Conservatives and Libertarians – How do you spot the difference?


1:04 pm - October 20th 2009

by Unity    


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A little over a week or so ago, John Elledge sparked off a fair degree of consternation in libertarian ranks by making the all too common and, to an extent, understandable mistake of confusing genuine philosophical libertarians with those on the conservative right who’ve co-opted the term ‘libertarian’ as a a pseudo-intellectual fig-leaf for their belief in the merits of tax cuts and an unfettered right to air their bigoted opinions with total impunity.

John’s post prompted an interesting and, at times, heated debate in comments, one that included a rare off-Samizdata appearance by Perry de Havilland, along with a commentary by Bella Gerens (aka Mrs Devil) that’s well worth a look, but what neither provide – and to be fair I doubt that this was Bella’s objective – is a clear and readily digestible exposition of the central difference(s) between a libertarian ( or liberal, for that matter) and a conservative.

With libertarian ideas becoming more and more influential as many of us start to look beyond the established, and in many respects increasingly discredited, political order towards a ‘new politics’ of some description, it strikes me that there’s a need to bottom out this difference if we’re raise the level of debate above that of fighting of who’s most adept at burning straw men and that, in turn, brings me a couple of quotations from two of the great political antagonists of the late 18th Century which, as I see it, articulate exactly the kind of distinction we should be mindful of.

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.” – Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

“Men are qualified for civil liberties in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites: in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity” – Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

You may disagree, but as I see it those two short quotations more than adequately sum up the fundamental difference between the archetypal liberal/libertarian and conservative view of both liberty and, indeed, of human nature.

For Paine, liberty, and the rights and freedoms associated with it, is a universal principle and, as important, indivisible. Liberty is for everyone, irrespective of their station in life or their personal and/or moral character. It is natural right, albeit one that other liberal, and particularly, contractarian thinkers, who were deeply sceptical of the Lockean doctrine of natural rights, were able to derive by other means.

Universalism of this kind is the defining characteristic of classical, enlightenment, liberalism, in which both modern liberalism and libertarianism are, to varying degrees, rooted.

Burke, on the other hand, sets out the classical conservative position on liberty, and by extension on human rights, one that holds that civil liberties, in particular, should be dispensed to general population in to their moral rectitude and personal/collective character.

In the modern political idiom that principle is most frequently to be found in the populist political rhetoric that has more or less defined the public discourse on criminal justice since the introduction of the markedly universalist Human Rights Act. Whenever a contrast is drawn between the presumed ‘rights of victims’ or the ‘rights of law-abiding citizens’ and the ‘rights of criminals/terrorists’ then what you’re seeing is latter-day Burkean conservativism in action – and that is true irrespective of whether the individual invoking this heavily qualified view of liberty is an actual conservative or, as has frequently been the case in recent years, a minister in the current New Labour government.

In fact this is no less true when you find it reflected in Rosa Luxemburg’s famous, and endearingly pithy, critique of the kind of post-revolutionary Bolshevism that would eventually spawn Stalinism.

Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of ‘justice’, but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If ‘freedom’ becomes ‘privilege’, the workings of political freedom are broken.

All of which explains, in part, why many on the left regard Stalin as a conservative rather than a socialist or Marxist.

So, it you’re at all unsure as to how to spot a Tory masquerading as a libertarian, just ask them whether they believe that victims of crime, or just plain old law-abiding citizens have different rights to criminals.

If the answer’s ‘yes’, then you’ve got yourself a Tory (or a cabinet minister).

If the answer’s ‘no’ and they go to explain that both have the same fundamental rights but that the criminal’s freedom to exercise those rights may be legitimately, and temporarily, constrained in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others, then you’ve got yourself a liberal or libertarian.

Simples.

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


A quicker test is “are you talking to this person face to face, or on the internet?”

Bullshit.

This is just part of an obvious campiagn to claim the libertarian space by narrowing the definition. Here’s what a libertarian’s voting record looks like.

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/richard_shepherd/aldridge-brownhills

Um. If you ask someone whether criminals have different rights to victims and they answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and leave it at that, then you’ve found someone either unwilling or unable to think about what the question means.

I think we’ve had this discussion before Unity, and it’s always a worthwhile one (provided we don’t end up in brownshirts and fascists…), but I think you are still arguing that there is such a thing as a conservative philosophy. I’m not so sure that there is. You cite Burke, who is certainly always seen as the arch Conservative philosopher, but almost all of his arguments have been at various times vehemently opposed and strongly supported by the Conservative Party.

(Incidentally, if you cite Burke as the prototypical Conservative philosopher, then you surely cannot view Stalin as a conservative. If Burke had one continual underpinning view it was the importance of a loyal opposition and the need to constrain the power of the executive, whether monarch or mob. It is this view that was largely behind his Reflections… and his (qualified) support for the American revolution (and his views on free trade). If Burke is a conservative then Stalin cannot be.)

As far as I have been able to tell, libertarianism is a philosophy – almost a belief system. Liberalism (in its original sense) is a tendency. What is Conservatism? Well, to quote Herbert Morrison, it’s what a Conservative Goverment does.

Oh, and a classic description of the difference between Paine and Burke is their answer to the question ‘why do we have the right to freedom?’

