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americanThe term “libertarianism” is distasteful to people who think seriously about politics. Both Dr. F.A. Hayek and your servant have gone out of their way, from time to time, to declare that they refuse to be tagged with this label. Anyone much influenced by the thought of Edmund Burke and of Alexis de Tocqueville—as are both Professor Hayek and this commentator—sets his face against ideology; and libertarianism is a simplistic ideology, relished by one variety of the folk whom Jacob Burckhardt called “the terrible simplifiers.”

Nevertheless, I have something to say favorable to today’s libertarians in the United States; later I shall dwell upon their vices. With your indulgence, I mean to make three points about persons calling themselves libertarians, which may warm the cockles of their rebellious hearts.

First, a number of the men and women who accept the label “libertarian” are not actually ideological libertarians at all, but simply conservatives under another name. These are people who perceive in the growth of the monolithic state, especially during the past half century, a grim menace to ordered liberty; and of course they are quite right. They wish to emphasize their attachment to personal and civic freedom by employing this twentieth-century word derived from liberty. With them I have little quarrel—except that by so denominating themselves, they seem to countenance a crowd of political fantastics who “license they mean, when they cry liberty.”

Descendants of Classical Liberals

For if a man believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, established American way of life, and a free economy—why, actually he is a conservative, even if he labors under an imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics. Such Americans are to the conservative movement in the United States much as the Liberal Unionists have been to the Conservative Party in Britain—that is, close practical allies, almost indistinguishable nowadays. Libertarians of this description usually are intellectual descendants of the old “classical liberals;” they make common cause with regular conservatives against the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism.

Second, the libertarians generally—both the folk of whom I have just approved, and also the ideological libertarians—try to exert some check upon vainglorious foreign policy. They do not believe that the United States should station garrisons throughout the world; no more do I; in some respects, the more moderate among them have the understanding of foreign policy that the elder Robert Taft represented. Others among them, however, seem to labor under the illusion that communist ideology can be dissipated by trade agreements—a notion really fatuous. I lack time to labor this point here; I mean to take it up again in my autumn lecture on the neoconservatives, who in foreign policy tend toward an opposite extreme. Let it suffice for the present for me to declare that so far as the libertarians set their faces against a policy of American domination worldwide—why, I am with them. I part with them when they forget that the American government nowadays, in Burke’s phrase of two centuries ago, is “combating an armed doctrine,” not merely a national adversary.

Perils of Centralization

Third, most of the libertarians believe in the humane scale: They vehemently oppose what my old friend Wilhelm Roepke called “the cult of the colossal.” They take up the cause of the self-reliant individual, the voluntary association, the just rewards of personal achievement. They know the perils of political centralization. In an age when many folks are ready—nay, eager—to exchange their independence for “entitlements,” the libertarians exhort us to stand on our own feet, manfully.

In short, the libertarians’ propaganda, which abounds, does touch upon real social afflictions of our time, particularly repression of vigorous and aspiring natures by centralized political structures and by the enforcement of egalitarian doctrines. Rather curiously, libertarian publications have been widely circulated in Poland—apparently with no concerted effort by the communist government to prevent their introduction. (One may suspect, in this instance, that the eagerness of certain libertarian organizations for cordial relations between the West and the Soviet Union induces some toleration by the squalid oligarchies of the East.) With reason, many people are discontented with the human condition, in many lands, near the end of the twentieth-century; the more intelligent among the discontented look about for some seemingly logical alternative to present dominations and powers; and some of those discontented—the sort of people who went out to David in the Cave of Adullam—discover libertarian dogmata and become enthusiasts, at least temporarily, for the ideology called libertarianism.

Inadequacies and Extravagances

I say temporarily: for an initial fondness for libertarian slogans frequently has led young men and women to the conservative camp. Not a few of the people who have studied closely with me or who have become my assistants had been attracted, a few years earlier, to the arguments of Ayn Rand or of Murray Rothbard. But as they read more widely, they had become conscious of the inadequacies and extravagances of the various libertarian factions; as they had begun to pay serious attention to our present political difficulties, they had seen how impractical are the libertarian proposals. Thus, they had found their way to conservative realism, which proclaims that politics is the art of the possible. Therefore, it may be said of libertarianism, in friendly fashion, that often it has been a recruiting office for young conservatives, even though the libertarians had not the least intention of shoring up belief in custom, convention, and the politics of prescription. There. I have endeavored to give the libertarians their due. Now let me turn to their failings, which are many and grave. For the ideological libertarians are not conservatives in any true meaning of that term of politics; nor do the more candid libertarians desire to be called conservatives. On the contrary, they are radical doctrinaires, contemptuous of our inheritance from our ancestors.

