What Conservatism Offers Liberty

“The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny.”
Michael Oakeshott

Fictional libertarian Ron Swanson has become a TV icon.

The fictional Swanson has become a TV icon.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a lecture by political scientist Donald J. Devine. Though the talk was my introduction to Devine’s work, the “Rasputin of reduction” has quickly become one of my personal heroes.

As Reagan’s civil service director, Devine was the original Ron Swanson: a stalwart libertarian placed at the head of a bloated bureaucracy. During his tenure as director, Devine slashed his office’s spending by 58% and fired one hundred thousand public employees. Taking an axe to government earned Devine several colorful monikers, including “Reagan’s terrible swift sword.”

In light of Devine’s actions, it’s a wonder why any libertarians say that Reagan’s administration was no better than Obama’s. Under the latter, IRS agents have spent some tens of thousands of dollars building a mockup starship Enterprise, violated government rules by booking top-dollar presidential suites, and hired costly speakers to lecture on subjects like “leadership through art.” This is precisely the sort of frivolity that Reagan’s sword would have razed.

Moreover, Devine’s latest book, “America’s Way Back,” has earned some revealing praise from Rand Paul. The senator has said that “Devine spells out the solution for the modern GOP – a fusion of the best of conservative ideas with those of the liberty movement.”

Rand Paul has been called “the effective leader of the Republican Party” by a prominent Democratic strategist.

Rand Paul has been called “the effective leader of the Republican Party” by a prominent Democratic strategist.

It’s not a coincidence that Senator Paul both identifies with Devine and has been recognized as “the effective leader of the Republican Party.” It’s thinking like Devine’s that enabled liberty-minded Republicans to surf into the House and Senate in a Tea Party tsunami in 2010. Conversely, the liberty movement’s alternative strategy – described as the “cosmotarian” approach by Justin Raimondo – has won no equivalent victories.

The futile overtures of the cosmotarians often involve abandoning libertarian positions in favor of leftist ones. Months ago, for instance, the chairman of the Cato Institute went so far as to offer a “libertarian case” for reintroducing an already defeated piece of gun control legislation.

Yet the strategy espoused by Dr. Devine and championed by Senator Paul requires nothing of the kind.* On the contrary, a brief survey of conservative thought reveals that it ultimately serves to strengthen and underpin the positions that libertarians already hold.

Cynicism

It’s no secret that the left perceives its every political victory as part of mankind’s linear and inexorable march into the light. Nor is it any mystery why. The left must disdain the past because most every serious thinker in human history to date would, today, be called a conservative.

In the words of Jonah Goldberg, “modern conservatism was born as a reaction to various utopian ideologies” that emerged in the 18th century. In the grand sweep of history, leftism is a particularly nasty rash that, only last week, cropped up on the body of human thought.

Russell Kirk wrote “To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things.”

Russell Kirk wrote “To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things.”

Thomas Sowell has suggested that the left originated when Rousseau first denied “the plain fact of evil.” That is, Rousseau advanced the biologically absurd position that humans have no innate behavioral traits: all of our differences and failings are the result of outside circumstance. From Rousseau’s premise, France’s Jacobin government inferred – quite reasonably – that it could perfect humanity by amassing enough sheer power to properly manipulate social conditions.

Yet, as Murray Rothbard would later note, this premise ignored the “ontological structure of reality.” The resulting Reign of Terror killed tens of thousands of people.

By denying the very “structure of reality,” leftism provides a bottomless justification for government violence. If everyone is the same by default, then any inequality is proof that someone has committed fraud or theft. To a leftist, government force is not initiatory violence, but the defensive appropriation of stolen property. Thus, “scratch an egalitarian, and you will inevitably find a statist.”

A leftist never quite runs out of people to kill.

A leftist never quite runs out of people to kill.

In the 20th century, this statism was borne out in full as communism blossomed across Europe and Asia. According to University of Hawaii professor R.J. Rummel, communists murdered nearly two thirds of all those killed by governments from 1900 to 1987.

This makes leftism the bloodiest and most authoritarian doctrine in the history of mankind. In the words of Russell Kirk, “the ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”

The conservative, by contrast, recognizes that humanity is fallen. Because people have intrinsic limitations, Kirk wrote, “all that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.” Pretending otherwise causes even more problems than we had to begin with.

The Parable of the Trees warns against political power.

The Parable of the Trees warns against political power.

