Where is Austro Libertarian?

Society and Culture

Elements of My Conservative Predilections

By
CJay Engel
|
November 1, 2019
A sound society is a nexus of cascading levels of society authority. A society absent this opens a void for an all powerful state to reign supreme over an egalitarian mass— equal in subordination to raw power.
Society and Culture

Elements of My Conservative Predilections

By

CJay Engel

|
November 1, 2019

A sound society is a nexus of cascading levels of society authority. A society absent this opens a void for an all powerful state to reign supreme over an egalitarian mass— equal in subordination to raw power.

In my recent article, I mentioned two traditions of liberty: the British and the French tradition— a framework certainly worth elaborating in the future (the most developed working out of this model is in J.L. Talmon's The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy.)

The reason I brought this up is that I am becoming more aware of the extent to which I completely cannot stand most libertarian proselytization principally because I see the civilizational threats so much differently than most libertarians do. Once I realized the strict boundaries of what libertarianism was intended to address, it dawned on me that the idea of a “movement” or “unity” based solely on libertarianism was not only doomed to failure, but was altogether absurd and the source of internal personal agitation.

Rather than consider myself principally a libertarian with personal conservative convictions, I’ve come to find much more significance in flipping this around: I am principally a conservative with technical libertarian stances on the logic of private property; after all, libertarianism, at least in my Rothbardian tradition, actually has liberty as a derivative of the logic of property-ownership justice. The meaning of liberty flows from, in the words of Stephan Kinsella, the Rothbardian’s “particular property assignment rules— its view as to who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.” Liberty itself has a derivative meaning, bound and defined in terms of property ownership rules. In fact, as will be talked about in an upcoming piece, the idea of relegating liberty strictly in terms of the social institution of property, is a profoundly conservative rendering of liberty.

Now then, when we talk about “conservatism,” we have the same semantic problem of “libertarianism:” whose "conservatism" are we going with? Admittedly, conservatism as a movement is just as bankrupt and bastardized as libertarianism. Perhaps in time I’ll have a better word for my views here, or perhaps I should follow F.A. Hayek’s lead and call myself an Old Whig— but this is besides the point. Here, I want to merely outline five aspects of my sociological views that certainly qualify me to be a conservative. Because of my background and the current readership (though this, finally, is broadening!), these elements will reference and interact with libertarianism as I understand it.

Conservatism, in my use of the phrase, refers to a particular understanding of society and the necessary components that make a society strong, healthy, stable, and ordered. Contrary to the emphasis of postwar conservatism (what paleoconservatives call “Movement Conservatism”) as a particular set of policies and "values" to be implemented and enforced from sources of centralized political power, my conservatism is much more of an approach to society and man, a study of culture, and an analysis of what society needs in order to be sound and in good health. Let me be clear then as well: conservatism, especially my own, is not to be construed as the position of "conserving the status quo," whatever it may be. That's a terrible, beyond deficient, understanding of the denotation of most meaningful conservatisms.

Many libertarians will conceive of the relationship between conservative principles and libertarianism by saying: “I personally have conservative values and a conservative lifestyle, but on politics I am libertarian because I don’t advocate aggression to enforce my conservative views.” While this may describe me, it does not do justice to the extent to which my sociological views of the world, cultural dynamics, and the development of history, are conservative. The purpose of this outline is to list these elements, which should most certainly be drawn out at a later time.

1. The conservative rejects the view that society can be realistically conceived independent of its own past. Any attempt to tear men from his past, to conceive of a society in which the participants are not shaped and molded by their history weakens the social bonds of that society and creates a social sense of meaninglessness and nihilism. The cultural traditions and habits of a particular society are beneficial and it is arrogant to treat the world as if it does not need a memory of what came before. The conservative appreciation of the past is not a traditionalist dogmatism that rejects change and development, but rather respects tradition as a helpful, though not infallible, guide.

This is not merely about “discovering truth” and leaning on tradition to acquire knowledge, it is rather, much more profoundly, a statement of what binds men together in a given community. Social memory, an analogy that refers to the passing on of the memory and feelings of prior experiences, is itself an element of society that provides stability and purposeful continuity.

In our post-modern age, there’s a certain arrogance that sees the contemporary social milieu as an intellectual advancement, an enlightenment, over against the darkness of the past such that if there was anything remotely good about prior interpretations of the world, they are caked into the modern outlook anyway—there’s no need therefore to consciously investigate the wisdom of the past. This is, as Murray Rothbard pointed out, the Whig view of history. The conservative, however, is willing to look for, and preserve, what Russell Kirk called “permanent things”— ideas that stand the test of time and are helpful corrections against modern fallacies and presumptions of knowledge.  

2. Authority, hierarchy, and positional inequality of rank is not something that must be challenged as far as the “social mood” goes. Some libertarians admit that, given the nature of property ownership, there’s simply nothing that can be done about corporate hierarchy, bosses, managers, and the like. But the conservative—especially in the European continental conservative tradition—stance on authority goes beyond this in its appreciation for social hierarchy that naturally produces levels of authority from the family to the local church to the church’s associations to businesses and social clubs and neighborhoods and localities and covenant communities.

Under this view, there is nothing inherently problematic or unjust with the idea of societies of feudal Europe simply by virtue of their unequal distribution of authority or resources. The conservative doesn't call for a return to feudal Europe, but in his interpretation of the past, the fact that equality of ownership, resources, and authority over property distribution was a major rallying cry of revolutionaries, the conservative recognizes that this spirit of upheaval against the social order is never an unqualified good.