Paine: Because we are men
Burke: Because we are Englishmen

Somebody say you can’t be a libertarian if you think that immigration/drug use/crime/insert as appropriate should ever be controlled by the state in any way.

Rehearse this argument enough times and you might even be able to convince yourself that people who have taken stands in favour of liberty (e.g. David Davis/Dominic Grieve) are not in fact doing such a thing.

Thank god for a sensible debate on the subject. When I first saw the title I thought ‘here we go again, another attempt to smear those who want to see the state rolled back as Tories’. Fortunately it wasn’t that writer.

I wouldn’t put so much distance between Marx and Stalin though. His earlier writings are quite liberal but the later Marx was quite authoritarian, hence his purge of Bakunin and his associates.

Even as far back as The Communist Manifesto he was claiming the entire transport and communication industries for the state.

Without freedom of speech and freedom of movement, with their associated freedom of association, all other rights go by the wayside.

Not so simples.

At all.

You’ve completely left out the economic dimensions of modern “libertarianism”, it’s concept of self-ownership, property, and the minimal state.

This is significantly different from “conservativsm”, which if it means anything in the sense of an identifiable ideology, does not attach itself to specific precepts or points of principle that are claimed to be timeless and binding (a la libertarian), but acts as a reflexive champion for the status quo in opposition to whatever happens to be most threatening that status quo (via some form of change) at any given time.

Both of these are different from liberalism, which, very roughly, posits that individuals achieve the “good life” when provided with a sphere of non-interference by the state, which acts to preserve their rights not just from others, but from the state itself. Nontheless, the state can have a big role to play in, say, correcting for undeserved inequality through a progressive taxation system (there are all sorts of liberals, mind, and some may disagree with this in important ways; point is, such a position is compatible with liberalism – c.f. John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness – whereas it sure as hell isn’t with libertarianism). (So you are right to say that liberals and libertarians share common roots; both would cite Paine and Locke, for example – but there’s a large distinction between them now, and running glib “liberal/libertarian” off-the-cuff comparisons to “conservatism” is pretty damn misguided).

Also:

In the modern political idiom that principle is most frequently to be found in the populist political rhetoric that has more or less defined the public discourse on criminal justice since the introduction of the markedly universalist Human Rights Act. Whenever a contrast is drawn between the presumed ‘rights of victims’ or the ‘rights of law-abiding citizens’ and the ‘rights of criminals/terrorists’ then what you’re seeing is latter-day Burkean conservativism in action – and that is true irrespective of whether the individual invoking this heavily qualified view of liberty is an actual conservative or, as has frequently been the case in recent years, a minister in the current New Labour government.

No, it has far, far more to do with American communitarianism. There may be an interesting story to tell about the relationship between communitarianism and Burke, but it will be a very complicated one.

Finally, for anyone who’s wondering, the reason lots of libertarians (though far fewer liberals) side with the Tories – who are for the most part, conservatives – is that the Tories are generally for a smaller state and more freedom for the market. Libertarians like this – and like it enough to swallow their (wholly commendable) reservations about Tory moralising on the part of how people live their lives (e.g. obsession with marriage, anti-drug laws, homophobia etc).

Tim J speaks a lot of sense.

(for once 😛 )

‘As far as I have been able to tell, libertarianism is a philosophy – almost a belief system. Liberalism (in its original sense) is a tendency’

Or in modern parlance, a practice.

Or maybe, for those whose libertarianism does not run deep, a performance.

“This is just part of an obvious campiagn to claim the libertarian space”

Wow, space is yours now?

What Paul Sagar says. It’s an astonishing omission to try to tackle what libertarianism represents without linking it to economics and most particularly a conviction in the benefits of a small state.

““This is just part of an obvious campiagn to claim the libertarian space”

Wow, space is yours now?”

He mixeth his Labour with it and thus encloseth the commons.

I suspect that writing a piece discussing the differences between liberalism, libertarianism and conservatism opens up the prospect of attack from all three sides…

His earlier writings are quite liberal but the later Marx was quite authoritarian, hence his purge of Bakunin and his associates.

Marx became increasing authoritarian in outlook, and embittered, after the failure of the June Days Uprising, which he pretty much blamed on the petite bourgeoisie’s lack of support. That very much coloured his later outlook, not least his total abandonment of the petite bourgeoisie as a potential revolutionary vehicle.

As for claiming transport and communications for the state, lets not forget that in Marx’s incomplete but utopian vision the state would ‘wither away’ rather than consolidate its control of society, industry, etc.

Philosophically speaking its, therefore, a little unfair to describe Marx as a ‘statist’ when state-control of industry was only ever intended to be a transitional stage the development of his utopian society, not an end point, as it became in the Soviet Union, China, etc.

That said, what’s perhaps most interesting about his conflict with Bakunin and the anarchist movement is that a priori the logical consequence of the withering away of the post revolutionary worker’s state is utopian anarchism, something that Marx could never quite bring himself to admit.

I’m not attacking from any partisan side, vis-a-vis ideology, but rather from that of a political theorist (currently working in history of political thought).

