Arnold Kling  

Conservative != Libertarian

Are Taxes "Passed On"?... The High Points of Superfre...

Daniel Klein and Jason Briggeman find that leading conservative magazines are not libertarian. This is no surprise. Read Jordan J. Ballor. He cites an essay by Russell Kirk. This essay leaves no doubt about the distinction between Kirk's conservatism and libertarianism.

Or go back to Ballor's post here, where he writes of

the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government.

The Kirk position, as I understand it, is that if all respect for authority disappears, society as we know it will cease to function. Respect for authority has to include respect for the state.

Libertarians and progressives share a distrust for hierarchical authority. However, progressives do trust the authority of professional, independent technocrats.

As I have said before, when you ask somebody where social progress (human rights, economic growth, peace) comes from: a conservative will argue for religion; a progressive will argue for great progressive movements and leaders; and a libertarian will argue for liberty and markets.

I think there is room somewhere for a secular conservative. That is, for someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.

I continue to place my faith in the many non-governmental institutions of civil society. These can change and adapt. Unlike government, they can shrink or disappear when they are failing to provide benefit.

On the issue of respect for authority, I would like to see people respect rules and norms of the groups and organizations with which they interact. I think that respect for a governmental judicial system is a good thing. However, I will go no farther than that. The state is not divine. My opinion is that the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders. It has evolved to be less overtly gangsterish in some respects. However, its evolution has not been entirely positive. The government has become a prime status prize for which individuals and groups contend. The results of this status contest for most ordinary individuals are decidedly mixed.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (30 to date)
John Thacker writes:

The conservative answer to a certain form of rationalist libertarian is to say that if an institution and norm has survived over time, it probably has some underlying reason supporting it, even if that isn't apparent to all modern observers. This applies in particular to groups that have evolved separately from the state.

alex writes:

Hayek identifies a number of traits that distinguish conservatism from market liberalism (“liberalism” without a modifier, in his terminology):
• Habitual resistance to change, hence the term “conservative.”
• Lack of understanding of spontaneous order as a guiding principle
of economic life.
• Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the
forces of economic change.
• Claim to superior wisdom based on self-arrogated superior quality
in place of rational argument.
• A propensity to reject scientific knowledge because of dislike of
the consequences that seem to follow from it.
(as summarized by Edwin Dolan)

Zdeno writes:

Conservatives do not claim that "progress" derives from religion, but with order, stability, and the clear definition of ownership and responsibility in society. Conservatism got so wrapped up in Christianity historically because the monarchs of the middle ages based the legitimacy of their authority on divine-right monarchy. Those who supported stable government and fealty to the existing regime were Conservatives, and divine-right monarchists. Progressives gravitated towards theologies that discredited the Old Regime.

The argument for secular Conservatism rests on the observation that the principles of Libertarian government have been most closely implemented by strong governments with responsible administrators. As a libertarian, no doubt you (Arnold) have noticed that every Western nation in the world has been tacking in a very unlibertarian direction for a century at least. What is the standard Libertarian prescription for arresting this trend? Considering the movement's history, don't you think a change of tactics is in order?

A Secular Conservative is just a Libertarian who's been smacked across the face with the shovel of realism.



Elvin writes:

Religion is important to conservatives because they also believe that a moral foundation in any world, much less one based on individual liberty and free will, is important.

Taimyoboi writes:

"...and a libertarian will argue for liberty and markets."

This strikes me as the least tenable and realistic of the three. Hayek noted that with liberty came economic freedom, but liberty didn't spring up from the ground unassisted. Hayek didn't give much thought to where liberty derived from.

So to what priors or sources can a Libertarian turn to in order to help define man's liberties?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"So to what priors or sources can a Libertarian turn to in order to help define man's liberties?" -Taimyoboi

Once you accept that people shouldn't harm others and should keep their obligations, the rest follows from epistemology and logic. Of course, I am talking about Anthony de Jasay's defense of liberalism.

pj writes:

Tyler - No. A conservative would agree that liberty and markets bring progress, but argue that religion is necessary to preserve liberty and markets.