They rejoice in the radicalism of Tom Paine; they even applaud those seventeenth-century radicals, the Levellers and the Diggers, who would have pulled down all the land-boundaries, and pulled down, too, the whole framework of church and state. The libertarian groups differ on some points among themselves and exhibit varying degrees of fervor. But one may say of them in general that they are “philosophical” anarchists in bourgeois dress. Of society’s old institutions, they would retain only private property. They seek an abstract Liberty that never has existed in any civilization—nor, for that matter, among any barbarous people, or any savage. They would sweep away political government; in this, they subscribe to Karl Marx’s notion of the withering away of the state.

Cooperation Aids Prosperity

One trouble with this primitive understanding of freedom is that it could not possibly work in twentieth-century America. The American Republic, and the American industrial and commercial system, require the highest degree of cooperation that any civilization ever has known. We prosper because most of the time we work together—and are restrained from our appetites and passions, to some extent, by laws enforced by the state. We need to limit the state’s powers, of course, and our national Constitution does that—if not perfectly, at least more effectively than does any other national constitution. The Constitution of the United States distinctly is not an exercise of libertarianism. It was drawn up by an aristocratic body of men who sought “a more perfect union.” The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had a wholesome dread of the libertarians of 1786-1787, as represented by the rebels who followed Daniel Shays in Massachusetts. What the Constitution established was a higher degree of order and prosperity, not an anarchists’ paradise. So it is somewhat amusing to find some old gentlemen and old ladies contributing heavily to the funds of libertarian organizations in the mistaken belief that thus they are helping restore the virtuous freedom of the early Republic. American industry and commerce on a large-scale could not survive for a single year, without the protections extended by government at its several levels.

Rousseau’s Disciples

“To begin with unlimited freedom,” Dostoevsky wrote, “is to end with unlimited despotism.” The worst enemies of enduring freedom for all may be certain folk who demand incessantly more liberty for themselves. This is true of a country’s economy, as of other matters. America’s economic success is based upon an old foundation of moral habits, social customs and convictions, much historical experience, and commonsensical political understanding. Our structure of free enterprise owes much to the conservative understanding of property and production expounded by Alexander Hamilton—the adversary of the libertarians of his day. But our structure of free enterprise owes nothing at all to the destructive concept of liberty that devastated Europe during the era of the French Revolution—that is, to the ruinous impossible freedom preached by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Our twentieth-century libertarians are disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of human nature and Rousseau’s political doctrines. Have I sufficiently distinguished between libertarians and conservatives? Here I have been trying to draw a line of demarcation, not to refute libertarian arguments; I shall turn to the latter task in a few minutes.

Before I essay that task, however, let me illustrate my discourse by a parable. True Genius is Centric. The typical libertine of 1988 delights in eccentricity—in private life as in politics. His is the sort of freedom, or license, that brings on social collapse. Libertarianism and libertinism are near allied. As that staunch Victorian conservative, James Fitzjames Stephen, instructs us, “Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength.” G.K. Chesterton remarks that true genius is not eccentric, but centric.

With respect to libertarian eccentricity, the dream of an absolute private freedom is one of those visions that issue from between the gates of ivory; and the disorder that they would thrust upon society already is displayed in the moral disorder of their private affairs. Some present here will recall the article on libertarianism in National Review, a few years ago, by that mordant psychologist and sociologist Dr. Ernest van den Haag, who remarked that an unusually high proportion of professed libertarians are homosexuals. In politics as in private life, they demand what nature cannot afford.

Total Annihilation

The enemy to all custom and convention ends in the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The final emancipation from religion, the state, moral and positive law, and social responsibilities is total annihilation: the freedom from deadly destruction. When obsession with an abstract Liberty has overcome personal and public order—why, then, in Eliot’s lines, we are —

…whirled Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear In fractured atoms.

Just that is the theme of my parable—or rather, of Chesterton’s parable, for I offer you now a hasty synopsis of G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Yellow Bird”—which too few people have read, though it was published in 1929. Chesterton knew that we must accept the universe that was created for us.

Russian Zealot

In Chesterton’s tale, there comes to a venerable English country house a guest, Professor Ivanhov, a Russian scholar who has published a much praised book, The Psychology of Liberty. He is a zealot for emancipating, expanding, the elimination of all limits—in short, a thoroughgoing libertarian.

Ivanhov, under the shelter of an old English roof and enjoying not merely all English liberties but also the privileges of a guest, proceeds to put into practice his libertarian doctrines. He commences his operations by liberating the yellow bird, a canary, from its cage; once out the window, the canary promptly is torn limb from limb by a predatory bird of the forest. The next day Ivanhov proceeds to liberate his host’s goldfish by smashing their bowl. On the third day, resolved not to endure imprisonment in the arching “round prison” of the sky that shuts in the earth, Ivanhov ends by blowing up the beautiful old house where he has lodged—together with himself.

