When the forces of American progressivism emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, those who would one day be labeled as conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians found themselves quite ill-prepared for the intellectual and political onslaught. Perhaps the best analyst at the time progressivism emerged, somewhat surprisingly, was E.L. Godkin, the venerable founder of The Nation.
It was the rights of man that engaged the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century. The world had suffered so much misery due to the results of dynastic ambitions and jealousies, and the masses of mankind were everywhere so burdened by the exactions of the superior classes, so as to bring about a universal revulsion against the principle of authority. Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicle of oppression, and the methods by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and could be made to foster liberty rather than to suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers. In opposition to the theory of divine right, whether of kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was established. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory.*
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Godkin lamented that most Americans found the Declaration of Independence an embarrassment, and the restraints of the Constitution antiquated. “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races,” he feared. The great Anglo-Welsh historian, Christopher Dawson, had made a similar point, but it was expressed in far more poetically-jarring terms: “When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England. When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.”
When one thinks of the nineteenth century in terms of its intellectual history, several deep and profound and, in many ways, courageous persons emerge as particularly insightful and dedicated, if not necessarily correct, morally or ethically. In particular, men such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche arose, dramatically shaping the thought of the forthcoming century. Whatever their particular and individual genius, each served only to narrow and divide thought, undoing centuries of liberal education.
Standing in the middle of Marxism, for example, and looking out upon the world reveals many injustices, but it does so at the cost of full integrity as understood by the traditional western humanities. In orthodox Marxism, man, at root, becomes only economic, and all things swirl around him, denying not only his unique complexity but also his free will, however limited or delimited. For Darwin, man becomes merely biological, and, for Freud, merely psychological. Of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche posed the most interesting challenge to the western tradition, but he did so in a fashion still anchored to the West, even while deconstructing it. After all, he believed man material as well as spiritual and intellectual. In many ways, Nietzsche is the perfect anti-Christian, as he inverted the Judeo-Christian paradigm, replacing will for grace.
Each of these men and their ideas ultimately eroded the traditions of Natural Law, natural rights, the rule of law, and almost every real support of the best and most humane ideals of western civilization. Add the rise of terrorism, beginning in the 1880s in Russia and spreading throughout Europe and the Middle East to the present day, the unexpected and nearly incalculable devastation of the First World War, and the rise of massive ideological fascist and communist states, the delicate and humane traditions of the West collapsed and so did its greatest defenders. Since the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the ideologues have roamed the world relentlessly. Indeed, since the rise of American progressivism in the 1880s, conservatives and libertarians have been fighting, for the most part, a rear-guard action. Consequently, it is difficult to write about movements of conservatives and libertarians, as most such “movements” have been merely the disconnected dogmas (in the best sense) of various strong and wise personalities and, often, their immediate followers: Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Albert Jay Nock, Dorothy Thompson, Willa Cather, T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Ray Bradbury, Friedrich Hayek, and a number of others.
Each, however, nobly attempted to remake whole what had been splintered.
Still, it is possible to connect a number of these thinkers, very broadly, to various so-called “movements”: in particular, as just noted, libertarianism and conservatism. Within each movement, there are a number of schools of thought and a great diversity of views. While we might readily label Nock and Hayek as libertarians, a vast gulf of thought stands between them. The same is true of Paul Elmer More and Leo Strauss, though each might readily be considered a conservative.
Such anti-ideological convictions have attracted many who despise the conformity that most leftists, progressives, and ideologues have embraced over the past century-and-a-half and have tried to impose on the rising generations. While this non-conformity is a great strength for those who are not on the Left, it is also a severe hindrance to organizing a cohesive and positive movement to combat the advances of the Left. Hence, it is worth restating that most conservatives and libertarians are, essentially, reactionary and reactive-ist.
It is certainly worth considering what the two movements, broadly defined, have in common.
First, each fears the massive enlargement of the modern nation-state, seeing in it the rise of Leviathan.
Second, each supports—to varying degrees—the free will of the individual person.
Third, each desires real community to be organic, necessary, and voluntary.
Fourth, traditionally, each has supported liberal education and the Great Books/Great Ideas of the West.
Fifth, each has seen warfare (with the crucial exception of the neo-conservatives) as the vehicle by which the state advances toward Leviathan.
Of the things that connect the two movements, the final two points are the most contentious. Most libertarians in the modern world have neglected the importance of the liberal arts, while a strong number of conservatives have come to embrace war as a necessity in the chaos of the world.
Serious differences exist between the two schools of thought as well.
Libertarians, in general, tend to distrust all cultural, social, religious, and political authorities, seeing in these hindrances on the growth and liberation of the autonomous individual. Though Nock and Hayek did not have to deal with our current social upheavals, their followers tend to support gay marriage, homosexual rights, and sexual diversity, at almost every level.
Conservatives, in general, tend to distrust all governmental and educational authorities, while embracing the natural and organic authorities of culture, traditional family, and religion. As an institution—perhaps the central institution of western civilization—marriage especially needs to be protected in its traditional role.
Libertarians generally do not fear the rise of corporate power (though, certainly fighting against cronyism), while conservatives more often than not dislike the power of an IBM or GM as much as they dislike the growth of Washington, D.C.
In essence, libertarians focus on the solitary, single individual, while conservatives uphold the traditions of the person, rooted in a variety of communities, times, and places.
Libertarians often possess a rationalist streak, believing in moral and intellectual progress, while conservatives find man a very mixed creature, capable of great good but generally embracing evil, self-interest, and greed. If the libertarian believes in logic, the conservative believes in romance.
Again, this is all too broad. On foreign policy, for example, most traditionalist conservatives will side with almost all libertarians, believing the U.S. incapable of governing the world and rejecting war as the great solution to all problems. Most non-traditionalist conservatives support a very powerful military without it necessarily being employed abroad extensively. While a minority of very vocal conservatives—the neo-conservatives—support using the military to spread democratic imperialism abroad, remaking the world in the image of America.
As the world continues to move away from strict ideologies and toward fusions of fundamentalism and ideologies, conservatives and libertarians will need to continue to react, but, to survive, they must also formulate positive plans, but only if avoiding becoming as narrow and particular as those on the Left.
* See Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” The Nation (August 9, 1900).
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