Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Taking stock

I mentioned in a previous post that now might be a time to begin staking stock of what WFB hath wrought, above all the so-called three-legged stool that is the consequence of the melding of libertarianism, traditionalism, and Cold War anti-communism that took place under his sophisticated, genial, and nonetheless tough-minded aegis in the 1950s.

Here’s a question that I hope will provoke an interesting and fruitful discussion: is "liberty" a means or an end for conservatives?

It strikes me that the three legs can be understood in the following way: libertarians think that individual liberty is the end and that virtue might be a means. National security conservatives think that the country’s liberty is the end and that virtue (understood above all as patriotism) might be the means. Traditionalists think that virtue is the end and that liberty of a sort (let’s call it "ancient liberty") is the means.

Needless to say, there are different conceptions of liberty (and of virtue) at work here. Libertarianism is thoroughly "modern," owing everything, including its conception of virtue, to the thought of philosophers like Locke and Montequieu.

National security conservatism has ancient and modern aspects. On the one hand, to the degree that it emphasizes what might be called "republican liberty," it owes a good bit to ancients like Cicero and Livy. On the other, to the degree that it emphasizes national security, it owes more to Machiavelli’s reinterpretation of those ancient sources. In the latter case, virtue is understood as instrumental and contingent, defined largely in terms of what works to protect national security. In the former, there are times when the price to be paid for success--in terms of virtue--is too high. Republican honor conditions the pursuit of success and security.

With certain caveats, "virtue conservatism" is most akin to the ancients. Republican liberty is understood as the means of producing virtuous human beings, but republican liberty leaves a good deal of room for a political order (polis or res publica) that is very "intrusive" in forming the character of its citizens. The central concern of political life is moral education that upholds and inculcates principles and practices derived from a moral order understood to be natural.

I can see how having common adversaries--domestically or internationally--could bring these strands together. But the common cause would, needless to say, only mask tensions that would otherwise come to the surface. And these tensions have to do with the most crucial question--the end or goal of political life.

I can also see two sorts of "natural alliances" among these three strands. The partisans of "modern liberty" (libertarians and national security conservatives of a certain sort) can make common cause in recognizing--at least on a practical level--that "national greatness" maximizes individual liberty. Or the partisans of "ancient liberty" (moral conservatives and national security conservatives of a certain sort) can find common ground in their adherence to republican liberty, with patriotic virtue as a central concern.

In the former case, traditionalists would be on the outside looking in, unable to find much support for their cultural concerns and hoping that merely private institutions could do the necessary work without much public support and perhaps in the face of a good deal of public and cultural opposition. In the latter case, libertarians would be compelled to make the prudential case that freedom and "choice" are the most solid grounds of republican virtue and republican liberty. Or they could join the opposition, looking to a certain sort of state-guaranteed prosperity as the best ground for an individual’s freedom to do as he pleases.

So I ask, where do we stand? Am I right about this?

Discussions - 12 Comments


libertarians think that individual liberty is the end and that virtue might be a means

Of course this is a nonsensical belief. Individual liberty cannot be an end. Liberty is an absence of constraints. It is not a thing but the absence of a thing. Something must and will fill that vacuum, which is why there never has been and never will be a libertarian society. The term is an oxymoron, given that the very definition of a society is that it imposes some beliefs on it's members. Freedom is a solvent, not a precipitate.

Libertarianism is thoroughly "modern," owing everything, including its conception of virtue, to the thought of philosophers like Locke and Montequieu.

Nope. The founder of modern libertarianism was John Stuart Mill. They like to regard themselves as being "classical liberals" but the typical English liberal of the 18th and 19th centuries would be shocked and amazed at their modern descendants. Adam Smith was a classical liberal and there is no question that if alive today he'd write for National Review rather than Reason.

Nice cogent analysis!!

Practically, I wonder where the Big Business, or perhaps better described as the "the business of America is Business" folks fit in. In today’s political environment, they tend to fall with the above 3 groups, and I believe they have the most similarity with the libertarians. However sometimes they also superficially resemble the traditionalists as they don't mind a little intrusion here and there. However it is always to their own gain, not to any real virtue.

