The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 2): Libertarian Freedom and the Need to Reclaim a Conservative Understanding
Previous Post: The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 1)
On the outset it may seem like heresy to even suggest that conservatives should reexamine their stance on freedom. What is American conservatism, after all, if not the defense of freedom itself? From the early days of the conservative movement to talking points and media output today, numerous leaders have sought to define American conservatism almost entirely if not expressly on the basis of freedom. Was it not for freedom’s sake that the founding fathers took up the struggle to establish a government independent of England? And should we not labor in defense of that same freedom as we judge the policies of American politicians today? To be conservative in America today is to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, and to be an unabashed defender of American freedom as the elixir to society's ills.
Problems arise, however, when one delves beyond rhetoric and asks what freedom truly means. This is because political freedom has been claimed as the central ideal of not only conservatives but also as that of an alternative political group known as libertarians. As I shall show, the freedom which libertarians defend is actually far more abstract than that which classical conservatives have upheld. Nonetheless, the present sharing of values under the same name of freedom causes tremendous ideological confusion in the American political landscape today.
This is because it is libertarians rather than conservatives who have done the most to build a working philosophical framework around freedom. It is libertarians who have taken conservatives’ love of freedom to what they argue is its logical extent and have applied it to as many situations as possible. And it is libertarians who claim cradle-to-grave consistency in their politics while many conservatives struggle in a seemingly endless and hypocritical maze of applying freedom in some situations and not others.
Libertarians going back to F. A. Hayek have even done much to define freedom in the way it is most often understood today – as a negative concept in the sense that it involves the absence of a particular obstacle. For Hayek and many libertarians, the particular obstacle which prevents freedom is known as coercion, defined as force utilized against an individual by another person, government, or system of control. Freedom is thus limited in any situation in which an individual is forced to act according to the plans or ends that are not of his or her own choice. The task that libertarians seek to accomplish is to limit coercion as much as possible while permitting a strictly limited use of government force. This force, they argue, is merely for safety’s sake and must be restrained along generally prescribed rules.
With government thus limited, libertarians claim that the value of negative freedom may be realized. It consists, however, neither in the satisfaction of material wants nor desires, and not even in a possible benefit to the present majority. As Hayek explains in The Constitution of Liberty, “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad (p28).” Freedom is thus the prerequisite for civilization’s progress in the libertarian view despite whatever violence or unpleasant forces it may unleash in the short term. Libertarians argue that the presence of negative byproducts do not counteract the validity of the claim that freedom is the proper context in which the forces of individual experimentation, imitation, and education may flourish and spur societal evolution. It is thus individualism which lies at the heart of libertarian philosophy, the belief that a healthy society needs nothing more than to do as Frederic Bastiat argued many years earlier and “…leave people alone.”
The obvious and logical question that results from this state of affairs is whether or not this definition of freedom holds true for conservatives as well. If it does, and if the value of such freedom is worth defending, then why don’t conservatives share libertarians’ complete devotion to freedom? Why are there even separate conservative and libertarian movements at all? Why not fold all freedom-lovers into the same group, and thus become both more ideologically consistent and formidable against the planners, collectivists, and anti-individualists which Hayek vehemently opposes?
It is in relation to these questions that Edmund Burke, whose understanding of freedom I will review in the next part of this series, may help us most.
 Bastiat, Frederic. The Law. p75.
Next Post: The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 3)
To learn more about The Burkean Conservative and subscribe to our newsletter check out our Connect page!