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libertarianThe contemporary Tea Party Movement, like its revolutionary ancestor, looks to principles for guidance. Yet an old but active fault line runs just beneath the surface of the movement that has the potential to cause a fatal rupture. Tea Partiers simultaneously promote both a conservatism based upon the principles of the American founding and a libertarianism based on individualism, but the two are ultimately incompatible.

Libertarians are good at explaining why the market works and why government fails, and they have made important policy initiatives in areas such as school choice. On the other hand, they actively oppose laws prohibiting obscenity, protecting unborn children, promoting marriage, limiting immigration, and securing American citizens against terrorists. These positions flow from core principles that have more in common with modern liberalism than with the American founding, and which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further.

The attraction of libertarianism is also its main defect: it offers neat solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex than libertarians acknowledge. Only conservatism offers principles adequate to that reality. Consider ten claims libertarians often make:

1. “The Founders of the American political order were libertarian.” Although the American Founders believed in limited government, they were not libertarian. The Constitution was designed for a federal system of government, specifying and limiting national powers and leaving to the states the exercise of their customary powers to protect the health, safety, morals, and welfare of their citizens. None of the American founders challenged these customary state powers, nor did they attempt to repeal them. Even on its own terms, the Constitution provides for powers that many libertarians would object to, such as establishing post offices, granting patents, regulating commerce among the states, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus.

2. “Conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them.” This claim, made by F.A. Hayek, is simply false as applied to American conservatism (as Hayek himself knew). American conservatism seeks to conserve the principles of justice that lie at the root of the American political order, what might be called Natural Law Liberalism. These principles, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, are rooted in nature, which fixes the boundaries to all authority. They include “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; “self-evident” truths such as “all men are Created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; and a clear statement of the end of government, to “secure” rights and to “effect [the] Safety and Happiness” of the governed.

3. “Only individuals exist, therefore there is no such thing as a ‘common good.’” The statement reflects the corrosive nominalism that Richard Weaver decried in Ideas Have Consequences, and which fatally undercuts the principled limits to coercive authority identified above. Every human association, whether a marriage, business partnership, or sports team, has a common good, or why would it exist?

Common goods are not substantial entities standing over and against individual persons; they are the good of individual persons. But this does not mean common goods are always divisible into individual shares, like a cake. An orchestra, a marriage, an army cannot be divided without being destroyed. Within such associations individual persons exist as bandmates, spouses, and soldiers.

The common good of the political association consists in the ensemble of conditions in which persons and associations can more easily flourish. These are nicely summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

4. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The “harm principle,” first formulated by J.S. Mill, is a moral claim. It cannot be derived from moral skepticism without committing a self-referential fallacy: The argument, “We don’t know what is right or wrong, therefore it is wrong to do x,” is obviously invalid.

As a moral claim, the harm principle is not neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good. Underlying it is the conviction that the good for human beings is to live according to one’s own conception of what is good, and to live in a society in which that freedom is protected. For the sake of this conception of the good, it requires the repeal of legislation enacted by those with a different conception of the good. It thus deprives them of their right to choose and live according to their own conception of the good. In effect, libertarians wish to compel other persons with whom they disagree to live in a society that these others find, often with very good reason, to be hostile to human flourishing.

Further, the harm principle is neither self-evident nor demonstrably true. It certainly cannot apply to children and mental incompetents, as Mill himself knew, and this concession significantly undermines the principle.

The greatest objection, however, is the narrow construction Mill gives to it. For him, as for other libertarians, the principle only applies to bodily harm. But why deny the existence of moral harm? If it is true that some actions are intrinsically self-destructive or self-corrupting, then it is also true that encouraging such actions can cause harm to others. Prostitutes, panders, pushers, and pimps all profit from the moral corruption of others. Why should society be forced to treat these actions with indifference because of a questionable moral claim like the harm principle?

5. “Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery.” This is Murray Rothbard’s succinct summary of the anarcho-libertarian objection to politics. Anarcho-libertarians are opposed to conscription and taxation on principle. What gives people calling themselves “the state,” they ask, the moral right to do that which, if done by “private” persons, everyone would call criminal? (Rothbard, consistent to the point of absurdity, would even prevent parents from restraining their run-away toddlers.) Because non-anarchist libertarians also regard all coercion as evil, this objection presents some difficulty for them.

Conservatives do not regard coercion as evil, simpliciter. Some limits liberate. Human beings enter the world utterly dependent, and they require for their security and development the authoritative and sometimes coercive direction of parents, teachers, police, soldiers, and judges. There are many subtle threads of coercion, conservatives argue, that make social cooperation possible.

Outside the bounds set by natural right, however, coercion is tyranny. It has been the greatest achievement of Western civilization to recognize the basic human needs, interests, and inclinations that make coercive associations necessary, to carve out their rightful scope and limits, and to bring them under the discipline of reason and the rule of law. Civilization depends upon citizens (cives), members of a political association (civitas) who understand and are grateful for the gift of free government, attached to its principles, and prepared to defend it against all threats, including free riders who would exploit the system for their own private advantage. Libertarians often treat this difficult achievement like mere scaffolding that can now be kicked down for the sake of a utopian vision that has never existed and never will.

6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character. Libertarians who doubt this point can examine the difference in attitudes toward racial discrimination in America before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the availability of pornographic materials before and after Roth v.United States (1957), or the stability of marriage before and after the introduction of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s. The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.

This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism.

7. Government should not interfere in the free market. Because they oppose commerce in things that are intrinsically immoral and harmful, such as hard drugs, prostitution, or obscene materials, conservatives are accused by libertarians of opposing the free market. This is false. Conservatives value the free market as much as libertarians, as a means for mutually beneficial exchanges, as an occasion for the exercise of virtues such as creativity, cooperation, industry, honesty, and thrift, and as an indispensable source of information (through the pricing mechanism) for individuals on the best use of resources.

But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers.

For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues. When the use of private property and market exchanges have spillover effects that adversely effect these other institutions and individuals, they are subject to reasonable limits by law. This is the understanding of law and morality that lies behind the common law, was embraced by the states after the American Revolution, and although under steady assault by modern liberals and libertarians, continues in America to this day.

8. The only alternative to libertarianism is totalitarianism. This is a false dilemma. Between the fantasies of libertarianism and totalitarianism is the wide spectrum of governments that have actually existed through most of human history. The false dilemma is often associated with the slippery slope fallacy: If people are given the power to coerce in one area, they will eventually coerce in all areas. Libertarians rarely give the cause or reason why this must be true, and conservatives deny that it is true.

Conservatives recognize the dangers of moral fanaticism, but they insist, with historical evidence to back them up, that the remedy is not to facilitate the debauchery of society by eliminating the props to good moral character, but to reinforce and support those props.

9. Libertarianism is based upon a realistic understanding of human nature. Libertarians accuse conservatives of being utopian or naïve about human nature. Self-regarding actions are sufficient for producing a free and prosperous society, they argue. Moreover, power by its very nature corrupts human beings and therefore should be narrowly circumscribed and vigilantly watched.

Conservatives reply that it is the libertarians who are utopian for failing to give proper weight to the full range of human motives, and to the exigencies of a free society and limited government. They concur with James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these [latter] qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Public virtue alone is not sufficient to secure limited government, but it is foolish to think that it can be dispensed with altogether. If the despotism of George III caused the American Revolution, the virtue of George Washington was necessary to conclude it. “The aim of every political constitution,” Madison writes in Federalist No. 57, is “first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Here, from the “Father of the Constitution,” is a sober constitutional principle based upon a true realism.

10. “Freedom works.” A frequent refrain of Hayek, but what does it mean? Weapons also “work,” though not necessarily for good. Freedom cannot be evaluated apart from the ends that it serves. John Winthrop, in a passage Tocqueville called “this beautiful definition of freedom,” once said:

There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is effected by men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty, [we are all inferior]; ’tis the grand enemy of truth and peace … But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives.