Anti-religious libertarianism has been shading into leftism for at least ten years. A country populated by such people would lose its liberty quickly.

alex -

Hayek was speaking of European "conservatives," a species that no longer exists, not American conservatives. He was happy to count himself among American conservatives.

And don't Dolan's points precisely identify today's Democratic Party?

Justin Martyr writes:

Speaking as someone who actually is a conservative rather than a largely unsympathetic outsider, here are the major spots where I disagree with libertarians.

1. Principle-agent problems. Incentives are not everything and human society cannot be modeled with self-regarding actors. Free and prosperous societies depend on internalized norms of respect for others and hard work.

2. A circle of moral consciousness that includes children - even those who have not yet been born. Children are not consenting adults and do not get "a seat at the table" when adults decide to procreate, divorce, or get an abortion. Third parties - AKA the government - must take that role in the absence of strong social norms that provide the same function. E.g. we didn't need laws against same-sex marraige before samesex couples procreated on a widespread basis.

3. Strong reciprocity. Conservatives believe there is a mandatory moral duty to the poor. We depart from progressives because the poor have an equally strong duty to elevate themselves with hard work.

4. Cultural group selection. I'm libertarian when it comes to non-zero sum games like markets. I'm progressive when it comes to zero-sum games like reproduction. I think coercive redistribution is needed when one person's gain really does come at another's expense. E.g. every man with ten wives leaves nine men wifeless. Hence laws against polygamy. Reducing the distinctions between group members is also a key point for models of group selection that actually work and do not fall to the free rider problem.

I recognize that many libertarians may share some or all of these principles, but I see these as common points of departure.

fundamentalist writes:

Taimyoboi: "So to what priors or sources can a Libertarian turn to in order to help define man's liberties?"

Historically, the philosophical foundations for liberty and free markets came from the scholarship of the Catholic church, especially that from the School of Salamanca, Spain in the 16th century. Those ideas were never really implemented until the Protestant Netherlands rebelled against Catholic Spain and formed the Dutch Republic of the 16th century. The very religiously devout Dutch created institutions, such as the rule of law and free markets, that implemented the Scholastic thought. John Locke lived in the Dutch Republic for a while and absorbed the thinking of the Dutch and their leading scholars, such as the lawyer and theologian Hugo Grotius. You can trace the spread of liberty and free markets from the Dutch Republic to the rest of Western Europe and the US.

So modern liberty and free market thought began with Protestant/Catholic theology. However, under natural law theory, which ended with Grotius, philosophers used reason to establish the same principles concerning liberty and markets as the Church Scholars had derived from religion. Locke and others followed the same methodology. However, they continued to insist that all rights came from God.

Later, atheist philosophers decided the logic for liberty and free markets could stand on its own without God, and so abandoned that leg of the philosophical stool. Without God, the whole system seems a little bit weak in that you don't have anyone with authority over all of mankind granting rights. You're left with mankind just giving itself rights, which is one reason for the proliferation of rights today. But still, the atheist version isn't too bad and I hope it convinces a lot of atheists to become libertarians.

Dain writes:


Russell Kirk was an American conservative who most certainly considered Hayek to be outside the ranks:

Jim Miller writes:

Many American conservatives have economic views that are closer to classical liberalism, than to the views of traditional European conservatives. Currently, for instance, there is much more support for free trade, and free markets generally, among Republicans than among Democrats.

Republicans are also better -- in general -- on free speech issues, another trait they share with classical liberals. (That wasn't true fifty years ago, but then fifty years ago our campuses were often quite good on free speech.)

James writes:

Justin Martyr,

The items you list seem more like destinations rather than points of departure. I'd suggest that conservatives have exactly one point of departure from libertarians:

Libertarians don't believe that any person other than Smith has a right to allocate Smith's resources, to include Smith's person, his wealth and his capacity for work. All libertarian positions start from there.

Conservatives and progressives each start with visions of how society ought to be and use those visions to decide how much of Smith's resources Smith should be allowed to allocate on his own and how much they should allocate for him.