Sorry, but you can’t just jump into something like this, pick sentence-quotes from Paine and Burke, and claim that they illustrate contemporary political divides. It’s way more complicated than that*.

I’ve written about economics a couple of times, but I do my best to keep it basic and based on what I learned at undergrad, have extrapolated from those who are technically trained in the discipline. I don’t tend to offer grand theories of how to understand the differences between a Keynesian (note how many things that could mean) a Friedmanite (which ecnompasses monetarism, but a lot more) and an Austrian school economist (Mises? Hayek? The others?).

I kind of think it’s a bit, if not presumptuous, then at least dubious, to be offering up expositions of how to think about different ideologies when that exposition commits a number of 101s on what the ideologies under discussion are

* For a start, what about the dominant paradigm in thinking about historical political ideas: that to understand them they must be deeply contextualised and cannot simply be transposed into contemporary debate?

Unity,

re Marx: which period of Marx are you referring to there? Early writings written in response to French socialism and German idealism? Later writings in reply to Scottish political economy?

Because Marx doesn’t clearly hold a doctrine of the withering state in the former, and certainly not in the latter…

14 – entirely agree. It would be like arguing that the modern Tories are profoundly anti-democratic because Burke argues against elected Governments.

Besides, making party political arguments based on late 18th century politics really doesn’t make sense: the party system simply didn’t develop until well into the 19th century. Plus the death of the Liberal party didn’t simply see a transfer of liberalism to the Labour Party – the modern Conservative Party is as much an inheritor of 19th century liberalism as the Labour Party is.

On the other hand, if it makes people go and read Reflections or the Rights of Man then it’s all good…

Sorry, but you can’t just jump into something like this, pick sentence-quotes from Paine and Burke, and claim that they illustrate contemporary political divides. It’s way more complicated than that*.

On the contrary.

What I’ve illustrated here is that libertarianism and conservatism, as philosophical outlooks, are rooted in markedly different views on the nature of liberty, human rights and human nature as a matter of first principle.

From there I’ve argued, quite reasonably, that those perspectives continue to be evident and readily identifiable in contemporary politics and to have some utility in distinguishing between those who view libertarianism as a coherent, overarching, political philosophy and those who are inclined to treat it like the pick’n’mix counter at Woolies and take on board only those elements of it they consider useful.

Because Marx doesn’t clearly hold a doctrine of the withering state in the former, and certainly not in the latter…

You think?

I’m referring to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, here, which was published posthumously by Engels in 1891 but dates to 1875.

If you’ve not come across it directly, you’ll find it referenced by Lenin in Chapter 5 of The State and Revolution.

I think the most important thing this article overlooks is the distinction between the strand of philosophical libertarianism with its roots in the Enlightenment, and the strand of poisonous narcissism which sprang fully armed from the head of Ayn Rand which goes by the same name. The latter being the one you’re most likely to encounter here on Teh Internets…

The means to distinguish the two is fairly simple: does your interlocutor recognise that wealth is, in itself, a form of power? Indeed, does he (and it’s almost always he) recognise (and object to) any form of power other than that of the state?

Surely the difference is in their attitude to private property. Conservatives have a high view of private property but see it as a means to an end – i.e. western civilisation – whereas libertarians view it as an absolute right. The difference is subtle but it is important. Roger Scruton somewhere observes that a conservative government would have no qualms about passing laws to prevent a merchant dumping a cargo of grain in the sea during a scarcity in order to drive up prices. Now I think a libertarian would object to such a law on the grounds that the grain is the merchants property and you cannot interfere with private property. (At this point a libertarian would claim that no rational merchant would do this, which is a fair point, but people do act against their interests from time to time based on short term calculation). Anyway, the point is that a Tory will subordinate the right to private property to the perceived common good because Tories are hostile to absolute rights and to putting theory over practice. There has never been a libertarian government but libertarian theory, as I understand it, makes property right absolute. For my money that would be the key distinctive. If my understanding is correct then Thetford’s finest son cannot be claimed as a libertarian, btw.

14 – entirely agree. It would be like arguing that the modern Tories are profoundly anti-democratic because Burke argues against elected Governments.

No, the argument here is that modern conservatives are highly selective in their espousal of libertarianism and that one should be mindful of this when seeking critique libertarianism on the basis of the banal outpourings of a Tory.

Surely the difference is in their attitude to private property.

Nope – John Locke is unmistakably a key figure in the liberal enlightenment tradition and the development of the doctrine of natural rights, in which he included the right to property.

Whether it be socialism, libertarianism, conservatism or any other ism you can’t find many fundamentalists in real world politics. When it comes to ideology every politician engages in pick and mix – which of course makes much more sense than unswerving devotion to a boilerplate dogma.

I think the most important thing this article overlooks is the distinction between the strand of philosophical libertarianism with its roots in the Enlightenment, and the strand of poisonous narcissism which sprang fully armed from the head of Ayn Rand which goes by the same name. The latter being the one you’re most likely to encounter here on Teh Internets…

I must admit that I’ve never quite seen the appeal of Rand, nor understood quite how readily many of her followers manage to overlook the fact that her formulation of ‘objectivism’ would lead, logically, to totalitarianism.