Stand the first Tea Partiers did when their true liberty was threatened, and stand we must if it is to be preserved.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This piece was originally published in Public Discourse and is republished here by permission.

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53 replies to this post
  1. One of the best commentaries I have read on the tension between Libertarianism and Conservatism. This will be helpful to me in my encounters with those for whom Libertarianism is attractive, but often just a reaction to the encroaching socialism over the last 70 years.

    Thank You.

  2. I agree with Gina this is one of the best and most honest commentaries I have read contrasting Libertarianism and Conservatism.

    I consider myself a Kirkian traditionalist and I believe in respect for private property. But I do not believe materialism or private property are the supreme values. Life is a higher value than property and so is liberty one might add art and high culture are also of higher value than property. Property has value -it seems to me- only because it represents past effort, past thrift for the good of family and society as well as individuals. Society does have a claim on some portion of our property for the common good: the common defense, domestic tranquility, transportion, education and WHATEVER the people democratically choose to be part of the "safety net." And of course the people have a right to retrench and reduce the "safety net" for the common good (posterity).

    I particularlly liked this reasoning:
    "But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers.

    For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues."

    Yes, there are many non-market institutions such as churches, schools ( I believe schools are, for the most part, and should be, non-market institutions), cultural associations, clubs, amateur sporting associations. Many libertarians desire to "privatize" schools, prisons, fire departments, public safety and the roads but I think this is very unwise. What society would wish, for example, to return to tribal armies or an army of private mercenaries who serve only their paymaster? Nathan Schlueter is right: we ought to be other things than consumers: citizens, members of voluntary religious, charitable, professional and political associations, fathers, mothers, uncles,aunts, friends and Good Neighbors. I am not a libertarian either -though I cherish personal liberty and academic freedom very greatly-because there is no "I" in team. One can be free and an individual within the framework of a family, a faculty, a workplace, a team. But one must have a sense of gratitude for our family, for our society, for our schools, for our teachers, for our veterans, for our serving military, for our doctors and nurses, for our religious, for our houses of good -in short one must have a sense of deep gratitude to those who helped create and shape our civilization. Many libertarians seem to lack this gratitude -they take their society and its benefits for granted-and they often lack the humility born from religious faith. I am thankful to my mother and father for the gift of life; I am thankful also to my forefathers. I am thankful to America for my reasonably prosperous, free and confortable life. Prior to coming to America no one in my family had ever been anything except a common sailor, soldier, fisherman or laborer. Prior to coming to America most of my family lived precarious lives as linguistic and religious minorities (usually non-jurors) with few educational and professional opportunities. I love America and the English language too because both were the true instruments of our liberation from oppression and ignorance. But we did not achieve enlightenment alone as individuals. We achieved some measure of betterment due to the generosity of others. A free society must be a society that cares not only for the common defense but also the general welfare of all the people.

  3. The author rejects the claim that “Conservatism…has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose [innovation].” He says that conservatives believe in 'natural law liberalism', and then he quotes the Declaration of Independence. I cannot claim to be the authority on conservatism as such, but I think Babbitt, Kirk, PE More, Voegelin, and some others would be very cautious about that line of argument.

    But, whether or not it lacks principles by which it can "oppose" is not really the issue. Does it offer principles by which one can lead and govern? Babbitt's philosophy ultimately leaves me torn, but he took the question of authority and on what basis it could be reestablished extremely seriously, probably more seriously than almost any American since the Civil War. Babbitt's solution is often depicted too simplistically (by admirers and opponents), but it was hell-bent on active implementation of the 'higher will' that resides within each of our breasts. Once you take that duty seriously, to take responsibility for your own moral well-being, some kind of libertarianism is not far off. Perhaps not the libertarianism of the 'anarcho-capitalists', but a moral libertarianism that is not easily categorized.

    In my experience, once you take on that kind of responsibility or attempt to, you are bound to be quickly humbled, and you gain a whole new admiration for the tradition and experience of man, because if, as individuals, our 'sovereignty' is limited by governments and societies, as man, that sovereignty is without limit. I cannot go make war on or tax my neighbor, however appealing that idea might be, but man has had to struggle with the question of war and peace and law and taxation for millenia. And great men and women have written about these things and done things, both good and evil, which one hopes will not slip our collective conscience.

    In some way, I suppose I am arguing that what we need is something like a Machiavelli, a byword for amorality, but a person who, in a sphere Babbitt did not adequately explore, thought long and hard about how one establishes a polity in the first place and found that neither idealism nor a pale moralism nor gushing sentimentality were sufficient, but that a kind of virtue, a mature masculinity, was the bedrock of republics.

    As parents and/or teachers, as the author alludes to, the problem of coercion is inescapable, and the libertarians simply don't have an answer for it. And, that is why I ultimately abandoned that view. But, the role of parent or teacher is one that we rather take for granted; as a society, we generally debate the limits of their power rather than talk about the basis of their power.

    But, I think if conservatives were to try a little experiment, it might change their point of view. Try going to some neighbor you are not especially fond of and who is in need of a little discipline or some kind of change and do something to bring about that end. If you feel too timid to force him, just tell him what he ought to be doing, or express your opinion of where he has gone amiss. Serious libertarians have considered this and wisely shrink from it, but unfortunately, that is not an answer in the long run. The question has to be, how on earth can I gain the wisdom and the authority to effect that kind of thing? If we do not have the desire or the will to exercise that kind of authority, we probably have no business commenting on politics and society at all.

    My sense of the difference between conservatives and libertarians that are alive and kicking today is that the latter are horrified by a world where coercion plays a role whereas conservatives think coercion is not really a moral problem, that there is a template in the past that will somehow be magically restored if we talk about piety and family values and the Founders 'til we're blue in the face. Conservatives and libertarians need each other.

  4. Mr. Overstreet,
    Why would you want to try that "experiment" with your neighbor? In my long experience in real neighborhoods, the only people I have seen try to do something like that are wacko liberals who think that human beings, like their real institutions, are made of play-dough.
    Nate, I bet the rest of the book is just this good!

  5. Hi, Mr Wilson,

    Not knowing you, I cannot speak for you, but if you are a conservative, it is hard to believe that you think meddling in your neighbor's affairs is practiced only by liberals (wacko or otherwise). If you are a conservative, you are at least willing to have agents do that kind of coercion on your behalf, especially if you believe government has a duty to engage in some kind of moral education. The problem is that conservatives, like liberals, simply take their authority for granted. They simply expect everybody to listen to them. Conservatives "know" the problems and the solutions: God, morality, humility. As if God were a slogan. Libertarians can at least be said to have considered the implications of what it means to assume that authority or to accede to it, and they have rightly shuddered.

    As the author suggests, however, this libertarian aversion to exercising power over their neighbors is ultimately a dead end, a utopian ideal. But then again, the conservatives offer little in the way of guidance out of this moral quagmire, apart from moral sloganeering. 'What this society/country/culture/civilization needs is morality'. Fine, now what? Will faith in law and liberty return by rhetoric? Will argument convince anybody who has not already felt their power in their lives? Anyone who has not experienced these things will feel nothing but chains when they hear "God", "morality", "law", "authority", "humility". You can berate them for it, but I can't see how that would do anything but antagonize them.

    That's the point behind my rhetorical "experiment". We would not dare lecture our neighbor over relatively minor things, but we lecture whole ages and civilizations on the greatest things. We strain gnats, but swallow camels. We make sweeping claims about solutions to civilizational ills, and we simply expect people to be convinced without our having earned any authority to speak on these things.

    That's how we get quotes like the following: "the remedy is not to facilitate the debauchery of society by eliminating the props to good moral character, but to reinforce and support those props". Do not eliminate the props of morality, but prop the props of morality. Oh, so that's the remedy. How? If nothing definite is meant, what are we talking about?