If only your analysis had anything to do with what really motivates the leadership of the GOP, as the Big Business interests trump these 3 strains of "conservative" each and every time (well, 99 out of a 100). At times it seems that the "National security" conservatives seem to be important in the GOP (think Cheney), but only if their ends don't conflict with "The business of America is Business" folks...

Mill certainly didn't believe that liberty was an end in itself; it was merely instrumental to the larger goal of human flourishing. I suspect that most libertarians, if pressed, would probably agree.


How is human flourishing understood? Is it connected with free self-expression or with the cultivation of a distinctive and determinate "human nature"?

liberty leaves a good deal of room for a political order (polis or res publica) that is very "intrusive" in forming the character of its citizens.

The same is true of liberal liberty, libertarian liberty, communist liberty, and Islamic liberty. The goal of any society is to produce people who think and act in a certain way. The products of Americas schools think the way they do because that is what they have been thought.

In other words, everyone throws the word "liberty" around as if they know what it means. But they don't. What it means in practice is "Everyone should be free to behave as I think they should behave, and not free to behave otherwise."

is "liberty" a means or an end for conservatives?

Or both?

The end of liberty should be to maximize the potential for each individual to engage in whatever behavior or actions provide them the most "happiness", as defined by each individual.

The only end of political society and government should be to make sure that individuals, in pursuit of this happiness, do not violate another person's right to their own "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."

Interesting discussion. I have been thinking a lot about the three legged stool analogy recently. I think it was the Cold War anti-communism aspect of the three legged stool that warped the modern conservative movement. Defense and security is conservative only to the extent that it is needed to defend against actual threats. If there is an actual enemy then a strong defense is clearly protective and helps "conserve" the society from invasion, exploitation, etc. But if there is no actual threat or the threat is small and manageable, a strong defense is just an invitation to mischief and potentially disruptive. (Historically, before modern times when we have to pretend otherwise, large armies were always assumed to be for the purpose of conquest. Think Sparta. Think Rome. Think Napoleon. What historical society maintained a large army for the purpose of defense?)

Even during the height of the Cold War, the actual threat to America was greatly exaggerated. Soviet desire to spread its influence around the globe was not necessarily exaggerated, but her means to do so probably was. And the actual Soviet threat to America certainly was. (Had the conservatives believed their own free-market rhetoric they would have realized that Soviet Communism was unsustainable.)

Also, there was never anything conservative about America taking on the role of defender of the free-world.

Today, militarism and "defense" against "enemies" have become ends unto themselves. There was no peace dividend because three legged stool conservatism had become almost psychologically incapable of not having an enemy. That is why the right has worked so hard to exaggerate any threats that are there. Of course we have to worry about the "Islamofascists" lurking under every bed, but we also need to fret about the Russians and the Chinese? It never ends. For people bound and determined to have an enemy, one can always be conjured up.

In the face of a real threat, everyone would agree that defense at least temporarily trumps liberty and virtue and is a conservative force. What good is either if the society no longer exists. But it is all a destructive charade if the threat is exaggerated. The three legged stool of the post-war conservative movement was not well balanced. The defense leg was the size of a tree trunk and the other two legs were like twigs. Even WFB admitted this. The post-war movement had to come to terms with the New Deal, etc. in the name of fighting international Communism.

So I guess what I am saying is that I object to the three legged stool analogy. It may describe what actually existed, but it does not describe a coherent thing. Absent a real threat, defense is an incidental issue. A means. Not a core good in and of itself.

To the degree that there is some connection between an actual concern for security and defense and "national greatness" and a felt need to defend and advance liberty beyond our legitimate sphere, then I would suggest that is not conservatism at all.

Thank you for the libertarian perspective, "Interested". But why should that be?

Brilliant analysis. I think by framing the tension between the "three legs" based on their perceived relationship between virtue and liberty you've hit upon a theme that is often overlooked.

You should expand this idea into an article.

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