Hunter’s excellent post on social conservatives, libertarians, and Aristotle gives me an excuse to link to an essay by a more recent thinker—the late, great Russell Kirk.

In the fall of 1981, during the earliest days of the Reagan years, Kirk published the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century. I believe that most of the current confusion and malaise within the conservative movement can be attributed to failing to hear and heed the prophetic words written herein (the rest can be attributed to our failure to produce a new generation of conservative thinkers as sharp and witty as Kirk).

You may find this essay infuriating (if you’re a libertarian) or laugh-out-loud funny (if you’re a traditionalist) but no one, after reading the entire piece, should walk away calling themselves a “libertarian conservative.” As Kirk says, the two are incompatible. Political labels, if they are to have any value at all, cannot be unmoored from their philosophical foundations or historical meanings. (In other words, just because someone thinks that “libertarian” sounds hipper than calling themselves a “conservative” does not mean the labels are compatible, much less interchangeable.)

Although I’ve exercepted extensively from some of the choicest (and harshest) cuts, you really have to read the whole thing to get the full thrust of Kirk’s argument.


What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire. The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle—that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century.

They carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill (before Mill’s wife converted him to socialism, that is). To understand the mentality of the libertarians of 1981 , it may be useful to remind ourselves of a little book published more than a hundred and twenty years ago: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty . Arguments that were flimsy in 1859 (and were soundly refuted by James Fitzjames Stephen) have become farcical in 1981 . So permit me to digress concerning Mill’s famous essay.

[ . . . ]

Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill dreaded, and they dread today, obedience to the dictates of custom. In our time, really, the real danger is that custom and prescription and tradition may be overthrown utterly among us-for has not that occurred already in most of the world? – by neoterism, the lust for novelty; and that men will be no better than the flies of a summer, oblivious to the wisdom of their ancestors, and forming every opinion merely under the pressure of the fad, the foible, the passion of the hour.

[ . . . ]

But surely, surely I must be misrepresenting the breed? Don’t I know self proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste, well endowed with the goods of fortune?

Yes, I do know such. They are the people who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call themselves “libertarians” merely because they believe in personal freedom, and do not understand to what extravagances they lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire “libertarian” causes and publications. If a person describes himself as “libertarian” because he believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, free enterprise, and old American ways of life—why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.

It is not such well-intentioned but mislabeled men whom I am holding up to obloquy here. Rather, I am exposing the pretensions of the narrow doctrinaires who have imprisoned themselves within a “libertarian” ideology as confining and as unreal as Marxism—if less persuasive than that fell delusion.

Why are these doctrinaire libertarians, with a few exceptions, such very odd people - the sort who give hearty folk like Marion Montgomery the willies? Why do genuine conservatives feel an aversion to close association with them? (Incidentally, now 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.)

[ . . . ]

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.

[ . . . ]

It is of high importance, indeed, that American conservatives dissociate themselves altogether from the little sour remnant called libertarians. In a time requiring long views and self-denial, alliance with a faction founded upon doctrinaire selfishness would be absurd—and practically damaging. It is not merely that cooperation with a tiny chirping sect would be valueless politically; more, such an association would tend to discredit the conservatives, giving aid and comfort to the collectivist adversaries of ordered freedom.

When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.


Please do read the whole thing .

[Note: I’d like to make a comment about the use of “social conservative” in the title. I realize that nowadays it is necessary to attach the modifier “social” to distinguish a conservative who still believes in what conservative have always believed from others who enjoy using the label. But I do so under protest. If you’re not a conservative about social issues—if you choose, in essence, to be detached from both the philosophical foundation and history of the terms usage—then you probably shouldn’t use conservative as a noun. It would be more fitting to use it as a modifier for a more appropriate designation (conservative liberal, conservative anarchist, conservative Marxist, etc). I don’t make the rules about how words must be used (obviously and unfortunately) so you’re free to use the word how you want. But it would be a courtesy to those of us who feel rather silly about having to use the redundant phrase “social conservative.” ]

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