Troy Camplin writes:

Progressives say they hate hierarchy, then set up the most complex, involved bureaucratic hierarchies ever seen. So I don't believe them.

We need a more involved theory of nonprofits as elements in a spontaneous order to get the kind of replacement of them for government as we need.

I'm busy trying to come up with that model for the arts and humanities. I'll be presenting a paper on it at the Fund for Spontaneous Orders conference in December.

CJ Smith writes:

Elvin writes:
Religion is important to conservatives because they also believe that a moral foundation in any world, much less one based on individual liberty and free will, is important.

Elvin - it is presumptuous to assume that having or espousing a religion gives one a moral foundation, and/or that conservativism is based in morality. Or as was more succinctly put, "The Moral Majority is neither." Having or espousing a religious belief has little or nothing to do with whether or not one has consciously considered fundamental moral questions such as "what is good versus what is bad," can a thing be good in one context, but bad in another," "what tenants or propositions belong in a moral or ethical code," or "how do human beings develop moral and ethical codes." There are any number of conservatives who vehemently espouse a religious point of view, but have never considereed the moral and ethical issues that are commensurate with that religion's teachings. Conversely, there are any number of moral and ethical people and organizations that are neither conservative nor religious.

Consider reading Lawrence Kohlberg's various writings on the "Six Stages of Moral Development." While Kohlberg's methodology leaves a bit to be desired, his theory of moral development is actually quite elegant.

New religious systems or offshoots or existing religions can be quite non-conservative (in that the religion and its followers tend to advocate for change as opposed to continuations of existing policy)- consider early Christianity, the Lutheran Schism, the Albigenisian Suppression. Or the origins of Islam and Sunni-Shiite schism. Even Buddhism, one of the most pacificistic religions in history, advocated a change from the then-existing status quo in favor of self governance and the quest for enlightenment.

That being said, religion is like wine - it changes over time. Once a religion becomes established and survives past the first generation or two, the religion begins to espouse conservatism as a defensive response to the possibility of further change, be it internally or externally sourced. See Rome polytheists' response to early Christianity, Christianity's Inquisition, Orthodox Judaism versus contemporary Judaism, the attempted suppressions of Islam, Buddhism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints, and the Church of Scientology, to name just a few.

Max writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I agree with the distinction between conservatism and libertarianism - always good to highlight. But the rest of this post was a little surprising to me.

I'm basically center-left, and I put most of my faith for human progress in liberty and markets. Do I trust technocrats? Sure, I think there's a place for them. I think central banks are a good thing. I think macroeconomic stabilization policy is a good thing. Would I say that we rely more on technocrats (or "social movements") than on markets for progress? Of course not!!! It's not even a contest! Markets win out every time.

Libertarians have this strange picture of themselves that they're the only ones that appreciate freedom and markets. If you don't buy their theory of the state they assume you're opposed to liberty. I think representative states - even states that intervene in the market - are very important and go hand in hand with a functional, free market. I don't want the state planning the market, but it does have some important and indispensible corrective roles. And it would make a mockery of liberty if a representative state weren't allowed to perform those roles.

You really need to broaden your horizons and stop assuming so much uniqueness for the libertarian position.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Justin Martyr -

RE: "3. Strong reciprocity. Conservatives believe there is a mandatory moral duty to the poor. We depart from progressives because the poor have an equally strong duty to elevate themselves with hard work."

You're making the same incorrect assumptions that Arnold is! Are you seriously telling me you believe that progressives don't think the poor have an equally strong duty to elevate themselves?!?!?! Are you really under that impression.

You guys are giving off incredibly strong "I live under a rock" vibes.

eccdogg writes:

Most people's beliefs are so nuanced that it is impossible to group them effectively.

I for one am a libertarian, but like fundamentalist mentions my beliefs spring from religous convictions and are not opposed to them.

I think we are all children of god, and thus have rights outside of and above any state or group. There is right and wrong and it is wrong to force someone to do something against their will. Except in situations where you are defending your own rights.

