On TNL’s libertarianism and conservatism

First, Jesse on Liberty.  Also Sackerson.  Now to today’s issue:

The Nameless Libertarian has a post up entitled Can you be a libertarian and a conservative? This is it:

Before we start, let’s get a couple of things clear. The question is not can you be a libertarian and a member of the Conservative party – of course you can be, although quite why you would want to join or proactively support Cameron’s mob is utterly beyond me. Likewise, I would not deny that there is much to be gained from libertarian/conservative alliances – temporary or otherwise.

Indeed, one of the few rays of light in the dark, depressing Brown years was the ability of libertarians and conservatives to put their differences to one side to point out the numerous shortcomings of Britain’s worst Prime Minister in living memory. Rather, what I want to consider is whether there are inherent contradictions in the idea of a libertarian conservative.

TNL assumes the disconnect, in order to explore whether there is a disconnect. I’d suggest that one can’t legitimately do that, in order to discuss it.

Of course, there are immediate problems with definitions here. “Libertarian” and “conservative” are big terms that could potentially encompass many different definitions. So for the purposes of this discussion I’d call someone who wants to maximise freedom as much as possible is a libertarian (someone like Hayek, for example) and someone who resists attempts to transform or plan society according to an idealistic blueprint is a conservative (such as Burke or Oakeshott, for example). No doubt some people would contest these definitions, but that’s the very nature of both politics and political philosophy.

Immediately, there are points of agreement between libertarians and conservatives.

He’s done it again – assumed the disconnect, before it’s discussed.

Economic freedom would be one of those points. A libertarian wants to reduce the tax burden and to limit government intervention in the economy because both are encroachments on individual freedom. A conservative might use similar rhetoric to justify their own resistance to state control of the economy – I also suspect that they would point out that state intervention in the economy is a relatively new phenomenon that denies the basic conservative truth that humans are fallible, and therefore their interventions in the economy will be equally fallible. Indeed, one of the points of agreement between the two political mindsets during the Brown era was that man’s hamfisted and utterly counter-productive attempts to manage the economy.

There is also a certain pragmatism inherent in both libertarian and conservative positions. Both proactively engage with reality to the extent that they accept that real life is messy and often involves uneasy compromises. This is clearly distinct from many socialist or anarchist positions, where the argument is that the creation right set of circumstances will lead to either a better form of humanity and/or a better society. Conservatives and libertarians do not slip into the idealistic utopian trap.

Yet there are clear points of departure. Firstly, libertarians offer a radical political position. They talk about a fundamental redress of the balance between state and individual power. A genuinely libertarian state would be a radical departure from any political settlement that has gone before. Conservatives, however, would be more likely to argue for a return to a previous political settlement – one where state intervention in some aspects of life was more limited.

Another, and perhaps the most fundamental, difference between conservatives and libertarians is in the realm of the private rather than the public. Here conservatives tend to look towards traditional views when it comes to issues such as gender roles and sexual orientation. A libertarian, however, would ignore such traditional ideals and leave what is private to the individual concerned, perhaps within the limitations of a very loose reading of the harm principle. Therefore, a conservative might buy into a campaign such as Major’s Back to Basics, whereas a libertarian would almost certainly tut at yet another example of a government attempting to tell us how to live our lives.

I’m afraid this last paragraph needs to be strongly contested because the assumption is that true conservatives would support government intervention, which is clearly tosh. One commenter, Anthony Masters wrote:

I would describe myself as a libertarian conservative … I find the economic liberalism inherent in both libertarianism and conservatism appealing.

I guess the way to express my thoughts on social issues is that I do believe that you should have freedom to live how you choose. It’s just that a conservative recognises that human nature is flawed, but fixed. We should create and maintain institutions, such as the courts, parliamentary democracy and a written list of negative rights, in order to empower the individual, but redress others when this fallible individual has harmed them.

I guess I am a little more pragmatic when it comes to radical changes, preferring a slower method of change. However, with the House of Lords, we should just get the change over with now.

In my case, I’m quite radical politically/economically, as readers at my place know. It’s only when it comes to children that I am a social conservative, in the sense that I believe that parents should refuse certain freedoms for children. It’s interesting that Tom Paine came wading in that people should be free to have tattoos, as if I’d said they shouldn’t have the freedom. I certainly said they shouldn’t have tattoos and gave my reasons why but that’s a far cry from saying they shouldn’t have the freedom to have them.

Remember Voltaire?

TNL sums up:

So can you be a libertarian conservative? Personally I struggle to see how, unless you are such a liberal conservative that the word conservative starts to lose all of its meaning. For me conservatism offers only a limited attempt to extend freedom, and misses the point that the purpose of maximising economic freedom is to maximise freedom in as many other areas of life as possible.

I’d agree that conservatives are more for “freedom with responsibility”, the classical liberal position and that some libertarians – left-libertarians – are for absolute, anarchic freedom to do anything at all – murder, have sex with children, fight. You know, the typical satanist position of “do as thou wilt”.

Lord T therefore brings in the middle position “libertarian lite”, which is, after all, another name for classical liberalism. The thing is, it always, inevitably, through sheer [un]common sense, comes back to this being the most natural position for people to take in society.

