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Libertarianism, Conservatism, and All That

Mises Daily: Tuesday, November 16, 2004 by

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Every person attracted to the thought of Ludwig von Mises is eventually faced with the question: should I be a conservative or a libertarian or must I choose at all? The Mises Institute even added this point on its Frequently Asked Questions ("Are you conservative, libertarian, anarchist, socialist, or what?"). The current political moment demonstrates the importance of the issue. Conservatives generally think their man won the election but libertarians look at the Bush presidency and see war, big government, and violations of rights all around.

As for Mises himself, he has long been identified with the political Right and American conservatism. Mises, however, regarded himself as a liberal in the classical sense, and even used the world libertarian to describe his views. Moreover, his criticisms of the political right stretch from his 1919 book on European politics ("Every reactionary lacks intellectual independence") to his 1956 book on method, in which he argued that it was the conservatives who brought socialism to Britain. "The essence of an individual's freedom is the opportunity to deviate from traditional ways of thinking and of doing things," he wrote.

Part of the confusion is due to the limits of postwar political classification, which tend to shoehorn people into roles as created by the two dominate political parties. They don't account for someone like Mises who was, as Rothbard argued , a political radical, and yet rather conservative on cultural and social matters. He championed drug legalization but not use, defended the family as a market-based institution; loved global trade but hated war, despised feudal institutions and egalitarian political ethics.

The key to understanding this is lost on many people. It comes down to the distinction between force and voluntarism. He believed that one could find a certain behavior or practice abhorrent, all the while defending the individual's right to engage in it. Today, most of our contemporaries tend to think all behavior should be either required or forbidden with little room for choice.

The same trouble is reflected in discussion of globalism: most people find it strange to be against protectionism, for global trade, but against war. Somehow they confuse loving one's nation with either failing to trade with others or waging war on them. These are the types of confusions that come with the embrace of the label conservative. But to the old liberal school, to hold views that are consistently pro-peace and pro-trade are all in keeping with the core principle.

Mises's distinction between power and choice is for many, obvious and vital for the continuance of a free society. Certainly society may, indeed ought, to assert pressure on individuals to conform to societal norms. This, however, is quite different from advocating that the coercive apparatus of the state be used to impose its view of what constitutes "proper" behavior (See Henry Hazlitt's wonderful essay, "In Defense of Conformity" (The Intercollegiate Review) Fall, 1970, pp. 25–29).

F.A. Hayek stated that one of the gravest errors of contemporary juridical opinion was to assume that all "laws" arise out of legislation. In fact, proper legislation simply codified laws that were preexistent. Societal laws (be they customs, mores, dress codes, cultural conformity) are the private sector's method of regulating behavior. They act as voluntary surrogates to state compulsion.

Libertarians like Mises got this—they understood that the voluntary society has a way of weeding out aberrant behavior.  Far from being the playground of licentiousness, the liberal commonwealth breeds an atmosphere in which tolerance and diversity are balanced with values and mores.

Another major area separating libertarians from conservatives concerns the meaning and place of principle and its relationship to politics. Libertarians have a strict understanding of the right and wrong of public affairs, and argue that anything less leaves too much room for power to manipulate its way into private life. They point to the history of Republican presidents, for example, and see alarming levels of government growth.

Conservatives, however, condemn ideological strictures, and recommend a more piecemeal approach to evaluating the role of government. They suggest that we back the lesser of two evils in politics. They instruct us to prefer the good to the perfect, and are ready for compromise. While this may seem reasonable, in practice we find that conservatives have great difficulty in knowing where to draw the line.

Libertarians and conservatives have differed over these and other fundamental issues over the last fifty years. What follows is a bibliographic attempt to answer the question of what makes libertarians and conservatives different. Where possible I have linked to the articles and books, but much of the debate transpired before the advent of the internet, and is only available in hard copy (for now).

Two sources in particular warrant special attention—Bill Buckley's National Review and Murray Rothbard. In many ways they encapsulate the rift. Whereas they may have found many points of agreement when National Review was founded in 1955 (and even this is a stretch), by the early 60's, the New Right was far removed from its old right roots. Militant anti-communism coupled with an increasing social conservative statism were tendencies many libertarians found distasteful. If the modus vivendi of the early 1940 revival of the libertarian/conservative movement had been the defeat of the leviathan state, only the libertarians stayed the course with any consistency.

