How does a Conservative differ from a Libertarian? Part 2
Updated: Jun 20
In Part 1 I argued that the famous Five Dimensional Political Compass and its related Five Dimensional Political Quiz is based on faulty principles that end up confusing more than clarifying the differences between conservatives and libertarians. Namely, the faulty principles of attempting to measure liberty by a series of political policy questions and the untruth that liberty is the complete absence of constraints. The difference between a conservative and a libertarian can be found in how the two approach the idea of liberty.
The libertarian understands liberty as an abstract concept derived from reason. This sentiment is beautifully captured in Jefferson’s famous declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson is appealing to “reason” to argue for specific “liberties” for “all men”. The statement is both abstract and indiscriminate. Jefferson borrowed heavily from philosopher John Locke and many other Enlightenment thinkers who expressed liberty as a chiefly abstract concept.
The conservative, by contrast, believes that liberty emerges from the harsh realities of the natural world, formed by a nation’s history, customs, institutions, moral constitution, and human nature. The conservative finds much to be admired in the libertarian’s understanding of liberty and may appeal to libertarian arguments to advocate for liberty where it is being denied. It is not that the conservative disagrees with the libertarian’s abstract reasoning, they just insist that liberty should be viewed through a broader lens than reason alone. The conservative does not believe that liberty can, or should, exist independent of numerous other considerations, not the least of which is national character and individual virtue.
Many conservative thinkers spoke of the relationship between individual morality and national liberties, such as Edmund Burke: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Or Russell Kirk: “If you want to have order in the commonwealth, you first have to have order in the individual soul.” Or Thomas Sowell: “Without a moral framework, there is nothing left but immediate self-indulgence by some and the path of least resistance by others. Neither can sustain a free society.” Or John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” While they were all supportive of liberty in general, they were far more concerned with the conditions which made liberty sustainable. To the conservative, the seed of liberty only blossoms in the soul of the virtuous soul.
“In the libertarian free-for-all what is worst in human nature enjoys an equal chance with what is best, and discipline is repudiated as a meddlesome intrusion.” Wrote English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, “Conservatism is the attempt to affirm that discipline, and to build, in the space of free association, a lasting realm of value.” And here is where the difference between the conservative and the libertarian is most pronounced. For the libertarian may view the conservative as only willing to support liberty to the point it does not invalidate their personal moral code, whereas the conservative is concerned that, in absence of an adequate moral code, liberty herself becomes an unsustainable curse. Conservatives view liberty the same way they view happiness: they are both desires all reasonable people have, but they are also byproducts of something more. Liberty is a byproduct of virtue just as happiness is a byproduct of friendship, meaningful work, or spiritual fulfillment. If we were to pursue the vague concepts of “liberty” or “happiness” themselves while disregarding their sustaining sources we would attain neither.
It is here that libertarians are most likely to raise objections, for while they may acknowledge moral decay cannot sustain a free society they will doubtless be wary of the degree to which they perceive conservatives meddling in other’s personal lives. Further compounding the division, libertarian’s penchant for reason leads them to focus in on political solutions which, in turn, leads them to mistakenly believe that conservatives are focused on political solutions when they speak of the need for individual morality. Conservatives are not as obsessed with controlling others’ sex lives or recreational drug usage as some would have us believe. It would be good to remember at this point that conservatives and libertarians are both allies in the fight for freedom. And, while we have our differences, it is preferable to dwell on the immeasurably more important beliefs we share.
For we must resist the temptation to take any political philosophy to an extreme; for liberty is preserved best in moderation and not in radicalized ideologies. Liberty may be a virtue, but it is not virtuous once divorced from other virtues. As C. S. Lewis taught in The Four Loves—“Love, having become a god, becomes a demon”—we see that the higher the virtue, the more it can turn against us. For no one would make a religion of lust, cowardice, or greed, but many have made religions of love, independence, and liberty. Any virtue that is held as an absolute will self-destruct. For only the Creator is fit to occupy that lofty pedestal in our hearts and minds.
And it is for this reason both the conservative and libertarian benefit from one another. For the conservative’s penchant for moral order and virtue, taken to an extreme, leads to theocratic tyranny; the libertarian’s fondness for absolute liberty, which is no better, leads to complete anarchy. We each have much to learn from the other.
This piece originally appeared in The Millennial Review.