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Rectification of language

What do you do with political terms? In the interview, I said that libertarianism and conservatism are theoretically opposed, because one makes freedom the final standard and one does not, but that on practical issues today they are often consistent. I also suggested that many people who call themselves libertarian are mostly conservative philosophically but find the “L” word more convenient because it suggests American traditions of decentralization and limited government (which I agree are central to any authentic American conservatism).

A friend thought I was being too “wet,” and didn’t accept my explanation that when you’re trying to make basic points clear to an uninformed audience you can’t emphasize every distinction. She said:

They are really in important ways at odds, and, even more crucially, libertarianism tends to win out over conservatism when the two are yoked together, because the idea of not making judgments and letting people do as they like is so much easier to do today than having to assert positive values/virtues. I say they should be nipped off at the root for any audience. Especially beginning type audiences. On many specific points they should diverge, such as gay marriage, the presence of religion, and yet no one wants to draw out the obvious incompatibility. Or, if they are not going to be nipped apart at the root, the Frank Meyers thing would be good to assert, that is, that libertarianism without virtue is totally worthless and will wind up serving the dominant liberal culture.

I then got an email from someone complaining at length that I had praised “conservatism” too much, and depicted libertarianism in too disadvantageous a light by treating left/libertarians as the most authentically “libertarian.” He pointed out that most “name” conservatives are soft on social issues and like big government, while at least in his experience actual libertarians tend to be to attached to American and Christian tradition. To which I responded that

[L]eft/libertarianism is by far the most prominent [kind of libertarianism] from the standpoint of someone who reads the mainstream media and it’s the [kind] readers of the interview are most likely to run into if they look in the places they usually look. The so-called libertarian bloggers for example—Instapundit, Volokh etc.—are all left/libertarians who think “gay marriage” and research on living embryos are just great. The most prominent libertarian mag is Reason and it’s the same. And if someone says a Republican is “libertarian” it mostly means he favors gay rights, abortion and legalized heroin.

So where does all this lead? It doesn’t seem informative to say “libertarian” if you can mean Virginia Postrel, Joe Sobran, or someone who wants to run things on the model of Israel under the judges. And at a time when the Bush administration counts as extremely conservative one has doubts about “conservative” as well. It seems to me that the most basic political issues today are whether there’s some conception of the good, beautiful and true—practically speaking, of God—that’s going to have public authority, and the general role of the state in social life. Political classifications ought to reflect those basic issues, and neither “libertarian” nor “conservative” does. Any thoughts or suggestions?



At the end of the entry Mr. Kalb asks, “So where does all this lead?” For me, it all leads right back to something in the middle of the entry, the Frank Meyer quote: “Libertarianism without virtue is totally worthless and will wind up serving the dominant liberal culture.” I think that sums it up from every angle.

The problem though is that a libertarianism that permits virtue to have its proper public authority is either no longer a form of libertarianism, or it has become self-contradictory. (I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that a pure libertarianism is also self-contradictory in itself). It seems to me that “libertarian conservative” is a highly unstable state: as long as one remains on that fence it will produce mainly incoherence, and any assertion of authority that attempts to assert itself from such an unstable state will be unable to sustain itself. So in practice libertarianism of this sort will be an unwitting servant of the liberal shibboleth, which makes its assertions from firmer (though still incoherent on a fundamental level) ground.

I agree that most of what passes for conservatism in America sits on the libertarian-conservative fence though. One conservative tendency is to not worry too much about explicit principles; to dismiss nonsensical things as nonsense without realizing that premeses one has accepted onesself lead to and ultimately support that same nonsense. Conservatives don’t dig forever to find a fully explicit explanation for what is going on. As a result they tend to ignore the fact that the American libertarian tradition is incoherent.

But the reason conservatism always loses in America, and always will lose in America without some fundamental change, is that American conservatism (incoherently) sits (and has always sat) on the fence between traditionalism and libertarianism.

The Libertarian Party does have an official Platform. Prepare yourselves for a shock if you haven’t read it, yet.

Be sure to read the parts about immigration and religion (“parents,” “conservatorships,” etc.).

The Libertarian Party even has a homosexual wing with cells spread all over the USA—“Outright Libertarians” (enter the phrase in

…new things much the same as the old—socialists and their anarchist provocateur friends. The Libertarian Party is somewhat of a Mob Party, IMO.

Pehaps Matt could give one or two examples of incoherent premeses that conservatives accept.