That said, Rand fetishism is a relatively recent phenomenon, even on the internet where, before the advent of the AOHell generation, her name would rarely if ever crop up in conversation. If anything, Rand’s main appeal is to the kind of Republican who thinks they’re a Libble because they can recite the First Amendment verbatim and own shares in an investment bank.

Most serious Libbies would much rather discuss Rothbard, Hayek and von Mises than get into trying to make sense of Rand.

“If the answer’s ‘no’ and they go to explain that both have the same fundamental rights but that the criminal’s freedom to exercise those rights may be legitimately, and temporarily, constrained in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others, then you’ve got yourself a liberal or libertarian.”

I think neo-cons (in the US or the UK) would wriggle out of this one by definining a “criminal” somewhat arbitrarily – e.g. ‘anyone we suspect of anything, regardless of (lack of) evidence’.

They might still claim to be “liberals”, or “libertarians”, despite practicing detention without trial (or evidence), on the grounds that “the rights and freedoms of others” not to be blown up are absolute.

Of course, this is bollox.
But the definition of ‘criminal’ is important.

26. An actual Libertarian

Oh dear! this article is wildly off the mark.

Although there are differences between libertarians and conservatives, this article misses them. Burkean conservatives with a small ‘c’ do not neccessarily view criminals as having fundamentally different rights as others but (as you said) that the law-breakers liberty may be curbed both for the purposes of protecting the rights of others but also for the purposes of retribution and deterrence. There is no fundamental disagreement on this issue. The greater difference here is between social libertarians and social liberals. The former believe that the state should keep out of the lives of law-abiding citizens, and that people should be able to make their own lifestyle choices without the state’s trying to obstruct them or to absolve them of the consequences, the latter on the hand have no problem with using the coercive power of the state to intervene in civil society to fight what they see as ‘prejudice’. While they have no problem with policing ‘insensitve’ speech they are usually squeamish about punishing real convicted criminals. That is because, being liberals they view crime as being a symptom of poverty and educationonal underachievement etc. rather than deliberate wicked choices.

It is laughable that you equate libertarianism with support for the Human Rights Act, an invention of statist utopians. Both libertarians and conservatives (unlike left-liberals) recognise that Britain and the USA were not free because they had ‘human rights’. They were free because they had limited government, independent juries, a free press, and a tradition among the citizenry of resisting tyranny. By contrast, with the Human Rights Convention one ‘right’ will often turn out to be ‘balanced’ or ‘limited’ by another, so that there is no absolute right to anything. It is also full of words which can ‘interpreted’ by leftist judges or officials, to stop teachers from disciplining unruly pupils, or to allow hijackers and fraudulent asylum cases to enter this country illegally, and claim a ‘right’ to stay. This has nothing to do with libertarianism and has given civil liberty a bad name.

Most serious Libbies would much rather discuss Rothbard, Hayek and von Mises than get into trying to make sense of Rand.

I completely agree… But, if you’re going to discuss libertarianism on the internet, you have to deal with with the Randroids. I’m surprised the flying monkey squad hasn’t arrived already. (Although #26 looks like the advance guard…)

The means to distinguish the two is fairly simple: does your interlocutor recognise that wealth is, in itself, a form of power?

It’s actually pretty easy to show that wealth, in itself, is not a form of power. In a world where two people lived apart on two different islands and never came into contact with each other, it would make perfect sense to say that one was wealthier than the other despite neither having power over the other. Of course this isn’t the world we live in, but the point is that whether or not wealth is a form of power depends on how that wealth is deployed; i.e. wealth is not in itself a form of power.

I’m referring to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, here, which was published posthumously by Engels in 1891 but dates to 1875.

The phrase about the state “withering away” is not Marx, but Engels, a few pages from the end of his pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (which itself started life as the opening sections of his much longer Anti-Dühring, and which subsequently became the most widely-circulated piece of Marxist literature, apart from the Manifesto of the Communist Party).

*** State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It dies out. ***

That “it dies out”, in German, I think, er stirbt an, has often been rendered as “it withers away” in English translation. What Lenin’s trying to do in The State and Revolution is to argue that although Marx and Engels use different language when they talk about the future of the state, their underlying doctrine is the same.

In a world where two people lived apart on two different islands and never came into contact with each other, it would make perfect sense to say that one was wealthier than the other despite neither having power over the other.

Without anyone to exchange with, you may have resources, but not wealth. At least, not in the sense that I meant. Replace it with “money” if it makes you happier.

I’m not very good at this philosophy stuff (I’ll get the joke in myself, shall I? I’m not good at anything….there, carry on) but I’m a little puzzled at the attempt to draw a dividing line between “liberal” and “libertarian”.

OK, I can see the point about the Randroids but then we tend to refer to them as Objectivists rather than either liberals or libertarians.

Other than that I can’t really see a sharp dividing line or a major difference of underlying logic. Perhaps differences of emphasis, perhaps even one being an extreme version of the other.

This does come with the proviso though that we’re using the English meanings of these words. Liberal as in classical liberal, identifiably working from Hume through Smith (maybe Ricardo) to Mill and so on.