If mankind is perfectible, the war on drugs has not gone far enough until there are no drug addicts. The war on prostitution has not gone far enough until no women choose to be prostitutes. “Humanitarian wars” have not been waged enough until there are no more Joseph Konys.

In other words, a state that abandons the principle of imperfectability will continue to grow either until it is stopped or no humans are left alive on Earth. To borrow from C.S. Lewis – who said that “it may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies” – the very worst right-wingers are robber barons.

While Friedrich Hayek had rhetorical problems with the term “conservative,” he called himself a “Burkean” – i.e. a conservative – and shared Burke’s objections to egalitarianism. Hayek wrote:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Moreover, even if some sort of perfection were attainable, a conservative would not trust government to implement it. While a leftist may expect moral people to spring forth from democratic institutions, a conservative sees that politicians are as limited as the rest of us.

Kirk wrote that “knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence.” Likewise, the biblical Parable of the Trees (Judges 9:8-15) warns against offering human beings power – arguing that the most evil humans will be most attracted to it. By contrast, the righteous leader Gideon rejects government in Judges 8:22-23, saying “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.”

Cicero said “freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.”

Cicero said “freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.”

Continuity

Kirk’s conservative principles also included the sense that “modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.” He wrote that conservatives adhere to “a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”

This principle is certainly helpful to political decentralism, which has deep and ancient roots. Humans lived in tribes of roughly 200 people for the overwhelming majority of a timeline on which centralized states are a mere blip. Conservatism counsels us to stand “on the shoulders of giants” rather than pretend that we can create a wholly artificial pattern from scratch.

A human thinks in terms of his immediate community and is not wired to conceptualize strangers in other regions as if they, somehow, were members of it. There is little reason, then, to place disparate communities under the uniform rule of an overarching government. Kirk agrees: “In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily.”

Iceland had a libertarian legal system for almost 300 years.

Iceland had a libertarian legal system for almost 300 years.

Likewise, Yale historian Donald Kagan has said of ancient Greek polities that “the idea of taxation being normal would have gotten a Greek foaming at the mouth. When there’s no tyranny, there’s no taxation.” University of London historian Tom Asbridge has said that, during the Carolingian renaissance, Europeans were allowed “to follow quite different sets of laws depending on their local region, their traditions. And to have a loose umbrella of power that held it all together. That actually worked.” In Iceland, the nation was formally divided into a market of several dozen chieftaincies for nearly 300 years.

As Roderick Long has said of this final example, “We should be cautious in labeling as a failure a political experiment that flourished longer than the United States has even existed.”

Community

One of Australia’s top Aboriginal leaders is also its fiercest conservative thinker.

One of Australia’s top Aboriginal leaders is also its fiercest conservative thinker.

Look back to the Jacobins, and it’s not difficult to see today’s tolerant left foreshadowed. Under Jacobin rule, religious people were seen as backwards “fanatics” and drowned en masse. The government replaced the Christian calendar with a secular one, removed the word “saint” from street names, and adopted a 10-day week so that Christians would not know which day was Sunday.

Likewise, it became a capital crime to use the words “monsieur” and “madame” – which the Jacobins replaced with the gender-neutral and egalitarian “citoyen.” Even the guillotine itself was designed to be egalitarian.**

Inspired by the Jacobins, Karl Marx would later seek to bring about “the disappearance of all culture” and promote the “abolition of the family”, a unit that “will vanish as a matter of course when its complement [capitalism] vanishes.”

In response to leftist calls for human sameness, conservatives like Edmund Burke began to argue that plurality, in and of itself, is desirable.

Localizing government not only increases accountability, but promotes differences between communities that – like those between cultures, the sexes and individuals – are complimentary and competitive.

In his essay “The Relevance of Conservatism,” Noel Pearson argues that conservatism offers the best way forward for his people – Australian Aborigines – and the continued existence of their unique culture. Writes Pearson:

Conservatism is the insight into the imperfection and mystery of human nature. This imperfection and mystery will ultimately make liberal and social-democratic structures inadequate and unfulfilling.

Conservatism is the idea that distinct groups of people should continue to exist because deep difference (not just multicultural diversity) is an end in itself. We don’t know what the purpose of existence is, if any. The homogenization inherent in liberalism and social democracy is risky because it robs us of many possibly attempts to answer the unsolvable existential enigmas.


* FAQ on this point: See here for immigration and here for foreign policy and social issues.

** This was poetically fitting. As the Reign of Terror illustrated, there is death in equality as surely as there is equality in death.

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