  6. Typical high church conservatism. Give the state the power to enforce it's own morality,and then shock, shock! when the beast turns and devours you.

  7. Your are correct, John.

    Mr. Overstreet (my name is spelled Willson, by the way), I believe you are the one operating on the level of abstraction, and setting up straw men. What conservative "knows" the solutions and then shakes his fist in the air and yells "God, morality, humility?" I don't know you, either, and therefore can't say whether you have ever lived in a real neighborhood or not. If you have, then you know that sometimes the neighbor's dog likes your yard and not his own, or that the neighbor doesn't like your loud cook-outs, or that he rarely shovels his sidewalk after 14" of snow. Rarely, very, very rarely, do we deal with neighbors on subjects of philosophical or grave moral importance. Wacko liberals really care about dogs in other peoples' yards. They pass laws about it. Conservatives who understand what community means work it out with a friendly drink or, if need be, sending their own dog over. They don't make it a federal case. Nathan's essay above just doesn't want it to be a matter of ideology.

  8. While I don't agree with libertarian principles in full, I will say that article doesn't cite where it gets claims such as, " as Hayek himself knew" and "Rothbard, consistent to the point of absurdity, would even prevent parents from restraining their run-away toddlers."

    That is a problem because I can type quotes all day long if I don't cite where they come from – no citation=no evidence.

    Where I disagree with the author is his idea that you can legislate morality. As a Christian, this is HIGHLY offensive to me. The reason God bestowed His law on His people was not to force them to live life the way He saw it,rather it was to show them that life is best lived in relationship with Him. He knew from the beginning that our morality came from a close loving relationship with Him – not from laws passed by Man. That relationship with Him is where our "morality" comes from. The closer we are to Him, the more moral we can become.

    We will never stop sin from being in this world as Satan is the ruler of this world – at least until Jesus second coming. The sooner we as Christians see that, and accept the Bible for what it says, the better off we'll all be. And we'll be better able to see Satan's hand in all levels of the world – including our alleged "two party system."

  9. Keri, these are fine points–especially that our morality should be freely chosen, not legislated. Of course, all legislation implies some form of morality (good, bad, indifferent), but there are issues that should NEVER be political. It should be noted that Schlueter is devout in his faith (Christianity) as well. In fact, I know of few in this world who live their faith more profoundly (without being showy) than Nate and his wife, Elizabeth. Thanks for posting.

  10. Brians, not sure why you think this is High Church. St. Augustine was as high High Church as possible, and he argued that a state without justice is nothing more than a "gang of robbers" who have claimed legitimacy. So, while I think your second sentence is perfectly true, I have no idea why you identify this with "High Church." From what I understand, much (not all, of course) evangelicalism has embraced the notion of creating heaven on earth (at least in the second great awakening) and in promoting hyper American nationalism (such as the "Patriot's Bible").

  11. Thanks, Gina. I might be the only one at TIC who believes this, but I'm perfectly fine with being called a "conservative" or a "libertarian." The state is the greatest murderer of all time, and I've yet to meet a bureaucracy that really promotes what is humane.

  12. I'm glad to see Nate's article get so much attention. After reading through the comments here, though, I'm struck by how much we–those of us not on the left–divide over labels. This seems incredibly dangerous to me. Every person who commented (and who has yet to comment) is a unique individual, made as a finite being in the image of the Infinite. Not a single one of us can be narrowed to merely a title, a sect, or a label beyond being a human person. If we could, we'd lose our humanity.

  13. A more expedient summary of the differences between Libertarians and Conservtives is "Libertarians care about results not process." While "Conservatives care about the process AND the results." e.g. See the "incorporation" of Amendment II in Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, loudly cheered by famous libertarians & neocons alike yet violently destructive to republicanism.

  14. Many thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments on my piece. I am pleased to know that you found it useful and interesting. Of course there is only so much that can be developed within the limited space of an online journal. (The piece was originally published in Public Discourse: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/03/5002). I will have a follow-up piece in Public Discourse soon that will address some of your concerns.

    Keri is right to ask for support for my assertions. I supply this in my book, but for now I hope the following will suffice.

    In his essay “Why I am not a Conservative” (The Constitution of Liberty, pp.397-411) Hayek traces the history of how socialists and progressives deviously coopted for themselves the term liberal, which previously denoted classical liberalism, leaving opponents with the conservative label. But “the common tradition on which the American polity had been built,” Hayek writes, was classical liberalism. For this reason, “in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.”

    In the Ethics of Liberty (p.102) Murray Rothbard writes the following:
    "Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age."

    As the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur.

  15. Should've defined my terms. Sorry. I've always thought of high church as any centralized ecclesial episcopate, or presbytry. I'm glad you brought up Augustine. As the apologist for the church-state hybrid, he is, in fact, the original high church conservative. Also, the 2nd Great Awakening grew out of high church protestantism (again, as I've termed high church), and while perhaps the seed was there for broader evangelicalism to wield the power of the state, I would contend that it didn't truly come to fruition till fairly recently – the last few decades or so.
    It's important in our current social/political climate for paleocons & libertarians to avoid kicking each other to death. There's too much common ground, and the common enemy is much too powerful. All that to apologize for nitpicking a fairly good column.
    I still stand by my comment, though. Bureaucracies are by nature coveteous for control, and give the state any coercive power at all beyond Life, Liberty, and Property, that beast will have gobbled you up before you know it! Limits can be liberating, but they must be self imposed, not state imposed. It's the age old question – can virtue even exist without free will? Virtue imposed by fear is just Pavlovian conditioning.

  16. Ah, Brad, you say there are issues that "should never be political". Would that were true! If you had told me 30 years ago LGBT would be an everyday term and prohibition of so-called "Gay Marriage" "a violation of the 14th amendment" I would never have believed it. Everything is political to the enemies of tradition, the family and the Christian faith. There is nothing off bounds. That is why this is such a difficult age in which to raise children.

    Murray Rothbard was certainly wrongheaded when he wrote that a child -a child- had an absolute right to runaway. Or drop out of school? Or use illegal drugs? Or travel to Aruba without parental consent. Or of course have an abortion without parent knowledge, notification or consent (that is already the law in California). Statements like that are why I am not a libertarian. A libertarian like that is not a conservative; he is a radical.

  17. SovereignMary
    I prefer to be referred to as a "Constitutionalist" over the terms "Conservative" or "Libertarian." Conservative and Libertarian means many things to many people. As a "Constitutionalist" I believe that all of those who swear that sacred oath should adhere to every nuance contained within this nation's Supreme Rule of Law and should never unlawfully play at Judicial, Executive or Legislative Activism.

  18. Brians, I agree with your second and third paragraph completely. And, what a great way of putting it: "Virtue imposed by fear is just Pavlovian conditioning." Amen.

  19. in his trenchant critiques of libertarians, Dr Kirk maybe mixed the profoundly ideological objectivists and similar with people who call themselves libertarians simply because they want less government. the former are dangerous, the latter less so, but the help of all may be needed when far more than half of americans have a major stake in sustaining big government. but we who are blessed with wise masters must never forget who we are and why. brad may not mind being called a libertarian, and we could both buy libertarians a few beers, but i'd never call brad a libertarian any more than i'd call a chateaubriand merely meat or describe monteverdi's work as tunes.

  20. Libertarian is the ideological term for those whose primary allegiance is to an abstract "liberty." I am not a libertarian Dr. Birzer, and neither are you. I am a conservative as described by Dr. Russell Kirk. I wish to preserve the best of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Liberty is an important part of that heritage but it is not the highest priority. The true, the good and the beautiful are worthy first things.

  21. Life is not lived for liberty alone. Education's mission is not "educating for liberty." The True, the Good and the Beautiful are of much higher priority. Let us educate for virtue, honor, duty, truth and wisdom.