None of us can truly know the will of god so it is foolish to FORCE people to live the way we think god wants them to. And even if we did know gods will perfectly it is not right to force people to say give to charity or be chaste because forcing someone to do something does not improve that person's standing in gods eyes since they are doing it against their will. Ultimately we will all be judged by god, there is no need to judge people for acts that don't infringe on others rights.

We are personally called to do many things and have moral responsibilities, but these responsibilities reflect how WE should live our lives not how we should force others to live or how we should constitute a government.

I think there is a long tradition of veiwing classical liberalism in this manner going back to our founding fathers.

Justin Martyr writes:


I've found that progressives come into two categories: sophisticated and naive. Sophisticated progressives do in fact believe that there is a culture of poverty and that, no matter how much good the government can do for the poor, there is also a duty for the poor themselves to change their culture. Examples include James Flynn and William Galston. Naive progressives strenuously deny this.

I've found that the naive progressives vastly outnumber the sophisticated progressives (except on blogs like this). I would be willing to bet that if I made a reference to a culture of poverty on (one of the more sophisticated progressive blogs) that most commentators would disagree with me - strenuously. I've learned this from past experience!

Justin Martyr writes:


It sounds like you are a fan of Nozick. But your characterization is mistaken. Conservatives do not have a problem with some people getting very wealthy. In that area conservatives support an "unpatterned" distribution. However, they will support "patterned" distributions for the deserving poor (those who are trying to uplift themselves from poverty, or who cannot, perhaps because of a disability).

I do strongly believe in patterned distributions in zero-sum games, which is why I think polygamy should be illegal.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Justin Martyr -
There's certainly a difference of opinion - just like there are sophisticated and naive libertarians and sophisticated and naive conservatives.

Part of the problem may also be the approach. There's no real way to sweeten the truth that "well maybe you're poor because you have no skills and you're lazy". That's bound to get some strenuous objections. I suppose what I'm saying is don't mistake that occassional response with some bedrock tenet of progressivism.

Justin Martyr writes:


just like there are sophisticated and naive libertarians and sophisticated and naive conservatives.

I would make two points in response. The first is that recognizing that there is a culture of poverty is pretty new even for sophisticated progressives. Think about the uproar over Losing Ground in the 1980's. Think about the uproar over welfare reform in the 1990's. I think sophisticated progressives deserve massive kudos for changing their views in the face of contradictory evidence - few people of any ideological stripe can do that - but it is still fair for conservatives to recognize that solving poverty is a two-way street as a defining trait. Of course, those days may be numbered as the conventional wisdom filters down the ranks!

The second point is that sophisticated conservatives basically believe the same things as naive conservatives (unless we assume that David Brooks is what it means to be a sophisticated conservative). The only difference is that sophisticated conservatives do a better job arguing for them. But we are all pro-life, we all defend traditional marriage for raising children, we all support free markets, and we all think that the huff over global warming is idolatry (AKA a political religion). By contrast, there is a huge gulf between "there is a culture of poverty" and "there is not a culture of poverty."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RE: "But we are all pro-life, we all defend traditional marriage for raising children, we all support free markets, and we all think that the huff over global warming is idolatry"

The first two aren't unique to conservatism at all, and the last one isn't even true!

There are naive conservatives. They think Barack Obama isn't a citizen and that he's a Muslim. They oppose abortion even if it means the life of the mother. They want to teach creationism in the schools. They don't think there should be an FDA. They don't think there should be a Fed. They believe in pre-emptive war and torture. Not all conservatives believe these things. Many do.

Come on - you're cherry picking Justin Martyr and even your cherry picking job sucks (take your climate change example - loads of conservatives take the threat seriously, although they may not support cap and trade).

I should have just phrased it this way - there are naive and sophisticated human beings, and sophistication isn't (generally) correlated with political philosophy.

Justin Martyr writes:


In my first post I pointed out that many libertarians, particularly the Hayek types, might agree with some of those principles. But those are the principles that I see as the defining axioms. You can be a pro-life libertarian but you can also be a pro-choice libertarian. By contrast, being a pro-choice conservative is like being a pro-Flat Tax progressive. I suppose people can manage the tap-dance but they are clearly moving away from the core principles of their movement.

