The presidential campaign is already disappointingly long on interventionism and short on principle. No viable contender stands for liberty or constitutional principle.
So what's a friend of liberty to do? Is there hope in any of the "conservative" candidates? Unfortunately, "conservatism" is a broad muddle of competing assertions of individual preferences as universal truth. It is no wonder that there exist so many strains of "conservatism"—from tee-totaling Protestants to Catholics who will drink usque ad hilaritatem, from isolationist paleoconservatives to imperialist neocons, and from fiscal conservatives to big government conservatives. The mind boggles. For the purposes of this essay, I define "conservatism writ large" as a philosophy that asserts a particular knowledge of human nature, specifically the individual's place in society and the importance of virtue—and seeks to impose that vision through government.
Many "conservatives" will not recognize themselves completely in my critique. This is largely because there are so many "conservatisms." I argue that each involves assertions of private preferences through public means—and that the imposition, in each case, is inimical to liberty and individual rights. Specifically, here are four reasons why conservatism is objectionable—and why libertarianism (a political philosophy that calls for limited government, and for the protection of individual rights and liberty) offers a better alternative.
1. Conservatism is confused about levels of human action and agency.
Conservatism is preoccupied with aggregates such as "community," "moral ecology," "society," or "the nation"; what is more, conservatism is willing to sacrifice individual rights on a communitarian altar. As a more accurate assumption, libertarianism uses methodological individualism: individuals (and only individuals) act. The groups to which individuals adhere—families, clubs, churches, "society," or "country"—do not really exist or enjoy agency. A family cannot act. Society cannot make choices. The state has no interests. This, however, does not imply that individuals go about their lives in isolation. Quite the contrary, human flourishing is impossible outside the associations that provide opportunities for cooperation and mutual interdependence.
While recognizing the importance of associations, methodological individualism also recognizes that only individuals act, and it recognizes that terrible mistakes can come from neglecting this very basic fact. First, reification of groups leads to falsely ascribing volition to entities that are mere mental constructs. Thus do we hear of a criminal paying a debt to "society," about a "community" rejecting a Wal-Mart, or "the American people" wanting more government redistribution. But what constitutes a "community"? Fifty-one percent of its members? Fifty-one percent of its voters? Perhaps a two-thirds–super-majority or a unanimity of voters? Or all members? Or, perhaps, the small percentage that manages to capture the political process or the right commission?
Second, neglect of methodological individualism leads to a disastrous misapplication of rules. Surely we would not want to apply market rules to the family, lest profit disastrously replace love—nor would we want to treat our customers as we treat our children, lest we go bankrupt.
Third, neglect of methodological individualism leads to a violation of rights, as the acting individual loses status as an end (that is, worthy of rights), and becomes the means to a goal established by some putatively acting group, as aggregates offer a convenient excuse to impose private ends through public means.
This should not be taken as a blanket rejection of "the common good." A broad institutional framework within which individuals can peacefully cooperate is surely a common good (think of the broad parameters of the U.S. Constitution; of rule of law and free markets). But it is also the only common good: anything beyond that will run amok of methodological individualism, and the problems of politics, as outlined below. Where is the "common" good in granting to conservatives the privilege of forcing everybody else to abide by their preferences?
2. Conservatism is naïve about politics, and is eager to use public means to impose private preferences.
Conservatism offers a comprehensive blueprint for a "good life" in a "good society." These aspirations end up being political because they make a claim upon the use of the state to advance personal preferences. To understand the full implications of conservatism, it is thus crucial to start with an understanding of politics that is framed by reality rather than wishes; Public Choice Theory ("politics without romance") provides such an analysis. Instead of traditional views, which romanticize government, Public Choice applies the laws of economics to political decision-making.
First, people are people. Period. The dichotomy of people acting selfishly in markets and for some "common good" in government is fantasy. In government, just as in markets, people consider a number of elements: pleasure, profit, service to others, leisure, satisfaction, shirking work or the satisfaction of a job well done, power, etc., in an endless list. Individuals, upon accession to public office, do not magically grow angel's wings to serve "the common good."
