Beyond Conservatism and Libertarianism


Despite their disagreements, conservatives and libertarians often agree on many things. Resolving their differences, however, means rejecting philosophical skepticism and taking right reason seriously.

Recent exchanges between Nathan Schlueter and Nicolai Wenzel have provided Public Discourse readers with many insights into what has long been obvious to many: that notwithstanding areas of agreement, considerable fractures exist between what are commonly labeled “conservative” and “libertarian” positions on critical policy issues. The same contributions showed that deeper philosophical questions are also in dispute. These include matters as fundamental as the nature of reason, the character of human rights, and the substance of human flourishing.

Such conservative-libertarian divisions are not new. They were long subdued in America by awareness of the existential threat posed by Soviet Communism to freedom around the globe. In 1989, however, the glue provided by that common enemy began unraveling. Other fractures have since opened and widened. These are driven by many factors, including increasingly opposed visions of sexual ethics and longstanding divergences concerning the law’s role vis-à-vis public morality.

In some ways, the rise of Barack Obama has created a new common adversary. Self-described conservatives are generally appalled at the Obama administration’s promotion of policies that facilitate lifestyle liberalism. Libertarians are deeply unhappy with the administration’s expansion of the state’s economic role. There are also many who oppose both the administration’s social and economic policies. They regard this combination as reflecting the administration’s unspoken core commitment to modern liberalism à la John Rawls: one that, in the name of equality, promotes lifestyle liberalism alongside a social-democratic economic agenda.

That said, many of the cracks identified by Wenzel and Schlueter are real. Many libertarians note that some conservatives seem only belatedly to have grasped economic liberty’s importance for the common good. Many conservative politicians, libertarians observe, have presided over fiscally expansionist policies that have contributed significantly to America’s ruinous public debt. The same conservatives often succumbed to the soft corruption of pork-barreling to bolster their reelection chances.

Conversely, conservatives wonder why many libertarians, given their purported resistance to social engineering by the state, apparently support efforts to use government power to further weaken the pre-political natural institution of marriage. More generally, they regard some libertarians’ claim that the state should not, as a matter of principle, promote one view of the good over another to be a self-refuting proposition. For to say that law ought not concern itself with what constitutes human flourishing is to breach one’s own claims to neutrality about the state’s responsibilities vis-à-vis human fulfillment (not least by using the language of obligation).

There are, however, other dimensions to this conservative-libertarian debate that merit closer attention. One is the difficulty in navigating the discussion, given the various standpoints that invoke these words in often contrasting ways.

Consider some of those happy to identify themselves as conservatives. They range (to name just a few) from Kirkian traditionalists, Oakeshottian conservatives, and social conservatives, to neoconservatives, conservative liberals, fiscal conservatives, agrarians, and isolationists. Under the libertarian label we find self-described virtue libertarians, classical liberals, philosophical hedonists, paleolibertarians, isolationists, miniarchists, anarcho-capitalists, and Randians, among others.

Between these two broad churches there is often overlap. Self-identified free marketers, for example, are found in both camps. Considerable disagreement also exists within each camp’s boundaries. Neoconservatives generally clash with conservative isolationists on foreign policy. On many foundational issues, virtue libertarians are at odds with philosophical hedonists.

These often tortuously drawn distinctions indicate many things, but they especially highlight the sheer volatility—and, at times, worthlessness—of post-Enlightenment political terminology.

Take, for example, the word “liberal.” The large number of often-opposed positions claiming to be liberal indicates, as John Finnis observes, that “the term ‘liberal’ has no core of meaning sufficiently stable and clear for use in a general political philosophy or theory.” Some liberals maintain, in the name of liberalism, a strictly limited view of the state’s economic role. Others claim that liberalism translates into strongly interventionist economic policies. Obviously, many principles and prudential judgments inform these dissimilar understandings of the state’s economic responsibilities. It’s unclear, however, how the words “liberal” or “liberalism” clarify what is at stake. Even qualifiers such as “classical” or “modern” don’t always help, given that their precise content is also disputed among those adhering to such positions.

