SELFISH LIBERTARIANS AND SOCIALIST CONSERVATIVES?: THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE LIBERTARIAN-CONSERVATIVE DEBATE
By Nathan W. Schlueter and Nikolai G. Wenzel
Stanford University Press, $24.95, 232 pages
While libertarians and conservatives have some similar outlooks on politics, economics and culture, many profound differences have kept them apart. Attempts to bridge this gap, including Frank S. Meyer’s theory of fusionism (combining elements of libertarianism and traditional conservatism), have largely been unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, these two right-leaning ideological groups have more than enough in common to discuss ideas in an intelligent, thoughtful manner. Nathan Schlueter and Nikolai Wenzel’s “Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?” serves as an important backdrop in ensuring the libertarian-conservative debate never turns into a libertarian-conservative divide.
Mr. Wenzel, the libertarian, is a research fellow at the University of Paris Law School’s Center for Law & Economics. Mr. Schlueter, the conservative, is a professor of philosophy and religion at Hillsdale College. In their view, “a civil, informed, and energetic argument” between these two political opposites “offers a more interesting, illuminating, and engaging format for readers than an impartial survey of the issues.”
Are they right? For those who identify as conservatives, libertarians or one of the world’s few remaining fusionists (like me), their information and analysis is nothing new. But the authors’ ability to create succinct philosophical arguments for intellectuals and the masses is both admirable and educational.
Each author contributes four chapters. They provide explanations of what their political ideologies entail, what’s wrong with each other’s ideological position, relevant case studies, and final conclusions.
Mr. Schlueter posits that conservatism “is not a specific philosophy of government but a generic term that can have a wide range of specific meanings, depending on context.” Hence, to create a “unified conservatism” from its “three primary strains” (libertarianism, traditional conservatism and neoconservatism), these principles “are necessary for human flourishing and that, although they are in some tension with one another, the three principles are interdependent.”
Moreover, the author argues, “the principles of the American founding that conservatives defend are a form of classical liberalism.” This, in turn, has led modern conservatives to defend traditional concepts like natural law and the common good, along with newer concepts like limited government and property rights.
Mr. Wenzel sees libertarianism as a “political philosophy about the protection of individual rights.” Adherents to this ideology consider liberty to be “the highest political good,” and believe that government should be viewed as a “protector of rights, to provide an umbrella within which individuals can peacefully go about their business, interact, and thrive.” Libertarianism also “relies heavily on markets and civil society to supplement that which individuals cannot complete on their own and that which government cannot deliver without violating individual rights.”
Naturally, the two authors respectfully feel that each other’s political philosophy is, as they put it, “wrong.”
Mr. Wenzel believes Mr. Schlueter “makes one of the clearest expositions of conservatism I have seen,” but that “much in conservatism is problematic.” For instance, he perceives natural law liberalism, which his co-author defends as a component of unified conservatism, “rests on the claim that there exists an objective moral order” but that it “has also been used to justify ugly things like slavery, absolute monarchy, or Sharia.” At the same time, he wonders if this “contradictory hodgepodge” of different conservatisms “is arbitrary in its claims because it seeks justification for the public imposition of private preferences.”
Mr. Schlueter admires Mr. Wenzel’s “able defense of libertarianism,” but believes “[i]n the most fundamental sense, the difference between conservatism and libertarianism turns on the degree to which politics can be understood in terms of economics.” By and large, conservatives don’t believe that economics defines “political life” and human beings “can only fully flourish through their own self-constituting choices.” Also of note, when it comes to public choice theory — a popular topic in libertarian circles — he feels the major flaw is that it’s either “descriptive, or is it prescriptive.” The former is “undermined by empirical evidence,” and the latter is undermined by “political life altogether.”
Their case studies and conclusions don’t lead to any surprising revelations: Mr. Schlueter supports conservatism, and Mr. Wenzel supports libertarianism. But their discussions about economics, immigration, education and marriage are intriguing. The differences between the two ideologies are subtle in some ways, and more stark in others.
Neither Mr. Schlueter nor Mr. Wenzel believe his political ideology is the model of perfection. There are flaws in libertarianism and conservatism, as there are in all philosophical models. At the same time, they obviously both feel that their respective ideology is better for our society, warts and all.
In this civil debate of ideas, that’s the best closing argument we could ever hope for.
• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.