At the beginning of this series on libertarianism and conservatism, I wrote that it’s hard to believe that I’ve called myself a libertarian for nearly half a decade. But in reality, I’ve held libertarian-ish views for a much longer time. Unfortunately, I spent years bouncing around the fringes of libertarianism, never quite sure how to fit it within my existing conservative worldview.
During this time, one question rattled continuously around my head: is it possible to be a libertarian and a conservative?
Stumped, I eventually took to social media to pose this question to the person who had done the most to lead me to libertarianism, historian Tom Woods. I posted the question and eagerly awaited the response that I was sure would clear the matter up. But what I got back was a disappointingly vague, “It depends.”
“Well, thanks a lot,” I muttered to myself.
At the time, Woods’ response was not especially helpful in my quest for clarity. But I have since come to understand that it was also entirely accurate, for the answer to the question depends on how we define conservatism and libertarianism. If we accept the mainstream interpretation of those words, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement between the two.
However, if we look more deeply into the historical principles underlying these two philosophies, we may come to a different conclusion.
Conservative Objections to Libertarianism
Many conservatives object to libertarianism because, to be brutally honest, they don’t understand it. For many on the right, libertarianism’s disdain for state control of personal decisions amounts to a tacit, if not explicit, endorsement of immoral behavior. In this view, opposition to drug prohibition indicates an implicit approval of drug use and arguments against government-enforced morality are seen as arguments against morality itself.
Conservatives also complain that libertarians are insufficiently concerned about safety and security, citing libertarian opinions on immigration and war as examples. But here too is an inaccurate understanding of what libertarians actually believe, which is that individuals and communities are able to manage immigration and that war grows the state and endangers our lives and liberties.
These arguments against libertarianism, which are often frustrating in their simplicity, are favored by modern American conservatives. But even traditionalist conservatives, whose opinions of state power tend to be closer to libertarianism than modern conservatism, have claimed that there is an incompatibility between the two philosophies. Russell Kirk famously called libertarians “chirping sectaries” and Robert Nisbet wrote an essay on why libertarians and conservatives were nothing more than “uneasy cousins.”
Nisbet, who observed that a point of agreement between paleoconservatives and libertarians was their “common dislike of war” opposed a libertarianism that he believed was unnecessarily individualistic. Nisbet understood libertarians to value the individual to the exclusion of the traditional social institutions like the family, church and community. This, he believed, led libertarians to disdain authority of all types, not just the state.
Now, admittedly, there’s no reason why anyone should listen to me above Robert Nisbet, who was a nationally-renowned scholar for four decades. But even so, I believe that the conservative luminary was wrong in these opinions, not because his descriptions do not apply to any libertarians at all but because they do not of necessity apply to libertarianism itself.
The libertarian belief in individual liberty does not necessarily elevate individualism above all other values. Libertarians can and do believe in the importance of traditional social organizations and voluntary associations. Libertarians can similarly value the role of legitimate authority and differentiate it, as Nisbet did, from the illegitimate authority of the state.
Despite conservative criticisms of libertarianism, even those emanating from conservatism’s sharpest minds, there is nothing to the argument that libertarianism is inherently opposed to traditional conservative values.
Libertarian Arguments Against Conservatism
For as wrong as some conservatives can be about libertarianism, libertarians are often just as wrong about conservatism. The libertarian stereotype of conservatives is that they are militaristic moral crusaders, people who see government as a tool to squelch any idea or action with which they personally disagree. But this is a bad caricature of conservatism, even if it is one that accurately describes many modern conservatives.
But in ascribing to an entire philosophy the positions of its worst proponents, libertarians are repeating the same fallacy that causes conservatives to misunderstand libertarianism. Just as conservatives make bad assumptions about libertarianism, so too do libertarians when they wrongly assume that the state is necessary to the fulfillment of conservatism’s goals.
Conservatives’ belief in social order and authority is not itself a statement on the role of the government in such matters. In fact, the entire range of conservative principles – tradition, values, order and authority – exist outside of the state. Believing in these ideals does not require the wholesale rejection of libertarianism.
