August 19, 2004

I'm a neolibertarian

Kenneth Silber has an interesting piece over at TCS in which he proposes a new word to describe libertarian leaning conservatives--fusionists:

Fusionism is the idea, named and developed decades ago by Frank Meyer of National Review, that conservatism and libertarianism share a common agenda. Thus, the fusionist believes that conservatives and libertarians ought to be allies -- and indeed that their respective philosophies are largely or essentially combinable into a coherent body of thought.
John Henke, over at QandO, agrees with the general gist of Silber's article but prefers the term neolibertarian over the awkward sounding fusionist.

Might I second the motion for neolibertarian? The term flows better than fusionist, which makes me think of the music of Kenny-G or Chuck Mangione more than any thing else.

Other than the problem of coming up with a new term to describe the right-libertarian phenomenon, I wholeheartedly agree with John Henke and Ken Silber. In fact, the term neolibertarian describes most right-leaning bloggers much more accurately than does the term 'conservative'.

I have actually been thinking of this for awhile, musing with the philisophical implications of libertarianism and conservatism in a few e-mail exchanges with the Demosophist. Is it philisophically possible to be both? George Will thinks not:

Columnist George F. Will once wrote that people calling themselves libertarian conservatives have embraced "a label a bit like 'promiscuous celibates.'"
But I disagree with Mr. Will on several fronts. First, George Will is a Burkean conservative. Burke, as you may recall from political philosophy, was most famous for his simultaneous defense of the American Revolution and his condemnation of the French Revolution. The key difference to Burke was the fact that the American Revolution had the limited goal of changing who ruled (that is, it preserved the basic institutions of civil society and government that existed prior to the Revolution in the colonies) whereas the French Revolution was a revolution in the complete sense of the word. It sought to change all levels of social order in France--from the Monarchy all the way to the distribution of property. The French Revolution was dangerous, in Burke's assessment, because it overturned social institutions which represented the accumulated wisdom of the ages. When one suddenly releases humanity from constraints, anarchy will inevitably follow.

But Burke's ideas about anarchy flowing from revolution are based upon an assumption. There seems to be an epistemological assumption that people cannot know for a certan the consequences of their actions, especially at the social level. In other words, the French Revolutionists seemed to think, like Plato before them, that philosophy could impose a rational order on society. Hence, to Burke, true knowledge was not something that was gained by philosophers, but rather was gained through trial and error and incremental adjustments. This is not necessarily in contradiction to libertarianism.

F. A. Hayek was definitely a proponent of this same epistemelogical framework. This is one of the main reasons that libertarians oppose government regulations. Government regulations reflect expert opinions, not trial and error reflected in custom. To both the libertarian and the conservative, the notion that a panel of experts could ever have enough information to rationalize the flow of goods and services is utter nonsense. And to both, the notion that governments ought to impose a reordered social hierarchy is dangerous. I believe George Will is just dead wrong here.

Second, George Will seems to think that libertarians wish to overthrow the current social order. This is not necessarily the case. Libertarians want less government, especially at the Federal level, but government does is not the same thing as society. We do not wish for a wholesale revolution. Our goal is not to change society, but to let society evolve naturally--without the artificial constraints of conservatism or the social engineering of liberalism.

Last, Burke's conservative ideal is less about a particular direction for change, as it is about the need for change to come in increments rather than wholecloth. If my reading of Burke is correct, than conservatism is less a philosphy of ends and more a philosophy of means. Under this reading, it would be possible to be both a Burkean and a liberal. Why? Because the Burkean liberal would want to change society in a certain direction--only more slowly than a radical liberal. The Burkean libertarian wants individuals to be more free, but undestand the need to make slow adjustments over time.

To this end, neolibertarians (if I can use the word) would like to see much of the Libertarian party's platform enacted (with the exception of their foreign policy). That is, we believe in the ends (mostly) as advocated by libertarians. On the other hand, we do not necessarily agree with the means of implementing those ends. We would like to see an end to Social Security--but are also cogent of the fact that millions of Americans were made certain promises that are obligitory. We would like to see an end to income taxes--but are quite happy with less as a stepping stone in that direction.

For this reason, many libertarians--myself included--will vote for George Bush. We see much stronger ideological ties with the Republican party than we do with the Democrats. Being pragmatic, we do not expect radical or rapid change all at once, nor would we welcome it. Indeed, if you look closely at the rhetoric of the Republican party you would find that libertarians are not that different.

Neolibertarians criticize Republicans because they don't do what they say they are going to do--even when it is a minor move toward the libertarian ideal. For this reason, we feel uncomfortable being associated with that party. If Republicans were only half as heartless as they are made out to be in the media I think a whole bunch of us would jump on board the party bandwagon with both feet.

Neloibertarians criticize Democrats because far too often they do the things they say they are going to do. Republicans we are annoyed with, Democrats we fear.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 12:33 PM | Comments |