Two Traditions of Liberty
Two Traditions of Liberty
Part one of a two part series intended to investigate the intersection of Burkean conservatism and the private property-based legal theory.
The present article is a necessary backdrop that will be referenced in my more expansive article to be posted soon called “Toward a Libertarian Realism.” Here, I want to revive a much earlier set of tensions between certain circles at the outskirts of dissident traditionalist conservatism, completely lost to the postwar establishment Conservative Movement, and the Rothbardian School libertarians. These traditionalist conservatives, who later came to represent a paleo-conservative coalition centered around Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s, were conscious followers of the Anglo-Irish Edmund Burke.
(This revival of interest in Edmund Burke in the United States produced two strands of modern Burkeans: Russell Kirk style conservatism, which is more Anglo-American, and Robert Nisbet style conservatism, which leans more prominently on European continental conservatism— nevertheless, both point to Burke as the originator of modern conservatism, even if Burke was a defender of a much older English constitutionalism.)
One of the results of the tensions between the Rothbardian libertarians and the traditional conservatives was that it exposed two completely different traditions of what we now call libertarianism.
Now, most of us are aware that there is a distinct mood between two major libertarian types— we often compare the beltway libertarianism of Cato with the Alabama libertarianism of Mises Institute—but it is a mistake to consider the differences as of mere degree or ideological purity. Rather, my thesis here is that the definitions and roots of these two “types” give way to two completely different political-theoretical traditions and that the underlying meaning and frameworks themselves are at odds with each other.
In his 1988 article titled “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” Russell Kirk, a traditionalist critic of libertarianism, claimed that
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 20th 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 fanatics who "license they mean, when they cry liberty."
Given Kirk’s past relationship with Rothbardian libertarians, it seems quite obvious that it was those in the latter’s circles to whom Kirk was referring. Indeed, as will be seen in our forthcoming interview with Paul Gottfried, even he thinks that Rothbard was actually a conservative, not a "libertarian"— but all this relies on a broader understanding of libertarianism than Rothbard ever meant with the label.
With Kirk’s broad understanding of the development and language of western political movements, it had always remained with him to consider those who operate under the libertarian label as basically a creation of French-style liberalism in the tradition of Rousseau. In this tradition, the advocates of “libertarianism” had an understanding of libertarianism that emphasized the breaking free of individual man from all his heritage, religion, cultural expectations, social norms, familial roots, legal precedents, hierarchical structures of social authority, and so on. Under this tradition of libertarianism, man was unfree to the extent that he felt socially burdened by the institutions around him, regardless of whether they flowed from the state or not. To be a libertarian meant to yearn for the freedom from various sorts of social pressures, expectations, norms and habits, and even categories such as poverty (such that certain advocates of this libertarianism, such as Thomas Paine, advocated welfare and wealth redistribution).
Often, libertarians will present themselves as the heirs of classical liberals. But as Friedrich Hayek notes in his “The Constitution of Liberty” (well-read Rothbardians are aware of Rothbard’s problems with this book, but suspend this judgement for the sake of the point here) there were two traditions of liberty in Western Europe reaching back before the revolutionary era in the early eighteenth century. Hayek distinguishes between the French (or Gallican) tradition and the English (Anglican) tradition of liberty.
Hayek points to "the leading theorist of the French Revolution, Abbe Sieyes," who stated that men ought to "act like men just emerging from the state of nature and going together for the purpose of signing a Social Contract."
Men from the state of nature, without traditions, roots, institutions, structures, order, norms.
This French tradition is what Kirk, with a long view of the development of political thought, interpreted as the libertarian spirit.
On the English side, he points to “the political philosophy of the Scottish philosophers, [Edmund] Burke, and the English Whigs.” This tradition of liberalism, for Hayek, eventually consisted of those, such as Lord Acton and (even though he himself was French) Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw in their own heritage and roots something worth preserving, protecting, and leaning on over against the mindset of the “false individualism” and “dangerous liberalism” (Hayek’s phrases) of the French Revolutionaries. Moreover, this British tradition looked first to their own traditions and real legal protections as a more meaningful understanding of liberty's implementation, understanding that applying abstractions on a society not prepared for them merely unravels the fragile social order.
The French tradition is represented by philosophers such as Rousseau, Condorcet, and the Encyclopedists. Some British liberals, such as a John Stuart Mill, belong better in this camp, as Hayek accepts there are some exceptions to the nationality reference. Of course, the revolutionary years in France brought in many other non-French men to this tradition. Hayek writes of “the whole generation of enthusiasts for the French Revolution, like Godwin, Preistley, Price, and Paine, who (like Jefferson after his stay in France) belong entirely to it.”
Of most important note is Hayek’s summary of all this:
“Though these two groups are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty.”
