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Society and Culture

The Need for Conservatism

CJay Engel
January 12, 2020
If liberty is to be sought, it cannot be sought as the singular principle. The wisdom of the conservative tradition has much to offer.
Society and Culture

The Need for Conservatism


CJay Engel

January 12, 2020

If liberty is to be sought, it cannot be sought as the singular principle. The wisdom of the conservative tradition has much to offer.

In light of my recent shift toward a profound appreciation for the conservative tradition in the West, I put together a little comparison chart between this traditionalist conservatism and what I call “modernist libertarianism.”  

The reason I call it modernist libertarianism is because, as I explained in recent essays, the entire libertarian phenomenon in the twentieth century was an heir of classical liberalism. It contained the spirit of the liberal narrative and interpretation of history within it. However, there are some (very very few) self-described libertarians who have attempted to purify the libertarian propositions and apply them to the interpretation of the social order of the pre-liberal age. I have called these libertarians, many of whom have been influenced by Hans Hoppe, “medieval libertarians.”

The traditional conservative tradition in which I am most interested is a completely distinct approach to understanding politics and society as compared to libertarianism as an heir of the classical liberal era. It is like a completely different lens, or, as Thomas Sowell might put it, a unique “vision.” People often wonder whether Old Rightists and libertarians can work together; after all, don’t they both value decentralization, limited “government,” and non-state bodies of association? But there is a reason the conservative Robert Nisbet called libertarians and traditional conservatives “uneasy cousins.” The reason is because there is, for the most part, a complete clash of visions that causes tension between the two groups.

In my own experience of coming to appreciate the insights of traditional conservatism, I have begun to understand that we live under the grand narrative, the “zeitgeist” of the rhetoric and approach of the liberal era. And this fact makes it very difficult to understand or appreciate the approach of the traditional conservatives. This is why the libertarian has a difficult time coming to terms with the attitudes of old conservatism. So then, it would appear that we have similar takes on the horrors of the managerial statism of our time, but in fact, the temperament, priorities, tools of interpretation, and understanding of human nature are generally in tension.

For one thing, conservatism is broader, less precise. This frustrates the libertarian, for he conceives precision as his great achievement. Traditional conservatism is a mood, an emphasis on the value of sentiment and in many ways a reaction to the modern age. This does not mean that the conservative should or does reject ideals (especially reference to the transcendent, for he despises nominalism), but it does mean that he finds little solace in the presented ideals of the epoch. The conservative is less impressed by the technological and material advancements of the liberal era than he is by the decadent vulgarism of the contemporary masses. He tends to prioritize the spiritual decay of modern man over his triumphs of prosperity. When the conservative asks, “what progress?” and the libertarian points to cheaper and more advanced consumer goods, the conservative has difficulty even processing this response as a legitimate answer. The conservative might echo Richard Weaver:

“The apostles of modernism usually begin their retort with catalogues of modern achievement, not realizing that here they bear witness to their immersion in particulars. We must remind them that we cannot begin to enumerate until we have defined what is to be sought or proved. It will not suffice to point out the inventions and processes of our century unless it can be shown that they are something other than a splendid efflorescence of decay. Whoever desires to praise some modern achievement should wait until he has related it to the professed aims of our civilization.”

This single example of the disparate priority between the conservative and the libertarian shows how difficult it is for each to understand the other.

One key difference between the post-liberal libertarian and the conservative is on the topic of rights. The libertarian approaches natural right as an application of the demands of logic itself. He then takes these propositions and judges the present society against them to determine the various ways in which the social order is presently a deviation from the ideal. Once determined, the libertarian pinpoints his focus on rectifying this condition of injustice as the predominant objective of his activism.

The conservative holds this method in suspicion; he does not doubt that one can possibly conceive of propositional rights and produce a body of logically derived inferences from first principles, but he questions both the track record and the possibility of modern man, generally speaking, to apply them in a way that does not do damage to the stability and continuity of the social order. As well, the consequences of misidentifying rights, as have the majority of thinkers in the development of history, are socially devastating. Moreover, when the conservative looks back at the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, when he looks at the age of Human Rights triumphed by the UN, NATO, and the Wilsonian political tradition, he focuses on the fact that it may be more dangerous to be wrong in application of conceived ideal than it is to be wrong in the slow and organic development of society over the ages.

It is for this reason that the conservative cherishes what Edmund Burke called "real rights:" liberties that have been secured and recognized within the actual legal tradition of a particular society. Burke argued, and history vindicated him, that the wide-eyed pursuit of various "universal and natural rights" to the disregard of rights that had long been customary would paradoxically result in the loss of both. The conservative methodology, therefore, is to seek and identify pockets of goodness within a given social structure and protect these first and foremost.

