TCS Daily


The Political Right's Separation Anxiety

By Matthew Sinclair - April 3, 2007 12:00 AM

The libertarian-conservative alliance is undergoing significant strain of late. Some libertarians and American liberals are arguing for attempts to forge a new coalition. "Liberaltarian" is the clunky title of the proposed new coalition. In Britain such libertarian discontent is muted by the relatively socially liberal attitudes of most conservatives in a country where religious expression is more muted. Despite this, the increasingly moderate and incremental change proposed by the Conservative Party frustrates many libertarians. At the fringes this is causing movement to minor parties which could become significant in the years to come. In this piece I will argue that the classical liberal-conservative alliance is essential to overcoming the paradoxes in each individual movement and should be renewed.

The economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote for Cato Unbound about the paradox in the political fortunes of libertarians. Their movement, both in the US and the UK, has had enormous success over the last three decades. The idea of nationalising industries has been abandoned even by the British Labour Party. Inflation has been controlled. No one proposes state-granted monopolies as an effective policy tool beyond the tried and tested mechanism of patents.

Libertarians played a direct role in these changes through the influence of think tanks like the IEA in Britain on the long period of Conservative government. A similar but more complex process took place in the US.

However, all this success gave the electorate the product of successful economies and thus public money to spend. Without the prospect of recession or economic decline they chose to spend it on the, now more efficient, public services. Increasing funds and an increasingly efficient state are the great returns to libertarian politics, as Cowen points out; but they are also the downfall of the movement as they make a larger state more plausible.

Cowen's recommended response to this problem is that libertarians focus on new risks to personal autonomy other than the state. These include nuclear proliferation and environmental degradation. Unfortunately this sounds like something close to disbandment for the libertarian movement as there is no clear consistent libertarian response to these threats.

Kieron O'Hara's book "After Blair" was recently published in a second edition thanks to the election of David Cameron and the adoption of nearly all the first edition's recommendations by the Conservative Party. His book sets Cameron's politics in perspective as part of a long conservative philosophical tradition of sceptical moderation handed down from old thinkers like Montaigne and Burke (Oakeshottian conservatism is probably the closest approximation of O'Hara's position in the American debate). Essentially, he argues that Cameron can succeed through a conservative approach of accepting Britain as he finds it, attempting to ensure institutional stability and incremental change in problematic areas. This will be both popular with the electorate, as voters seek to see the changes made by Labour put into practice with steady competence, and good for the country as more radical change would challenge down trust and efficiency.

O'Hara's programme initially looks plausible. But a pure conservatism like this contains a paradox as painful as that Cowen outlines for the libertarians. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in the essay "Why I am Not a Conservative" it has "invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing." O'Hara's vision for the Conservative Party as a force for stability would imply accepting that all the moving will be done by the Labour Party according to their objectives and vision for the future. This is clearly not acceptable to most right-wingers. The paradox at the heart of pure conservatism is that, thanks to its scepticism of the power of rational understanding, it concedes the future to the judgements and objectives of other, less humble, men.

The means to escape Cowen's paradox of libertarianism is uncertain as it is a relatively new phenomenon. Classical liberalism is, of course, an old doctrine but modern libertarianism is distinctive and the electorate it faces is quite different. Conservatism is the solution.

Libertarians should always be impatient, always desirous of doing more to increase liberty. This means that, even during times of plenty when the dice are loaded against them, they will focus on attempting to win the argument about the direction of change. Conservatives thrive on a successful order which they can appreciate and whose stability they can credibly argue that the public should value. In this way, when the paradox of classical liberalism bites, conservatives can step in and make a case for stability and incremental right-wing progress which is more in tune with good times. Libertarianism is politically persuasive when an electorate faces a serious chance of penury and is willing to take radical steps to ensure future prosperity. Conservatism is more appealing when people are relatively happy with what they have and are afraid of losing it to radical change.

The conservative paradox is a problem with a great variety of solutions as it can be solved by combining conservatism with a belief in some other doctrine. Many choose religious values and this appears to work well enough for them in providing foundations to their conservatism. However, the irreligious or those with a vague and apolitical religion are too large a group for conservatism to not have some foundation on hand for them. This is particularly true in a country like Britain with much lower levels of religious observance. Another approach is to enshrine particular institutions such as an originalist understanding of the American constitution or the British mixed constitution. This avoids the problem of a slow movement away from its position but sacrifices any ability to move with the times. Is it really sensible to credit mortal men like the Framers with such an infallible understanding of truths not just for now but forever? Other prospective values to combine with conservatism suffer from similar problems, many of which O'Hara details as part of his case for a pure conservative strain.

The best match for conservatism is classical liberalism. Of course, both Britain and America have a long tradition of classical liberalism which a conservative should respect. O'Hara recognises that, but there are deeper reasons for conservatives to appreciate classical liberalism. At one point O'Hara asks why a conservative should believe that individuals, if offered choice in education, will do a good job choosing. The answer is that, while conservatism is based around scepticism of the capacity of rationality, all information should not be treated equally sceptically. Grand political decision making relies upon information which is impersonal and large scale which reduces its grasp on intangible information and generalises out detail. Classical liberalism removes decision making from the political sphere and moves it towards those with a direct involvement in particular issues. This has to be preferable for conservatives with a distrust of our ability to understand truth on a grand scale. In this way liberalism can provide conservatism with a fine alternative to the vision for the future of its opponents. It can also provide an idea of what to do when a society is in trouble and needs real change instead of stability. Conservatives should trust business, families and individuals over politics.

Thus conservatism can strengthen liberalism by defending its gains in times of plenty. In return, classical liberals can give direction to conservatism and offer it prescriptions in hard times. For this co-operation to work the right-wing movement needs to do two things. First, libertarians and conservatives need to recognise that their movements are quite compatible and be understanding when we frustrate each other. When libertarians cry "faster" or conservatives "slow down" we should understand that sometimes it is necessary that we not get what we want. Second, they need to get better at shifting the emphasis between the two movements as conditions change. There is a strong case -- the central theme of O'Hara's book -- that the Conservative Party has suffered since Thatcher as it has not shifted its emphasis to the conservatism which might be more persuasive in a time of relative prosperity. In much the same way the Conservative Party stuck to its conservatism for too long at the beginning of the twentieth century, attempting to hold the British state constant while everything else changed.

Differences over social policy are real and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. However, libertarians should reflect that one of the main objectives of a conservative social policy is to avoid dependency on the state. Equally, conservatives should acknowledge that changes in social attitudes are making the libertarian position more popular on a growing number of non-economic issues. If all this is accepted then the compromise might become less galling.

Alone the libertarian and conservative movements are chronically vulnerable to the paradoxes that can undermine their success. By accepting the compromises that come with working together, the alliance can achieve so much more.

Matthew Sinclair is author of the blog Sinclair's Musings


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