Second, information aggregation is particularly messy and imprecise when it is attempted through politics. In a market setting, information is already difficult to obtain, even though consumers must pay for what they want, so they must tell the truth about their preferences. Likewise, business faces the harsh reality of the profit test. Not so in politics, where decision-makers are shielded from the consequences of their actions. Politicians can be fired—but only after their term is completed, and only through a very inefficient voting mechanism—and bureaucrats are nearly impossible to fire. And voters don't face incentives to make good choices or truthfully reveal their preferences.
In the market, a consumer who wants more of something will have to pay for it. One beer, $5; two beers, $10. In politics, some pay much for little and others little for much. Roughly half of Americans do not pay federal income taxes—but have a say, through the polls, on how tax revenue is spent. Likewise, the top 50 percent of taxpayers pays 97 percent of tax income: in other words, roughly 75 percent of votes go to those who contribute only 3 percent of the tax revenue. Think of the incentives to raid the wallets of others through the ballot box! Likewise, imagine a 10 percent property tax to finance public education. A bachelor living in a million-dollar house will pay $100,000 for no service. The couple down the street living in a $100,000 house with ten children will pay $10,000 for ten educations—and thus vote for higher taxes, while nobly claiming the mantle of commitment to educational excellence. Politics becomes a tool for legalized plunder; as H.L. Mencken put it, "Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods."
Instead of approaching politics realistically, conservatism wistfully longs for the emergence of statesmen, of the "wise and the good," to guide the ships of state and society through troubled times. But the very idea that the coercive apparatus of the state can "support" (i.e., impose) virtue without violating individual rights, that a government that can't properly teach children how to read by the age of 18 could somehow successfully teach civics, or that a government that has consistently increased poverty through anti-poverty programs could somehow increase virtue—all this is odd and arbitrary, to say the least. In the words of public intellectual George F. Will, "Conservatism seems to be saying government can't run Amtrak, but it can run the Middle East."
If social engineering is permitted in principle, for some policies, then why not for others? A mere election stands between a Secretary of Virtue Bennett and a Secretary Clinton. Once we have conceded the principle that government may impose private preferences through public means, public choice rears its ugly head and we are in big trouble. In sum, conservatism rightly laments the breakdown of individual responsibility, morality, civil society, aesthetics, and manners in contemporary America. But, just like the socialist who would fix a healthcare system broken by government intervention, by imposing more government intervention, conservatism wants more government interference to fix social ills.
3. Conservatism claims a monopoly on the understanding of Truth—that is, conservatism arbitrarily imposes its subjective preferences as objective Truth.
How little we know about ourselves, how much less about others and the world. At an elementary level, how is economic activity possible in a world of limited knowledge? The simplest answer comes from "I, Pencil," Leonard Read's clever autobiography of a pencil. A pencil, although common and cheap, is actually quite complex, as it involves inputs from multiple different countries: miners for the ore, smelters for the metal, lumberjacks for the wood, bankers to facilitate the international transactions, a merchant marine and navigational systems to bring all the elements together, etc. In sum, "not a single person on the face of the earth knows how to make" a pencil. Yet pencils are cheap and abundant, and this, without any single person being in charge. What makes this production possible, what brings together these "millions of tiny know-hows"? The price mechanism, which gives information about the relative scarcity of resources, provides incentives to cooperate, and generally coordinates activity in a manner that no central planner ever could. Soviet socialism crumbled under its own immorality—but it primarily failed for economic reasons.
Moving to more general considerations, conservatism rests on a claim of privileged access to truth, whether through revelation or some sort of "practical reason" to derive rules of personal and interpersonal conduct—which really seems to boil down to a reverse engineering to justify personal preferences. In the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment and Austrian economics, libertarianism offers an alternate solution. Instead of conservatism's bold assertions, libertarianism trusts institutions that help generate and transmit knowledge, as we recognize our limitations and eschew our limited reason in favor of reason nestled within tradition. Admittedly, this is dissatisfying for those who claim to have a monopoly on truth and want to impose it through central planning. But humility calls for a prudent rejection of social engineering, as we simply lack the knowledge to impose better outcomes on others. Conservatism may very well be right in its assertions, but it very well might be wrong. There may very well be an eternal law—but our knowledge thereof is another question entirely. Confident claims of knowledge in the public square or the classroom are one thing, but using them as a grounding for coercive power is another entirely.