There is a reason Hayek refused to call himself a liberal (or even a conservative) and went with a direct reference to the Burkean tradition with the label: "Old Whig."
Now then, since Kirk defined conservatism (see the above quote) as distinct from libertarianism along basically the same line as Hayek’s two liberalisms, we have an opportunity to jump in with the important Rothbard response to Frank Meyer’s attempt to fuse together (he called it “fusionism”) the best aspects of Rothbardian libertarianism and traditionalism.
Rather than rehash Rothbard’s primary point that Meyer’s fusionism was unnecessary because the libertarian does not need to be an anti-traditionalist, I want to focus on one particular piece of Rothbard’s response: the relationship between classical liberalism and Rothbard’s libertarianism. Over against the utilitarian classical liberals (what Hayek would have considered the French tradition, the opponents of Burkean liberalism), Meyer wrote:
There is much in this [utilitarian] classical liberalism that conservatives must reject—its philosophical foundations, its tendency towards Utopian constructions, its disregard of tradition…. We are victims here of an inherent tragedy in the history of classical liberalism. As it developed the economic and political doctrines of limited state power, the free-market economy, and the freedom of the individual person, it sapped, by its utilitarianism, the foundations of belief in an organic moral order. But the only possible basis of respect for the integrity of the individual person and for the overriding value of his freedom is belief in an organic moral order. Without such a belief, no doctrine of political and economic liberty can stand.
Furthermore, when such a belief is not universally accepted, a free society, even if it could exist, would become licentious war of all against all. Political freedom, failing a broad acceptance of the personal obligation to duty and to charity, is never viable. Deprived of an understanding of the philosophical foundations of freedom and exposed to the ravening of conscienceless marauders, men forget that they are fully men only to the degree that they are free to choose their destiny, and they turn to whatever fallacy promises them welfare and order.”
What is fascinating about this passage is that, in one fell swoop, it summarized a certain liberal tradition that Hayek would have dismissed as the distorted French version, it referred to what Kirk simply called “libertarianism,” and finally, it was distinct from the very caricature of libertarianism that Rothbard tried to distance from his own. After all, his response to Meyer was as follows:
Meyer's strictures against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism "stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political and social matters."
Meyer's mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As [Tibor] Machan points out, "Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective."
Edmund Burke once lamented that as the French radicals entered their revolution on behalf of its own peculiar and foreign understanding of abstract “natural rights,” the western world had entered a new era and “the age of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded.” These were the utilitarian planners of freedom, and Rothbard referred to their modern representatives as follows:
The utilitarian strain is particularly strong, in contemporary America, among the Chicago School wing of free-market economics: Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, et al. In recent years, the assault of utilitarian "efficiency" upon ethics has reached almost grotesque proportions in the Chicago School economic theory of law advanced by Professor Richard Posner and his disciples. The Posnerites deny that law should have (or does have) anything to do with ethical principles; instead, the question of who should be considered a tort-feasor or liable for invading property rights should be decided purely on the basis of social "efficiency." Property rights themselves, according to the Chicagoites, should be allocated on the basis, not of justice, but of alleged efficiency considerations.
What we begin to realize in all this is that there are two libertarianisms: one is an heir of classical liberalism in the French tradition and the other (Rothbardian libertarianism) has stripped out a very specific aspect of both liberal traditions (the private property aspect) and built a legal theory on simply that. It separates itself from the necessary sociological, historical, and cultural elements that make it realistic. This means that unlike both French liberalism and British liberalism (Burkean conservatism), which are holistic views of society, man, and institutions, Rothbard's formulation must be attached to something else to make it meaningful real, lest nihilistic libertarianism result.
All this confusion calls for a reconstruction of sorts—a coherent theory of social and political life demands well defined and defended terms. Nevertheless, one cannot help but conclude with the following observations:
While Rothbard and his heirs have spent so much time defending their own definition of libertarianism, especially that it does not demand rootless abstractions and anti-traditionalist sentiment, in fact, that is, in the real reality of the world as it is, self-described libertarians are mostly guilty of so many of the accusations offered by traditionalists. This is true even if Rothbard’s definition doesn’t demand this. It’s difficult to blame Kirk, Nisbet, etc for not understanding Rothbard’s insistence on the thinness of libertarianism, especially as the greater libertarian world at large eventually became so obnoxious and tiresome for Rothbard that he finally “separated out.”
Finally, in the overall scheme of western political thought, those who defined libertarianism strictly in terms of private property ownership and its logically derived propositions, are so remarkably rare, we can understand why “lifestyle libertarians” are both the norm, and the image that comes to mind when someone hears the word.
All this serves as a backdrop for my coming essay Toward a Libertarian Realism as I investigate the intersection of Burkean conservatism and the private property-based legal theory.
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.