In maybe 2000 or 2001 Ann Coulter wrote a column on the Libertarian Party’s “addiction to drugs,” I think she called it. (I read it either at or I tried finding the column just now at both those sites as well as at, without success.) She had approached them about possibly running for congress from Connecticut on the LP ticket, as I recall. But as she dealt with them and got to know them better she just couldn’t swallow their insistence on giving top priority in their platform to the legalization of illicit drugs. The column she wrote was devastating. I can’t see a Libertarian Party conference on C-SPAN any more without thinking of that Coulter piece and saying to myself, “What a bunch of aging hippies! No matter what rhetoric they spout, they’re going to place the legalization of illicit drugs uppermost in their scheme of things. There’s no way I can support them despite all the excellent things they say.”

By the way, here’s Ann’s archive at “Human Events,” for any who may want to bookmark it:

(Just skimming down the list reading the column titles and little introductory blurbs will put you in a good mood for the rest of the day, not to mention actually stopping to read a few entire ones!)

Mr. Murgos wrote:
“Pehaps Matt could give one or two examples of incoherent premeses that conservatives accept.”

Justice constructed as “equality before the law” for one. Equal economic opportunity under capitalism for another. Disestablishmentarianism understood as the Church having no direct moral authority over the State. More generally, the notion that freedom and equality are and properly ought to be our highest political ideals, with the caveat that modern liberals (supposedly) misunderstand them and twist them to evil ends. The notion that government’s just powers derive from the consent of the governed. Categorical anti-racism. I could go on.

Most ordinary Rush Limbaugh type conservatives believe in all of these things quite fervently. They think that liberals have corrupted these ideas; for example they oppose affirmative action because they see it as racist and as contra equality of opportunity under capitalism.

Most ordinary conservatives in America do not realize that the basic problem is not in what they see as the liberal corruption of fundamental American ideals. No. The problem is that these things that they think of as fundamental American ideals are irrational and inhuman.

So conservatism in America cannot but continue to lose until it does a very non-conservative thing: it has to fundamentally repent from its most explicit tradition, liberalism. In practice what you see is conservatism losing - on e.g. sodomy and affirmative action - and then declaring victory as we saw on the pages of NRO by such writers as Deroy Murdock. The “declare victory” bit comes from setting aside one’s conservatism and declaring victory on libertarian grounds. Nobody wants to admit that he is a loser, in a long line of losers stretching back centuries.

Like J.R.R. Tolkien I am a Catholic, though, and I also don’t expect anything of history but one long defeat.

Better for conservatives to simply acknowledge that we have lost. We have lost completely, utterly, and we are complicit in the loss. The only path forward is through repentance; through the categorical rejection of our liberal tradition.

Matt, that is a very Byzantine attitude! A fat lot of good repentance did for the troops defending Constantinople.

Frankly, I don’t see why these are contradictions. I think you conflate voting and opinion with education and virtue. There is nothing inconsistent with believing in the freedom to choose virtue both in the private sphere and in the public sphere. The point is that the battleground for virtue is not in the voting booth, it’s in the newspapers and the blogs and the churches and the schools. Libertarians think that voting should be about smaller issues, and returning the discussion of virtue to a more interpersonal forum. Perhaps the problem from your perspective is that they current system is too democratic. Would you prefer a more perscriptive political system, or since ‘conservativism has already lost’ would it even matter?

Christopher aptly enough advocates lighting some candles rather than cursing the darkness.

He wrote:
“Libertarians think that voting should be about smaller issues, and returning the discussion of virtue to a more interpersonal forum.”

I do think that the attempt to make the life-and-death assertion of final binding authority about the small things rather than the large things is both rationally and morally problemmatic, yes. In the end that approach results in arresting people for smoking or for saying something insensitive while releasing known killers and providing universal access to child murder. To the extent libertarians claim to be against the tyrannical inversion of value they are I think making unprincipled exceptions to what they claim to believe.

I think conservatives tend to align with libertarians because both believe that the exercise of ultimate life and death authority - the formal power of police, courts, etc - ought to be treated as the blunt instrument it is and reserved only for those times when it is really needed. Where the conservative and libertarian part ways is in the philosophical basis for determining when that time of need for the blunt instrument of government has come. Therefore the conservative and the libertarian will agree a great deal about what the government should not do, and will agree very little about what it should do; and the libertarian’s position on the latter is incoherent.

“Perhaps the problem from your perspective is that they current system is too democratic.”

Certainly that, yes.

“Would you prefer a more perscriptive political system, or since ‘conservativism has already lost’ would it even matter?”

Every political system is prescriptive, and indeed more than merely prescriptive since it wields the power of life and death over its prescriptions. That is practically a definition of politics. So it isn’t a matter of whether politics is or is not prescriptive; it is only a matter of what exactly it prescribes.