In Search of Augustinian Fusionism

A piece by Gerard N. Casey, “Can Conservatives Be Libertarians?” saliently addresses a number of the questions raised in this issue’s initial round of essays as well as the follow-up conversation. Casey argues that it is significant that “A libertarian may choose to be a libertine, but there is nothing in libertarianism to constrain him to be one.” This gets essentially at the conservative critique of what is perceived to be the libertarian view of liberty as man’s highest end as such. Casey provides some answer to that from Murray Rothbard, “whose credentials as a libertarian none can doubt.” Rothbard once “remarked that ‘Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life,’ and he agreed with Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘freedom is the highest political end, not the highest end of man per se.’” Casey goes on to make an important distinction between what I call libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view: “Misunderstandings can arise from a failure to recognize the severely limited ethical scope of libertarianism. It is not intended to be, nor is it, a complete ethical system; it is rather an overarching constraint on any such system. Libertarianism does not imply that all modes of conduct are equally valuable or have equal merit.”

So do conservatives and libertarians actually agree on the place of liberty in the political order? No, there is still some disagreement, and in fact, it would seem, fundamental disagreement. On Casey’s construal, liberty is the “most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible to moral evaluation at all.” In this way, for a libertarian freedom is the “hard core” not only of moral action but of social life itself. The conservative, by contrast, values liberty, but only instrumentally: “The conservative values order and virtue above all else, while liberty is only one value among others and is in no way preeminent.” This roughly corresponds in a more nuanced fashion to Jeremy Kolassa’s distinction between the ultimate values of justice and liberty corresponding to the norms for conservatives and libertarians, respectively.

We may have clarified a real point of disagreement between conservatives and libertarians in their relative valuation of liberty. Is there still hope for some kind of fusionism, however limited? Casey seems to think so, although he points out that “While on some issues there are factual overlaps between the two schools of thought, especially in the area of trade, business and economics, in other areas conservatism and libertarianism diverge sharply.” He goes on to explain why he thinks libertarianism is the preferable starting point

But I would like to point to an older source as an example of how to see a possible fusion, however limited, temporary, and temporal, between conflicting visions of society and the highest good. Saint Augustine, a major influence on the development of theology and political thought in the Christian West, addressed something like this in his City of God. He outlines the two cities, of God and Man, as having different norms or highest loves, corresponding to the eternal peace of the celestial city and the temporal order of the earthly city, respectively.

At a critical point in Augustine’s argument, he takes up the definition of a people or society provided by Scipio in Cicero’s De Republica. He concludes that according to Scipio’s definition of “a republic as the weal of the people,” then “there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s weal was never attained among the Romans.” The conclusion follows:

Thus, where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no weal of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people.  Consequently, if the republic is the weal of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice.

Where there is no common good to be agreed upon, or “common acknowledgment of right,” there is no people in the sense that Scipio and Cicero uses the term. We might make the same judgment, mutatis mutandis, to the American republic today.

Augustine moves on, however, to provide an alternative definition of a people that would allow his analysis to move forward: “But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.” From this Augustine bases his distinction between the two cities and their two objects of supreme love, either God or themselves. And yet for Augustine, that does not mean that there are necessarily two actually different societies or polities manifest in the civil order. Despite their different loves and basic orientations, the residents of the city of God and the city of Man live together in a single polity. Augustine recognizes the value, then, of “the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.” The citizenries of the two cities use this same peace for different ends, but the peace is still common to both:

But the families which do not live by faith seek their peace in the earthly advantages of this life; while the families which live by faith look for those eternal blessings which are promised, and use as pilgrims such advantages of time and of earth as do not fascinate and divert them from God, but rather aid them to endure with greater ease, and to keep down the number of those burdens of the corruptible body which weigh upon the soul.  Thus the things necessary for this mortal life are used by both kinds of men and families alike, but each has its own peculiar and widely different aim in using them.

Perhaps we may make a similar move with regard to conservatives and libertarians today. They do not share the same highest love, perhaps, and in this way might be regarded as two distinct peoples in some sense. But even so, they must live together in temporal peace, even if they make use of these temporal goods for different purposes. Augustine goes on to summarize this temporal peace as involving those things “such as we can enjoy in this life from health and safety and human fellowship, and all things needful for the preservation and recovery of this peace, such as the objects which are accommodated to our outward senses, light, night, the air, and waters suitable for us, and everything the body requires to sustain, shelter, heal, or beautify it.”

These temporal goods are then the things that we can emphasize in common and agitate for in our political advocacy, and they remain the most fruitful areas of possible fusion between conservatives and libertarians today.

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.