Monday, September 11, 2006

The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism

I wrote about the theoretical and practical aspects of anarcho-capitalism, libertarianism, and conservatism in several recent posts:

What Is the American Constitution?
Utopian Schemes
Is Exit Unrealistic?
The Source of Rights
A Trichotomy of American Conservatism

In response to a reader's comment about the second of those posts, I said this about anarcho-capitalism:

How can a political philosophy that assumes peaceful cooperation also assume the possibility of violence and non-cooperation? Anarcho-capitalism assumes the possibility of violence and non-cooperation when it allows for private defense agencies. Given that possibility, it then follows that violence and non-cooperation may arise just as readily from within as from without. Not all members of a community can possibly agree about all issues all of the time. Sometimes those disagreements may turn violent. (To assume perfect agreement and non-violence is utopian.) In the end, a majority or super-majority must be prepared to impose peaceful cooperation within a community by empowering an agency for that purpose. That agency -- the state -- thereby acquires a status independent of the community because it exists to impose the will of the majority of the moment on the renegades of the moment. There is never a consensus, either at a given time or across time.

Anarcho-capitalists typically object to the Constitution of the United States as an imposition on subsequent generations. But how do they then create a stable, cooperative, enduring community? By revisiting the "contract" that binds every member at every moment? That is the only way to true consensus. And it is nonsense.

The real question that faces the friends of liberty is how to contain the power of the state. The Constitution offers the most realistic answer. Friends of liberty should abandon unrealistic schemes, such as anarcho-capitalism, and focus on the restoration of the Constitution.

I am certain to return to the topic of anarcho-capitalism in future posts, mainly because its adherents like to claim, wrongly, that it is "true" libertarianism. It is not even that, however. It is nothing but a pipe dream. Here is John Kekes in "What Is Conservatism?":

A common ground among conservatives is that the political arrangements that ought to be conserved are discovered by reflection on why, how, and for what reason they have come to hold. The conse~ative yjew is that history is the best guide to understanding the present and planning for the future because it indicates what political arrangements are likely to make lives good or bad.

The significance of this agreement among conservatives is not merely what it asserts, but also what it denies. It denies that the reasons for or against particular political arrangements are to be derived from a contract that fully rational people might make in a hypothetical situation; or from an imagined ideal society; or from what is supposed to be most beneficial for the whole of humanity; or from the prescriptions of some sacred or secular book. Conservatives, in preference to these alternatives, look then to history. Not, however, to history in general, but to their history, which is theirs because it is a repository of formative influences on how they live now and how it is reasonable for them to want to live in the future. Yet their attitude is not one of unexamined prejudice in favour of political arrangements that have become traditional in their society. They certainly aim to conserve some traditional political arrangements, but only those that reflection shows to be conducive to good lives.

In other words, conservatism is a reality-based political philosophy. But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? I have in various posts essayed an answer to that question (here, here, here, and here, for example), but now I turn the floor over to Kekes, who toward the end of "What Is Conservatism?" says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favours arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government's authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism -- true because it is attainable.