Contrary to accusation, the conservative does not reject “reason;” in fact, most embrace various reasoning traditions from Augustinianism to Thomism. However, he does distrust the abuse of this tool in the hands of those who presume they can construct the ideal society along the alleged lines of rationality. Fundamentally, the conservative understanding of human nature does not deny the capacity of man to think, but it does deny the tendency and will of most men to think properly. For him, therefore, while tradition is neither infallible nor beyond critique, it does have an important use as a guardrail to restrain the wild passions of society's most zealous.

Perhaps one of the most basic differences between the conservative and the modernist libertarian is how they think about the structure of society. For the conservative, the age of liberalism tended toward the separation of the individual from his heritage, from his family, from his religious context, from his community. This thrust of modernity is a tragedy for the conservative, for he fundamentally approaches society as a nexus of institutions and associations which are the interpretive lens by which the thinker can even understand the individual. The individual was born into a complex body of rights and obligations, liberties and duties, and therefore cannot be conceived independent of these. To think otherwise is to enter the downward path of disintegration. This essay on the modern epidemic of loneliness is quite prescient here.

The libertarian, who does tend toward what I have called sociological individualism, sees the last two hundred and fifty years as sociological progress. The individual has been released to find his own unique path and therefore libertarianism can, for the first time in history, be applied. The conservative and the libertarian completely think about the developing nature of the social order over history differently; each imputes his understanding of individual human nature to that social arrangement.

The modernist libertarian, as a liberal, rests on the construct of "man in the state of nature" while the conservative has difficulty incorporating this construct into his vision of sociological interpretation. For elaboration of this construct from an anti-liberal, consider Peter Simpson's book Political Illiberalism: A Defense of Freedom, which the Mises Institute's David Gordon favorably reviewed here.

Thus the libertarian, seeing rights as logically prior to the social order into which man was born, judges the social order for not properly gathering the consent of the individual. He rejects the “social contract theory” not because his consent is not needed, but because this theory does not adequately demonstrate that his consent was given. For the conservative, preferring to see liberty as flowing from the ages-long struggle of men to live in community with other men, and therefore the earned product of history, rejects the social contract theory because the consent of each individual is not the basis for a social order. As man was born into a specific familial household, which household is presently in association with other households, which association is in community with others, and so forth toward a larger scale… so the social order is a delicate complex that cannot be simply repudiated at the declaration of a natural right.

The modern centralized state, for the conservative, may have been a revolution against the organic community (see de Jouvenel's On Power), it may have been an unjust power grab, but this does not imply to the conservative that the individual is fundamentally the basic unit of the social order.  The health of the social order will guide the health of the individual; for generally speaking, the individual is a product of the social context into which was was born and to separate him from this is to misunderstand him and therefore to undermine his own development. The modern democratic state has thrust a veil on the organic social order, but this veil does not imply the repudiation of the fundamental social order in which the individual finds meaning and identity.

Hence, the true conservative yearns for decentralization and a repudiation of the modern central and managerial state, but only so that true community can be recovered, not so that the individual can achieve his triumphant emancipation from all mediating institutions and social bonds. For the libertarian, most often thinking in the rhetoric of liberalism, sees the individual as needing to be released from the authoritarianism of the state; for the conservative, community and locality decentralization is more important for opposing central power than emphasis on the liberty of the individual. Hence why conservatives tend to be more skeptical of the fourteenth amendment, open borders, and a universal quest for individual emancipation.

Fundamentally, the libertarian approaches socio-political affairs with the single proposition of immorality of the initiation of aggression at the front of his mind: all state activity can be interpreted specifically in this way. The conservative, however, takes up a broader range of critiques and interpretation as to where the problems lie. He therefore tends to prioritize different things than the libertarian does, often observing that the singular focus on the right to do whatever one wants is socially destabilizing and therefore an actual cause of the state’s ability to fill the void.

The conservative recognizes that the state does not pay much attention to the morality of its actions against the individual and therefore, in the real world, the safeguard against power comes from other bodies of power, whether in the form of more local governments, churches, associations, and so forth. But in order for these to have the required strength of opposition, individuals must be committed to them more than their own rights to do whatever they want. Thus, the conservative sees in the libertarian personality a common paradox wherein it is the spirit of “release” from all natural social bonds and past cultural norms that are, in fact, the fuel for the state’s domination.  

Above all, conservatives and modernist libertarians clash when they confront the absoluteness with which to apply the logic and priority of rights. The libertarian is ready to separate the individual from any and every government restriction at all times; the conservative usually prefers decentralization as a prerequisite and sees liberty as thriving best within the context of more local bodies of political jurisdiction. This is what is meant in the recent debate about the universality of the application and fulfillment of liberty (i.e., the open borders debate).  

