Thursday, October 8, 2009

Absolute liberty ends with absolute tyranny

Russell Kirk didn't care for libertarianism "...[N]ow and again one reads of two camps of alleged conservatives: 'traditionalist conservatives and libertarian conservatives.' This is as if a newspaperman were to classify Christians as 'Protestant Christians and Muslim Christians.' A libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi."

In "Social Conservatives, Libertarians, and Russell Kirk," Joe Carter excerpts large portions of an essay Kirk wrote for Modern Age in 1981, pointing out that "no one, after reading the entire piece, should walk away calling themselves a 'libertarian conservative.' As Kirk says, the two are incompatible." Kirk's essay can be found here as a pdf. Here is a portion of that essay [largely different from Carter's selection] that contrasts the beliefs of conservatives and libertarians, and I think makes clear the religious basis of the former:
  1. The great line of division in modem politics — as Eric Voegelin reminds us — is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or 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. He willed its connexion with the source and original archtype 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.
Why multiply these profound differences? Those I have expressed already will suffice to demonstrate the utter incompatibility of the two positions. If one were to content himself simply with contrasting the beliefs of conservatives and libertarians as to the nature of liberty, still we could arrive at no compromise. There is the liberty of the wolf, John Adams wrote to John Taylor; and there is the liberty of civilized man. The conservative will not tolerate ravening liberty; with Dostoevski, he knows that those who commence with absolute liberty will end with absolute tyranny. .... [more]
I am grateful to Carter for leading me back to Kirk. The discovery of Kirk as a teenager — first in the pages of National Review and then in his books, especially The Conservative Mind — was my introduction to political philosophy. His work led me to many others, including Burke.

Social Conservatives, Libertarians, and Russell Kirk » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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