Maybe because I’ve lived in the US (and still write over there occasionally) but I tend to see “libertarianism” (as above, excluding the Randroids) as simply the American way of saying “classical liberalism” given the way that “liberal” has a very different meaning over there.

From there I’ve argued, quite reasonably, that those perspectives continue to be evident and readily identifiable in contemporary politics and to have some utility in distinguishing between those who view libertarianism as a coherent, overarching, political philosophy and those who are inclined to treat it like the pick’n’mix counter at Woolies and take on board only those elements of it they consider useful.

The latter being called Conservatives! Ideology should be a servant, not a master…

Paul @ 6

Finally, for anyone who’s wondering, the reason lots of libertarians (though far fewer liberals) side with the Tories – who are for the most part, conservatives – is that the Tories are generally for a smaller state and more freedom for the market. Libertarians like this – and like it enough to swallow their (wholly commendable) reservations about Tory moralising on the part of how people live their lives (e.g. obsession with marriage, anti-drug laws, homophobia etc).

Sorry Paul but you have got this entirely back to front.

Libertarians detest Tories for their nationalism and their authoritarian social conservatism- they do not side with them. Some Tories try to appropriate some parts of libertarian policy to cover the fact that they have no coherent political philosophy of their own.

Small statism and free market economics have to be seen in context with the overall libertarian vision of society- not seized on as a rationale for allowing a few rich people to become even richer.

Nope – John Locke is unmistakably a key figure in the liberal enlightenment tradition and the development of the doctrine of natural rights, in which he included the right to property.

I’m pretty certain that Locke held that it was legitimate for someone who was destitute to steal from the rich on the grounds that his right to life trumped their right to private property. Which I’m pretty sure a hard-core libertarian would not agree with.

Believing in a right to private property doesn’t make you a libertarian. Liberals, tories, christian democrats, social democrats and quite a lot of democratic socialists all believe in a right to private property but none of them regard it as an absolute right in the way that libertarians do. Put it another way – the libertarians are the only one out of the political ideologies that believe in private property to regard the graduated income tax as oppression.

35. Shatterface

‘The means to distinguish the two is fairly simple: does your interlocutor recognise that wealth is, in itself, a form of power? Indeed, does he (and it’s almost always he) recognise (and object to) any form of power other than that of the state?’

And conversely, Marxists often see all power structures as manifestations of economics – at least ‘in the last instance’ – while downplaying civil society, gender, religion, etc.

It’s a one dimensional theory, albiet one that has much which is valuable to say about that dimension.

Tim Worstall:

So if “liberalism” in America is just “classical liberalism” which you (somewhat strangely) associate with Hume, Smith and (less strangely) Mill – though again strangely leaving out Locke – then how come the two most influential “liberals” (or more commonly, “liberal egalitarians”) of the 20th Century are John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, who are anything but “classical liberals”?

As for your claim that liberalism and libertarianism don’t fundamentally differ, how come Robert Nozick – libertarian philosopher par excellence – wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia, a direct attempt to challenge and refute the liberal tome of Rawls, A Theory of Justice? No, it’s much more complicated than that…

Pagar,

I was thinking about Douglas Carswell, Dan Hannan and the like. They sit with the Tories because that’s the only way anywhere near power, and they do so holding their noses, surely?

You yourself, would you not prefer a Tory government to a Labour one, on the grounds that in some minimal or residual sense they are less anithetical to libertarian aims?

I wasn’t saying that all libertarians side with and agree with the Tories (and certainly not on all points). I was explaining why if libertarians found in mainstream politics (i.e. outside the UKLP) are to be found anywhere, then it is often the Tory party. And i stand by that claim, because it looks demonstrably true.

I’m pretty certain that Locke held that it was legitimate for someone who was destitute to steal from the rich on the grounds that his right to life trumped their right to private property. Which I’m pretty sure a hard-core libertarian would not agree with

You simply can’t understand Locke’s theory of property without setting it against the background of his theological conviction that God gave the world in common to man, to be cultivated for the fulfilment of His aims, namely that mankind go forth, prosper, and multiply.

That’s why Locke’s labour-mixing proviso is not stupid, when understood on his terms. It also shows that libertarians who want to appropriate Locke as the root of their tradition regarding property rights and possession need to think very carefully about a) whether they are going to retain Locke’s protestant theology, and b) if not, how on earth they are going to get Locke’s thinking to work without that underlying theology.

“So if “liberalism” in America is just “classical liberalism” which you (somewhat strangely) associate”

Try for a reread there Paul. I am pretty sure that I actually said that “libertarianism” as it is meant by Americans is really just “classical liberalism”.For the word “liberal” in America means something very different from “classical liberalism”.

Unity,

What I’ve illustrated here is that libertarianism and conservatism, as philosophical outlooks, are rooted in markedly different views on the nature of liberty, human rights and human nature as a matter of first principle.

OK I’m going to accept that as a description of the differences between libertarianism and conservatism, that’s tenable. I’m going to point out, however, that in lieu of providing explanations of libertarian conceptions of self-ownership, property rights and the role of the state, you can’t possibly have illustrated this difference.

