Can a Libertarian also be a conservative?

David Davis

As readers will recall, this was the title briefed for the Chris R Tame Memorial Prize submissions, requested for the 2009 LA/Libertarian International Conference which took place in London in October. The prize was won by Antoine Clarke, but there were other submissions, one of which I reprint her below by one of our occasional visitors and guest commentators, Peter Watson:-

“Can a Libertarian also be a Conservative?”

For the purposes of answering this question, it is necessary first to define the terms used.  As the question is posed using capital letters for both Libertarian and Conservative, it can be assumed that the words in this context are intended to mean specifically party political allegiances, and therefore the short answer would be “No”, since political allegiance distributed over two parties is meaningless.

Membership of a political party presupposes that the party manifesto and general ethos is such that by and large, the member can realistically lend his support to it.  Traditionally, the Conservative Party has also been “conservative”, in the sense that it has advocated limited authority for central government, and expected the individual citizen to use his own judgement in making such decisions about the direction and conduct of his personal life as are not specifically forbidden by the law of the land.

In the sense that this approach meant a limiting of government authority, the Libertarian would have approved.  But this limitation only worked when there was a general acceptance by the public at large of known and familiar customs and mores, and a commonly agreed view on principles and morality.  If there is self-discipline, there is less need for government to prescribe or to legislate behaviour in specific situations.

But for a considerable time now, the Conservative Party, in common with the two other main parties, has so relaxed the legal framework that has for generations governed personal behaviour that it can scarcely be said today to qualify for the term “conservative”, which implies the maintenance of and support for traditional, time honoured, tried and tested mores and morality.  In this respect, the Conservatives have gradually come much closer to those aspects of Libertarian principles and beliefs relating to personal behaviour.

Because of this, it is today possible for a member of the Conservative Party also to hold Libertarian views.  Owing to the wholesale ditching of traditional values, the prevailing belief by most of our political leaders seems to be that people should be allowed to indulge themselves even in areas where that indulgence is dangerous not only for their personal character, morality and principles, but also often for others and consequently for society in general.   Such matters as the preferential treatment of ethnic minority members in employment law, certain aspects of the treatment of homosexuality, where it is now considered positively beneficial to treat this subject in reading materials for school children, the ludicrous “all have won and all shall have prizes” approach to education, which has in short order reduced the British education system, once the best in the world, to a level where more children than ever emerge from school unable to read or write competently, all contribute to both increasing the divisions in society and the gradual disintegration of society itself.

The determination that regardless of competence, women, simply because they are female, should also receive preferential treatment in employment and other areas of life is a further illustration, if it were needed, of the folly of abandoning principles, laws and practices that have for decades given us in this country an reasonably peaceful, fair, and unified society.  It was until comparatively recently a social order that allowed for individual differences, without those differences causing the fragmentation and sectionalism of today’s special interest groups.  Today, there is in addition to the aforementioned, a growing feeling that there should be a more relaxed approach to drugs and drug-taking, the results of both of which contribute to and hasten the fragmentation and ultimate collapse of a once cohesive and orderly society.

In these matters, the Conservative Party, along with the other two main parties, is coming very much closer to Libertarian views.  So perhaps we might say that yes, in all probability it is now quite possible for a member of the Conservative Party to hold Libertarian views, without greatly contradicting either present-day Conservative principles, or those he holds as a Libertarian.

The Baron Report — a report that is in no sense libertarian – oriented —points out: libertarianism — (is) “the philosophy that argues against government intervention and for personal rights.” The report adds that libertarianism has an appeal to both ends of the political spectrum: “Conservatives welcome that trend when it indicates public skepticism over federal programs; liberals welcome it when it shows growing acceptance of individual rights in such areas as drugs, sexual behavior, etc., and increasingly reticence of the public to support foreign intervention.” (1)

But by appealing to both ends of the political spectrum, Libertarianism cannot fully satisfy either, and the Libertarian will most certainly sit uncomfortably with real conservatives.  Equally, aspiring Conservative politicians will find that their desire for progressive social change, which inevitably requires a continual expansion of state authority and power, will run directly counter to the Libertarian desire to restrict the size and consequently the power of government.