    And let's not pretend that labels don't matter. If they correspond to a world view then they are symbols of meaning which help us comprehend complex systems of thought.

    The "non-initiation of force" is a very traditional libertarian definition of freedom. It is not a conservative one and certainly not a Christian definition. Porn, prostitution, heroin use, homosexual marriage, I could go on and on. All of these are part of "freedom" in a libertarian world. For a libertarian societal standards are not important, only the non-initiation of force.

    I believe that the reason our culture is sinking into decay is not simply a lack of freedom. That seems very plain. Too much government is A problem, it is not THE problem. Thus liberty is important, but not our first priority.

    Decay of virtue, decay of honor, decay of responsibility is not caused by government in this Republic. We must seek truth, wisdom and virtue. How very sad it is when we limit ourselves to focusing on government as the problem and the solution is simply more liberty. The Republic is not failing from a lack of liberty, it is failing because of what its citizens do with their liberty.

    Furthermore, freedom for what? A man may lose his liberty and maintain his honor. Many men lose their honor while pursuing their liberty. Duty and responsibility make a man, make a father. Liberty is a good, not the highest good.

    Many libertarians are good and honorable men. I would hope that they would broaden their perspectives and recognize that politics, economics and liberty are not first things.

  22. I was trying to correlate centralized ecclesial polity with the willingness to wield the power of the state. Ratzinger gives a really beautiful excursus of the 3rd temptation in his "Jesus of Nazareth" that we would do well to heed when Satan tempts the church with political power. Obviously, most recently, low church evangelicals fell victim to this in the last decade. Historically, though, centralized episcopates, Catholic and Protestant, were most eager to enforce orthodoxy with the sword, with Augustine being their most articulate apologist. A millenium later, the "reformers" were no better, thanks to the state/church model. While I am a cultural conservative, I always cringe when I hear a traditionalist call for the use of the state to prop up or encourage a certain type of behavior, good or bad. Particularly in a culture with democratic tendencies – sooner or later you'll have the immoral mob demanding you conform to their morality. Sound familiar?

  23. "Libertarians care about results not process." Really?

    The Libertarians I've met and read couldn't care less if man wants to ruin his marriage or deform his sexual nature by perpetually visiting prostitutes. "It's a 'free' exchange of 'goods' between consenting adults," the Libertarian argues.

    It's Libertarians who argue the State shouldn't be involved in marriage. If two men, two women, three women and and four men, or any combination you can think of, want to get hitched, who is the Libertarian to say, "No, marriage shall be limited to one man and one woman."?

    They don't care if woman wants to destroy herself with heroin, crack, speed, pot, etc. Imbibing drugs doesn't hurt anyone but the user, and, as the author noted, Libertarians perpetually argue: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” If she wants to shoot-up till she's strung out and derelict on the street, starving to death, that's her choice.

    If Libertarians care about results, they aren't Libertarians. They're conservatives.

    Libertarians have always left me cold. Primarily because I'm always left, after hearing a Libertarian argue his opinions, with sense that he couldn't care less about his fellow citizens as long as the Libertarian can do whatever he wants; neighbors, co-workers, etc. be damned. Care about the results? I wonder.

    ON the other hand, perhaps the quote I cited is correct, and Libertarians do care about results. It's just results with which no moral person would find acceptable.

  24. All great points, but keep the principle of subsidarity in mind when you're imposing societal standards. Who has the right to enforce these standards? I would argue that the state does not, due to reasons I mentioned above.

    Our Republic is failing from the misuse of liberty, but liberty itself isn't the problem. The problem is the reality of fallen human nature – original sin, if you will. Regeneration and virtue, however, cannot be imposed from without.

    Without liberty, the righteous won't be permitted to seek first things. Again, they'll be required to tolerate – even approve of – the immorality of the masses.

  25. Great piece. I'm glad you mentioned Hayek wasn't discussing American conservatives in "Why I Am Not A Conservative." Unfortunately, today, he might as well be describing most who call themselves such.

    The main difference between conservatives and libertarians is libertarians accept that legislation aimed at preserving or creating the good, true, and beautiful can be easily hijacked to achieve the opposite. That is why we libertarians are not merely concerned with limiting government strictly. We are also interested keenly in fostering, through our own works, a civil society in which religious institutions, charities, schools and universities, and others will teach and enforce the good, true, and beautiful socially. Although there is something to a pedagogical purpose to legislation, our social nature demands that most moral education comes from the smallest social unit (the family) and is reinforced through the largest (the society). Government is not social, so it must be limited strictly, even when its purposes are noble.

    It's important to remember libertarianism is a political belief system, not a moral system. Neither is conservatism. Neither political philosophy demands its adherents to have any moral or personal philosophy. A person's morality may sometimes flow from their political philosophy (if it hasn't already worked in the reverse). But there can be conservative libertarians, liberal libertarians, Evangelical libertarians, and gay libertarians. The same goes for conservatives, to be sure. The only thing all libertarians hold in common is they believe government should be limited to prevent injustice from reigning. Everything else is for the realm of society and its institutions.

  26. Again, you're mischaracterizing the libertarian position. As far as marriage goes, the state's definition is simply immaterial. Marriage precedes government, and it's nature won't be changed by the attempt of the state to redefine it. If Ohio redefines marriage to include homosexuals, that doesn't require me to pretend that a homosexual union is valid or sacramental. Nor does it make me one whit less married to my wife. I don't need a state license to give myself for the woman God gave me.
    If an individual insists on destroying herself with drugs, you're right, the state shouldn't interfere. If you don't work, you don't eat. If the church wants to provide charity, it may do so. The redemption of an addict takes an act of the will – of the addict.
    I do care about results. That's why I want the gummint to lemme the hell alone, so I can provide both spiritually and materially for those I'm responsible for – including my neighbors – even a strung-out drug addict, assuming he's willing.
    Without liberty, there can be no virtue.

  27. Russell Kirk said:

    Sometimes allied with this economic obsession is the mode of belief which calls itself "libertarian." I willingly concede that there exist some very sensible and honorable men and women who allow themselves to be tagged with that label. Both F.A. Hayek and your servant reject the term; and we have our reasons, as men who have learnt considerable from Burke and Tocqueville. Those reasons, as applied to current controversies, have been sufficiently detailed recently in National Review by Ernest van den Haag.

    Let me say here only a few words by way of general principle. Any good society is endowed with order and justice and freedom. Of these, as Sir Richard Livingstone wrote, order has primacy: for without tolerable order existing, neither justice nor freedom can exist. To try to exalt an abstract "liberty" to a single solitary absolute, as John Stuart Mill attempted, is to undermine order and justice-and, in a short space, to undo freedom itself, the real prescriptive freedom of our civil social order. "License they mean, when they cry liberty," in Milton's phrase.

    John Adams and John Taylor of Caroline carried on a correspondence about the nature of liberty. Liberty as an abstraction, Adams said in substance, is either meaningless or baneful: there is the liberty of the wolf, and there is the very different liberty of the civilized human being. We owe our American freedoms to a well-functioning civil social order that requires duties as well as liberties for its survival.

    I find it grimly amusing to behold extreme "libertarians," who proclaim that they would abolish taxes, military defense, and all constraints upon impulse, obtaining massive subsidies from people whose own great affluence has been made possible only by the good laws and superior constitutions of these United States-and by our armies and navies that keep in check the enemies of our order and justice and freedom. There is no freedom in anarchy, even if we call anarchism "libertarianism." If one demands unlimited liberty, as in the French Revolution, one ends with unlimited despotism. "Men of intemperate mind never can be free," Burke tells us. "Their passions forge their fetters."