And you still haven’t accounted for your bizarre coupling-up of liberalism and libertarianism, which – as above – may share common roots but are markedly different now

From there I’ve argued, quite reasonably, that those perspectives continue to be evident and readily identifiable in contemporary politics and to have some utility in distinguishing between those who view libertarianism as a coherent, overarching, political philosophy and those who are inclined to treat it like the pick’n’mix counter at Woolies and take on board only those elements of it they consider useful.

except your entire distinction comes down to a bizarre question about the rights of criminals, extrapolated from one-sentence quotes from Paine and Burke, yet which do not get to anything like the heart of what separates conservatism from libertarianism…or for that matter, the latter from liberalism.

Your OP states that:

“You may disagree, but as I see it those two short quotations more than adequately sum up the fundamental difference between the archetypal liberal/libertarian and conservative view of both liberty and, indeed, of human nature.”

Yet this cannot possibly be true. For a start, the Paine quote gets nowhere near libertarian thoughts about self-ownership, property or the state – and the extreme (sometimes metaphysical) claims that libertarians make to support their views. In turn, this Paine quote looks like a far better starting point for liberalism which, for the umpteenth time, is now a very different thing. As for the Burke quote, that may alude to some sense in which conservatives are often disposed to thinking of liberty as something to be granted only to the “responsible” and is definitely antithetical to the liberal (and in this case, also libertarian) view that individuals exist with rights a priori to the state’s granting them. Yet this is hardly the only thing that defines conservatism, which is characterised more typically as an “ideology” (if it warrants the term; disposition may be better) which exists in opposition to threats to the status quo (thus Burke’s conservatism is a reflexive opposition to the rise of revolutionary forces in Europe and threats against the established systems of class/estate).

To claim that your two quotes go to the heart of what differentiates libertarianism from conservatism is just wrong. The quotes may illustrate some important differences – but far more – and of far more importance – is simply left out of your account.

Tim @ 38,

Yes, granted. Apologies.

Whatever the problem under discussion is, the basic giveaway is whether the proposed solution is based upon

a) Example-based (and intermittently cretinous) policy with reasonably sound proposals for implementation, and a well-considered strategy for selling said solution to the voting public, or

b) Furious denunciation of government generally and wild promises of infinite jam for everyone based on some dead bloke’s highly-contentious dogma.

If you encounter a) you’re definitely talking to a supporter of one of the major parties, and you should prepare yourself for some dipshit Third Way guff with only mild chances of success. If it’s b), you’re talking to a libertarian and you’d better be ready for a lot of condescending waffle about the Christlike wisdom of the markets, backed up with squarely fuck-all proposals for selling the moon on a stick to the public beyond a lot of question-begging and pottymouth blah.

The difference, of course, is that the major parties have to worry about crafting policies that sound reasonable to millions of people and will work within the framework of public services that actually exists in reality. Libertarians have no such concerns, being essentially far too deranged and fractious for public consumption, as their electoral performances on both sides of the Atlantic conclusively prove.

I mean no offence to libertarians in saying this – they are generally correct about Labour’s authoritarian wheezes, although their tendency to launch into the Help, help, I’m being oppressed! routine from Monty Python and the Holy Grail every five minutes is comically unhelpful. I’m generally in agreement with bloggers like Jim Henley or IOZ, but I think it just helps if we’re prepared to call a spade a spade here.

“Libertarians have no such concerns, being essentially far too deranged and fractious for public consumption, as their electoral performances on both sides of the Atlantic conclusively prove.”

That really doesn’t help all that much: for you’re defining libertarians as those inside political parties called “Libertarian”. As far as I’m aware, the UK one has only been running a year hasn’t it?

If we widen the definition a little: would you agree that the Adam Smith Inst are libertarian….or to use as above what I call the English equivalent, classical liberals?

Policies do move from the ASI into mainstream politics: rail privatisation wasn’t one that worked all that well, that has to be admitted, but it did start off there. As did the London Congestion Charge (actually, Alan Walters started it but the ASI was shouting about it for years). For the past few years we’ve been shouting about how appalling it is that the income tax system reaches so far down the income scale. Part timers on minimum wage pay income tax for the Lord’s sake.

So the ASI has been saying that income tax should start at the full time full year minimum wage: around £12 k a year at present. UKIP has adopted this (I think you can guess how that happened) and the Lib Dems have a version don’t they? Even Oxfam has put out a report suggesting very much the same. I think I’ve even seen Polly say it’s a good idea.

I think I’ve even seen Polly say it’s a good idea.

D’oh.

Paul @ 36

I was thinking about Douglas Carswell, Dan Hannan and the like. They sit with the Tories because that’s the only way anywhere near power, and they do so holding their noses, surely?

And with their fingers in their ears if they have any sense.

You yourself, would you not prefer a Tory government to a Labour one, on the grounds that in some minimal or residual sense they are less anithetical to libertarian aims?

Absolutely not. I’d far rather have Benn in charge than Cameron. And I’d have anyone that promised to stop telling me what I have to do.

So the ASI has been saying that income tax should start at the full time full year minimum wage: around £12 k a year at present.

Mr Worstall

You fucker! So when you said to me on this site that having income tax start at 13K was not conceivable (Who is going to pay for it blah, blah) you were doing it for arguments sake? Twat!

OK, we’re talking a grand but I can live with the 12k mark.