It is evident that Libertarian and conservative systems are dynamic, not static.  Compared to today’s Conservative Party, the Conservative Party of the 1950’s far better reflected true conservative beliefs.  The Conservative Party is now so far to the left of conservatives and so liberal in its social mores, that no true conservative could be a member of the party.  Talk about devolving power from the centre is pointless because impossible, due to the structure of the European Union, by which we are now governed, which was imposed upon us by the Conservative Party itself.  Basic tenets of liberalism, personal freedom and minimal State interference are now ignored by a Conservative Party which can no longer legitimately claim to be conservative.  In conservative philosophy, social order draws strength from the Christian principles which are its foundation.  The liberty-approaching-license approach of Libertarianism would be rejected by most conservatives because of the inevitably disastrous consequences of a wholly Libertarian society based on that principle.

An honest Libertarian cannot be a conservative because it is impossible to bridge the chasm between the liberal idea that man is basically good and evolving ever higher (all progress is good, on this basis) and the conservative recognition that man is an imperfect and fallible creature, by nature answerable to a Higher Authority.  The first of these views of man automatically removes most Conservatives from the belief system underpinning conservatism.  Because today most Conservatives view man as do the Libertarians they can no longer be considered to be conservative.

Consider the following observation from Malcolm Muggeridge:

“Had discussion with Bill Deedes on Liberalism, which was, I said, an attractive doctrine, but which I increasingly abhorred because false.  Its great fallacy, I pointed out, was the perfectibility of Man – i.e. the assumption that left to himself he would be humane, orderly and industrious.  My experience has been the exact opposite – namely that, left to himself, Man was brutish, lustful, idle and murderous, and that the only hope of keeping his vile nature within any sort of bound was to instil in him fear of God or of his fellow men.  Of these two alternatives, I preferred fear of God – an authoritarian Christian society to an authoritarian materialist society, fear of Hell as a deterrent to fear of human brutality.  And, as a matter of fact, more potent and wonderful is fear of being cut off from the light of God’s countenance and living in darkness – this fear the only deterrent which is at once effective and ennobling.” (2)

Philosophical conservatives regard it as necessary to regulate pornography and sexual activities and would utterly reject permitting incest, pederasty or bestiality.  But the number of “progressives” who would countenance such behaviour is rising.  This is not an extravagant claim – it is noteworthy that “progressive” political lobbyists in Europe already have not only sanctioned child sex and one Party leader has committed it, (3&4) but some also called for incest and bestiality, masquerading as a legitimate relationship, to be legalized all in the name of tolerance and progress. (5)

There are many amongst both Conservative Party members and Libertarians who presently back the call for voluntary euthanasia.  Past experience clearly shows that once the principle is established, it is only a matter of time before it is extended to cover more situations than originally either envisaged or intended.  Sooner or later in the name of progress the State will assiduously begin to apply euthanasia to those it deems suitable candidates.  This may be contrary to the intentions of both Libertarians and Conservatives, but it will be the inevitable result.

There is no logical reason for the Libertarian belief in the absolute autonomy of the individual to supplement the desire for this freedom with a caution  “avoid harming others”.  A conservative belief in an authority beyond the self, a spiritual authority, has for centuries been instrumental in forming the laws by which our society functions.  In this context, man is not considered “the measure of all things”, nor is he thought of as the final arbiter.  Without this underpinning, there is no possible reason why everyone should not do exactly what pleases him regardless of the convenience of others, or, as Alistair Crowley puts it, quoting Rabelais: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.  What is presented as a call for liberty is actually an excuse for license, blurring the distinction of what is and what is not morally acceptable.  Anyone acknowledging a morality, external to himself, will find that the requirements of that morality are not always in accord with his natural inclinations.

