To put it nicely, the political alliance between those who consider themselves classical liberals and/or libertarians and conservatives has been under strain for some time now. During the Cold War and the rise of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the two groups were united in opposition to Communism and the growth of the welfare state. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the political alliance between libertarians and conservatives has suffered significant strain. Republicans have governed like Democrats, and libetarians find themselves wondering if an alliance with the left would be more successful.
Edward Feser approaches this issue from a different direction today at TCS Daily and asks whether it is possible to create a political philosophy that unifies conservate and libertarian ideas.
Many think the obvious answer is no. Libertarians want to maximize individual freedom, including the freedom to do many things traditionally regarded as immoral – using recreational drugs, watching pornography, engaging in extramarital sex, and so forth. Conservatives want to uphold traditional morality. So aren’t they unavoidably at cross purposes?
The obvious answer would be yes, but in starting in 1924 Frank Meyer argued in favor of a philosophy called fusionism which attempted to unite these two seemingly incompatible views of the world.
The standard fusionist retort is that there need be no conflict here as long as what libertarians insist on is only the legal right to do the things in question. If they allow that such behaviors might nevertheless be morally wrong, the conservative can in principle endorse the libertarian program. Indeed, the conservative should endorse it, according to fusionists. For virtue, they say, is only virtue if it is freely chosen. Hence, while vigorously promoting a return to traditional moral standards through persuasion and private initiative, conservatives should, so the argument goes, join hands with libertarians in opposing the use of governmental coercion to do so.
The problem, as Feser recognizes, is that libertarians and conservatives don’t always start with the same moral premises. Conservatives generally believe that all pre-marital sex is bad, that drug use is per se harmful, and that a belief in God is essential to moral behavior. I would venture to say that most libertarians and classical liberals would not agree with most, if not all, of these assumptions.
Feser goes on to argue that the ideas of F.A. Hayek, who considered himself neither a conservative nor a libertarian, could serve as a bridge between the two philosophies, but I think the fundamental mistake lies in trying to find such a bridge to begin with.
Conservatives and libertarians/classical liberals have fundamental disagreements that I do not think can be resolved philosophically.Â The libertarian belief in the importance of individual liberty is quite simply not shared by conservatives, who believe that individual liberty can and should be restrained in the name of tradition, morality, and, in some cases, the law of God. I just don’t think it’s possible for two such incompatible belief systems to be merged.
This doesn’t mean that a political alliance between libertarians and conservatives doesn’t make sense. Though they come from different world views, the two groups do share goals in common, and there is nothing wrong with forming a political alliance with someone who doesn’t agree with you completely. The time has come, though, for philosophers to stop trying to turn libertarianism into a step-child of conservative philosophy and let it develop in its own right.