by Kung Fu Zu 6/29/14
While looking up a particular quote recently, I came upon the above article which Kirk wrote in 1981. The timing of this piece is interesting as it came out after Ronald Reagan had been in office for less than one year. No doubt, there were discussions similar to those we are having today as to the relationship between Conservatives and Libertarians.
To start his piece Kirk asks what conservatives and libertarians have in common. Kirk concedes –
“these two bodies of opinion share a detestation of collectivism. They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy.”
This is true and good as far as it goes. However, in the next paragraph Kirk writes:
“What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common?” The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.”
Those who believe modern conservatives and libertarians are merely different schools of conservative thought are likely to be stunned by this. They shouldn’t be, and Kirk lays out significant differences between the two in his article.
Kirk highlights the essential fault of libertarian zealots when he writes:
The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle—that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil order, and indeed of human existence.
In this one paragraph he encapsulates the superficial, abstract and utopian thinking behind libertarian “philosophy”. He then goes on to show how detached from reality such thought is.
Kirk traces libertarian thought back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the doctrines of which libertarians carry “to absurdity.” Mill declares, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” These are fine sounding words from an ascetic intellectual who experienced life principally through books, and who seemed to assume –
“that most human beings, if only they were properly schooled, would think and act precisely like John Stuart Mill.”
This faith in the power of logic and lack of imagination as regards human motivation is something not uncommon among intellectuals of all stripes. Kirk shows how Mill’s thoughts in On Liberty were thoroughly debunked as early as 1873 by James Fitzjames Stephen in his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In his book, Stephen clearly shows the shallowness of Mill’s thought and his “inadequate understanding of human nature and history”.
I find an interesting parallel to the reclusive Mill in Karl Marx, a man who rarely worked for his keep and spent his adult life in a library, yet was perfectly willing to proclaim his expert knowledge of economics and humanity with a straight and generally sour face.
Kirk lays out six major differences between conservatives and doctrinaire libertarians:
1. The great line of division in modern politics—as Eric Voegelin reminds us—is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all—to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats—that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.
2. In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.
3. What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.
4. Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that “in Adam’s fall we sinned all”: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect. Thus the libertarian pursues his illusory way to Utopia, and the conservative knows that for the path to Avernus.
5. The libertarian takes the state for the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is ordained of God. In Burke’s phrases, “He who gave us our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state-its connexion with the source and original archetype of all perfection.” Without the state, man’s condition is poor, nasty, brutish, and short-as Augustine argued, many centuries before Hobbes. The libertarians confound the state with government. But government-as Burke continued –”is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. “Among the more important of those human wants is “a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can be done only by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue.” In short, a primary function of government is restraint; and that is anathema to libertarians, though an article of faith to conservatives.
6. The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego; the conservative finds himself instead a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required—and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding. The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman “pietas:” that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men. The cosmos of the libertarian is an arid loveless realm, a “round prison.” “I am, and none else beside me,” says the libertarian. “We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet,” replies the conservative, in the phrases of Marcus Aurelius.
Of these six, I find point 4 to be the fount from which the other differences flow. Of course, to disabuse libertarians, anarchists and Marxists of their fantasies is something which has, to date, eluded mankind. But as history has clearly demonstrated, human nature is extremely complicated and simply believing that people are basically good does not mean that it is so. Because of this Kirk restates a basic principle of political science, and expands from there.
In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.
To anticipate those who might find his overall analysis questionable Kirk writes;
“But surely, surely I must be misrepresenting the breed? Don’t I know self-proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste, well endowed with the good of fortune? Yes, I do know such. They are the people who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call themselves “libertarians” merely because they believe in personal freedom, and do not understand to what extravagances they lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire “libertarian” causes and publications. If a person describes himself as “libertarian” because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life—why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.
That last sentence is very important. Conservatives are all for joining with those who may call themselves libertarians, but are in fact constitutional conservatives in the American sense. This is why it is so important to get definitions correct. Labels are often thrown around very loosely so clarity of expression and thought are necessary for the fight to take back our country.
To illustrate the absurdity of Libertarianism, Kirk quotes an excerpt from a G.K. Chesterton story, titled “The Yellow Bird”.
Chesterton writes in his parable:
To an English country house comes Professor Ivanhov, a Russian scholar who has published “The Psychology of Liberty.” He is a zealot for emancipation, expansion, the elimination of limits. He begins by liberating a canary from its cage—to be torn to pieces in the forest. He proceeds to liberate the goldfish by smashing their bowl. He ends by blowing up himself and the beautiful old house where he has been a guest.
“What exactly is liberty?” inquires a spectator of this series of events—Gabriel Gale, Chesterton’s mouthpiece. “First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird was free in the cage. It was free to be alone. It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers would be torn to pieces and its voice choked for ever. Then I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out, we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.”
“The Russian psychologist could not endure the necessary conditions of human existence; he must eliminate all limits; he could not endure the “round prison” of the overarching sky. But his alternative was annihilation for himself and his lodging; and he took the alternative. He ceased to be anything but fractured atoms. That is the ultimate freedom of the devoted libertarian.
I believe Kirk uncovers one basic truth which lurks deep in the recesses of the doctrinaire Libertarian’s mind when he writes:
“Lo, I am proud! The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics. In a highly tolerant society like that of American today, such defiance of authority on principle many lead to perversity on principle, for the lack of anything more startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism.”
I will leave to others to determine what this says about the psychology of the doctrinaire Libertarian. But given the regimentation of modern society and the homogenization of our world, perhaps it is understandable for some individuals to search for meaning through differentiation. Perhaps this is why we have the celebrity culture. People of no particular merit can now become famous for being famous.
But being different for difference’s sake is very different from being different because of talent or effort.
I recommend the reader search out and read Kirk’s full article. It is a tonic to those of us who hold similar views. And it could be of enormous educational value in helping those sincere yet somewhat muddled people who know they are not socialists but don’t know whether or not they are conservatives.
I will leave the reader with a final thought from Kirk:
“Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill dreaded, and they dread today, obedience to the dictates of custom. In our time, really, the real danger is that custom and prescription and tradition may be overthrown utterly among us—for has not that occurred already in most of the world?—by neoterism, the lust for novelty; and that men will be no better than the flies of a summer, oblivious to the wisdom of their ancestors, and forming every opinion merely under the pressure of the fad, the foible, the passion of the hour.”
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