    …Some of the people who style themselves libertarians, I repeat, in fact do subscribe to the body of common beliefs I mentioned earlier. What's in a name? Actually, they remain conservative enough. But as for those doctrinaire libertarians who stand ready to sweep away government and the very moral order why, that way lies madness. If the American public is given the impression that these fantastic dogmas represent American conservatism, then everything we have gained over the past three decades may be lost. The American people are not about to submit themselves to the utopianism of a tiny band of chirping sectaries, whose prophet (even though they may not have much direct acquaintance with his works) was Jean Jacques Rousseau."

    (Find the complete essay here: http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/2012/02/conservative-movement-then-and-now.html)

  28. What a great article! And Brad, I agree with Winston's comments above. I've read enough of your work to know that while you may retain a youthful infatuation with RP, you are no libertarian! 😉 In short, Libertarians don't "get" Dawson or the notion of "Sanctifying the World". Cheers!

  29. Sorry about the misspelling, Mr Willson.

    You say, "What conservative 'knows' the solutions and then shakes his fist in the air and yells "God, morality, humility?"

    I think that when you call the opposition "wacko liberals", that implies that your side is in the know, while the other side is not even capable of knowing.

    To return to my illustration of coercing neighbors, the author says, "Conservatives do not regard coercion as evil, simpliciter." "Pure" libertarians do, of course. And yet, as I mentioned before, coercion is necessary and inevitable. Do I trust conservatives, as they are now constituted, with this power of coercion? Not when their only limits are their own conception of 'natural law'.

  30. Mr Schlueter,

    I think the 'problem of children', if that's the best term for it, is the nail in the coffin for libertarianism as a philosophy. I think Calhoun condemned Jeffersonian liberty on similar grounds.

    I would like to ask, however, if you have not mischaracterized the libertarian conception of morality to some extent? First, I think that the libertarian repulsion towards coercion is largely a moral concern and not merely an abstraction. That is, the impulse is moral and noble, although the attempt to turn it into an absolute is not. In an age of totalitarianism, I wonder if being sick of coercion is quite so deserving of condemnation.

    Second, it is hard to talk about libertarianism and not think of its association with the 'gold standard'. This is a fundamentally moral concern, and it is, somewhat ironically, about as conservative an 'institution' as one can conceive. But, you did not mention it, although you did criticize the libertarian conception of free markets.

    More specifically, you argued, with what I took as an allusion to our current economic crisis, that the market needed limits to avoid 'excesses'. But, a free monetary standard would have made the explosive growth of the financial industry (whether in the Roaring '20s or the Naughties) virtually impossible. These excesses, whether in the US or globally, were only made possible through the innovation of central banking. Moreover, one wonders if episodes such as World War II or the French Revolution would have occurred or occurred in such bloodthirsty fashion if they had not been preceded by monetary innovations.

    Ultimately, I just don't know how useful it is for libertarians and conservatives to war with each other.

  31. Brian, you are generalising far too much. The relationship between virtue, order, and justice on the one hand, and freedom and choice on the other hand is complex.

    It is the case man requires liberty and choice to be fully virtuous and fully human, it is not the case that all deprivation of choice and freedom, even in areas far beyond mere prevention of direct harm, is going to make him less virtuous or fully human. Indeed, the reverse is the case in just about all societies I know of.

    Also, we can all agree a lot of state growth and intervention needs to be viewed with caution and even suspicion, but your stark, one-dimensional view of the propensities of the state borders on the simplistic and hyperbolic.

  32. While you criticize libertarians for offering simple solutions to complex problems, you do the same by stereotyping them and putting them in one-box-fits-all.
    Libertarians today – at least most of the ones I know – are more opposed to the government handouts to "green companies" that are collapsing like a house of cards. I don't know of one that opposes the post office, but they do surely note how much more effective it is done by the private sector. In fact, when my computer malfunctioned, the computer company warned me via email NOT to use the federal post office to ship my computer for fear it would be damaged.
    Your views on libertarians seem to have pulled from a text book. Do you know of any or just what you read?

  33. This article is full of generalizations, like any group Libertarians have a wide range of beliefs, not all libertarians are anarchists, and not all are libertarians go to "x" extent on every issue.

    Most libertarians might just say that the Libertarian philosophy is closer to their feelings on a subject than another philosophy, say conservatism or liberalism.

    However all that being said, the article makes a lot of good points to why I am not a conservative.

    I am a libertarian.

  34. Shorter version: American Liberty is not actually about individual freedom, as Libertarians suggest, but rather the government structures, policies, orthodoxies and opinions that Republicans such as myself endorse.

    News Flash: Freedom doesn't mean a government you like, as ConseRblicans appear to believe. Freedom is the sum total of the Individual's economic, civil and political liberty. Unfortunately, many of the Republican Party's platforms and principles severely conflict with Individual freedom (NDAA; Patriot Act; WOD; income tax), and therefore Libertarians reject them.

    Some of the Republican Party's principles not only offend Individual liberty as Libertarians conceive it, but further offend a plain reading of the Constitution and purportedly "conservative" interpretations of the scope of federal enumerated powers. (E.g. waging a war on marijuana, a plant that's highly useful for a lot of things, and which was utilized, including recreationally (GASP), by such hippies as George Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln–who, worse, promoted its use as such.) And so Libertarians mock Republicans. Don't be too butt-hurt.

    Oooh here's an idea for your next article: Why don't you write about how the sky fell when Gary Johnson pardoned / expunged the records of over 390 NM felons who had spent time in state prison for mere possession or use of the flower of a plant humanity has utilized perhaps longer than any other agricultural crop (that'd be marijuana); and how the sky fell when he freed from state prison the three Individuals then languishing there for the same. Other than the fact that the sky didn't fall, you'll have a lot to write about.

  35. Unfortunately most of the commentaries about libertarianism are written by those who are neither libertarian nor understand libertarianism. Any libertarian will tell you that “protecting unborn children” is one of the more contentious debates within the libertarian movement. We all agree, however, that government should have no say in such an intimate decision between a husband and wife, and it certainly should not be funded by taxpayer money.
    Second “securing American citizens against terrorists.” Once again the premise of this statement is offensive. Every libertarian I’ve talked to and met is pro-self-defense rights. What better protection could this country have than 300 Million Americans with guns? And if this is a reference to foreign adventurism, then how could sending our troops all over the world protect American citizens? What would your reaction be to the appearance of foreign troops in your neighborhoods? Would you fight them and call for military action against their country?
    The statement “…which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further” reveals the author’s true agenda. He is essentially admitting that he doesn’t believe that Liberty is compatible with the “order” of the society he wants. And, of course, only he has the ability to decide the order to which society should conform.
    1. It’s true enough that not all the Founders were libertarians. However the Constitution was not written by libertarians. It was written in spite of much objection on libertarian grounds (see The Anti-Federalist Papers). The Bill of Rights exists only because libertarians knew that the Constitution could be used to usurp the power of the people and fought to have it added. Unfortunately conservatives have aided in its erosion.
    2. The conservatives I know do not have open minds. Talk to them about legalizing marijuana? “Drugs make people do bad things!” is the response. Even after pointing out the failures of the War on Drugs. Get the government out of marriage? “Homosexuality is destroying the moral fabric of our country!” says the conservative who’s on his third marriage with children from each woman.
    3. When other people decide what is good for you then you have lost your individuality, what makes you unique. Non-libertarians squeeze individuals into groups (African-American, Latino, gay, urban, rural, illegal immigrant, rich, poor, etc.) and then legislate for what is best for the “common” good of these groups; usually at the expense of others. Libertarians recognize individuals for their uniqueness and pay no attention to whatever groups they associate themselves with. Each person is responsible for their own actions.
    4. “Moral harm”? Really? When we are born we have certain unalienable rights, life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not being offended is not a God-given right. Taking the author’s argument to its logical conclusion, if someone can shoot you because you are causing them bodily harm (right of self-defense), then you can also be shot because you are damaging their sensibilities. This is a gross misstep in the author’s understanding of libertarianism.

