“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” These words are Patrick Henry’s, uttered in the course of his famous oration known for its powerful closing words “give me liberty or give me death.” Although Henry probably did not intend it as a sociopolitical axiom, the Anglo-American conservative tradition has adopted it as such. Conservatives rightly look to the past to influence their views of the future. Change in the basic structure of society’s institutions is inherently perilous, and must be guided by the “lamp of experience” lest reform lose its way.
But experience accumulates as time marches on. Proposed changes to public life that seem radical and dangerous in one era can embody wisdom and stewardship in another. Applied conservatism is nothing less than continual constitutional craftsmanship. And in that context, “constitution” refers not to whatever is formally drawn up in a document, but the actual procedures and practices that comprise a society’s public sphere.
In this spirit, I propose a position that seems extraordinary, but I am convinced is vindicated by historical experience: the state is a fundamentally anti-conservative force, and in order to preserve the good, true, and beautiful things in society, it’s got to go. In short, I argue that conservatives should seriously consider anarchism.
I realize such a position seems absurd, at least on its surface. Conservatism has long held that the existing political order deserves respect precisely because it is the result of custom, habit, and experience. Massive changes in basic social institutions almost always create chaos. How then can one be both conservative and anarchist?
First, let’s reflect on the nature of conservatism. Its master theoretician remains Russell Kirk, the founder of post-war American conservatism. I am fond of this Kirk quote: “The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.”
Thus conservatism is really a habit of mind or orientation of sentiment. It is a way of thinking about man, society, and the relationship between the two. It has much more to say about how we treat these topics than what we say about them. It would be wrong to conclude that any position can be conservative so long as it is theorized in the “right” way. But it nonetheless remains true that conservatism is primarily a modifier, an adjective. This is why the phrase “conservative liberal” need not be a contradiction in terms. In fact, many of the greatest thinkers in the conservative tradition—Acton, Tocqueville, even Burke himself—are best classified under this label.
Now let’s consider anarchy. Kirk had this to say about that particular form of social organization: “When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.” Thus anarchy is equated with lawlessness. It is obvious, then, that conservatives cannot embrace a social organization that repudiates all governance institutions. Such institutions are necessary and proper to constrain man’s baser impulses and channel his potentially destructive passions towards the common good.
But which institutions? There are a myriad of ways human societies can be governed. In fact, for most of human history, societies were not governed by states as we currently know them. The word “state,” meaning a unitary actor that embodies the formal apparatus of government, probably originated with Machiavelli. Prior to the rise of the state, which began during the Renaissance but reached its culmination with the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-17th century, Europe was governed by several authorities whose jurisdiction was fractured, overlapping, and concurrent. The polylegal system of the High Middle Ages, in which the authority of kings, local nobility, trade guilds, free cities, and the Roman Catholic Church competed and often checked the abuses of each other, is an important example and one that should be of obvious interest to conservatives.
Thus an anarchist is not one who opposes law and order. Nor is an anarchist a violent revolutionary. An anarchist opposes the specific institution that claims the right to provide these important social goods: the state. And a conservative anarchist opposes the state on the grounds that it, by its nature, is hostile to the goods and practices necessary not only for law and order, but also for a flourishing associational life on the part of its citizenry. Conservative anarchism is not a contradiction in terms, but a recognition that conservative goals are systematically disfavored by modern institutions of formal government.
Establishing this claim requires digging in to what makes a state a state. Many have quibbled with Max Weber’s famous definition; none have proposed a better one. The state is the entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion within a specific geographical territory. The monopoly aspect is crucial. Precisely because the state is sovereign, both de facto and de jure, whoever captures the state is in a position to affect all other social institutions and practices. This is not to claim that political fiat can instantly re-order civil society. Instead it is the recognition that the state, by legally favoring some interests within its jurisdiction while disfavoring others, tilts the playing field such that, over time, the favored interests gain wealth, power, and prestige, while the disfavored interests lose it.
What interests will have a comparative advantage at capturing the state? Especially in democratic societies, political coalitions whose goal is to liquidate existing orders and put new ones in their place will be more adept at getting and keeping power. For one, liquidating existing orders provides access to material wealth that can be redistributed to the supporters of the political coalition. But the sources of wealth do not have to be material. Political movements organized to diminish the status of existing cultural institutions, such as those of traditional religions, also provide benefits to those movements’ supporters. Status is zero-sum: if cultural mores change such that traditionalists are seen as supporting an outdated way of life, while radical innovators are seen as the champions of justice and progress, then the latter will have acquired a benefit from political organization, one that in many contexts is seen as more valuable than mere mammon.
This explains why the state is almost always at the forefront of social innovation. Precisely because of its monopoly on force, it is the perfect tool for radical reformers to employ as a means to advance their social engineering projects. As I have argued elsewhere:
Historically, there has been no more radical…innovator and destroyer of intermediary institutions than the state. From the state-building projects of early modernity, to the absolutist periods in England and on the Continent, to nationalist aspirations in the late nineteenth century and the totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth, the state has been singularly hostile to the primary institutions and folkways that constitute a nation and are the proper objects of its primary loyalty. …It was the state, and the massive force at its disposal, that was ultimately responsible for the terrible social leveling that has occurred in some form since the French Revolution. It was the state that tried, and often succeeded, at erasing any other sources of man’s loyalty, rendering him as a mere cog in the social machine, with no value or dignity except that derived from utility to the state. It took Constant’s “liberty of the ancients” and stripped it of its few redeeming graces, creating an engine of death and destruction the likes of which the world had never seen.
Conservatives have gradually come around to two troubling conclusions. The first is that, over time, they lose and progressives win. At best, conservatives temporarily stall progressives in their dismantling projects, but even when progressives win slowly, they are still winning. The second is that the Overton window shifts left with each passing generation, meaning conservatives are left scrambling to re-package their arguments in a form that is publicly acceptable, while progressives enjoy normative and cultural continuity. Given these facts, it’s no wonder that conservatives are left wondering why they can’t seem to hold the line, let alone advance.
While not sufficient, a necessary part of the explanation is that the state is constitutionally hostile to conservatism. This may not have been evident in 1648 or 1783. But it is now. For the sake of preserving ordered liberty and protecting inherited faith and folkways, conservatives should reject the state’s legitimacy. Failure to do so is fighting a war on the enemy’s terms.
Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor in the Rawls College of Business, and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. His scholarly and popular writings can be found at his website www.awsalter.com.