Liberalism and the Individualist Worldview

One of the common arguments I hear in favor of fusionism, although not one made in this series so far, is that conservatives and libertarians are natural allies. In theory we are united by valuing the individual in the political order, as opposed to the communists, socialists, progressives, etc. who are all various forms of collectivists. While libertarians and conservatives may disagree on the extent to which the state should support and control important social institutions, at least we are not collectivists, and in that we can find common ground.

However, as I pointed out previously, this alignment is a byproduct of historical coincidence. Libertarians and conservatives formed a fusionist alliance that made sense in the context of the 1960s. Communism posed an existential thread abroad and central economic planning was widely accepted within the New Deal Consensus at home. Fusionism made sense then, but times have changed.

With those dynamics gone, is there still a deeper connection between the conservative and libertarian positions? Can we still unite around respect for the individual? I stumbled upon a series of psychological studies that provide counter evidence to that claim that conservatives are the natural allies of individualists. I do not offer them here as hard evidence to prove my case; after all, they are just a handful of studies, but they are interesting and potentially informative to our conversation.

The studies focus on how we view ourselves as individuals, exploring whether there is a difference in how people in different social contexts build conceptions of themselves. The conclusions are that yes, people do conceptualize the self differently, especially those of us in the western industrialized regions of the world. The researchers used the acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) to identify unique demographic characteristics of people who hold a robustly individualist worldview. Apparently we WEIRD people tend to be much more analytic and focus on objects themselves as opposed to the contextual relationship between objects. The purpose of these studies was to see if results from psychological studies of western nations could be extrapolated to other populations, which apparently is unwise because WEIRD people are a tiny minority on earth.

Later a group of researchers at the University of Virginia wondered if these findings applied within countries as well. Are there various combinations of WEIRD people within countries, using the United States and China as test cases? They put together a series of word and shape association tests to see if the subjects thought more analytically or holistically (read more about the process here).  The study produced some interesting results, but I will focus on the political implications. Boston University researcher Connor Wood summed up the results at Patheos.com (a global resource on religion with a section focused on the relationship between science and religion):

The students also completed questionnaires that asked about social and political ideology. As expected, students who indicated they were more conservative also tended to pair words on the basis of their functional relationships, while more liberal Chinese students relied on abstract categories – exactly the same pattern as in the WEIRD world…

Across these studies, interestingly, analytical and holistic thinking was strongly associated only with social ideology – economic conservatism or liberalism was mostly unrelated. What’s more, libertarians – who typically side with conservatives in elections – were more similar to liberals, strongly preferring analytical cognitive patterns. Talhelm and the other researchers argued that this was because libertarians and social liberals are very similar when it comes to one important dimension of social life: they tend toward individualism, and distrust the authority of tradition. Social conservatives, on the other hand, tend to value tradition and to see themselves primarily as members of groups.

Again, I offer this not as conclusive proof but as an interesting discussion point. It does however reinforce my belief that libertarians have more in common with liberals that most modern political commentators would imagine. Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

I will repeat a point from my previous essay because it is easy to get carried away in these conversations: I am not arguing against libertarians working with conservatives on the issues we agree on. There is plenty of important work to be done in those areas. What I am arguing for, and what the cited studies support, is that there are equally valuable opportunities to work with liberal communities. We share qualities not just in terms of policy but in deep psychological similarities.

There may be ways to draw similarities between conservatives and libertarians, but I do not see anything that could draw some deep individualistic connection between the two camps. Conservatism by its very nature has no fixed definition; it shifts over time depending on context. Conservatism is fundamentally a matter of valuing tradition and institutions, and the conservative political alignment will shift depending on what those institutions are. In the 19th century classical liberals and libertarians were the enemies of conservatives defending the status quo. Murray Rothbard made this point in a direct letter to Frank Meyer, defining a historical conservative as: “Someone who identifies himself with the historical Conservative parties of the 19th Century in Europe. In that case, it means to identify oneself with authoritarianism and hatred of individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism. The Prussian Conservative Party was formed to block emancipation of the serfs, and to maintain protective tariffs; the Conservative Party in England imposed Corn Laws and Factory Acts, and crushed Ireland.”

If we take a longer view of history, we may very well find ourselves looking back at fusionism 100 years from now as a quaint historical accident. There is nothing about conservatism that fundamentally aligns it with the libertarian values of individualism, freedom, equality before the law, free exchange, and peace. The libertarian movement should continue to grow beyond the recent historical anomaly that is fusionism. We have just as much to gain by working with the left as with the right. We have the unique ability to place ourselves in the radical center of political discourse, reaching out to both sides equally, pulling young people from both to build our uniquely libertarian movement and a freer future for all.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The State of the Debate by Jacqueline Otto

    Jacqueline Otto emphasizes that libertarians and conservatives share the goal of a more market-oriented economic system. That system can be ours, she argues, but only if we work together. As a result, she criticizes what she calls “the practice of keeping separate encampments.” She stresses the individualist and voluntary character of the Christian faith, which she sees as a proper complement to a market order. She warns that should we fail to emphasize the morality of capitalism, those on the religious left will be happy to dismantle it for us.

Response Essays

  • An Unequal Treaty by Jeremy Kolassa

    Jeremy Kolassa argues that fusion with traditional American conservatism has failed. The divide on social issues is simply too deep. Even in economics, conservatives have tended to be pro-business rather than pro-market. When voters see special favors for corporations being touted as free-market solutions, they lose interest in markets as a policy. That makes market advocates’ jobs so much harder. The unequal treaty needs to end, and libertarians need to assert an independent political identity.

  • The Death of Fusionism by Clark Ruper

    Clark Ruper reviews the history of fusionism, including the growth of independent libertarian institutions that don’t have to depend on the conservative movement anymore. Young people nowadays aren’t moving left, he argues. They are simply moving away from conservatism. The fusionist project is dead, and conservatives killed it.

  • Avoiding Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society by Jordan Ballor

    Jordan Ballor argues that the libertarian exaltation of political liberty is dangerous: By privileging the power of the state, this worldview both gives the state too much importance and also undervalues the independent institutions of civil society. In reality, these institutions are bulwarks against the state. They represent the happy medium between atomistic individualism and Rousseauan collectivism. He ends with a plea for Burkean conservatism as the best way of constraining the statist/collectivist impulse.

The Conversation