutions. The cultivation of those institutions is extremely complex, because they exist for particular material functions and yet they also serve a profound social/moral/spiritual function. Most of these institutions, however noble they are, cannot long endure a sustained attack on their material function. And, when they collapse, they leave socially atomized/spiritually deprived individuals in their wake. These people are, in turn, extremely susceptible to ideologies, which is just (as I have understood) a more or less systematic moral/social code.

    On a more down-to-earth level, one could take music, although this is probably opening up a whole new can of worms. Is this particular piece of music good or bad? The moralist first asks, well, let me see the lyrics. For him, music is moral propaganda.

    But, even if we were to grant to the moralist that a given piece of music is immoral, it doesn't necessarily mean that the solution is a 'moral' one. Let's say one held that rap music is morally bad. Is the solution a morality campaign of some kind? Or is the music an expression of a deeper fissure that requires subtlety, sympathy, and prudence to address? Is it possible that we could even learn something from it, that even it contains some seeds of moral insight?

    From my reading, Schlueter has narrowed conservatism down to moralism. Does something conform to 'natural law'? If not, the next question is, would this situation be improved by recourse to human law? And, that's it.

    In other words, the Good is divided into the good, the true, and the beautiful for a reason. I think that it is partly to reduce the temptation of moralism. The true and the beautiful do not simply conform to our estimations of what is good, and the moral does not exhaust the good.

    The foundation of liberty is the man of character–I take this to be the axiomatic paradigm of conservatism. This is something which all moralistic codes (I would include libertarianism as well as the sentiments expressed in the essay above, and all the other ideologies) underestimate.

  7. I think you are confusing morality with moralism. Traditionally the Good, the Beautiful, and the True have been considered aspects of the same thing. There is aharmony in beautiful music, just as there is a similar one in the good and ordered soul.

    Now, it is perfectly true that moralism, or the rigid focus and moral codification on the external actions of men, can be a problem. But the solution is not to abandon classical natural law.

    The solution is to understand that classical natural law is based on the nature of man, that in it being must come before actions or inner virtues before concern for every little action committed, and that there is a complex relationship between society and the nature of man. But classical natural law, and its perspective on human nature, or a perspective very close to it, is the best approach to traditional conservatism and politics in general.

  8. Once again I thank all of you for your comments on my critique of libertarianism. I am especially pleased to hear from two of colleagues, Brad Birzer and John Wilson, from whom I have learned as much about living well as about conservatism.

    I had limited space to make my arguments. So I could not therefore be expected to defend every assertion, or work out a full theory of the natural law. That’s what books are for (and I’m not going to write mine here). But I do want to respond briefly to a few of JTO’s concerns.

    JTO wonders what can be gained by an attack on libertarianism. Apart from gaining a deeper understanding of the issues, I see a strong practical advantage: Libertarians tend to prey upon people who are bright and well intentioned, but poorly educated. These neophytes in turn often end up taking positions on issues against their better judgment, because they don’t really know the alternatives. I don’t expect to dissuade any hardcore libertarians, but I do hope to restore a few confused libertarian converts to their deep down conservatism.

    JTO advocates classical republicanism. I wonder at this. Would he really prefer to live in Sparta, Athens or Rome to America? One of the great discoveries of our time is the intrinsic dignity of civil society, to which political power is only instrumental. This is one of the great achievements of the Western political order. I have called it natural law liberalism.

    JTO worries that the natural law is just one more moralizing doctrine. But I tried to make clear that the natural law is not a set of rigid doctrines so much as an orientation towards a real moral order that can be discovered by reason. You can join C.S. Lewis and call it the Tao, if that makes it easier for you, but you should at least recognize that moral argument is inescapable, and that there is no neutral default position between conservatism and libertarianism.

    As I insisted in my piece, this orientation does not mean that our knowledge of what the moral law requires will always be immediate or clear. It is very important to know how human knowledge is acquired, how it grows and is corrected. I myself have learned a great deal on this score from the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi, who both show how reason necessarily develops within a tradition of inquiry, and how traditions in turn are often constituted by reflection and argument. [To be continued]

  9. [Continued] JTO seems to make much of the fact of moral disagreement. But what really follows from the fact?

    Let me pose a challenge that might clarify things: Place yourself in antebellum America. How would you respond to plantation slavery?