  36. 5.“Some limits liberate.” I can only think of the “War Is Peace; Freedom Is Slavery; Ignorance Is Strength” slogan from Orwell’s book, 1984. Humans enter this world dependent, true enough. And, sure, we all require guidance. But at some point in our lives we assume responsibility for our own lives. However the author of this article seems to believe that we need necessary “coercive associations” so we can recognize the greatness of the “free government” and be thankful that it exists.
    6.Legislating morality assumes that the legislator’s morality is superior to those to whom he legislates. The author’s argument is rendered invalid by the statement, “This is not to say the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue.” If the purpose of the law is to encourage moral behavior, then why stop short?
    7.Free market means…Free. Individuals freely enter the market, mutually exchange goods and services, and move on. Using legislation to control what can and can’t be exchanged leads to a non-Free market. If not, why not?
    8.I’ve never heard anyone say this. A great misunderstanding of libertarianism is that any form of government is possible as long as the initiation of force is not used to establish it.
    9.You cannot advocate legislation that will make society “moral” and “virtuous” and then claim that libertarians are utopian. The nature of conservatism is to shape society in the image of their morality. The end game, presumably, is a society where no one violates anyone else’s morality and that everyone’s morality is the same. If this isn’t a vision of Utopia, please explain to me what it is.
    10.To those who wish to control others, Freedom is dangerous. Freedom isn’t always used for good; but do we oppress everyone’s Freedom because of this?
    Libertarians are the only ones who realize that reality is complex and therefore do not profess to have all the answers for everyone. The only role of government is to protect the rights of individuals as they find the unique answers for their lives.
    The truth is that, while conservatives may acknowledge the complexity of reality, only their version of reality is the one everyone should accept. So much do they believe this that they are willing to use the police power of government to make everyone else accept it.

  37. "You cannot advocate legislation that will make society 'moral' and 'virtuous' and then claim that libertarians are utopian."

    Sure you can, because the laws in question (if we are talking about a genuinely Conservative approach) are long standing laws grounded in history and experience. It is the attempt to radically remake the entire socio-political reality that we have known overnight, whether through positive or negative legislative proposals, that characterizes Utopianism. Now if we are discussing unprecedented and newly proposed legislation to mold social morality I completely agree with you.

  38. For such a grand display of sesquipedalian loquaciousness, I haven’t seen anything to convince me (either in the article itself or in most of the messages) that libertarianism isn’t simply a different way of approaching excesses in both government and in the individual. I certainly do not see where, in any thinking person, it would remove the controls necessary to run an efficient society.

    In attempting to describe differences, sir, you have shown your hand clearly as stated in previous comments. That is to say that any idea that is not your brand of conservatism under the umbrella of republicanism must be wrong because it isn’t what you have been taught. I, for one, wholeheartedly disagree! In fact I left the Republican party, not because I changed, but because they changed and they pulled the chair right out from under anyone who disagreed with their legislate everything platform.

    I contend that Jesus warned us of how to proceed in government when He stated in Matthew Chapter 20, “You know about the rulers of the nations. They hold power over their people. Their high officials order them around. DON’T BE LIKE THAT. Instead, anyone who wants to be important among you must be your servant. And anyone who wants to be first must be your slave. Be like the Son of Man. He did not come to be served. Instead, he came to serve others. He came to give his life as the price for setting many people free.” Our founders understood this and sought to develop a framework wherein the people maintained their liberties and the government provided the security. They did a fine job of just that. It has been the legislators of so many copious laws within Federal Registry that has undermined that framework, not free will or liberty.

    My loquaciousness matching yours, I will state simply this. Republicanism, as it exists today limits the ability of God to work within the soul of man, within governments and within society. It splits the members of society to such an extent that we will never come to terms.

    God gives man free will, should men give men less? Of course there are limits to that, as in any society (which has been addressed within our Constitution), but to say that to strictly limit people by law, to define how they shall live down to their personal choices, in order to make that society function properly, is a naive and damaging premise. However, if we remove the societal pushes, we can then address the heart conditions, as it was intended, one on one through relationship, through the churches and organizations, while at the same time hold the fire to the feet of our so-called Representatives.

    That you said that Libertarians do not care is quite an affront sir. I know many libertarians, myself included, who do nothing but to serve their fellow man in need.

    I am as conservative as they come, but I do not believe that government should control personal ideas or property, nor do I believe I should be required to gain approval from my government for the choice of my spouse. It is merely a means of taxation and of control. I personally do not subscribe to homosexuality, but does that give me the right to deny another their free will in that matter? No, it does not. In fact, my duty is exactly the opposite, to love my neighbor as myself. It is in that service that right behavior is challenged, not in government fiat.

    We cannot, nor will we ever be able to correct the heart of man. The laws we make that attempt to do so come with so many unintended consequences that they eventually erode our society further.

    Conservatives like the Rockefeller, Rothschild and others have been the biggest offenders of our liberties. It is because of those men, we have succeeded in creating and bursting bubbles that only deprive the hardworking American. You cannot legislate morality. You can however, compassionately deal with your neighbor, encourage them, teach them, help them, and allow the true free markets to work.

    As I write, Speaker Boehner is striving to pass a law called TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, that will allow President Obama to sign an Investment agreement with certain Pacific nations and will summarily place our country and our businesses under international laws, superseding our nation’s sovereignty and our Constitution. It will disallow competition for any trade we invest in, create by fiat new SOPA, CISPA and other communication restrictions and taxations as well without vote by legislature. We can R&D in any product that is Invested in (think generic drugs, new technologies, etc.), but we cannot produce or sell it as long as that investment is active within the trade nations. We are to encourage all our businesses to write policy to agree to International Laws and submit to International Laws, and if they do not comply, their products will not be able to be traded.

    In deciding to becoming a Libertarian, as I mentioned before, I am not actually the one who jumped the shark. The republicans are the ones who jumped the shark, I just stayed where I was. They moved the goal post. Until last week I always thought we could move it back, however, the end for me solidified last week when Senator McConnell said that the gun vote “sent a powerful message,” adding, AND I QUOTE, “If the American people think that just because they voted us into office and pay our salaries, benefits, and pensions, we are somehow obliged to listen to them, they are sorely mistaken.” and when Sen. Graham said (about the same vote) “It was a gut check, for sure, but we had to draw a line in the sand. If we had voted the way the American people wanted us to, it would have sent the message that we’re here in Washington to be nothing more than their elected representatives.” That was it for me. I really couldn’t take the duplicity anymore. The only way to stop them is to get off the wagon and stand in front of them. Oddly, I am pro 2nd amendment, but the fact they said what they said as reason for their vote, revealed to me the true evil that is afoot in this government. I will not comply with the duopoly any longer.

    That, sir, is the danger of conservative republicanism, not libertarian views.

    One writer said we need each other and he is correct. We do need each other. At a time when conservatives should be uniting, this article is as an unproductive exercise in the opposite as possible and serves only to anger and divide, for it certainly defines nothing of import to the world at large.