“What exactly is liberty?” inquires a spectator of these libertarian events—Gabriel Gale, Chesterton’s mouthpiece. “First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird was free in the cage. It was free to be alone. It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers would be torn to pieces and its voice choked forever. Then I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.” The Russian psychologist could not abide the necessary conditions of human existence; he must eliminate all limits; he could not endure the “round prison” of the overarching sky. But his alternative was annihilation for himself and his lodging; and he embraced that alternative. He ceased to be anything but fractured atoms. That is the ultimate freedom of the devoted libertarian. If, per impossible, American society should accept the leadership of libertarian ideologies—why, this Republic might end in fractured atoms, with a Russian touch to the finale.

“Unwelcome Cross”

Notwithstanding, there is something to be said for the disintegrated Professor Ivanhov—relatively speaking. With reference to some remarks of mine in an earlier Heritage lecture, there wrote to me Mr. Marion Montgomery, the Georgia critic and novelist: “The libertarians give me the willies. I much prefer the Russian anarchists, who at least have a deeply disturbed moral sensibility (that Dostoevsky makes good use of), to the libertarian anarchist. There is a decadent fervor amongst some of the latter which makes them an unwelcome cross for conservatism to bear.”

Just so. The representative libertarian of this decade is humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull. At least the old-fangled Russian anarchist was bold, lively, and knew to which sex he belonged.

It is not well-intentioned elderly gentlemen who call themselves libertarians that I reproach here; not, as I mentioned earlier, those persons who, through misapprehension, lend their names and open their checking accounts to “libertarian” publications and causes and extravagances. Rather, I am exposing the pretensions of the narrow doctrinaires or strutting libertines who have imprisoned themselves within a “libertarian” ideology as confining and as unreal as Marxism—if less persuasive than that fell delusion.

Metaphysically Mad

Why are these doctrinaire libertarians, with a few exceptions, such peculiar people—the sort who give healthy folk like Marion Montgomery the willies? Why do genuine conservatives feel an aversion to close association with them? Why is an alliance between conservatives and libertarians inconceivable, except for very temporary purposes? Why, indeed, would any such articles of confederation undo whatever gains conservatives have made in recent years?

I give you a blunt answer to those questions. The libertarians are rejected because they are metaphysically mad. Lunacy repels, and political lunacy especially. I do not mean that they are dangerous: Nay, they are repellent merely. They do not endanger our country and our civilization, because they are few, and seem likely to become fewer. (Here I refer, of course, to our home-grown American libertarians, and not to those political sects, among them the Red Brigades of Italy, that have carried libertarian notions to bolder lengths.) There exists no peril that American public policies will be affected in any substantial degree by libertarian arguments; or that a candidate of the tiny Libertarian Party ever will be elected to any public office of significance: The good old causes of Bimetallism, Single Tax, or Prohibition enjoy a more hopeful prospect of success in the closing years of this century than do the programs of libertarianism. But one does not choose as a partner even a harmless political lunatic. What do I mean when I say that today’s American libertarians are metaphysically mad, and so, repellent? Why, the dogmata of libertarianism have been refuted so often, both dialectically and by the hard knocks of experience, that it would be dull work to rehearse here the whole tale of folly. I offer you merely a few of the more conspicuous insufficiencies of libertarianism as a credible moral and political mode of belief. Such differences from the conservatives’ understanding of the human condition make inconceivable any coalition of conservatives and libertarians.

First, the great line of division in modern politics, as Eric Voegelin reminds us, is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other: Instead, it lies between all those who believe in a transcendent moral order, on the one side, and on the other side all those who mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats—that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.

Second, in any tolerable society, order is the first need. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is reasonably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract Liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that freedom may be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the Constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedom that they praise.

Third, conservatives disagree with libertarians on the question of what holds civil society together. The libertarians contend—so far as they endure any binding at all—that the nexus of society is self-interest, closely joined to cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Fourth, libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good and beneficent, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, to the contrary, hold that “in Adam’s fall we sinned all;” human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, cannot be perfected. Thus the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect—and among their vices being violence, fraud, and the thirst for power. The libertarian pursues his illusory way toward a Utopia of individualism—which, the conservative knows, is the path to Avernus.

Fifth, the libertarian asserts that the state is the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is natural and necessary for the fulfillment of human nature and the growth of civilization; it cannot be abolished unless humanity is abolished; it is ordained for our very existence. In Burke’s phrases, “He who gave us our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection—He willed therefore the state—He willed its connection with the source and original archtype of all perfection.” Without the state, man’s condition is poor, nasty, brutish, and short—as Augustine argued, many centuries before Hobbes. The libertarians confound the state with government; in truth, government is the temporary instrument of the state. But government—as Burke continued—”is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” Among the more important of these wants is a “sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can be done only by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue.” In short, a primary function of government is restraint; and that is anathema to libertarians, although an article of faith to conservatives.