Robert Bork identifies the impossibility of a Libertarian being a conservative in this extract from his book being a short essay on both pornography and drugs where he wrote:

“Modern liberals employ the rhetoric of ‘rights’ incessantly, not only to delegitimate the idea of restraints on individuals by communities but to prevent discussion of the topic. Once something is announced, usually flatly or stridently, to be a right –whether pornography or abortion or what have you– discussion becomes difficult to impossible. Rights inhere in the person, are claimed to be absolute, and cannot be diminished or taken away by reason; in fact, reason that suggests the non-existence of an asserted right is viewed as a moral evil by the claimant. If there is to be anything that can be called a community, rather than an agglomeration of hedonists, the case for previously unrecognized individual freedoms (as well as some that have been previously recognized) must be thought through and argued, and “rights” cannot win every time. Why there is a right for adults to enjoy pornography remains unexplained and unexplainable.” (6)

It is not possible for a Libertarian to be “conservative”, using the word as it used once to be understood by the Conservative Party, but is no longer.  The conflict between the old conservative beliefs that there were certain aspects of human behaviour that could and should not be indulged, encouraged or legally permitted, allowed, and the present-day practice of “letting it all hang out” does not allow a Libertarian to claim to be “conservative”.  Neither does it allow a conservative to claim, still less to want to claim, to be a Libertarian.  The two approaches are simply diametrically opposed to one another on matters of behaviour; the conservative wanting to retain as far as possible an orderly and civilised society where self-discipline is encouraged and expected and the Libertarian, however well-intentioned in theory, adopting principles which both discourage and radically undermine self-discipline, and eventually lead to a disintegration of society.

What Libertarians may fail to realise is that if a range of behaviours previously unacceptable within a society are now to be permitted, as they appear to wish, it becomes increasingly necessary for government to legislate on all manner of matters as a direct result of the growing disorder developing because of the now-permitted behaviours.  If the population is self-disciplined, this problem does not arise.  But when there are fewer and fewer people who observe the rules that used to govern civilised behaviour, more and more laws are required to make good the deficit.  And this is something Libertarians do NOT like!

Libertarians can not have it both ways. Either society is self-disciplined and intelligent enough to accept and observe an unwritten code of conduct, within which everything that is not expressly forbidden by law is allowed, or society under the pressures of each individual pursuing his own selfish interests, gradually disintegrates.   No amount of legislation will compensate or rectify the resulting chaos.

In summary – A Conservative (party member) may certainly be a Libertarian, and a Libertarian should feel reasonably comfortable (if not entirely at home) in today’s Conservative Party but a “conservative” does not hold Libertarian beliefs, and a Libertarian certainly doesn’t hold “conservative” beliefs.


(1) – return15.7 The Baron Report (February 3, 1978), p. 2. [p. 322]

(2)     LIKE IT WAS – A selection from the Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge

excerpt dated July 20th 1950.

(3)     Irish Daily Mail: Pedophilia and the dark heart of the EU’s parliament Irish Daily Mail
Monday, May 25th, 2009 – by-line Mary Ellen Synon

(4)     Wise Up Journal


(6)     Robert Bork “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” pp 151-152

Peter Watson

3 responses to “Can a Libertarian also be a conservative?

  1. Has the winning essay been published yet?

  2. Congratulations. This is very well thought out and presented.
    However I would have to disagree with one of the more fundamental arguments.
    Peter Walker says:
    “An honest Libertarian cannot be a conservative because it is impossible to bridge the chasm between the liberal idea that man is basically good and evolving ever higher (all progress is good, on this basis) and the conservative recognition that man is an imperfect and fallible creature, by nature answerable to a Higher Authority. The first of these views of man automatically removes most Conservatives from the belief system underpinning conservatism. Because today most Conservatives view man as do the Libertarians they can no longer be considered to be conservative.”

    My reasoning is that an essential foundation of being free (and liberal) is indeed to recognise that one is “an imperfect and fallible creature”, and deal with it. The basic reason for the collectivist collapse of western society is that it prefers not to acknowledge this, not to acknowledge our inherent proclivity for doing bad stuff, and tries to pretend it away.
    To be free one has to acknowledge that which is. Civilisation is a fragile mantle over man’s selfish desires. Who can find a noble soul that is willing to get into the last life boat (especially among the political classes) without there being some higher call involved. Our norms are drifting ever further from such an ethos because we try to believe we are evolving and improving and that we can treat each other in love without any other influence needed than our basic humanity. And it does not work.
    Without God’s moderating influence on us I sincerely believe we are in deep, deep trouble, as indeed, we are.
    And further, without a personal relationship with God, we delude ourselves yet further, as can be seen in the highest realms of our church structures.

  3. Arrrgh! Deepest apologies. It really is one of those days.
    Sincere apologies, Peter Watson