A common critique of libertarianism from conservatives is that liberty alone is not sufficient for a good society. There are, they argue, many other necessary things, like a transcendent moral order, a culture that values family and community, and a promotion of virtue over license.
And these conservatives are not wrong. In fact, many influential libertarians throughout history would agree, as would much of the American Old Right. Henry Hazlitt wrote a defense of conformity that some of today’s libertarians would see as the antithesis of libertarianism.
Even the great classical liberal Lord Acton defended the idea that license is not liberty, arguing that, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Although we should have the liberty of doing what we want as long as it doesn’t violate the liberty of others, we also should use this liberty in a positive, virtuous manner.
One conservative/libertarian, Frank Meyer, is best known for his integration of libertarianism and traditional conservatism known as “Fusionism.” Sadly, this label (which was not his own) leads to a misunderstanding of Meyer’s general point. He was not trying to “fuse” libertarianism with traditionalism, but instead to show their common roots, and the necessity of one for the other in opposing a common enemy.
Unfortunately, when today’s conservatives argue that liberty is not sufficient, they often act (as do some libertarians) as if liberty and order are a dichotomy, that to have more of one is to have less of the other. Each group talks past one another, sometimes declaring (whether honestly or in bad faith) that their opponent dominates the political right.
Each of us holds a certain hierarchy of values, and while two people can share the same values, they may prioritize certain values differently. Many (regardless of ideology) incorrectly view a single ideological position as sufficient for a complete worldview, and become unable to view any societal issue outside of that single lens.
When egalitarians do this, equality becomes the only thing that matters. Individual differences and merit cease to play any role in disparities of any kind. The causes of disparities no longer matter. All that matters is eliminating them by any means necessary.
When conservatives do this, any understanding of unintended consequences or economic concepts like Bastiat’s “That Which is Not Seen” goes out the window. Maintaining order becomes the goal, whether by community and subsidiarity or by a centralized bureaucracy. Liberty becomes synonymous with license. The appearance of virtue brought about by legislation becomes more important than genuine virtue (is one actually virtuous if legislation forces them to make the right choice?).
When libertarians do this, the conservative criticisms become valid. Any action that doesn’t violate the non-aggression principle (NAP) becomes morally acceptable, leading to the popular phrase, “It’s a private company, they can do whatever they want.” Any action that is not a NAP violation must not only be defended, but celebrated. As with the conservatives, liberty becomes synonymous with license.
The dichotomy of liberty vs. order is a false one. In fact, they are complementary.
Virtue cannot exist without liberty. People cannot choose the good if they are unable to choose in the first place. A criminal is not suddenly more virtuous if he is placed in solitary confinement and thus unable to harm others.
A virtuous and orderly society must also be bottom-up, not top-down. A strong community set up through voluntary associations and mutual benefit is far more orderly than a society established through central planning and bureaucracy. As we can see in the Western world today, various interest groups are competing for power over one another in places like Washington, Westminster, and Brussels. Order is unstable when power is heavily centralized and most of life is politicized.
Likewise, liberty cannot exist without order. Many government institutions did not simply rise up out of nowhere, but instead displaced already-existing private institutions. Private individuals must continually be responding to and resolving society’s ills. If this is not the case, people will turn to the government, which will often make the problem worse. When these private institutions fail, government is quick to take their place. In fact, government is often actively competing against these institutions that maintain order, because they eliminate the need for government in many aspects of ordinary life.
Both conservatives and libertarians are reflecting on the state of their respective movements. Perhaps instead of doubling down and devoting so much effort to opposing one another, they could benefit from pursuing the common goal of a free and moral society.