That takes me to my next point. Whether or not Obama is a citizen is not a core conservative principle and even the birthers would not argue as such. And you are simply wrong on the pro-life movement. Most sophisticated conservatives - including the most rigorous pro-life philosophers - oppose abortion even when the mother's life is in danger. Apply the Doctrine of Double Effect. It is using a bad means (intentional killing) to achieve a good end (saving a life). The most you will see is the recognition that is morally permissible to do things like take a life-saving cancer drug even if it kills the baby, because there the intention is not killing. That could lead down a long debate on double effect, but the salient point is that sophisticated and naive conservatives are in broad agreement here.

I guess we'd have to go to the polls on global warming, but my sense is that there is broad-based opposition to climate change alarmism from conservatives of virtually all stripes.

You do have a point on intelligent design in the schools. There are many generally accepted conservative intellectuals who believe in evolution, e.g. Dinesh D'Souza.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Only 11% of the entire population thinks abortion should be illegal under all circumstances ( This article doesn't go into detail, but presumably the other 89% at least support it when the life of the mother is in danger. I was giving the life of the mother case as an example of naive conservatives - you seem to be willingly identifying yourself as one. But then again, you seem committed so that's fair enough. I was suggesting that sophisticated conservatives support abortion in cases like these, but the naive, thoughtless conservatives don't. Since we don't even seem to be speaking the same language on that, it's probably best to drop it.

Re: "I guess we'd have to go to the polls on global warming, but my sense is that there is broad-based opposition to climate change alarmism from conservatives of virtually all stripes."

Oh certainly there's opposition to climate change alarmism. I'm saying there's a decent plurality of conservative support for being concerned about the prospect of climate change. That's a very different thing from climate change alarmism.

RE: "That takes me to my next point. Whether or not Obama is a citizen is not a core conservative principle and even the birthers would not argue as such."

Certainly not. It was a comment on their naivete or sophistication, in that case.

Justin Martyr writes:


I hope I didn't give the sense that conservatives are more sophisticated than progressives! I think the opposite is generally true.

The interesting topic in this thread has been the size of the gap between sophisticated and naive members of various ideologies. I think it is relatively small for conservatives and larger for progressives. It's also pretty large for libertarians now that I think about it.

George writes:


You wrote (of conservatives): But we are all pro-life...

I wish.

we all support free markets...

Again, it would be nice but it isn't true.

There appear to be at least two broad strains of modern American conservatism: economic conservatives and moral (or "values") conservatives. William F. Buckley spent most of his career trying to get these two strains to work together, with no little success.

But every time Pat Buchanan runs, he peels off a bunch of conservative supporters (who even call themselves "conservative") with a bunch of anti-NAFTA rhetoric. And for whatever reason, much of the economic conservative bloc of voters seems to be awfully soft on the life issues—possibly because national leaders choose to avoid the issue when it's convenient.

You and I probably agree on what we'd like conservatism to be, but we shouldn't confuse that with what we actually have to work with.

James writes:


You call my characterization mistaken, and then prove it true when you write "I do strongly believe in patterned distributions in zero-sum games, which is why I think polygamy should be illegal."

You have a vision for how the world ought to be and start from there to decide whether or not you are willing to let Smith decide what contracts he enters into.

Superheater writes:

"...progressives share a distrust for hierarchical authority."

What a horrible mistake. Progressives only appear to distrust hierarchical authority, until they attain it. Then they expect you to submit without question.

Haven't you noticed the dissent that was so popular under the last president is now regarded as illegitimate under the present one?

Nick writes:


"every man with ten wives leaves nine men wifeless. Hence laws against polygamy"

You assume there are only as many men as women (or vice versa), this is not always true, what about china now? What about russia after ww2

Would have polgyamy in either case really come at the detriment to someone when so many of one group was going to die alone anyway (statistically speaking)

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