The Old Right

As with any political label, it is hard to encapsulate a movement or any group of individuals in a word, or in this case two words. Yet it can safely be said that the "Old Right" was born in protest to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Its leaders were H.L Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Suzanne La Follette and Felix Morley.  It is notable that what one finds in their writings one can still find in the work of most libertarians today. In fact, it could be argued that the modern libertarian movement has more in common with conservatives of the 30s and 40s than do contemporary conservatives.  The ideas of the Old Right conservatives (skepticism of government planning, isolationist foreign policy and a general belief in the free market) have taken a back seat to the modern conservative emphasis on domestic pragmatism and international interventionism.

It must be stressed that there was no single Old Right movement that spoke in unison. As a movement, it was primarily an opposition movement, and as such, the general beliefs outlined above are just that—general beliefs.  However, in order to delineate the conservative and libertarian movement, it is useful to start here.  NB: This listing of Old Right sources is by no means exhaustive; I have only attempted to give an overview of the movement to show how far conservatives of today have moved from their original beliefs.

For excellent overviews of the Old Right movement, see Sheldon Richman, New Deal Nemesis: The 'Old Right' Jeffersonians (Independent Review, Vol. I, No. 2, Fall 1996)and two pieces by Murray Rothbard, The Anti-War, Anti-State Right (Continuum, Summer 1964, pp. 220-231 and first published as "The Transformation of the American Right.") and The Old Right (originally published in Inquiry, 3, 18 [October 27, 1980], pp. 24–27.)  Next to the economic policies of the New Deal, foreign adventures abroad were the primary concern of the Old Right. See Rothbard's essay, The Foreign Policy of the Old Right. There is an excellent collection of pre-1945 conservative thought entitled, "The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of Modern Culture, 1900-1945" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999). You can read the introduction here.  

While there are many who comprised the Old Right, three are worth singling out for the volume of their writing, and the influence they had during the late 30's and early 40's. The first is Felix Morley, the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the Washington Post (1933–1940), president of Haverford College, co-founder of Human Eventsand prominent critic of American imperialism.  See Joseph R. Stromberg's Felix Morley: An Old Fashioned Republican Critic of Statism and Interventionism  (Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp 269–77) and Felix Morley: An Old Fashioned Republican.  Leonard Liggio, in Felix Morley and the Commonwealthman Tradition: The Country-Party, Centralization and the American Empire (Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 279–86) looks at Morley's historical analysis of the libertarian movement and the rise of the state.  Of Morley's books, Freedom and Federalism (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981 [1959]) andThe Power in the People (Nash Publishing, 1972 [1949]) are his best critiques of imperialism abroad and the welfare state at home.

Frank Chodorov, born Fishel Chodorowsky to Russian immigrants, was a powerful voice among the Old Right. Influenced primarily by Albert Jay Nock and Henry George, Chodorov was a prolific writer and ardent opponent of the State in any of its manifestations. In 1969, M. Stanton Evans noted, "The Chodorov imprint is visible in every phase of conservative effort." William F. Buckley was greatly taken with his four-page journal of opinion, analysis. Indeed, in a letter to E. Victor Milione, Buckley admitted, "It is quite unlikely that I should have pursued a career as a writer but for the encouragement [Chodorov] gave me just after I graduated from Yale." For overviews of Chodorov's life and influence, see Aaron Steelman's Frank Chodorov: Champion of Liberty, Joseph Stromberg's Frank Chodorov: A Libertarian's Libertarian and Charles Hamilton, "Frank Chodorov and the American Right," (The Libertarian Review) December, 1979, pp. 20–22. In Frank Chodorov, R.I.P, Murray Rothbard provides a touching tribute to his mentor, while in The Freeman's "People on Our Side: Frank Chodorov" (May 5, 1952) John Chamberlain provides a brief summary of Chodorov's political thought. All of Chodorov's works are worth reading, especially Out of Step (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1962), One is a Crowd (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1952), The Income Tax: Root of All Evil (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1954) and Fugitive Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1980).