There are older, wiser, stronger, and wealthier persons in society and there are intellectually inferior, weaker, and more materially dependent persons in society and their interaction and mutual dependence is an element of strength and soundness. It is from these older relationships that we have developed ideas such as apprenticeship and, later, employment for instance.

In this sense, the traditional family structure and its subsequent distribution of roles is not merely an neutral option among many, and it is certainly not an artifact of an unenlightened past; it is a prerequisite for social continuity, for balancing the natural, biologically ingrained gifts and talents of men and women uniquely, and its absence is a sign of social decline and decay.

A sound society is a nexus of cascading levels of society authority. A society absent this opens a void for an all powerful state to reign supreme over an egalitarian mass— equal in subordination to raw power.

3. For the conservative, social stability cannot be sustained in an environment that rejects the non-rational aspects of society. This is one of the hardest things for many libertarians to understand. Here, I have in mind not the numb-skull libertarians (which make up the majority of the movement), but those who do appreciate reason and rationality and work hard to understand it. The conservative does not reject the importance of reason, but considers it unrealistic to construct or envision a society in which all (or most) humans agents operate under the guidance of pure reason. Most people, for better or worse (the conservative, after all, tries to deal with humanity as it is, not how he wishes it were— see Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions), operate in accordance with their feelings, their prejudices, and their sentimental attachments. This is not a disagreement with Misesian praxeology, but it is rather an emphasis of the fact that people are driven by goals and ends which are not systematic and precisely construed.

The necessary and profound insight here is that society is a fragile nexus of many people’s prejudices, memories, biases, inclinations, habits, wants, dreams, and goals and to pretend like all this can be whisked away so that man can free himself from these mental-emotional chains and live in accordance with pure reason is a recipe for totalitarianism. Thus, Edmund Burke’s emphasis on care and prudence in the development of society is an acceptance of the fact that it is a fool’s errand to expect the true and right ideology to win the day once the deeper sentiments and attachments of people are eradicated. The French Revolution's emphasis on upending the social order (even if there were unjust elements, which there were), as cheered along by Paine, and reconstructing it along rational lines did not take into account the undependability of the masses and their social response to a void of social structure. People will either revert back to barbarian impulses or otherwise endorse some totalitarian ideology; in this, Burke was vindicated: expecting the revolutionaries to adhere to the ideal theory of rights and peace proved to be a misunderstanding of human nature.

This puts the conservative critique of “rationalism” in perspective. For rather than denouncing rationalism in an epistemological sense per se (though many probably reject this as well), the relevant point is that the conservative sociologist is here rejecting social-rationalism: the construction of a socio-political order along rationalistic and detailed lines. This type of thinking was the undergirding source of a planned economy, a planned society. Hence Hayek’s counter-emphasis on an organic and spontaneous society.

4. For the conservative, the individual himself is an important element of society. Individuals are morally responsible, individuals act, individuals respond to incentives and it is the creative aspects of individual man that can make society and civilization thrive. But the conservative rejects the anti-social individualism of leftism which forsakes any emphasis at all of common history, family, or social integrity. The conservative rejects a collectivism that makes man in a mere faceless building block of mass society, a collectivism that makes the individual subservient to society as an entity in and of itself. At the same time, the conservative rejects an individualism that pits man against his community; an individualism that endorses any mode of preference and behavior that undermine the life-enjoyment of his neighbors.

For the conservative, the want of liberty for the sake of licentiousness and perverted, libertine behavior is a bastardization of the purpose and use of liberty. The question about whether some specific behavior ought to be “permitted” is beside the specific point that a society with a heavy element of debauchery is unsustainable, both for its own flourishing, and as well for the moral preconditions of a society that can stand on its own without the use of the state as a subsidy for its behavior. Regardless of whether people have a “right” to live debased and undignified lives, the plain fact of the matter is that if this marks the personality of a particular society or culture, this society is neither attractive nor viable. The conservative then, in part, is a conservative because he rejects the idea that he must be neutral with regard to behavioral habits and lifestyle preferences. Judgement, discrimination, and intolerance are social tools that can and should be used when one confronts cultural elements that are socially degrading.

5. Conservatives tend to call into question what they call the “cult of progress.” Progress (see Nisbet’s The History of the Idea of Progress) is often construed in terms of equality, the abandonment of religious prejudice and the rise of science, material standard of living, technological development, and so on. For the conservative, the idea of progress is much more difficult than meets the eye. It is true that modern man has a higher standard of living (this is almost completely due to the buildup of capital and low time preferences) and scientific inquiry has produced modern technological marvels. But the conservative balances these developments with inquiry into other social costs. The conservative realizes that we don’t have to be on either extreme of “ludditism” and transhumanism.

The conservative prefers to speak in terms of historical development, rather than historical progress. It allows him to deal with the loss of things that do matter to him, in balance with the gain of other things that also matter.  There’s no demand for the conservative that he has to prefer either the past or the future over the other, but the idea of progress itself is difficult to unravel. The conservative does not have to say “the past was better than the present,” but rather that there are some elements of the past that we would be wise to remember and preserve; things are not better simply because they come later in time, and neither are they worse simply because they are “modern.”

Historical development is neither straightforwardly progress or decline: there are elements of decline, and elements of improvement. The task of the conservative is to preserve the good, or at least its memories, into the future of the unknown.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog