“Two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy.” – F.A. Hayek
Libertarianism and conservatism have, for many decades, been strange bedfellows. American culture in particular has often targeted conservative or libertarian individuals and interchangeably related their beliefs and philosophies, whereas American modern liberalism is portrayed as the standard by which all good things are conceived and all dissenting philosophies and morals are united in their stance against liberalism itself.
In the 1950s, the looming terror of nuclear war brought into play a respect for American traditionalism, as American community leaders pushed for their fellow men to maintain strong family structure, uphold Christian morals, and be ever vigilant against the threat of the Soviet Union who threatened to wrest away these things if the opportunity presented itself. Liberal authors were taken to court for “obscenity trials,” public schools held daily prayer sessions, and the words “Under God” were inserted into the recently adopted Pledge of Allegiance.
It was this era that inspired Frank Meyer, author and political philosopher, to attempt and steer the herds of conservatives and libertarians into a single field. Libertarianism was a new concept in American politics, and had done little to draw public attention to itself besides burn draft cards. Meyer jumped at the chance to fuse upstanding conservative morals with the anti-establishment face of libertarianism. Presenting the philosophy of “Fusionism,” Meyer wrote the book In Defense of Freedom, which upheld liberty and individualism with an unadulterated level of purity. The specifics of Meyer’s theory of Fusionism are far beyond the scope of this article, but in summary, the goal of Fusionism is to unite libertarians and conservatives by promoting the freedom to be of good moral character, since in his own view, morality and liberty cannot be maintained separately.
Meyer did acknowledge that one cannot be rightfully compelled to be morally upstanding, but failed to draw a link between the conservatives, who felt that morality must be forcefully compelled in the interest of protecting freedom, and libertarians who asserted that morality must not be compelled at all. He acknowledged his own lack of explanation and insisted that he would write a second book to clarify his position. This book was never written. And with his conclusions left vulnerable by lack of explanation, his theory drew the attention of renowned libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard.
Noting the uneasy link being drawn between conservatism and libertarianism, Rothbard wrote Meyer a letter in which he stated, “The time has come, I believe, for me to try to blast conservatism out of the water.” Rothbard did, indeed, blow conservatism out of the water. His letter broke the assumed link between libertarianism and conservatism in very clear terms.
It seems to me that a “conservative” can be rationally identified in one of the following ways:
(a) Someone who wants to preserve the political status quo. I say “political” because no one wants to preserve all of the status quo on all matters. Well, in that case, Stalin after he captured power was a “conservative” as far as Russia was concerned; Hitler was a “radical” in 1929, a “conservative” in 1939, etc. There is no point to this, since it applies only to form, and not to content. In what conceivable way are you a conservative in this sense? Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Alsops are the conservatives now.
(b) Someone who identifies himself with the historical Conservative parties of the 19th Century in Europe. In that case, it means to identify oneself with authoritarianism and hatred of individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism. The Prussian Conservative Party was formed to block emancipation of the serfs, and to maintain protective tariffs; the Conservative Party in England imposed Corn Laws and Factory Acts, and crushed Ireland. Russell Kirk may want Church (Anglican, Lutheran), landed gentry, and servile peasantry, but you certainly don’t.
So there we are. In neither of these two senses are you and I at all conservatives. But to give you every possible benefit of the doubt, let us press on.
(c) A conservative is someone who wants to preserve the good things in the existing political situation. But who doesn’t want to preserve the good things. Isn’t it a matter of what each person thinks is good? So everyone could be called a “conservative” on this ground, which makes it a nonsensical definition.
(d) Perhaps you are a “conservative” because you wish to conserve the “western heritage.” But the Western heritage contains quantitatively more bad than good from our point of view – more murder than laissez-faire. So what you really want to promote is not the heritage en bloc but part of it – which parts to be picked out by reason. So where can conservatism come in?
(e) And finally, maybe you are a conservative because you prefer gradual to radical change. But do you really? Suppose the unlikely event that the Statists were willing to surrender, after an overnight conversion to liberalism. Suppose they all came to you and. said: all right, if you wish, we’ll establish liberty tomorrow. Would you refuse?
The fear of a conservative bastardization of the principle of liberty has existed for as long as American liberty itself. Liberty is a frightening thing. If the people around you are allowed to behave however they want, then nobody is watching them on your behalf. After all, if the colonies are allowed to leave the British Empire, who will ensure that the colonists uphold your principles and standards? With liberty comes change, and change makes mankind uncomfortable.
American conservatives have long attempted to hold the contradictory belief that people should be free and people should behave conservatively. From the conservative Dixie Democrats organizing the Ku Klux Klan to control the “problem” of free blacks, to the conservative Republicans of the modern era who fought against the rights of gay individuals to marry, every brand of conservatism in every era has professed to love liberty and simultaneously done everything they can to ensure that liberty doesn’t exist.
It should be noted time and time again that the vast majority of the Founding Fathers of the United States were as liberal as a liberal can possibly get. In France, the well-known classical liberal statesman Frederic Bastiat was associated with the left-wing. But liberalism has changed drastically, and in the modern age, the classical brand of liberalism is easily distinguishable from the modern liberalism promoted by progressives. Because both classical liberals and modern liberals show no fear of social change, and have little regard or respect for the enforcement of morality, the word “liberal” still rightfully applied to both, but more so to the classical liberals than to the progressives. Classical liberals promote the right kind of change, whereas the modern brand of liberalism contends that “progress” is rightfully a return to oligarchic rule by people who think they know what is best for you. With change in stance comes change in stigma – liberals are no longer the champions of personal freedom and have become the primary platform of such political movements as socialism, communism, and social justice.
It should also be noted that, though many conservatives confuse themselves with libertarians, there have been many heroes of conservatism who were not conservatives. Barry Goldwater, a staunch critic of the New Deal and the Civil Right Act, was a member of the Conservative Coalition. His record, however, was far more libertarian. There have been many figures of conservatism who promoted libertarianism (at least to an extent) through the ages of American history from Thomas Jefferson to Ron Paul.
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” – Barry Goldwater
Fusionism was the first and final attempt to draw a connection between conservatism and libertarianism (classical liberalism) on both an academic and philosophical level. But in reality, there is no chain to be forged between the two. Should conservatives think through the principles of liberty that they pretend to uphold to conclusion, they would have to accept that families will exist with LGBT parents, mosques may appear in their neighborhoods, Muslims may own guns, drugs may be consumed without legal punishment, flags may be desecrated, and non-English speaking communities may develop and thrive nearby. But to a libertarian, as long as the individual rights of others are not infringed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those things.
Liberty and conservatism and genetically incompatible creatures. Though conservatism stands strong in the face of progressivism, which seeks even further corrosion of personal liberty, conservatism also stands in the way of classical liberalism in an age where it is being revived. Conservatism is an anchor standing between two extremes while professing to hate one and love the other. Modern attempts to draw the liberty movement and traditionalism together have become absolute philosophical nightmares comparable to Nazism in a movement known as the “Alt-Right,” which promotes the absolute disregard for all individual rights not associated to native born individuals, with the rationalization that all rights are provisions granted by the grace of government.
The misconception that conservatives and libertarians are of similar ideology is a slap to the face of liberty. Libertarians want to be free, while progressives and conservatives want to be favored. Being free does not equate to being safe from things that scare you, but it does give you the ability to protect yourself and do as you please regardless, and to peacefully promote that which you think is right while discouraging that which is wrong. Conservatives may label themselves as pro-liberty, or even as libertarians themselves, but reality begs to differ. One cannot be inclined to live free while insisting that others not be afforded the same right. The assertion itself that conservatism and libertarianism are intellectually comparable is an absurdity. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
This post was written by Nathaniel Owen.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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