Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fusionism, Again

I have been responding in various ways to Timothy Sandefur's claim that my account of conservatism as a fusion of libertarianism and traditionalism must be incoherent.

I agree that if one looks superficially at the debates between extreme libertarians like Murray Rothbard and extreme traditionalists like Russell Kirk, there seems to be a great gulf between them. But if one looks more carefully at some of their writings, such as those that can be found here, here, and here, one begins to see that they share much in common.

The problem is that both sides in this debate tend to criticize straw-men. In fact, Rothbard complains that to say that libertarians elevate individual liberty to "the status of an absolute end" is "an absurd straw-man." "Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life," Rothbard explains. "Freedom is necessary to, and integral with, the achievement of any of man's ends. The libertarian agrees completely with Acton and with Meyer himself that freedom is the highest political end, not the highest end of man per se; indeed, it would be difficult to render such a position in any sense meaningful or coherent."

Similarly, for the libertarians to criticize the traditionalist conservatives like Kirk as "statists" who would allow an authoritarian state to suppress individual liberty is also a "straw-man" argument. After all, Kirk is clear in stating that libertarians and traditionalists agree in their distaste for statist collectivism. "They set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy."

Unfortunately, Kirk creates confusion when he writes: "The libertarian takes the state for the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is ordained of God." This seems to support the idea that Kirk's traditionalism is "statist." But then a few pages later in the same essay, Kirk rejects "the pretensions of the modern state to omnicompetence." He goes on to explain: "The primary function of government, the conservatives say, is to keep the peace: by repelling foreign enemies, by maintaining the bed of justice domestically. When government goes much beyond this end, it falls into difficulty, not being contrived for the management of the whole of life."

The fundamental point here is to distinguish society from the state and to see that between the individual and the state is the realm of civil society--the realm of families, churches, economic associations, social groups of all kinds--all of those natural and voluntary groups in which the natural sociality of human beings is expressed.

Darwinian science supports the primacy of civil society as the fullest manifestation of the social instincts of human beings--instincts of attachment that arise first in the family and then extend outward to ever wider circles of social bonding. The bureaucratic state can, at best, secure some of the conditions for the cooperative relationships of civil society by keeping the peace, protecting private property, and enforcing a general rule of law.

But to assume that moral community has to be artificially created by the social engineering of a centralized, bureaucratic state is dangerously utopian, because it ignores the fact that since human beings are imperfect in their knowledge and virtue, they cannot be trusted with centralized power. Moreover, we should assume that the natural desire for political rule and high rank will incline those with power to be ambitious in their quest for domination. What John Adams called "the principle of balance" should lead us to separate and balance political powers so that ambitious people can satisfy their natural desire to rule, while being checked in their power so as to minimize the danger of tyranny.

The enforcement of morality comes best from the social sanctions of family life and civil society rather than the political sanctions of a centralized state. Thus, libertarians and traditionalists can agree that the highest end of politics is liberty, while the highest end of civil society is the ordering of liberty through moral habituation.

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