  39. The contemporary Tea Party Movement, like its revolutionary ancestor, looks to principles for guidance. Yet an old but active fault line runs just beneath the surface of the movement that has the potential to cause a fatal rupture. Tea Partiers simultaneously promote both a conservatism based upon the principles of the American founding and a libertarianism based on individualism, but the two are ultimately incompatible.
    Libertarians are good at explaining why the market works and why government fails, and they have made important policy initiatives in areas such as school choice. On the other hand, they actively oppose laws prohibiting obscenity, protecting unborn children, promoting marriage, limiting immigration, and securing American citizens against terrorists. These positions flow from core principles that have more in common with modern liberalism than with the American founding, and which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further.
    The attraction of libertarianism is also its main defect: it offers neat solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex than libertarians acknowledge. Only conservatism offers principles adequate to that reality. “How’s that going for ya?” Consider ten claims libertarians often make:
    1. “The Founders of the American political order were libertarian.” “Sorry no Libertarian says that the founding fathers were Libertarian” Although the American Founders believed in limited government, they were not libertarian. The Constitution was designed for a federal system of government, specifying and limiting national powers and leaving to the states the exercise of their customary powers to protect the health, safety, morals, and welfare of their citizens. None of the American founders challenged these customary state powers, nor did they attempt to repeal them. “And rightly so, to come up with a document to unite these varied and disjointed group of sovereign states by so much a tweak of any kind would have been unattainable at best and the assured failure of forming a Republic at all.” Even on its own terms, the Constitution provides for powers that many libertarians would object to, such as establishing post offices, granting patents, regulating commerce among the states, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus.
    2. “Conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them.” This claim, made by F.A. Hayek, is simply false as applied to American conservatism (as Hayek himself knew). American conservatism seeks to conserve the principles of justice that lie at the root of the American political order, what might be called Natural Law Liberalism. These principles, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, are rooted in nature, which fixes the boundaries to all authority. They include “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; “self-evident” truths such as “all men are Created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; and a clear statement of the end of government, to “secure” rights and to “effect [the] Safety and Happiness” of the governed. “This is such a convoluted, chopped up mess of words and combinations of words as to confuse even a child, whom, if exposed to this 200 years ago and if he were to read this idiocy, would just walk away laughing!!”
    3. “Only individuals exist, therefore there is no such thing as a ‘common good.’” The statement reflects the corrosive nominalism that Richard Weaver decried in Ideas Have Consequences, and which fatally undercuts the principled limits to coercive authority identified above. Every human association, whether a marriage, business partnership, or sports team, has a common good, or why would it exist?
    Common goods are not substantial entities standing over and against individual persons; they are the good of individual persons. But this does not mean common goods are always divisible into individual shares, like a cake. An orchestra, a marriage, an army cannot be divided without being destroyed. Within such associations individual persons exist as bandmates, spouses, and soldiers.
    The common good of the political association consists in the ensemble of conditions in which persons and associations can more easily flourish. These are nicely summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” “I have yet to read a serious Libertarian who denies common good”
    4. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The “harm principle,” first formulated by J.S. Mill, is a moral claim. It cannot be derived from moral skepticism without committing a self-referential fallacy: The argument, “We don’t know what is right or wrong, therefore it is wrong to do x,” is obviously invalid.
    As a moral claim, the harm principle is not neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good. Underlying it is the conviction that the good for human beings is to live according to one’s own conception of what is good, and to live in a society in which that freedom is protected. For the sake of this conception of the good, it requires the repeal of legislation “a very important concept/duty of legislators” enacted by those with a different conception of the good “and forced upon the unaware citizen.” It thus deprives them of their right to choose and live according to their own conception of the good. In effect, libertarians wish to compel other persons with whom they disagree to live in a society that these others find, often with very good reason, to be hostile to human flourishing. “Please, just ONE example of a society that flourishes when compelled by a committee to LEGISLATE others to live the way they see fit!”
    Further, the harm principle is neither self-evident nor demonstrably true. It certainly cannot apply to children and mental incompetents, as Mill himself knew, and this concession significantly undermines the principle. “These instances are not and should never be in the realm of any civil government”
    The greatest objection, however, is the narrow construction Mill gives to it. For him, as for other libertarians, the principle only applies to bodily harm. But why deny the existence of moral harm? If it is true that some actions are intrinsically self-destructive or self-corrupting, then it is also true that encouraging such actions can cause harm to others. Prostitutes, panders, pushers, and pimps all profit from the moral corruption of others. “Western governments are by far the largest single benefactor/inducer of the moral corruption of others.” Why should society be forced to treat these actions with indifference because of a questionable moral claim like the harm principle? “What a silly statement; governments have no authority to legislate ANY morals”
    5. “Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery.” This is Murray Rothbard’s succinct summary of the anarcho-libertarian objection to politics. Anarcho-libertarians are opposed to conscription and taxation on principle. What gives people calling themselves “the state,” they ask, the moral right to do that which, if done by “private” persons, everyone would call criminal? (Rothbard, consistent to the point of absurdity, would even prevent parents from restraining their run-away toddlers.) Because non-anarchist libertarians also regard all coercion as evil, this objection presents some difficulty for them.
    Conservatives do not regard coercion as evil, simpliciter. Some limits liberate. Human beings enter the world utterly dependent, and they require for their security and development the authoritative and sometimes coercive direction of parents, teachers, police, soldiers, and judges. There are many subtle threads of coercion, conservatives argue, that make social cooperation possible. “It is becoming clearer by the moment, that you are not a conservative by any stretch of the imagination let alone as a supposed like-minded person to more than a few who may be institutionalized. Let me assure you that though there may be some as infantile in their reasoning, imbecilic in their conclusions and as completely warped in their thesis, I have only ever met them on forums.”
    Outside the bounds set by natural right, however, coercion is tyranny. It has been the greatest achievement of Western civilization to recognize the basic human needs, interests, and inclinations that make coercive associations necessary, to carve out their rightful scope and limits, and to bring them under the discipline of reason and the rule of law. Civilization depends upon citizens (cives), members of a political association (civitas) who understand and are grateful for the gift of free government, attached to its principles, and prepared to defend it against all threats, including free riders who would exploit the system for their own private advantage. “Like your own pathetic position at an institution long devoid of any honesty or morality.” Libertarians often treat this difficult achievement like mere scaffolding that can now be kicked down for the sake of a utopian vision that has never existed and never will.
    6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character. Libertarians who doubt this point can examine the difference in attitudes toward racial discrimination in America before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the availability of pornographic materials before and after Roth v.United States (1957), or the stability of marriage before and after the introduction of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s. The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.
    This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism.
    “What a crock of drivel! Not worth a comment!”
    7. Government should not interfere in the free market. Because they oppose commerce in things that are intrinsically immoral and harmful, such as hard drugs, prostitution, or obscene materials, conservatives are accused by libertarians of opposing the free market. This is false. Conservatives value the free market as much as libertarians, as a means for mutually beneficial exchanges, as an occasion for the exercise of virtues such as creativity, cooperation, industry, honesty, and thrift, and as an indispensable source of information (through the pricing mechanism) for individuals on the best use of resources.
    But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers. “Wrong again – only citizens, honest ones and crooked ones.”
    For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues. When the use of private property and market exchanges have spillover effects that adversely effect these other institutions and individuals, they are subject to reasonable limits by law. This is the understanding of law and morality that lies behind the common law, was embraced by the states after the American Revolution, and although under steady assault by modern liberals and libertarians, continues in America to this day. “A whole lot of word clusters put together by someone who really has no idea as to their meaning and application in reality.”
    8. The only alternative to libertarianism is totalitarianism. This is a false dilemma. Between the fantasies of libertarianism and totalitarianism is the wide spectrum of governments that have actually existed through most of human history. The false dilemma is often associated with the slippery slope fallacy: If people are given the power to coerce in one area, they will eventually coerce in all areas. Libertarians rarely give the cause or reason why this must be true, and conservatives deny that it is true. “You are in dire need of a long and intensive history lesson, kid.” Conservatives recognize the dangers of moral fanaticism, but they insist, with historical evidence to back them up, that the remedy is not to facilitate the debauchery of society by eliminating the props to good moral character, but to reinforce and support those props.
    9. Libertarianism is based upon a realistic understanding of human nature. Libertarians accuse conservatives of being utopian or naïve about human nature. Self-regarding actions are sufficient for producing a free and prosperous society, they argue. Moreover, power by its very nature corrupts human beings and therefore should be narrowly circumscribed and vigilantly watched.
    Conservatives reply that it is the libertarians who are utopian for failing to give proper weight to the full range of human motives, and to the exigencies of a free society and limited government. They concur with James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these [latter] qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
    Public virtue alone is not sufficient to secure limited government, but it is foolish to think that it can be dispensed with altogether. If the despotism of George III “not at all but it made a good excuse” caused the American Revolution, the virtue of George Washington “oh great, just like we learned in grade 4” was necessary to conclude it. “The aim of every political constitution,” Madison writes in Federalist No. 57, is “first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Here, from the “Father of the Constitution,” is a sober constitutional principle based upon a true realism.
    10. “Freedom works.” A frequent refrain of Hayek, but what does it mean? “it means that benevolent, peaceful, successful Societies have flourished ONLY when freedom is available and the more of it the more successful!” Weapons also “work,” though not necessarily for good. Freedom cannot be evaluated apart from the ends that it serves. John Winthrop, in a passage Tocqueville called “this beautiful definition of freedom,” once said:
    There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is effected by men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty, [we are all inferior]; ’tis the grand enemy of truth and peace … But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives. “other than the misspelled and incorrect meaning of the word [effected] instead of AFFECTED, this quotation is about the only paragraph of the entire essay that holds a ring of truth!”
    Stand the first Tea Partiers did when their true liberty was threatened, “no they didn’t, they terrorized law abiding businessmen to ostracize those who imported the low taxed tea now available to compete with American interests” and stand we must if it is to be preserved. “They like you have very little if anything to stand for!”

