Avoiding Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society

It’s my honor to round out the initial panel of essays on the worthy topic of libertarian and conservative fusionism today. We have, I believe, in the first three pieces by Jacqueline Otto, Jeremy Kolassa, and Clark Ruper, excellent representations of both the centripetal and the centrifugal forces at play in the fusionist project, which ultimately turn on different conceptions of liberty itself. Ruper’s essay in particular helpfully contextualizes the historical backgrounds for the contemporary fusionist debate. Otto articulates in impressive fashion the moral, and specifically religious, and even more specifically Christian, foundations for the free society. Too many simply dismiss fusionism as chimerical because they view the relationship between religion and liberty as antithetical rather than complementary, and Otto makes a convincing case for their principled connection.

Kolassa, by contrast, is inclined to juxtapose traditional religious morality with liberty. A main task of libertarianism, he says, is “to combat the social conservatism that is dooming the free market.” Ruper makes a similar assessment with regard to demographic trends: “the libertarian elements of conservatism remain popular; the rest has become toxic to young people.” Kolassa paints in broad strokes what “conservatives” and “libertarians” are like and are for and against; his view strikes me as overly simplistic. Neither conservatism nor libertarianism is monolithic, and so it is instructive to see what Kolassa sees as the real key or center of each and judge accordingly. Thus, writes Kolassa, “the individual’s right to rule his or her own life” is “what liberty is about.” By contrast, “conservatives are really just the other side of the progressive coin. Both put the community in charge.”

These characterizations bring to mind Russell Kirk’s dismissal of libertarians as “chirping sectaries.” I do not think Kolassa’s perspective ought to be dismissed, but it is important to recognize that both conservatives and libertarians have their sectaries. To some extent, both Kirk and Kolassa show a penchant for lumping together diverse groups and perspectives under an umbrella like “conservative” or “libertarian” to dismiss the other viewpoint as simply bad. So if libertarianism has its “chirping sectaries,” then conservatism does too. Neither strike me as a fruitful starting point for dialogue, much less the construction of a political project.

Rather than jumping in to debate concrete policy proposals or particular issues that may separate conservatives from libertarians, let’s step back and examine a bit more carefully what points of principle may or may not divide us. Space does not permit a full explication of the philosophical and intellectual foundations of conservatism and libertarianism and their overlap and divergence, so an assertion of the difference will have to suffice. The essays from Otto on the one side and Kolassa and Ruper on the other display two different conceptions of liberty itself. If these views are irreconcilable, then it is hard to see how fusionism can be stable for any significant period of time.

What these differing conceptions of liberty amount to, in my view, is this: one views liberty, particularly political liberty, as an important and yet limited good, while the other views liberty as an end in itself, in fact the highest end of human life itself. The former view of political liberty is primarily that it is an instrumental good that is a necessary condition for the realization of even greater goods in other spheres, like the family, the church, voluntary associations, markets, and so on. The latter view holds liberty in the political realm to be, in some significant sense, the highest expression of human good and a codification of the freedom of choice as a good as such. To put it bluntly, one views liberty as the freedom to do what we ought, while the other views liberty as the freedom to do what we want.

The dynamics between the two perspectives might be helpfully extrapolated from a quote from Lord Acton, who said, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Now if politics were in fact the highest end of human existence, then it would follow that liberty is humankind’s highest end. So a great deal turns on our understanding of that little modifier political as well as our understanding of the term liberty.

And here, I think, we run into a helpful way of discerning the difference between the two views of liberty. One emphasizes the limits and the instrumental value of the political as such. It is a view of liberty that particularly emphasizes the limits of government. This can be contrasted with a kind of libertarianism that places liberty at the center not merely of a political philosophy but indeed at the principled core of an entire world-and-life view. This version of liberty as humanity’s highest end sans modifiers is on display in something like Kolassa’s criticism of Otto’s focus on economics, “as if that were the be-all and end-all of libertarianism. But it is only a part, not the whole.” Indeed, for Kolassa, it seems libertarianism is a comprehensive or totalizing ideology with implications not simply for political order but for all of life.

With the brief space left for this initial foray, and with the caveat that a great deal of what I have already said needs to be unpacked and critically examined in greater detail, I will conclude by moving from the diagnostic to the prescriptive.

First, we need to move beyond monolithic caricatures of what “conservatism” and especially “libertarianism” represent. The series of videos by Nigel Ashford on “Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism” is a good place to start to get a sense of the varieties of what is labeled “libertarianism.” The coherence of these schools is to me an open question, and if it is the case that libertarianism as such is not unified, it seems unrealistic to expect there to be coherent fusion of conservatism and libertarianism. The Bleeding Heart Libertarians, for instance, who aim at the unity of “free markets and social justice,” seem to me to be a particularly intriguing phenomenon in discussions related to fusionism.

Next, while I have cited Kolassa’s claim that conservatism and progressivism are mirror images, flip sides of the same statist coin, I’d like to propose that there’s a real sense in which atomistic or even “rugged” individualism and statist collectivism are actually two sides of the same coin. A core principle for many libertarians, the view that there is nothing between the individual and the state, has arguably done more to permit, if not promote, tyranny, and to undermine true liberty, than pragmatic reliance on state power in pursuit of a particular social agenda.

This returns us to the question of the political and its limits. There is no more effective and indeed principled way to limit the reach of government than to focus not on government but rather on one another. When we turn our eyes away from government and towards our neighbor, we radically limit the scope of political power. We are no longer individuals bound together solely by our relationship to the government. We are, instead, bound to one another, and these associations in turn mediate the influence of government in our lives. When the political is the primary lens through which we view reality, then the victory of statism is inevitable.

We should begin with the importance of non-governmental institutions, including but not limited to the market, as sources of vitality, authority, and liberty. This perspective has much in common with what the economist Arnold Kling has described as “civil societarianism” in contrast to the exaltation of “the independent individual.” A significant older stream of classical liberalism emphasizes the importance of civil society as constituted by mediating structures that limit the government and its influence upon individuals. These institutions are a middle ground not only between the individual and the state, but also between the individualism of an Ayn Rand and the collectivism of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Lord Acton’s definition of liberty as the highest political end was connected with his view that the government’s role in protecting and promoting liberty was “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.”

It’s a view that has also been associated with figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and is consonant, I believe, in large part with conservatives who emphasize the importance of the free market and the liberal order. On this thick view of society—including individuals, institutions of civil society, as well as government—free markets and democracies greatly depend upon virtues and structures that they do not produce themselves. Free societies are dependent upon more than the proper order of economic and political institutions. There is more to life than is captured in the dichotomy between the market and the state on the one hand, or between the individual and the state on the other. Here we might consider thinkers like Michael Novak, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and more recently Yuval Levin.

It’s worth considering, too, the example and wisdom of Edmund Burke, who accepted Adam Smith’s economics as his own, and at the same time held to the vital significance of mediating institutions, his “little platoons,” for the free society. In such a way, conservatives and libertarians may well be able to come to agreement on particular and narrow questions of economics and public policy, and we should seek such opportunities for co-belligerence and cross-fertilization wherever possible. However, I am dubious that there is a possibility to substantively fuse together two different views of liberty, the relationship between the individual and the state, and the importance of politics, without falling into an incoherent “confusionism.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.