Moving Portrait

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pa. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

Conservatives have long debated the conflict between liberty and tradition.

Editor’s Note: The following piece first appeared in the May 11, 1979 issue of National Review.

If you asked the average conservative, any time during the last few decades, to sketch a group portrait of his intellectual leaders, he would probably come up with something like this: on the one hand, Whigs, anarchists, economists. On the other, Tories, ultramontanists, and fans of Gone with the Wind. In the middle, Frank Meyer, trying, like the spars of a Calder mobile, to hold the whole thing together.

The shape of the portrait — the distance of the various wings from the main body, and the eccentricities of their orbits — would vary depending on when it was drawn. In the early Fifties, traditionalism was certainly the most wide-ranging. Southern agrarians disdained capitalism; Peter Viereck spent his time lecturing Americans on the virtues of Metternich and that great homegrown Tory, FDR. T.S. Eliot’s opinions were anxiously consulted. Today, the imbalance lies mostly on the other side; indeed, some libertarian intellectuals have been insisting that they have detached themselves altogether.

The Philadelphia Society devoted its 16th annual meeting, held in Chicago, to “Conservatism and Libertarianism” — their differences and their many common goals.

Robert Nisbet opened the session with a general survey of the terrain. Conservatives and libertarians, he felt, share several prejudices — resentment of government intrusions, fondness for economic freedom, distaste for mass democracy. They do not, however, share a common intellectual framework. Nisbet traced modern conservatism to Burke’s stand against the French Revolution. Burke, he noted, was a lifelong opponent of arbitrary power, whether wielded against Americans, Hindus, or Irish Catholics; but he especially detested the revolution as a “millenialist crusade” against traditional institutions — church, family, conventions. Libertarians, equally hostile to modern dictatorships, appeal instead to the sanctity of the individual. Nisbet quoted Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community . . . is to prevent harm to others.”

Succeeding speakers in turn took up questions raised by Nisbet. Walter Berns, First Amendment scholar, accused libertarians of philosophical shallowness and compared libertarian political theory to that of Hobbes. Hobbes, said Berns, was the first political philosopher to attack the Christian and classical models of the state, which drew on divine or natural sanction; in their place, he proposed a “night-watchman state,” created solely to secure the lives and goods of individuals (modern libertarians, Berns added, seem to want to dispense with the watchman as well). The Founding Fathers, Berns conceded, did follow Hobbesian injunctions; but the men in whose interests they established the new Republic were “British men,” conditioned by “habits acquired from a civilized past.” A polity which ignores those habits tempts destruction.

Libertarians responded in a variety of ways. Economist Murray Rothbard cheerfully admitted that “libertarianism does not pretend to be a complete moral theory.” Libertarianism, he argued, was a political doctrine based on the immorality of coercion — “libertarians make no exceptions to the Golden Rule for government”; though how libertarians come to the Golden Rule is their own business. “Libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory.” Tibor Machan, on the other hand, insisted that libertarianism was a “small, political outgrowth” of a broader ethical framework. Once man chooses to live, he should choose to live well. Living well means living in accordance with human nature; and libertarianism, Machan concluded, is the political theory which best takes account of man’s nature.

Two panels concentrated on practical policies. There is a “state of mind developing among libertarians,” Nisbet suggested, “in which coercions within social groups are seen to be as heinous as those administered by the state”; and the point was briskly debated. Williamson Evers, editor of Inquiry, accused the state of undermining the social groups praised by Burke, and cited recent conservative calls for investigations of “odd-ball” religions. Joe Sobran of National Review welcomed Evers’ acceptance of the primacy of social power but added that the state should recognize certain social institutions as authoritative. State power can serve as a back-up to the mediating institutions, if only symbolically. “We don’t discourage encouragement.”

Both conservatives and libertarians, as Nisbet noted, accept the free market; the panel on economic issues accordingly concentrated on such arcana as central banking and private currencies. Warren Coats and Arthur Shenfield both admired the ingenuity of laissez-faire approaches in these areas; they dismissed them, though, as costly and impractical. “And practicality,” said Shenfield, “has an effect.” David Friedman, emancipated from the statism of his father, Milton, admitted that the market might not be able to handle such problems perfectly; but government handles them even less perfectly. A system of private banks issuing private currencies, for example, would entail conversion costs which state central banks avoid; government banks and currencies, however, have no market check on their integrity.

Some members of the Society seemed dismayed that such questions, hotly contested 15 and 20 years ago, were resurfacing. Partly it is a matter of time: Some of the old protagonists are dead, some are silent, and old thoughts seek new oracles. There are growing pains involved as well: since the late Sixties, conservatism has received an influx of new intellectuals fleeing liberalism’s collapse. Libertarians, too, are stirring; the Libertarian party’s candidate for governor of California in 1978 received 5 percent of the vote, while its 1972 presidential candidate won as many electoral votes as Walter B. Jones did in 1956.

But the chief reason for such discussions — and for the Philadelphia Society itself — is survival. Politics, as Burke pointed out, is more than thought; but it is partly that; and the movement — anarchist, conservative, black hand of reaction — which ignores its principles is headed for suicide.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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