Libertarians and Conservatives

I've written in the past about the connections between (contemporary) liberalism and libertarianism. I haven't much touched on the topic of conservatism, in very large part because I don't exactly know what conservatism actually means. I see that Tom Anger at Liberty Corner has a post in which he, following Roger Scruton, outlines three distinct branches of thought that typically fall under the label "conservative". I'm going to shamelessly quote a considerable chunk of his post here.

True-Blue Traditionalist: This type simply loves and revels in family, community, club, church, alma mater, and the idea of America -- which includes American government, with all its faults. If government enacts truly popular policies, those policies are (by and large) legitimate in the eyes of a true-blue. Thus a true-blue may be a Democrat or a Republican, though almost certainly not a libertarian. This type comes closest to Scruton's view of what constitutes conservatism, even though most Americans would not think of it as conservative.

Libertarian of the Classical Liberal School: This type may (or may not) love and revel in most of the institutions revered by a true-blue traditionalist, but takes a different line when it comes to government. Voluntary institutions are good, but government tends to undermine them. Government's proper role is to protect the citizenry and the citizenry's voluntary institutions, not to dictate the terms and conditions of their existence. The classical liberal favors government only when it observes its proper role, and not for its own sake.

Rightist: The rightist differs from the true-blue traditionalist and classical liberal in three key respects. First, he is hostile toward those persons and voluntary institutions that are not in the "American tradition" of white, northern Europeanism. Second, his disdain for things outside the "American tradition" is so great that he is likely to be either an "America firster" or a reincarnation of Curtis "bomb them back to the stone age" LeMay. (That is, he would call the troops home and leave the "heathen masses" to fight it out amongst themselves, or he would simply deal with "those ragheads" by "nuking" them.) Third, he is willing to use the power of government to enforce the observance of those values that he favors, and to do other things that he (arbitrarily) sees as necessary.

It seems to me that Tom's list is pretty useful, and I'm inclined to agree with him that these three main categories pretty much do exhaust the spectrum of what's called conservative. I'm also going to agree with Tom that these three sorts of thinking may or may not really be conservative.

In particular, I would argue that libertarianism is not really conservative at all. This is probably a bit of a truism among the libertarian faithful, but it's worth making again.

Here's the basic point: markets encourage innovation. That's the beauty of the free market. Indeed, enterpreneurs prosper in free market economies roughly in proportion to their ability to innovate in some fashion or another. The important corollary to this point is that innovation nearly always brings along radical social changes. Industrialization brough about the end of the factory farm and the cottage industry. Television is moving us out of the movie theater. The 'net has, in many cases, meant the end of the neighborhood as the focus of community. The rise of ever-improving health care causes us to think of death as something that can be resisted rather than as something to be accepted.

No, free markets aren't at all conservative. To the extent that we're willing to embrace the freedom of the market, we must also be willing to embrace (sometimes radical) social changes. I'm pretty sure that it's going to be incoherent to try to support the former but not the latter (which is what makes the standard Republican platform so utterly baffling).

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