Conservatism is a dirty word. People often misuse it, whether speaking of themselves or others. It rarely means what it describes. Ask any man off the street what a conservative is, and they’ll likely tell you he is a bigoted warmonger who has yet to adopt 21st century cultural standards.
And that’s not always a misreading. Indeed, there are plenty of folks out there who call themselves “conservative” and adhere to the orthodoxy of the past by being unwilling to change for posh social revolutions. Sometimes this manifests into hateful behavior that seems illogical. So it’s understandable why plenty of people find conservatism itself appalling.
But just as the word “liberal” has been twisted and maligned to mean something totally different than its history, “conservative” has also been unfairly molested to mean something totally different. In a recent article for Economic Policy Journal, Chris Rossini (who is a fellow Lions of Liberty contributor) takes the standard view of conservatism and urges readers to disregard anyone who adopts the label. This includes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks who recently made the “conservative” case for limited government in the pages of USA Today.
What’s Rosinni’s beef exactly? Brooks wants to use government’s authority to promote the amorphous concept of social justice. He wants Washington to create an economic foundation for millions of Americans to have opportunity and thrive. And he wants conservatives to champion the cause.
Wanting everyone to succeed is a quaint notion few can disagree with. But Rossini is correct when he writes that the Brooks formula for success barely contains any mention of liberty or unfettered markets. Instead, the AEI Prez focuses on revamping the culture to cherish the nuclear family, a strong work ethic, and spiritual beliefs.
From a conservative cultural view, this is all well and good. From a libertarian perspective, this has no real relevance. The reason being that libertarianism concerns itself not with culture or social mores. It is a strict political philosophy; which is why confusion often occurs in the debate between politics and the wider scope of individual behavior.
Brooks makes a quasi-political and cultural argument that ends up muddying both concepts. It’s these kinds of policy prescriptions that wrongly lump conservatism into the same realm of libertarianism. The latter is a political philosophy while the former is something of much more complexity and breadth. Put more succinctly, conservativism is not a political philosophy. To be a conservative doesn’t necessarily define one’s politics. Russell Kirk perhaps best described the philosophy as “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” Conservatism says something about politics, but it doesn’t encompass a straightforward political theory as libertarianism does.
Rossini uses Brooks’s error to bash conservatism as a whole. He calls it “one big power party” that is perfectly fine with state treachery. But it is simply wrong to imply that all conservatives love war, taxes, government spying, torture, imperialism, monopoly banking, government intervention, drone strikes, indefinite detention, and the whole grab bag of the state’s wily tricks. Yes, there are conservatives who latch onto government’s various misdeeds. They are mistaken to take their statist ideology and attach the label “conservative” to it. It should be mentioned that there are some libertarians out there who think the impermissible nature of force or violence justifies a government-financed income guarantee. Their favored policy is antithetical to their ostensible political leanings, but they try to square the circle anyway.
The overall message of Rossini’s piece is that libertarians should ditch conservatives. He falls into the same mental trap described by Patrick Deneen who wrote that the modern conception of conservatism is horribly off-target. Instead of being associated with the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance, conservatism is usually “associated with George W. Bush: a combination of cowboy, crony capitalism, and foreign adventurism in search of eradicating evil from the world.” It’s hard not to read this view between the lines of Rossini’s piece.
Just as Rossini is wrong to equate conservatism with progressive statism, it would be to the detriment of libertarians to disregard potential allies. Not only is it not in libertarians’ best interest to ditch the broader view of conservatism, libertarian political views mixed with cultural conservatism can make for a much wiser worldview. They are entirely compatible when examined more closely.
How so? The basis of libertarianism is abhorrence over the use of aggression against the innocent. The biggest violator of the ethical verity that is the non-aggression principle is by far the state. In the 20th century alone, the family of violent collectivism known as communism, socialism, mercantilism, and democracy was responsible for the death of millions. Under the banner of the peace, self-determination, and justice, government enforcers took control to establish societal harmony by killing mass numbers of people.
Any rational person would see this as evidence of Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It should inspire a sense of aversion to the growth of government power. The heads of government don’t magically seize authority from unknown sources. They convince a grand swath of society to accept their claim to the throne. The next step is showering voters with goodies to placate them while slowly stealing away their rights. The alternative is outright oppression which has the tendency to spark pushback from within the populace or from the outside.
Given its history, having a reluctant or even cynical view of the political process is perfectly healthy. Libertarians don’t trust political actors to adhere to strictures. Neither should conservatives who cast a wary eye on anyone crying for progress. Conservatism, at its best, is the wisdom to be suspicious of grand proclamations of the state’s efficacy. But it also extends further: it’s a disposition that recognizes man’s flawed abilities and doesn’t heartily celebrate progress, whether it be material, scientific, or knowledgeable. It holds onto tradition because of the guiding light it has provided for centuries before. That doesn’t mean a conservative is correct to oppose all new declarations of liberty. But it acts as a strong bulwark against the insidious longings of thought leaders who want tyrannical lordship over freedom.
We’ve seen it all before. Government welfare was supposed to recreate society into a place where nobody suffered and everyone enjoyed material abundance. The result was millions suckered onto the dole who are dependent on the government sugar daddy. Public housing was supposed to provide dignity to those who couldn’t afford decent abodes. Instead, the poor were shoved into dilapidated high-rises that had little working utilities. All forms of socialism were supposed to empower the little people while tearing down the plutocrats. The outcome was the opposite: the masses made poorer while the ruling class was enriched.
Even today, some of the material possessions we are gifted with can act as enslaving mechanisms to the state. Smartphones are great communication tools, but the government can use them to track your whereabouts at all times. Social media is a wonderful platform for fostering relationships, but it provides a portal for unseemly individuals to have access to your personal life. Even the quest for greater social justice and “good feelings” has resulted in a thought police-esque regime that seeks to squash all dissenting opinion via violence if necessary.
The conservative cause isn’t to eschew every new idea or technological innovation because it threatens a way of life ingrained in society over the course of a few millennia. It says that we will forever be flawed beings, and that caution should be intertwined with prudence. Libertarians who desire true human liberty would be naïve to immediately accept any kind of change because it comes off as freeing. If freedom is precious, it should be treated as such and not taken for granted.
Rossini is wrong to say conservatives should be ditched. In fact, many libertarians have a conservative streak to them without even knowing it. They understand full well the unintended consequences of government power. And nothing is more conservative than taking a step back from proposed reform and querying who benefits and why. Certainly that’s a wise disposition for anyone suspicious of man-made authority, including the most principled of libertarians.