As for the OP, good read firstly and for the most part I agree with Unity on his definition.

Libertarians are not a bad lot on the whole – much as hippies are fine and dandy until they want you to join their lifestyle and you see it really isn’t for you. I just see them as a set of people who just want the world to revolve around them and fuck anyone else. But I must admit that this could be because Tories have painted themselves with the same flag too oft and made it look decidedly filthy.

As for the joke in No 2, that isn’t even funny! I cannot see any “real” libertarian voting strongly FOR the Iraq war.

What I do see clouding the whole political philosophical argument is that once in power – or yearning for power – each party have tweaked a little bit in the centre of their philosophy and the vast majority of it they have become the same. This leads to the question of the voter “Who do I vote for because they are, literally, all the same?” Therefore they do not vote.

To me, which is really irrelevant, a Tory is a person/people who still have an agricultural mindset of landed gentry in modern clothing, and a Libertarian is a person who would have the mindset of small towns folk who believe in local farmers and purveyors of goods who live locally.

Absolutely not. I’d far rather have Benn in charge than Cameron.

er, what?

do you know what Benn would do with the state? “Nationalisation” wouldn’t even begin to describe it…

Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think Tony Benn now subscribes to a Stalinist agenda – I’m not sure anyone does.

He would take us out of Afghanistan, scrap Trident and is in favour of curtailing the power of the executive and bringing real democracy to politics. He supports freedom of speech and would be in favour of a Bill of Rights and formalising our constitution. Intellectually he makes Cameron look like a…….whatever I’m allowed to say on this site to describe someone of limited mental capacity.

All in all I’d take my chances.

48. Just Visiting

Unity in this thread:
“You may disagree, but as I see it those two short quotations more than adequately sum up the fundamental difference between the archetypal liberal/libertarian and conservative view of both liberty and, indeed, of human nature.”

Unity in a previous thread:
“That Franklin felt compelled to make that particular remark tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the mindset of organised religion”.

It sometimes can kick off a heated debate I guess – but Unity’s fondness for using Xth century quotations to simplistically and wrongly sum up huge, multi-faceted spheres of knowledge is a thought pattern best avoided. IMHO.

“All of which explains, in part, why many on the left regard Stalin as a conservative rather than a socialist or Marxist.”

And not because having a genocidal maniac on your side is a bit embarrassing for the left.

What was it that Labour politicians used to call him before his denunciation by Kruschev – Uncle Joe?

…you’re defining libertarians as those inside political parties called “Libertarian”.

Damn it, when I have a pop at the libertarians who infest mainstream political parties and do affect the real world, Mr. E ticks me off for ignoring the thoroughbred libertarian ubermenschen of the blogs. When I kick off at the true believers instead, Tim Worstall ticks me off for ignoring the mainstream.

Anybody surprised that there’s confusion? I reckon there’s a lot of simultaneous cake consumption and retention going on here…

“Mr. E ticks me off for ignoring the thoroughbred libertarian ubermenschen of the blogs. When I kick off at the true believers instead, Tim Worstall ticks me off for ignoring the mainstream.”

Well, Sunny did tell Mr. E today that he really ought to differentiate himself from Tim Worstall……

Conservatives tend to believe, with Edmund Burke, that “liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed.”
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke

OTOH Libertarians, I think, tend to follow JS Mill:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” JS Mill: On Liberty
http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html

The difference is that Burke places no explicit restrictions on the extent to which liberty needs to be limited whereas Mill is explicit in laying down the extent of, for him, acceptable limits on the exercise of power to restrict personal actions.

“Liberty, too, must be limited to be possessed.”

Consider the historic legacy: the Tories/Conservatives concluded by the early 19th century that it was necessary to legislate to limit the hours that women and children could be permitted to work in factories for their moral welfare. In other words, as a matter of principle, Conservatives considered that limits to a laissez-faire industrial policy were necessary.
http://www.parliament.uk/about/livingheritage/transformingsociety/19thcentury/overview/factoryact.cfm

Winston Churchill was a minister in a Liberal government when he took through Parliament the Trade Boards Act of 1909, this provided for an administrative structure for determining minimum wages in particular industries. That was certainly inconsistent with laissez-fare but subsequent Conservative governments allowed the legislation to stand until the 1980s.

Conservatives have been particularly prone to support drug wars and restrictions on the sexual activities of consenting adults out of concern for public health, moral welfare and supporting families.

As a fact, Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s spent billions of taxpayers’ money supporting the nationalised coal board, British Leyland and the Rover Group and in grants to attract inward investment to Britain for new manufacturing facilities to make silicon chips, computer printers, TV sets, and wings for Airbus and to persuade Nissan to build a car plant in Sunderland etc etc. That too was not consistent with laissez-faire.

Would JS Mill – or Libertarians – have regarded any of that as acceptable?

Credit for first implementing a national insurance scheme for personal healthcare costs goes not to Britain for creating the NHS in 1948 but to Count Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire.