4. Ethics: Freedom and individual rights are ancillary to conservatism.
Libertarianism has a clear theory of ethics: respect the rights of others, and don't initiate violence against them. Conservatism, on the other hand, broadens its theory of ethics to the point of muddle and self-contradiction: conservative ethics extend well beyond interpersonal relationships, and into the purely private arena of virtue. Conservatives are thus comfortable with sacrificing individual rights to advance virtue, and quite willing to subsume the individual into "community" preferences. Alas, there is great danger in determining ethics legislatively and imposing by the sword beliefs that could very well be wrong—hence libertarianism's wariness of anybody who would capture the political process to impose private ends through public means.
Contrary to a common misunderstanding, libertarianism is not license. Quite the contrary, libertarianism recognizes the need for virtue and self-governance. With interpersonal virtue, there is at least a direct link to political problems. But intrapersonal virtue does not directly involve others—and thus lies outside the purview of politics, which is about the ordering of interpersonal human relations. Nevertheless, there are plainly benefits to conservative values. The difficulty comes with state coercion of virtue. Even if we concede that coerced virtue is still virtue, is the state really the best tool for enforcing something as difficult—when it can't even fulfill simpler functions?
Libertarianism is skeptical. In fact, state actions have unintended consequences and the state has arguably done more harm than good in its attempts to impose virtue. Agreeing with economist F.A. Hayek's assessment that "it is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out evil than by men intent on doing evil," libertarianism prefers to rely on civil society for virtue. Indeed, virtue can come from surprising places. One need look only at Montesquieu's artful phrasing of "le doux commerce," gentle commerce, bringing people together, or Adam Smith's timeless language:
Every individual . . . neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By directing [an] industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is . . . led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. . . . [In sum,] it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.
Libertarians and conservatives are often lumped together as uneasy bedfellows—whether by socialists who conflate them both as anti-progressive, or by the fusionists of the 1960s. But individual liberty is not a main concern of conservatism; instead, liberty and individual rights are welcome by the conservative only if they do not conflict with higher priorities like "social order," "moral ecology," or "community rights." And "supporting" virtue amounts to enforcing the observance of one particular set of private preferences. Thus, liberty is merely ancillary to conservatism—one of its goals, perhaps, but a goal that will happily be sacrificed in the name of advancing other preferences. Conservatism may very well be right, and defenders of liberty wrong. But let us speak no more of conservatives as friends of liberty.
Conservatism would have the enlightened few impose policies to reach their desired ends. Alas, for all the importance of conservative values, conservatism engages in its own form of social engineering; while the goals are different from those of socialism (because the asserted truths are different), the principle is the same. Taken to its extreme, conservatism means big government, as the state could arguably be taken to have a claim upon every aspect of human interaction and individual behavior as part of "political/social" life. And this is what we see in reality, as "conservative" politicians have expanded the reach of government into economics and private lives. The greatest expansion of non-military spending since LBJ occurred under the "conservative" George W. Bush.
So, what's a friend of liberty to do? I don't know. But I do know that when it moves from proposed values to imposed policies, conservatism is misguided, arbitrary, inconsistent, and ultimately inimical to liberty and human flourishing. The beauty of libertarianism, which allows for human flourishing and harmony from respect and cooperation, stands in contrast with the ugliness of political "conservatism," with its assertions and impositions.
Nikolai Wenzel is Wallace and Marion Reemelin Chair in Free-Market Economics at Hillsdale College; for the academic year 2011-2012 he is Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics in the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University.
This piece is adapted from a book manuscript, co-authored with Nathan W. Schlueter, on the Foundations of the Libertarian-Conservative Debate. Yesterday on Public Discourse, Schlueter explained why he isn’t a libertarian.