    Surprising as it may seem to us today, there was deep moral disagreement on this subject in 1850. (And in my judgment the defenders of slavery had far the better argument on purely Biblical grounds). Does this fact mean that those who rightly believed it was unjust should be silent? Does it mean that the law should remain neutral with respect to competing views? I think the obvious answer is “no.” There simply was no “neutral” position here.

    On the other hand, did the (correct) moral conviction that slavery is wrong require that one be an abolitionist? Here too I think the answer is “no.”

    Whatever one may think of Lincoln’s conduct of the civil war, his position on slavery exemplified the natural law tradition I am defending here, although he never to my knowledge used the term “natural law.” He unwaveringly argued for the injustice of slavery, while at the same time affirming the social and constitutional limits to abolition.

    Just as slavery was the moral issue of the nineteenth century, so abortion and marriage are the moral issues of our day. If you know anything about the abortion issue, you know that it has taken decades of argument and considerable sacrifice to bring out the truth that abortion is homicide. At one time the defenders of life were ridiculed and accused of “forcing their religious beliefs on others.” (“Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” was a frequent refrain at protests). But the defenders of abortion have lost this argument, and hopefully the changes in the law will follow.

    Marriage faces the same challenges abortion did three decades ago. The fascist tactics same-sex marriage advocates use just shows that they do not believe they can win on the grounds of reasoned argument. (For the best arguments on marriage, I highly recommend The Meaning of Marriage, eds. Robert George and Jean Bethke Elshtain).

    I emphasize these issues only for purposes of illustration. There are many other issues – including the question of the gold standard – we might consider. My only point is that libertarianism does not have the resources to resolve these issues because it is closed to them on the front end. I simply don’t see how this is a viable option.

    I will end here, as I’ve gone on too long already. But I hope some of these remarks help.

  10. Mr Schlueter, thanks for your extended reply. My first reply was lost, so I have hurried to put this together. Sorry if it's disjointed.

    I think the libertarians are guilty of taking their freedom for granted insofar as they take order for granted. They think that coercion must stop and then the world will more or less be just. On the broad stage of history, I think that they have noticed that there is a correlation between liberty and order and assumed that liberty generated that order. I would not disagree with that, but I would not formulate it into an absolute, either.

    I think the conservative understands that freedom is something that must be deliberately cultivated. From a moral paradigm, man's nature is to some extent corrupt. But, there is another paradigm, I think, too. I am calling it 'classical republicanism', although perhaps I am guilty of doing violence to this term.

    It is the paradigm of the person who is concerned with founding and maintaining a liberal order. For him, moral censure is but one aspect of this task. It is indispensable, but moral censure apart from a vision of the whole is bound to lead to unending moral disputes. Like solving a dispute among children: it is essential that the children believe that things are done fairly and justly, but there is also a point at which justice becomes an obstacle to the just. It starts to devour itself to the point that a particular dispute threatens to consume the whole moral order. At that point, we assert that the discussion is over, a judgment has to be rendered, and the matter is settled by diktat. In order to that, however, we have to have already built up a great degree of trust. Or, we might say, I am unable to decide how to resolve this situation. You two come up with a solution, or I will have to make a more general change to our relationship that neither of you might be very keen on. The possibilities are endless, of course. There has to be an intuition of the whole that governs the process and tells us when the genuine concern for morality and justice has itself become detrimental and how we can restore the integrity of the whole. I cannot see how natural law addresses this problem.

    In some fashion, I think that your natural law approach is making the same error as the libertarian. The libertarian assumes that order is generated from liberty; the moralistic approach assumes that order and liberty is generated from morality. I don't think either of these are 'wrong', but they are each lacking the dynamic center that I take to be the more genuine roots of order. You can call it, for lack of a better term, love, or morale, or Machiavellian virtu, or character.

    In other words, I think the conservative looks at what really holds societies together. And, liberty and morality are absolutely indispensable parts, but he understands that the social compact is always fragile, however imposing it appears at any given moment, and that it cannot be cultivated by dissolving the state or instituting a moral program. He is thinking not just about passing this or that law but how sustainable it is, how economic (in the broadest sense) it is, and what the effects on the organism as a whole will be. Will a new law or policy rupture the organism? If so, is it worth risking the rupture? He is aware that his moral capital is extremely limited and he had better spend it on the right thing at the right time.

    I am not trying to cast natural law out as such, but I don't think it is at the heart of conservatism. I think some combination of moralism with the libertarian's emphasis on consent would result in some combination that at least strongly resembles what I regard as conservatism, but which I will call 'classical republicanism', so as not to prejudice the issue.