Sixth, the libertarian fancies that this world is a state for the ego, with its appetites and self-assertive passions. But the conservative finds himself in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required—and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding. The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas: That is, the libertarian does not respect ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or love of country. The cosmos of the libertarian is a loveless realm, a “round prison.” “I am, and none else besides me,” says the libertarian. But the conservative replies in the sentence of Marcus Aurelius: “We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet.”

These are profound differences; and there exist others. Yet even if conservative and libertarian affirm nothing in common, may they not agree upon a negative? May they not take a common ground against totalist ideology and the omnipotent state? The primary function of government, conservatives say, is to keep the peace: by repelling foreign enemies, by administering justice domestically.

Burke’s Admonition

When government undertakes objectives far beyond these ends, often government falls into difficulty, not being contrived for the management of the whole of life. Thus far, indeed, conservatives and libertarians hold something in common. But the libertarians, rashly hurrying to the opposite extreme from the welfare state, would deprive government of effective power to conduct the common defense, to restrain the unjust and the passionate, or indeed to carry on a variety of undertakings clearly important to the general welfare. With these failings of the libertarians plain to behold, conservatives are mindful of Edmund Burke’s admonition concerning radical reformers: “Men of intemperate mind never can be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Thus in the nature of things, conservatives and libertarians can conclude no friendly pact. Adversity sometimes makes strange bedfellows, but the present successes of conservatives disincline them to lie down, lamb-like, with the libertarian lions.

By this time, possibly I have made it sufficiently clear that I am no libertarian. I venture to suggest that libertarianism, properly understood, is as alien to real American conservatives as is communism. The typical conservative in this country believes that there exists an enduring moral order. He knows that order and justice and freedom are the products of a long and often painful social experience, and that they must be protected from abstract radical assaults. He defends custom, habit, tested institutions that have functioned well. He says that the great virtue in politics is prudence: judging any public measure by its long-run consequences. He is attached to a society of diversity and opportunity, and he is suspicious of any ideology that would rule us by a single abstract principle, whether that principle is “equality” or “liberty” or “social justice” or “national greatness.” He recognizes that human nature and society cannot be perfected: politics remains the art of the possible. He adheres to private property and free economic enterprise; he is aware that decent government, repressing violence and fraud, is necessary for the survival of a health economy.

Baneful Scripture

What the doctrinaire libertarians offer us in an ideology of universal selfishness—at a time when the country needs more than ever before men and women who are courageously public-spirited and capable of sacrifice for the common good. They would enfeeble the state at the very time when it is menaced from abroad by a dread rival power and when it is confronted at home with greater social problems than any previously encountered in this country. They would affirm the right of every citizen to wander on the wilder shores of lust, at a time when new venereal diseases infest every city, and threaten to become a devastating plague. They would make our scripture the silly baneful book entitled Looking Out for Number One.

The American public rejects this fantastic ideology of extreme individualism, and rightly so. Libertarianism, nevertheless, is a peculiarly American political folly: No state in western Europe is troubled by an ideological faction of this sort, for the surviving European liberal parties never carried their devotion to an abstract liberty to such excessive lengths; they remain mindful, perhaps, of Madame Roland’s exclamation as she approached the guillotine: “O liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name.” Let us devoutly pray that America’s libertarians may confine themselves to political torts and misdemeanors.

This is excerpted from the highly recommended The Politics of Prudence (1993) and reprinted with the gracious permission of ISIFind more of Russell Kirk’s books at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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Published: Feb 21, 2015
Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”
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6 replies to this post
  1. Whomever exerpted this did us a great service. Many thanks! It is a nuanced critique typical of Dr Kirk, but often ignored in his shorter quotes.

  2. In the early sixties a National Review staffer, Frank S Meyer, undertook to author a book, In Defense of Freedom, in which he propounded what he called Fusionism, a considered effort to tie a libertarian view with the conservative traditions. Whatever the viability of it, and it did have merits, the march towards gargantuan government, fed by ignorance and apathy, has continued to our now degraded state.
    Professor Kirk wrote in a better time, even as the rot was setting in. Happy for him he is not here to observe the remnants of an earlier, healthier nation.

  3. Logicus Prime: yes, the title of the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, but my recollection is that Hayek always referred to himself as a classical liberal. Hayek died in 1992, by which time libertarianism was well in the public eye, but he seems to have made a point not to associate his beliefs with the term or movement.

    • Michigander, the irony is that Kirk, a conservative, is using Hayek, who explicitly reputiated conservativism, to criticize libertarianism. Hayek was clearly closer to libertarian philosophy than to conservatism and for Kirk to imply otherwise was disingenuous.

      Hayek didn’t call himself a libertarian because he didn’t like the word “libertarian.” From “Why I am Not a Conservative”:

      “In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use ‘liberal’ in the sense in which I have used it, the term ‘libertarian’ has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.”

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