Russell Kirk vs. the Libertarians

While looking up a particular quote recently, I came upon the article "Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries" whiich Russell Kirk wrote in 1981. The timing of this piece is interesting, as it came out after Ronald Reagan had been in office for less than one year. No doubt, there were discussions similar to those we are having today as to the relationship between Conservatives and Libertarians.

To start his piece Kirk asks what conservatives and libertarians have in common. Kirk concedes –

These two bodies of opinion share a detestation of collectivism. They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy.

This is true and good as far as it goes. However, in the next paragraph Kirk writes:

What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

Those who believe modern conservatives and libertarians are merely different schools of conservative thought are likely to be stunned by this. They shouldn’t be, and Kirk lays out significant differences between the two in his article.

Kirk highlights the essential fault of libertarian zealots when he writes:

The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle -- that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil order, and indeed of human existence.

In this one paragraph he encapsulates the superficial, abstract, and utopian thinking behind libertarian “philosophy.” He then goes on to show how detached from reality such thought is.

Kirk traces libertarian thought back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the doctrines of which libertarians carry “to absurdity.” Mill declares, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” These are fine sounding words from an ascetic intellectual who experienced life principally through books, and who seemed to assume, as Kirk notes:

…that most human beings, if only they were properly schooled, would think and act precisely like John Stuart Mill.

This faith in the power of logic and lack of imagination as regards human motivation is something not uncommon among intellectuals of all stripes. Kirk shows how Mill’s thoughts in On Liberty were thoroughly debunked as early as 1873 by James Fitzjames Stephen in his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen clearly shows the shallowness of Mill’s thought and his “inadequate understanding of human nature and history.”

I find an interesting parallel to the reclusive Mill in Karl Marx, a man who rarely worked for his keep and spent his adult life in a library, yet was perfectly willing to proclaim his expert knowledge of economics and humanity with a straight and generally sour ace.

Kirk lays out six major differences between conservatives and doctrinaire libertarians. Here's a sampling of three of them:

2. In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States...

3. What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn...

4. Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that "in Adam's fall we sinned all": human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect...

Of these, I find point 4 to be the fount from which the other differences flow. Of course, to disabuse libertarians, anarchists, and Marxists of their fantasies is something which has, to date, eluded mankind. But as history has clearly demonstrated, human nature is extremely complicated and simply believing that people are basically good does not mean that it is so.

To anticipate those who might find his overall analysis questionable Kirk writes:

But surely, surely I must be misrepresenting the breed? Don't I know self-proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste, well endowed with the good of fortune? Yes, I do know such. They are the people who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call themselves "libertarians" merely because they believe in personal freedom, and do not understand to what extravagances they lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire "libertarian" causes and publications. If a person describes himself as "libertarian" because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life—why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.

That last sentence is very important. Conservatives are all for joining with those who may call themselves libertarians but are, in fact, constitutional conservatives in the American sense. This is why it is so important to get definitions correct. Labels are often thrown around very loosely, so clarity of expression and thought are necessary for the fight to take back our country.

I believe Kirk uncovers one basic truth which lurks deep in the recesses of the doctrinaire Libertarian’s mind when he writes:

Lo, I am proud! The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics. In a highly tolerant society like that of America today, such defiance of authority on principle many lead to perversity on principle, for the lack of anything more startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism.

I will leave to others to determine what this says about the psychology of the doctrinaire libertarian. But given the regimentation of modern society and the homogenization of our world, perhaps it is understandable for some individuals to search for meaning through differentiation. Perhaps this is why we have the celebrity culture. People of no particular merit can now become famous for being famous.

But being different for difference’s sake is very different from being different because of talent or effort.

I recommend the reader search out and read Kirk’s full article. It is a tonic to those of us who hold similar views. And it could be of enormous educational value in helping those sincere, yet somewhat muddled, people who know they are not socialists but don’t know whether or not they are conservatives.

I will leave the reader with a final thought from Kirk:

Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill dreaded, and they dread today, obedience to the dictates of custom. In our time, really, the real danger is that custom and prescription and tradition may be overthrown utterly among us—for has not that occurred already in most of the world?—by neoterism, the lust for novelty; and that men will be no better than the flies of a summer, oblivious to the wisdom of their ancestors, and forming every opinion merely under the pressure of the fad, the foible, the passion of the hour.

Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. Brad Nelson is editor/publisher of StubbornThings.