Fusionism By Any Other Name
In considering the disagreements between libertarians and conservatives, what is clear is that in each case one side is making incorrect assumptions about the fundamental beliefs of the other. What we’re left with, then, are two philosophies that appear to be similar in some respects and irreconcilably opposed in others. The result is a tense, often broken appreciation of each side for the other.
So, is conservatism compatible with libertarianism? As Tom Woods said, it depends. It depends on how we define the terms. But what definitions lead to compatibility?
Well, for starters, I don’t think that it’s fair to characterize conservatism as primarily a political philosophy. Traditionally conservatism has been concerned with protecting traditional values, institutions and voluntary associations, all of which enable society to function properly. Conservatives believe in an order and authority that is not based on top-down force or coercion, but in the natural and voluntary hierarchies that exist among freely associating individuals. Conservatism, properly understood, has political opinions only because it seeks to protect traditional society.
But this does not necessarily lead the conservative to favor the exercise of government power, for as Nisbet observed, state action naturally interferes with the authority of the voluntary associations that conservatives value. Conservatism therefore has the hallmarks not of a philosophy about politics, but one about society.
On the other hand, libertarianism is primarily a political philosophy. Stated simply, libertarianism upholds liberty to be the highest political end, but not necessarily the highest social one. Libertarianism’s objection to government power is indeed based on individual rights, but it does not deny the importance of authority and order. Just as conservatives view the government skeptically because it infringes on the authority of voluntary associations, libertarians view the government skeptically because it infringes on the rights of individuals.
With that said, libertarianism clearly has a social aspect to it. The belief that no person (or group of people) has the moral authority to use force except in the defense of life, liberty and property is a philosophy about the appropriate social conduct between individuals. But while this philosophy is calculated to suppress the violent oppression of individuals, it doesn’t have anything to say how society should otherwise function, except that associations and relationships should exist without violence and coercion that violate individual liberties.
It is true that some libertarians have muddied the water by attempting to extend the arguments against the state to arguments against all forms of authority, but these opinions are not inherent to libertarianism itself. Just as there is nothing inherently objectionable within conservatism to libertarians, neither is there anything inherent within libertarianism that is objectionable to conservatives.
The idea of the compatibility between conservatism and libertarianism is not new. In the 1950s, National Review associate editor Frank Meyer attempted to bring the two together under the term “fusionism.” Meyer sought to combine the social views of conservatism with the political views of libertarianism. Meyer’s fusionism was incarnated when Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political stage, saying things like “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
Unfortunately, Reagan’s espousal of libertarian politics was more rhetorical than actual, and his illiberal policies as president turned libertarians off to conservatism and damaged the long-term prospects for Meyer’s synthesis.
Nisbet argued that the state grows in the absence of voluntary associations, explaining that individuals need the membership and purpose that they provide. The absence or weakness of these associations, he noted, has historically resulted in individuals finding their meaning and purpose in the state and redirecting their allegiance to it. In this way, traditional social institutions act as a hedge against government power.
Furthermore, the order and organization that libertarians say exists on the free market can only be provided by individuals freely associating and ordering their social interactions. Libertarian arguments, like that for private charity instead of government welfare, rely on a traditional conservative view of society and its voluntary associations.
On the other hand, conservative values can only survive in a libertarian society, because nothing attacks conservatives’ beliefs in order and virtue more than the state. Granting the state the power to define and enforce morality necessarily gives the government the authority to redefine the word and enforce their decidedly nontraditional definition of it. Additionally, the state actively competes with voluntary associations like the family, the church and the community for the allegiance of individuals and, without this allegiance, these associations – and society itself – degenerate.
Individual liberty permits the proper functioning of society. And the proper functioning of society reinforces individual liberty.
Most conservatives and libertarians have just as much trouble combining conservatism and libertarianism as I did. But it may be more important now than ever that they do so, for libertarianism and conservatism are not only compatible, they may ultimately rely on each other.
Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click here for the full list of articles.