Another characteristic of contemporary political syntax is that it often disguises shared—and troubling—commitments undergirding the thought of some conservatives and libertarians. A prominent case is the philosophical skepticism that informs the position of several prominent conservative and libertarian figures.

As a “pragmatic conservative,” the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott questioned whether reason could serve as the foundation of any non-empirical, non-positivist truth claim. He consequently looked to inherited habits, social conventions, and traditions to provide such ballast. Writing as a “classical liberal,” Friedrich Hayek stated in his Constitution of Liberty “that in some respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic.” Hayek subsequently embraced social evolutionist theories to ground his various philosophical and economic arguments.

Oakeshott and Hayek were partly reacting against the abstract constructivist reason they linked with René Descartes. But their views also reflect a long tradition of philosophical skepticism that many associate with Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, though it’s traceable as far back as the Greek Sophists of the fifth century B.C.

Neither Hobbes nor Hume denied that humans possess reason. Rather, they argued, it is essentially instrumental in character. In Hobbes’s words, “The Thoughts are to the Desires as Scouts and Spies to range abroad, and find a way to the things desired.” If this is true, then people cannot know the proper ends of human choice through reason.

On this basis, some conservatives insist we need a strong state. This, they hold, is the only way we can have order in societies in which everyone will otherwise do as they feel in the absence of significant coercion. By contrast, some libertarians regard the same conclusion as implying a sharply limited role for government. Regarding all philosophical and moral positions as ultimately subjective, they claim it is unfair for the state to privilege any one view about the good.

There are three reasons why this often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged. The first is simple: skepticism is self-refuting. And if a basic principle of logic is that self-contradictory theses should be discarded, self-identified conservatives and libertarians should have long ago dispensed with skepticism.

Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.

Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.

The second reason why conservatives and libertarians should reject philosophical skepticism is that such refutation is essential if meaningful discussion between the two camps is to occur. For if people cannot know philosophical and moral truth through critical reasoning and debate, then they are reduced to marshaling merely ideological claims against one another, and/or making sure they accumulate more power than those with whom they disagree.

A third reason for conservatives and libertarians to disown skepticism is that it would pave the way for serious reflection about the nature of something that both camps claim to value—free choice. For if, as Hume stated, reason is the slave of our passions, then our choices aren’t free in the sense that it is my free will that moves me to choose this rather than that. Instead, human acts can only result either from external pressures (as posited by, for example, Karl Marx’s “hard determinism”) or internal factors, such as whatever desire just happens to be haphazardly surging through my consciousness at any given moment. For all his extolling of liberty, John Stuart Mill was essentially a soft determinist. This is apparent from his distinction between two types of choices: those that are “free” in the sense that they occur necessarily but without coercion; and those that were “unfree” because they were coerced.

Rejecting philosophical skepticism doesn’t mean that disagreements among conservatives and libertarians will disappear quickly, if at all. The pervasiveness of disagreement arises from many sources: unexamined assumptions, feelings overriding reason, our capacity to rationalize unreasonable choices, and even reasonable disputes about prudential issues. The fact of disagreement about whether something is good or true, however, doesn’t mean we can’t know whether it is in fact good or true. That is a straightforwardly invalid argument from an “is” to an “ought.”

But in debating disagreements at the level of principle, what should matter is not whether a claim is considered the “true conservative” position, the “authentically libertarian” approach, the “real Hayekian” stance, or the “genuine Burkean” view. What matters is whether a proposition accords with orthós logos—right reason: an idea’s correlation with information, reality, and other principles reasonably identified as true. Affirming this position would be one way to begin releasing reason from the prisons of skepticism, positivism, rationalism, and scientism to which some conservatives and libertarians (not to mention most modern liberals) have unwittingly or otherwise confined it. Therein lies one path for fresh thinking about the good and about rules of political order, not to mention the ends and limits of government.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books, including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.


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