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“The Devil Was The Original Libertarian”

That was a quote from Russell Kirk, which Gene Healy read at the start of AFF’s February 2005 debate over whether fusionism could be saved that Michael mentioned in his recent post.  The quote was one of a series of examples given of the rocky and quarrelsome nature of the “marriage” of fusionism over the years, and it helped set the stage for the debate that followed.  I was moved to go back and listen to the debate (audio available online here) because of something Michael cited from it that caught my attention:

Then there are the memorably named, Dupont Circle Libertarians. They no longer see what conservatives consider moral decline as the result of liberal social policies but rather as the natural progression of things – the loosening of religion’s power over society. I’d like to discuss Dupont circle libertarians at length soon.  But one notices from the 2005 AFF debate that Nick Gillespie considers the decrease in social stigma against gays to be an increase in freedom.

Once upon a time, I was, or at least considered myself to be, a libertarian.  Obviously, those days are long gone, but I remember how I saw the world back then and I can recall how a statement like Mr. Gillespie’s would have made a great deal of sense.  If the libertarian typically has no use for the claims of authority, at least those of temporal, earthly authority, and thinks the word authoritarian is a kind of insult (and I think most libertarians would fit this definition), he will normally have no use for social stigmas, or he will normally have no use for social stigmas that he comes to believe are merely the product of a taboo, a prejudice or a religious belief.  Prejudices and stigmas of all kinds, which conservatives tend to accept as part of the human condition, are positively detrimental to human freedom in the libertarian view because they impose burdens on individuals for reasons that seem to the libertarian to be irrational or irrelevant.  Especially if the stigma or prejudice focuses on something believed to be innate and unalterable, burdens imposed on the individual on account of these things that he cannot change and had no control over seem particularly unjust and damaging to human freedom.  Thus it makes a kind of sense to see the end of a social stigma as an advance of freedom, provided that you assume that these stigmas are the enemies of freedom rather than the boundary markers that make stable and orderly social life possible and so create the conditions in which real political and economic liberty, in addition to other, far more important things, can flourish. 

Their view requires a fairly flexible and often elusive definition of freedom, and a definition of freedom that many traditional conservatives would might not even recognise, much less accept.  It is a freedom for individuals to act as they will (yes, I know, provided that it infringes on no one else’s “rights”), which conservatives will always see and will always parody as a lack of restraint and the surrender to the passions.  This is, in the end, why fusionism fails on an intellectual level and will always fail.  What we mean by freedom and what libertarians mean by freedom have surprisingly little in common; what is for them the top priority is at best a second-order good for us that is certainly desirable but simply cannot take the same precedence. 

Practical cooperation for common goals and friendship are all very well and good.  However, there is no coherent theoretical justification for a conservative-libertarian alliance.  In truth, there never was, but most everyone played along with the “tradition of liberty” because there was a very specific sense of respecting the constitutional patrimony that made the idea of this tradition seem remotely plausible.  There is instead the need to work together against common adversaries and advance mutually beneficial proposals that we embrace for radically different, largely incompatible reasons. 

There are, however, powerful disagreements that might still pull the alliance apart, nowhere perhaps more so than on questions of economics and immigration.  If the alliance worked in the past because both sides saw the expansive welfare state as a major threat to their respective goods, the alliance increasingly breaks down when what Brink Lindsey called capitalism’s “relentless dynamism” seems to be one of the forces dissolving social bonds and stable communities.  This is one of those disputes where there is probably no happy middle ground: what we see as disintegration and dissolution of vital social bonds, many libertarians will see as the exhilarating explosion of individual energies and the inevitable consequences of “creative destruction.” 

Many conservatives have contented themselves with being warmed-over classical liberals on economic questions for a very long time, so much so that when some propose to start thinking about economics as traditional conservatives once did they are roundly attacked by these Austrianised and Wal-Mart conservatives as incipient state socialists.  These other conservatives adopted the worn-out clothes of Bastiat et al. perhaps because they believed that there no alternatives available, state socialism was the great, common post-war adversary at home and, besides, capitalism “delivered the goods.”  (Even though this demands us to ask, “Which goods does it deliver, and do we want them more than others?”)  It is possible that some sort of fusionism may live on through the collaboration of the Wal-Mart conservatives and libertarians, but it will survive mainly through the conservatives’ embrace of almost all libertarian premises about economics and society.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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