Saturday, March 8, 2008

Conservative, Libertarian, or Both?

I have always identified as a conservative with libertarian leanings, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. After all, aside from my opposition to abortion, my political beliefs have very much in common with libertarian theory. In fact, even my reasons for being pro-life stem from a philosophy wholly compatible with libertarianism. Libertarianism is a purely political philosophy of individual liberty (as distinct from libertinism), and my opposition to abortion stems from an observance that the fertilized egg is biologically its own self distinct from the mother.

Really, the only views that I have that are more conservative than libertarian are my beliefs in a strong police force, a strong military, and secure borders. But even these can arguably be defended by libertarian principles. After all, libertarians, except for the extreme anarchist types, do find that government has a legitimate role in taking action against those who encroach upon the freedoms of its citizens. Therefore, the police force needs to be at least as strong as the criminals, and the military needs to be at least as strong as our external threats. In this day and age, that is mighty strong. In the short run, it might save Joe Citizen a buck and a half in tax dollars if the government skimps out on the latest missile defense systems, or the latest technology in bullet-proof vests. However, as any economist will tell you – and libertarians rightly put a lot of value in thinking economically – it is poor form to think only in the short run unless the short run contains an existential emergency. I am no fan of taxation, but what is the point of having the government save me a dollar in taxes if, as a result, it will then be unable to save me from al-Qaeda’s nuclear missile – that is, from an external attack on my fundamental right to life (which is surely as important as my right to that extra dollar from my taxes, if not more so)? I am not an interventionist or imperialist, and I know that government is not there to save its citizens from everything, but I do not mind giving it jurisdiction over foreign missiles aimed at me. I also do not mind giving it jurisdiction over our borders. Immigration is fine, but illegal immigration is dangerous. The possibility of hostile criminals or terrorists entering our country is very real. Citizens in towns near the border deserve as much protection as anyone else, and it does not make sense to leave to a local police force the task of making sure that al-Qaeda does not make war on, say, El Paso. We should have a military presence on the borders with Mexico and Canada, not to intimidate our neighbors or to keep everyone else out, but to make sure that no one and nothing harmful can unduly enter the country.

Those ideas may not be the main planks in the Libertarian Party platform, but they are reasonably defensible from a libertarian standpoint. However, they are also defensible from a conservative standpoint – in fact, if most Republicans had their way, they would be the main planks in the GOP’s platform. So, not to pigeon-hole myself, but am I conservative or libertarian, or both? And, how significant is the difference between the two, really? Are they perhaps the same thing; is the dichotomy a mere distinction without a difference? Or, are they two separate philosophies that, though perhaps capable of friendly relations in the political arena, are ultimately incompatible?

I suspect that most politically-conscious folk on the right have grappled with this conundrum at least once or twice. Indeed, it has been a topic of debate for decades, and remains unresolved even among the leading right-wing philosophers to this day. But it is nonetheless worthwhile to spend time deeply considering these questions, because pondering how two philosophies approach the same issue and contrast with one another goes a long way towards thoughtfully shaping one’s own views.

Enter Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate. Edited by George W. Carey, it is a collection of essays by many of the most prominent conservative and libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century, including M. Morton Auerbach, Doug Bandow, Walter Berns, L. Brent Bozell, John P. East, M. Stanton Evans, John Hospers, Russell Kirk, Paul Kurtz, Tibor R. Machan, Edward B. McLean, Frank S. Meyer, Robert Nisbet, Murray N. Rothbard, Richard M. Weaver, and Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. Unlike I do above, the authors do not spend much time discussing individual issues; rather, they remain philosophic. There are arguments both for and against the possibility of "fusionism" – that is, the belief that conservatism and libertarianism are at least compatible, if not two sides of the same coin – as well as libertarian critiques of conservatism and vice versa. (Needless to say, the latter types of essays were not terribly keen on fusionism.)

Based on his introduction and choice of essays, I do not think that Carey intends to promote one point of view over another, although, interestingly, the book begins and ends with arguments directed against the feasibility of fusionism. First comes an anti-fusionist argument, "Do-It-Yourself Conservatism?" by Morton Auerbach, followed by three very brief essays by Stan Evans, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk (respectively) that were each written specifically to rebut the first essay. Next comes "The Twisted Tree of Liberty" by Meyer, who is famous for first coining the term "fusionism" and setting forth its arguments in this very essay (which was originally published in National Review in January 1962), and then later expanding upon it in his book In Defense of Freedom. Fusionism asserts that conservatism and libertarianism are vital complements and should band together not only because it was (and remains) politically expedient, but because the philosophies naturally merge in a way most beneficial for society. If I may strip the argument to its bare essentials for the sake of brevity:

The only real difference between conservatism and libertarianism is that conservatism contains a strong traditionalist belief in the primacy of virtue, while libertarianism is principally concerned with maximizing individual liberty. Both of these are important, but they are not mutually exclusive because a) no person or act is truly virtuous if people are coerced (i.e. by the state) to behave virtuously – in other words, an act only counts as virtuous if the actor freely makes the choice to be virtuous when he could have done otherwise – and b) liberty is an ultimate political end, but not an ultimate personal or social end, and is therefore pointless at best, and dangerous at worst, if the populace of a free society does not maintain a virtuous tradition. Conservatives and libertarians already agree about limited government and a free market economy, and while their social outlooks appear to be distinct, they are really the flip sides of the same coin. Therefore, conservatives and libertarians should put aside their differences, which are mostly illusory anyhow, and band together.

That was not necessarily an endorsement of fusionism, just a description of it. Really, it is key to the entire book; an argument for or against that notion is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in every essay.

Most of the arguments in favor of fusionism expand, in one manner or another, on the ideas described above, but the criticisms come from all corners. For example, following Meyer’s essay is an intelligent but tedious treatise by L. Brent Bozell, "Freedom or Virtue?", that attacks the notion that "virtue is only virtue if it is freely chosen" via a reductio ad absurdum. Assuming that I understood it correctly (it really was quite tedious), I do not quite buy Bozell’s argument. He uses divorce as an example – this was written back when divorce law was central to the social policy debate. Bozell interprets Meyer to believe that there should not be any legal restrictions on divorce just because we think that it is immoral. Meyer would argue by example: Is the Spanish man who is not free to divorce (again, written a long time ago) but hates his wife and stays with her only for selfish pragmatic reasons, equally virtuous as the American man who is free to divorce and would like to do so but decides to stay for the sake of the children and his own soul? No, Meyer would say, the Spaniard in this hypothetical scenario is not equally virtuous as the American, and in any event, very similar scenarios are very common in real life, thereby showing that it is harder for virtue to exist where people are not free to choose another path. Well, Bozell seems to say, by that reasoning, we might as well offer a tax incentive for divorce and increase the marriage penalty – that will really make clear who are truly virtuous and who are not! But Bozell misses the point by a mile (assuming, again, that I have not missed his). Meyer’s argument was not about singling people out as virtuous or not. It was about why it is misguided for the government to legislate in favor of one choice over another when it is nobody else’s business which choice an individual makes. Meyer would have been against incentives for divorce as much as he would have been against incentives against divorce, because divorces are not the government’s concern in the first place. His social outlook, which he projected into fusionism, was largely laissez-faire, which is to say, legally disinterested either way when it comes to the various social questions of ultimately individual concern. Bozell’s argument was, in the end, a straw-man argument.

This reminds me of Murray Rothbard’s essay, "Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqué", which appeared later on in the book. Rothbard, a libertarian (of course), doubted fusionism for a peculiar reason. His key premise here, with which I agree, is that libertarianism is a strictly political philosophy and must be distinguished from libertinism, a social philosophy that is only one of many philosophical foundations from which one might come to support libertarianism in the political arena. Briefly stated, Rothbard says that according to Meyer’s definition of fusionism, there is really no such thing, because a fusionist is just a libertarian who believes in maintaining traditional values on the personal and familial levels. (Rothbard offers himself as an example of just such a person.) To break down the argument a little bit: a) there are already plenty of political libertarians who are not keen on legislating values but still believe in them personally, which seems to be precisely the same as Meyer's model fusionist; b) any conservative who would refrain from legislating his social values for the sake of individual liberty is really just a libertarian by another name, which is to say, the exact same person as described in (a) except that he happens to label himself with a different word; and c) any conservative who is willing to legislate his social values is either not a conservative at all or living proof that fusionism cannot work because of the unavoidable discrepancy between his statist social views and the libertarian emphasis on individual freedom of conscience. Self-serving as this argument is for Rothbard (fusionists and most conservatives are really closet libertarians, and everyone else is an evil statist), I must admit that I am very tempted by it. Not only do I find myself identifying very closely with Rothbard’s definition of a fusionist (a libertarian with a personal commitment to virtue), but it seems to make perfect sense. The only thing lacking in Rothbard’s argument, which seems strikingly lacking in the rest of the book as well, is a discussion of the discrepancies between the conservative and libertarian views on foreign policy, the intricacies and nuances of which are too great to allow for any sort of substantial fusionism in my opinion.

Despite the size of this post, it covers a mere minority of the ideas put forth in the various essays, so do not assume that my lengthy synopsis spares you from acquiring your own copy of the book if you are interested in the topic. I highly recommend Freedom and Virtue to anyone interested in political philosophy, and also to anyone on the right who has not yet resolved the details of his political identity or philosophy. The writing quality is mostly first-class, and the philosophy is interesting, intelligent, and relevant.