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libertarianism

Winston, again, thanks much for initiating and continuing this conversation. I very much appreciate the quotes from Kirk’s talk, “The Chirping Sectarians,” and I’m assuming you’re in agreement with the arguments presented. More on this in a bit.

Barbara, I’m very glad, but not at all surprised, that we are almost entirely in agreement on the issue of a Conservative-Libertarian alliance. My only complaint with your essay is that it’s way, way, way (yes, I repeated the word) too short. You have beautifully-stated and thought-out insights; I very much hope this is simply an outline for your autobiography. Your experiences at Hillsdale, Heritage, the Reagan Administration, and the Center for Renewal and your Christian journey would be a rewarding read for all of us. Given what you’ve seen and what you’ve done, especially with the role and power of communities, you could certainly be the de Tocqueville or Brownson of our day.

Ok, a few thoughts on your ideas, Winston. First, I’m defining the “state” as something different than Burke did. Maybe I should not be redefining things, but I certainly don’t think that Burke’s understanding of a state applies much anymore. What he feared most—that the French Revolutionaries would capture and redefine this term—seems to have become the case. A state is no longer merely a government based on relations, political exchanges, and talents (for good or ill). It has instead become what C.S. Lewis and Christopher Dawson understood it to be: a centralized authority assuming the powers of traditional religious authorities. It had readopted—whether under the title of dictatorship or democracy—the Oriental idea of Caesaro-papism.

“If the new State threatens the freedom of the Church and the individual conscience, it is because it is itself taking on some of the features of the church and is no longer content to confine itself to the outside of life—the sphere of the policeman and the lawyer,” Dawson argued in 1935. The State now “claims the whole of life and thus becomes a competitor with the Church on its own grounds.” (Dawson, Religion and the Modern State, 44)

Or, as Tolkien flippantly put it, (and I’m paraphrasing here because I didn’t bring his letters on our western Odyssey) after he declared himself either a philosophic anarchist or an unconstitutional monarchist, “I would allow a person to use the term ‘state’ once. After that, I would have him executed.”

Second, everyone of the contributors to this site is Christian. As such, we have a duty to see the person rather than merely the politics of a person. Assuming we could even come to a conclusion as to what defines a “libertarian,” we still have a duty to see first the person and second the libertarian.

Third, I’m not convinced we could define a libertarian as this or that, one thing or another, without serious exceptions. Libertarianism, beyond the fear of the state, is as diverse as the persons who claim the title. Again, I appeal to Classical Liberals for whom I have had or continue to have a healthy and serious respect: Grover Cleveland; E.L. Godkin, Sterling Morton, Albert Jay Nock, Friedrich Hayek, Larry Reed, Jim Otteson, Mark LeBar and many others.

Kirk himself admitted how much Nock and Isabel Paterson influenced him. And, while Kirk certainly disliked terms such as “libertarian,” he possessed strong individualist, anti-statist, and Old Whiggish views and tendencies.

For what it’s worth, I do think modern state is an evil, no matter how necessary. Not only does it attempt to homogenize us individually and destroy or attenuate the institutions of subsidiarity, but it wields, sometimes gleefully, the power to remake the world in its image or destroy those who stand in its way. In our own American case, we only have to look to what the Federal government did in creating the first federal police force in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, in nearly exterminating the Nez Perce Indian culture in 1877, in harassing Japanese Americans in the 1940s, in targeting civilians in Japan and Germany during World War II, in keeping American Indians chained to reservations, and on and on and on.

As I see it, our politicians are—generally—either fools or corrupt, and our bureaucrats (the ones really in charge) are—again, generally—self-serving, obsessed with power and conformity. The Marines seem good, and, perhaps, the National Park Service (except for their management of their restrooms; in this, they’re worse than McDonalds). What other federal agencies or institutions might a conservative promote?

The Department of Energy, the Department of Education, NASA, the EPA?

Well, some thoughts as we traverse the undulating grasslands of western Washington.

Winston, thanks, as always, for your excellent initiative and leadership on this.

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3 replies to this post
  1. “The modern state is an evil” true but that does not mean statism as an idea is incorrect or evil. The big multinational corporation can be far more tyrannical than any state. As a statist sort of Distributist I think a Conservative minded medeival like welfare state is something worth pursuing.

  2. I think Kirk (and Burke) are right in this, too. For me it’s clear that Burke, and even St. Paul, when defending political authorities or states, are taking a very different stand in relation to libertarians. Rothbard and Hoppe, two representative libertarians, dream of a world in which everyone has the absolut right of ‘secession’ from whatever public authorities, institution of justice or security there’s in the community. Moreover, their end is a society in which there’s ‘competition’ and ‘open’ entry in the ‘services’ of justice and security. What this anarchy means is that everyone, in the last instance (by not being tied involuntarily with any public authority) is that everyone can judge in his own cause. But Burke says:

    “One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defence, the first law of nature. Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice he gives up his right of determining what it is, in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.” Reflections on the Revolution in France

    As Locke shows in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, this lack of state means that there’s no guaranty of application of law, because everyone can decide not to obey any jurisdiction in juridical matters, and also because in the last instance it’s the force, the wills and the wishes of the persons involved in disputes which will be the determinant factors in the decision of disputes. Therefore there can be no order in this system. It’s the reason why, as Kirk says, ‘order is the first need of all’: for the correction application of laws and the security of rights, we need a system of public laws, defining authorities, its relations with the citizens, and its relations with themselves. Basically, a constitution.

    This is no different in relation to ancient and medieval times. Ancient Israel’s judges had the right to to life and death. In medieval times not only the king had the right to judge between the local jurisdictions, but the feudal lords had the right to receive tributes, which were not necessarily consented, from the serfs.

    The state is natural in the sense that it’s an absolute necessity in every civilized society. We have order because public authorities apply the law, and the law is not left to individual’s private judgement. And order is a dear value to every conservative, in the same level as liberty.

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