“The Health Insurance bill . . was passed in 1883. The program was considered the least important from Bismarck’s point of view, and the least politically troublesome. The program was established to provide health care for the largest segment of the German workers. The health service was established on a local basis, with the cost divided between employers and the employed. The employers contributed 1/3rd, while the workers contributed 2/3rds . The minimum payments for medical treatment and Sick Pay for up to 13 weeks were legally fixed.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck

Whatever else, Count Bismarck had no socialist inclinations whatever. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“…on the left regard Stalin as a conservative rather than a socialist or Marxist.”

This is complete tosh.

At present the British left are statists. Stalin & New Labour are just the ugly truth they don’t want to acknowledge.

The British left used to believe in low taxes, and small government. Lets hope they rediscover their roots.

http://www.quarterly-review.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/pond.pdf

55 – “A spectre is haunting the blogosphere – the spectre of Libertarianism.”

What about the spectre of neo-liberalism?

“… you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”

Wait a minute; now I’m confused…

I think Ayn Rand was just the swearblogger of her generation. She saw her home country destroyed by one of the most violent revolutions and human catastrophes the world has ever seen, and feared that the her adoptive country (which she adored) would eventually go the same way. She had more excuse for being angry than any of us! She is a gateway to somewhat more considered approaches to libertarianism, and she is valuable for that.

Good post.

Also agree with Tim J; conservatism can be described as a position, but not a philosophy/ideology because the point of it is only to maintain the status quo; it is the position of the idle (and idle-minded) rich.

“conservatism can be described as a position, but not a philosophy/ideology because the point of it is only to maintain the status quo”

If so, that definition would certainly exclude Mrs Thatcher and her governments – privatisation of state-owned industries was not preserving the status quo, quite the opposite. Try instead:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservatism

Bob B

“People don’t understand Margaret Thatcher because they think she is a Tory, in fact she is a nineteenth century liberal” ~ Milton Friedman

I don’t agree that she governed like a 19th century liberal, but she certainly identified with them.

You’ll see what conservatism is under Cameron: they will be more “progressive”, because that’s the popular position, and they will above all work for the finance industry. No ideology required.

Gandhi, I understand where you are coming from.

Frankly, I doubt Mrs T had any very clear set of political aims beyond wanting to turn the clock back to pre-socialist times. She didn’t share Disraeli’s concerns about social divisions not did she share the interventionist inclinations of 19th century Liberals in Britain, exemplified by, say, Forster’s Education Act:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_Education_Act_1870

The rationale for that legislation to enable state support for primary education was clear enough:

“We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the ‘revolution’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nick] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and ‘Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital’.”
Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61

Milton Freedom’s notions of “liberalism” relate more to the Austrian school of economics than to anything in 19th century Britain where the factory acts were soon regarded as essential by all except by the most dedicated exponents of laissez-faire without any restrictions.

On Mrs Thatcher’s politics, try Simon Jenkins: Thatcher and Sons (Penguin 2006). The fact is that the Thatcher governments of the 1980s were highly interventionist.

She thought she was like Gladstone. Much that could be said about that but I’ll leave it there.

Please don’t call Milton Friedman a libertarian, it upsets me. He’s a dimwit compared to the Austrians.

“Please don’t call Milton Friedman a libertarian”

I didn’t. What I suggested was that Friedman equated 19th century liberalism with the Austrian school of economics. I don’t believe Thatcher identified with Gladstone, except possibly with the length of time he served as PM.

Sir Keith Joseph, her first minister for industry, had toured Britain in the mid 1970s, extolling Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), reminding audiences on how Britain had pioneered industrialisation without state planning or intervention – I went to one of those presentations. When he took up office in May 1979, after the Conservative election victory, he famously circulated a reading list to the senior grades of the civil service in his department, the list headed by The Wealth of Nations.

The trouble with all that was that Sir Keith was soon approving grants to industry, notably to British Leyland, the motor manufacturer, running into hundreds of millions. By the time British Leyland, renamed as the Rover group, was privatised in 1988, £3.3 billions of taxpayers’ money had been put into the company to keep it afloat and finance the production of Honda designed cars – arguably, the best cars that British Leyland ever made.

None of that was anything remotely like the economics of the Austrian school. Some twenty years on, civil servants were still talking about Sir Keith Joseph’s reading list.

Btw I don’t subscribe to any notion that Friedman was rather dim. I’ve had from American economists whom I respect, that he was a fearsome debater in professional forums in America although he was also deeply unpopular among many of his peers. I was told by one that I needed to understand that everything Friedman said or wrote was to promote a particular agenda. Friedman repeatedly upheld Hong Kong as a model of capitalism to emulate:
http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3532186.html

A past colleague – who was married to a young lady from HK and knew much about the place – reminded me that the sale of public land in HK was tightly controlled by the authorities, who also applied strict regulations to control development. In other words, there wasn’t as much laissez-faire in HK as Friedman liked to make out.


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    Good post on Lib Conspiracy, so true "Conservatives and Libertarians – How do you spot the difference?" http://bit.ly/3objsS

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    RT @jasonkitcat Good post on Lib Conspiracy, so true "Conservatives and Libertarians – How do you spot the difference?" http://bit.ly/3objsS

  3. Jason Kitcat

    Good post on Lib Conspiracy, so true "Conservatives and Libertarians – How do you spot the difference?" http://bit.ly/3objsS

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