I believe that that is the centre-right position that those of us who like the sort of thing published at Orphans hover around, with variations. I believe that there is little fundamental difference between our positions on these matters and that to try to create a divide between libertarians and conservatives can only be an interesting academic exercise, rather than be rooted in reality.

15 comments for “On TNL’s libertarianism and conservatism

  1. July 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    One problem that is obvious is that quite a few of the modern day parliamentary conservative party are in no way conservative in the classical liberal sense at all. The coagulation and petrification around the ghastly social-democratic statist middle ground and the self-important attitudes, together with the personal ambition and power of the whips means many of ’em could switch sides without too much stress and simply do as they are bid by their masters.

    Hard to be a libertarian and make any kind of progress in the conservative party I fancy as Messrs Hannan and Carswell may atest, indeed is there anyone who could honestly claim that Danny Alexander* (sic) would be a better chief sec to the treasury than John Redwood?

    (Only seven years ago ‘Beaker’ was issuing press releases for a national park, now he’s chief sec??)

  2. Lord T
    July 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Good post. If only we had a conservative party to join forces with.

  3. July 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    To be fair, TNL wasn’t referring to the Tory Party but to conservatism as a phenomenon. As mentioned, i do think many of us are “thereabouts” on our place in the political firmament.

    • July 5, 2011 at 5:39 am

      Just as well, since the modern Tory Party seems to have nothing to do with conservatism!

  4. Lord T
    July 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm


    I knew he wasn’t because he specifically mentions conservatives. The tory party is far from Conservative.

    • July 5, 2011 at 5:39 am

      Great minds… 😛

  5. July 4, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    I disagree.

    libertarians and conservatives overlap in many ways these days, but you can be libertarian and not conservative and vice versa.

    I certainly believe that both groups can and should work together, because both groups are to an extent marginalised and disorganised, but this has to come through dialogue and clarity, not papering over the cracks.

    Peter Hitchens is a good example of a proper conservative. I like him and agree with him on many things, but he’d ‘ave me in jail breaking rocks! That’s not a recipe for collaborative work.

    Also, libertarians have a kindred relationship to the liberals, our long lost cousins, and I could argue that it makes more sense reaching out to them, rather than to disgruntled tories.

    • Lord T
      July 5, 2011 at 11:36 am

      I agree they are totally different but many of the core values are similar. Why they cannot band together to implement those core values and then split to pursue the more radical differences is beyond me.

      Socialists seem to fight less and band together to get their core values installed. We fracture and split and although there appears to be more of us we just cannot organise a coherent strategy to get our core values installed. We always leap ahead into the far future, disagree and then fall apart in disarray. 🙄

      That needs to change. We need to think longer term by thinking shorter term. (If that makes sense)

      • July 5, 2011 at 3:09 pm

        My own view on what you ask is that when push comes to shove the conservatives go back to the Tory Party, albeit grumbling under their breath.

      • admin
        July 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

        I agree with this. We’re notorious for factionalizing but the left are not so immune either:


  6. nemesis
    July 5, 2011 at 1:55 am

    May I suggest taking a look at this link which may clear up some confusion between Libertarian/Conservative philosophy:
    It takes a Liberal left – Conservative right on a horizontal axis and bisects this with a vertical Libertarian – Authoritarian axis. Taking the quiz places you somewhere on the resulting diamond shape.

  7. Voice of Reason
    July 5, 2011 at 2:11 am

    In my case, it’s complicated. I supported the Tories before I left the UK in 1978, because the Lefties were so stupid, and bent on destruction.

    Moving to the US, I am an independent, although I lean Democrat, simply because the GOP is so closely aligned with the evangelist movement, and appears to have be crazy.

    They also have shown time and time again that they are great at destroying things, but not so great at even creating conditions for building.

    • July 5, 2011 at 6:50 am

      It’s the same old same old in America as here – the main parties are not representing the position of the centre-right, liberty-leaning, small-government person.

  8. July 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm


    I’m not planning a radical critique of what you’ve written, partly because there is far more common ground between you and me on this issue than on, say, the Frankfurt School…

    First up, though, I’d like to point that that I can assume a disconnect in order to discuss the disconnect – in fact, that’s precisely what I do! Now, I wouldn’t do this in an academic piece of writing, as it runs the risk of begging the question. But for a blogpost designed to provoke discussion, I think it’s fine. And it worked!

    Secondly, I make no claims about what “true” conservatives should or would do, I merely make the point that some conservatives do want state intervention in private lives of others. Trust me, I met them. And they are a big part of the reason why I do not support the Tories anymore and do not vote for them. I understand you perceive yourself to be both a radical and a conservative, but it does not then follow that all other conservatives – or even most other conservatives – would agree with your views.

    I also think you have a decending to conflate “left libertarianism” with anarchism, but that could just be me being pedantic about the terminology used in political philosophy.

    Finally, I’m not trying to create a divide between libertarians and conservatives, but rather point out that there is one. And while it isn’t that important at the moment when state power is both draconian and ever increasing, it would become far more important if we ever managed to get toward a much more minarchist state.


  9. bnzss
    July 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Let’s suppose both libertarians and conservatives accept the idea of negative liberty and base many of their opinion on this. Hence objections from both ‘camps’ for ‘freedom to…’ type sentiments.

    The difference seems to be libertarians apply this consistently, whereas conservatives do not. I mean, if they were consistent, they’d be libertarian, no?

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