And given this, the conservative emphasizes not merely “rights,” but the health of the social order, of culture, of civilization. He does not consider it possible to renew liberty unless the cultural and spiritual conditions are ripe for it. Liberty-as-definition is often argued at the neglect of attention to the real world moral and cultural foundation to achieve this liberty. The conservative does not see virtue and the continuity of social customs as optional in the quest toward liberty.

If the libertarian sees these things as fundamentally flowing from liberty as the preeminent political goal; the conservative argues that this arrangement is exactly backwards. Liberty without a healthy society is the soil in which state power is planted. Thus the conservative operates on the conviction that the task of political analysis is not to construct the ideal world but rather to deal with the world as it is, and in light of a balance of varying objectives; these objectives must be aimed for prudently and with attention to the fragility of man and society in the real world. Man does not face an empty sheet of paper upon which he can blueprint a society; he rather faces a complex arrangement and he must prioritize certain things above others in light of the imperfections. These priorities can shift from context to context, culture to culture, and based on the particular struggles of a given social order at a given time. Particularity in both problem and solution is a core aspect to the conservative mind.

Real society, argues the conservative, is much too complex for simplistic solutions and it is in ignoring this fact that the social order can become destabilized in the march toward a constructed ideal. Unintended consequences, when the results of a political action are worse than the previous situation, is a real and constant threat. Given this, the tragic nature of the real world is that Utopia cannot be pursued at the expense of all else, lest the effects of the cure's application be worse than certain present imperfections. One must therefore proceed carefully and with attention to the fact that the social order is both fragile and depended upon by the majority of actual people.

The argument is not that, in a hypothetical world of no order, we would need to be swift to build order; rather, the argument is that in real world, the world as it is, men think in terms of the order that presently guides him and to tear this down in pursuit of the ideal is often to take away the very thing which keeps actual man on course. The argument is not that the hypothetical man needs a hypothetical order; the argument is that real world man lives in light of various real world social orders. He depends on them and thus rectification of injustices must be pursued with caution. Russell Kirk warns against those who "dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.... Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity."

There are trade-offs in the real world, argues the conservative, and the singular focus on individual liberty that the expense of all other values is an alarming sign that freedom will be abused. These trade-offs, argues Thomas Sowell in Conflict of Visions are such that perfect justice, perfect liberty, must not be pursued at the expense of all other commitments:

The instrumental nature of justice, and its consequent subordination at times to other social imperatives, is a recurring theme in the constrained vision. Implicit in this subordination of justice to order in the constrained vision is the conclusion that man will suffer more by the breakdown of order - even an unjust order - than by some injustices. Those with the constrained visions accept this trade-off because the inherent limitations of man, as they conceive man, leave no solution to hope for. In this vision of incremental trade-offs, the categorical concept of 'trumps' is completely inapplicable."

Conservatism teaches that men need guidance, they need custom, they need norms, they need leaders, and they need “place.” To the extent that these are seen as disposable, to that extent liberty will remain conceptual and outside the reach of man. The conservative argues that the passions of men to do whatever they want, to boorishly seek the fulfillment of all his inner desires often lead to a social degradation which the totalitarian state leverages for its own expansion.

The conservative understands that natural society is not organized on a bedrock of men assenting to the correct formulation of liberty; he recognizes that when the people’s own history and heritage is torn from them by the state and the prevailing narratives about overcoming the past, the social order is inevitably in a state of disarray.

The conservative thus follows the reflection of Richard Weaver:

In the same way. we have to inform the multitude that restoration comes at a price. Suppose we give them an intimation of the cost through a series of questions. Are you ready, we must ask them, to grant that the law of reward is inflexible and that one cannot, by cunning or through complaints, obtain more than he puts in? Are you prepared to see that comfort may be a seduction and that the fetish of material prosperity will have to be pushed aside in favor of some sterner idea? Do you see the necessity of accepting duties before you begin to talk of freedoms? These things will be very hard; they will call for deep reformation. It may well be that the course of degeneration has proved so enervating that there is no way of reinspiring with ideals.

The primary thrust of all this is not to make the libertarian the enemy of the conservative in every case, but rather to peel back a few of the ways that each views the world from a different lens. While there are some overlaps in objectives, the temperaments, demeanors, priorities, and personalities clash so often it has been nearly impossible to construct any lasting movement between them. Despite this, I would urge the predominantly libertarian audience of this site (given my own personal background) to consider whether there is anything of value in the reflective writings of the traditional conservatives.

The reader might find chests of treasure he never knew existed.

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