  11. JTO, thank you for this. I believe we are much closer than it may appear. Three points that might help clarify things further:

    First, I think we are both classical liberals more than classical republicans. (On the difference, see the third volume of Paul Rahe’s book Republics, Ancient and Modern).

    Second, I don’t think it’s true that libertarians emphasize consent, and I tend to agree with their caution on this score. Majority tyranny is no less troubling than autocratic tyranny. The great political challenge, as the writers of the Federalist Papers repeat again and again, is to combine consent and security of rights. This is not easy to do.

    Third, I think perhaps you are thinking of “morality” in an overly narrow sense. According to the natural law understanding, “morality” is not a sub-category of human action; it is human action. Every pursuit of a good (food, friendship, freedom, wealth, etc.) is a moral action. The natural law is directed to the achievement of the goods that constitute human flourishing. So it doesn’t make sense (at least to me) to say that conservatives are more concerned with morality, while libertarians are more concerned with liberty. Both are concerned with morality in the traditional sense of the term. My point is that the libertarian conception of morality is simply not an adequate guide for judgment.

    Today’s piece in Public Discourse bears on this discussion: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/04/4871?utm_source=RTA+Snell+Natural+Law&utm_campaign=email&utm_medium=email

  12. Mr Schlueter, thanks for pointing out the Snell article and the Rahe volume.

    In one sense, I can't disagree with your first point. I do not want to go back to the classical republican era in the slightest degree, except as a tourist. In another sense, we are still living in that era, and my hope is that as a civilization or as conservatives we will not lose sight of the underlying identity of liberty and the rule of law as we see it expressed in Herodotus's account of the dawn of Western civilization. The distinction we have created between these two notions has been a marvelous and indispensable invention, but I don't think we should forget their identity, either.

    Regarding your second point, much like the terms "moral", "conservative", etc, "libertarian" has lots of variations. I tend to think of the voluntaryist tradition of libertarianism primarily and then the more 'mainstream' Mises Institute variety second, but it is a pretty diverse group. In any case, I think they would all agree that the state is not built on absolute consent, and that is the basis for their objection to it. Only consent can convey legitimacy to any social action, large or small.

    Third, as above, I can't disagree with you generally. Good constitutes all. But, I think too that the division of the Good into the good, true, and beautiful suggests the implicit danger of moralism (as well as science and aestheticism). A Thrasymachus might regard Socrates as a "moralist", but I don't think we would. (?) The Good is dynamic and cannot be pinned down til it relinquishes its blessings. And, so I become very nervous about the insistence on labeling it 'natural law'. When I read the Snell article, I hear the intellectual equivalent of "Earth and Water". "Natural law" is not a mirror image of "subjectivity". At best, it is an attempt to characterize that subjectivity. This may be a bad metaphor, but it strikes me as giving God the wings of angels. They would diminish his glory, not enhance it.

    In sum, I am still a little skeptical about this formulation of natural law, but even were I to accept that definition, I am still doubtful that it can hold the center.

  13. Sometimes arguments need a summation (if I may). This is after the essay proper, not the responses.

    Conservatism is the proper heir of the Natural Law tradition, according to Nathan Schlueter, as it means upholding the principle of essential human goods, including social orders like the family: Conservatism is informed by some rationalist principles, including the Libertarian rule “Do no ham to another” (from John Stuart Mill) — but Conservatism does not endorse a Libertarian requirement to garner individual consent for every action. Not all individual choices need garner social endorsement, for some choices (such as excessive drug use, gambling, and sexual excess) have bad consequences with poor social repercussions.

    Instead, Schlueter adds, Conservatism embraces the Burkean endorsement of traditional social forms and decisions (as the judicious and pragmatic results of groups of individuals resolving their conflicts and problems as best they can by agreement and in practice) — but does not endorse some thoughtless or value-less acceptance of all traditions regardless of their problems or new challenges. The fight over slavery illustrates this kind of Conservatism.

    I would stipulate that the tradition of Natural Law requires each individual practitioner and social generation to exercise an active moral conscience concerning just choices, and a sociable deliberation of appropriate policies. This tradition matches Conservatism proper, as we should use the term, though in the 19th century it would have been called “classical” Liberalism, combining an individual, Libertarian side and a social, Burkean traditional side, within a minimalist democratic republican form of government.

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