Are Historical Arguments Un-Libertarian?

Clark Ruper provides an excellent overview of the recent history of fusionism and includes an argument about the historical significance of the opportunity to advance liberty among the young today: “We are witnessing the maturation of the most libertarian generation in recent memory.” Jacque Otto grounds much of her reflection on the Christian moral tradition.

I’d like to juxtapose some of this historical sensibility with a claim Jeremy Kolassa makes in his attempts to distinguish conservatism and libertarianism. Kolassa writes that “libertarianism is about liberty, specifically individual liberty. Conservatism, on the other hand, is about conserving as much of the past as possible, and having as little change as possible. Libertarians are excited about the future and the changes that await us, in technology, society, culture, and in many different fields. Conservatives, on the other hand, just shudder. Libertarians love freedom. Conservatives love tradition.”

What should we make of attempts by libertarians to find some historical grounding for their views? Consider as just one example, Rothbard’s An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought and specific claims about the seventeenth-century School of Salamanca. And of course Lord Acton has been dubbed the “historian of liberty.”

Are such historical arguments a form of appeal to “tradition” that are by definition (Kolassa’s at least) more conservative than libertarian?

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.