  40. I became a libertarian after hearing Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series. I am also a Christian. The reason I do not consider myself a libertarian overall is that their philosophy is inconsistent, on many issues they have given in to the liberal position even though it is incompatible with their own. An example is abortion, preferring to give the rights of the mother priority over the rights of the unborn individual, which is incompatible with the do no harm statement. Secondly, without morality, there can be no laws, and without a fundamental belief in God, there can be no morality.

  41. The author makes the clear mistake of believing that libertarians simply come in only flavor, and he conveniently picks the most extreme version of it in order to attack it.

  42. Here’s a challenge for libertarians. Why not put your beliefs on the line and start your own little nation-state of sovereign individuals? For the first time in history, unrelated peoples will come together to create free institutions out of thin air.

    For safety purposes, we’ll put the whole experiment on an island. Since culture, and especially ethnicity, are supposed to be irrelevant, I get to choose who populates this island. Let’s make a diverse society composed of: all the inhabitants of Watts, balanced by the residents of all of the gated communities in Los Angeles; 50,000 each of Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites; 100,000 each of Hutus and Tutsis; 20,000 each of Ibo and Yoruba from Nigeria; 10,000 Turks, balanced by 5,000 Greeks and 5,000 Armenians; and finally, just to add a little extra spice to this multicultural stew, 50 pro-Kelley Objectivists and 50 pro-Peikoff Objectivists.

    The multicults can then bring in their top-notch tolerance trainers to lecture these pioneers about the noble philosophy of individual liberty. Then we’ll release them so they can let freedom ring all over their new land. I’ll watch and document the results – from a safe distance.

  43. I can sum it up in a short sentence. Libertarians are conservatives who are scared to death of God.

  44. Mike, your little island scenario doesn’t work.. because YOU are choosing who must live there. . . . Also, there is a very good example of a very long standing Libertarian system … ancient Ireland up until about the 1700s when England invaded. They were “Libertarian” for about 2,000 years before that by what I’ve read and had very few problems.

    As for the author, this is just another hit piece against Libertarians by someone who isn’t one and doesn’t really understand them. Even the Libertarian Party has erred … they condone abortion in their platform but that is the ultimate violation of the Non Aggression Principle. Today’s LP is more like Republican-lite.

    Libertarian (The commenter) did a good job of clearing things up where the author went wrong. As for those of you claiming Libertarians don’t care about others, that’s another misnomer. Just because a Libertarian wants you to be free to do whatever you want (as long as you aren’t hurting others) doesn’t mean they won’t try to help keep you from harming yourself. They want you to be free to use drugs if you want… but they will also be there to be your friend or to help you kick an addiction if you want that help. Libertarian doesn’t mean “not moral”. One could easily argue that imposing such laws (drug laws etc) is immoral because it’s taking away the free choices of the people and it’s taking away their hard earned money to pay for it.

    One last thing… I would argue that Libertarians, Conservatives and Liberals all have it wrong. Government is a monopoly on force. The various ideologies listed here simply vary on the how much force government should have or use. No matter how limited the government, they are still using force against the people. Hans Hermann Hoppe suggests a better alternative, abolish all forms of government. You cannot be truly free as long as there is a government in place. I would suggest to people to go read Hoppe’s “What Must Be Done” or “State or Private Law Society”.

  45. I consider myself a libertarian, meaning that I’m anti-government. Once you empower government to enforce conservative principles you’ve also empowered it to enforce any principles the holders of that power prefer. In a free society Conservatives may live their lives as they choose, while also attempting to transform the culture via non-governmental institutions and agencies, e.g., churches, temples, and other voluntary associations. I don’t see what is so complicated about this. The problem seems to be that the critics of libertarianism don’t understand the nature and tendencies of governmental power.

  46. When in the pages of political history were conservatives Laizeez Faire Capitalists(aka libertarians)? Other than in America? Laizeez Faire is a radical enlightenment concept. We need a conservatism of old that is in favor of employment rights and trade unions and is bias to small buisness and that taxes large corporations. That’s another feature libertarians forget about their idealogy, the corruption and tyranny big buisness usually leads to.

  47. I am an anarcho-capitalist and agree with most of your points, but I make a great difference between society and government, one fundamental principle of libertarianism, even if many libertarians try to understate it, is the freedom to discriminate, and that gives society all the power it needs to discourage vice and encourage virtue for the very simple reason that people, when free to discriminate, are prompt to regroup in like-minded groups, and groups of people sharing virtuous values have an inherent competitive advantage over aggregates of drug users, pimps, con men and hippies.

    When reduced to base principles, libertarianism is about letting people have free use of their capital, to dilapidate it or to make it grow from their own preferences, but it is a grave error to limit this to economic capital, cultural capital is at least as important, what an anarco-capitalist environment provides is a way for different world views to compete, and if, as I am, you believe that people live better in strong communities sharing core tenets and decency, you should believe that in a free competition of self-organized communities, those who remember the lessons of millennia of refinement of morals those who remember that traditions and values are there for a reason are much better equipped to live in the real world than those who believe in throwing away all tradition in the name of “emancipation”

    Authority is not incompatible with libertarianism, as long as it is the authority that comes from nature itself, the authority that comes from being recognized as a just and good man that people look up to, natural authority has no need to use force to encourage virtue and organize society, only people of low natural authority have the need for the instruments of state power to keep their control over people, because they are not righteous, and thus not respected.

    For a conservative point of view of the compatibility of well understood libertarianism with conservatism, I recommend the writings of Frank Meyer, Rothbard once said of him that he was as much a libertarian as he was, but since Rothbard was obsessed with spreading libertarianism to the left-leaning “peace” movement, he used a lot of emancipationist, individualist and anti-tradition language, he came to deeply regret that choice and many of his successors have renewed the fusionist ideas, Ron Paul being an striking example of somebody who is strongly pro-life, morally conservative, highly virtuous, and a strong proponent of liberty.

    The divide you expose exists, but the frontier is not between conservatism and libertarianism, the very strong divide is inside the libertarian movement itself because behind the same principles, two very different visions of society are opposing, one based on voluntary association into communities and “cultural competition”, and another of cosmopolitanism and, as you point out, coercing people not into living as they want to, but into having to live with people whose actions they strongly disapprove of, one of peaceful coexistence of distinct societies, and one of atomic individuals in a mass of other atomic individuals.

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