John T. Flynn considered himself a liberal his whole life. Born in 1882 Maryland, Flynn rose to prominence as an economic journalist who gradually became FDR's severest critic. His prose is peppered with acerbic wit and keen insight.  Perhaps the best place to start is with Flynn's magisterial achievement, The Roosevelt Myth (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1998 originally published by Devin-Adair in 1948). Flynn's other works include, As We Go Marching (New York: Doubleday, 1944), The Decline of the American Republic (New York: Devin-Adair, 1955), While You Slept (New York: Devin-Adair, 1951), Country Squire in the White House ( Philadelphia, PA : Da Capo Press, 1972), Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays by John T. Flynn (Irvington, NY: FEE, 1995) and The Road Ahead: America's Creeping Revolution (New York: Devin Adair, 1953). For two overviews of Flynn's life and writings see Justin Raimondo's John T. Flynn: Exemplar of the Old Right (Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. X, No. 2 (Fall 1992) and John F. McManus' Principles First (The New American, January 31, 2000).

In addition to the contingent of Old Right publicists and journalists, there was active conservative resistance to the New Deal and foreign interventionism within the political arena.  See Justus D. Doenecke's, Not to the swift: The old isolationists in the cold war era (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1979) and Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).  For a look at congressional isolationists, see John C. Donovan, "Congressional Isolationists and the Roosevelt Foreign Policy" (World Politics, vol. 3, No. 3 (Apr., 1951), 299–316.)

The Resurgence

The twelve years beginning in 1943 and ending in 1955 are pivotal in understanding the gulf that exists today between modern conservatives and libertarians. While the two groups could write for the same magazines in 1940s and early 50s, they rarely spoke by 1955. If domestic economic planning and the rise of the welfare state were paramount concerns for both groups in the early 40s, Soviet aggression abroad and communist infiltration at home became the idée fix of this emerging New Right by the mid fifties.

By the early '40s, the American people had lost much of their faith in free enterprise liberalism. Shaken by the Great Depression and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America, and indeed most of the Western world, increasingly looked to government for security and stability. To Robert Crunden, "The war period, 1939–1945, marked the nadir of individualistic, Jeffersonian thought in the United States."

Yet in 1943, stirrings on the Right were evident with the publication of three remarkable books by three remarkable women. It took Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom, and Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine to reinvigorate the anti-statist movement. If the Old Right was a movement characterized by anti-statist dissent, the epoch beginning in 1943 was marked by a positive vision for liberty. While polemic warnings continued to occur (think Road to Serfdom and As We Go Marching) the free market was slowly gaining intellectual legitimacy. 

At least at the beginning of the incipient movement, conservatives and libertarians could find a common enemy in the growth of the New Deal welfare state.  As strength in the movement gathered, the two groups quickly discovered they had little in common. Perhaps the most divisive issue was that of foreign policy, specifically what to do about the Soviet Union.  In addition to the publications listed below, readers should seek out issues of the old Human Events and Robert LeFevre's Rampart Journal.

The Freeman

Much of this emerging divergence played out in the pages of The Freeman, one of the only publications at the time aimed exclusively at an anti-statist audience.  In its modern reincarnation (it had been published first by Albert Jay Nock in the 20s, by his protégée Suzanne La Follette as The New Freeman and finally under the editorship of Frank Chodorov in the 1940s) The Freeman was to be an answer to liberal (in the contemporary sense) publications that glorified the state. As Freeman Editor John Chamberlain was to observe in his autobiography, "If the Nation and the New Republic had not sold intellectuals on the virtues of the planned economy in the '20s and early '30s, there would have been no Roosevelt Revolution." The Freeman was to reverse this trend.

Several articles in particular stand out for their importance in dividing conservatives from libertarians. In Frank Chodorov, "The Return of 1940," (The Freeman) V, 3 (September, 1954), pp, 81–82, Chodorov warns of the impending danger to domestic liberty as America mobilized for WWII.  Future co-founder of National Review, William S. Schlamm, rebuts Chodorov in "But It Is Not 1940," (The Freeman) V, 5 (November, 1954), pp. 169–71. Not one to drop issues lightly, Chodorov fired back in, "A War to Communize America," (The Freeman), V, 5 (November, 1954), pp. 171–74.  V. Orval Watts courageously argues for free trade with Communist Russia in, "Should We Trade with Russia," (The Freeman), V, 8 (February, 1954), pp. 295–97.  America's international role is criticized in Frank Chodorov, "One Worldism," (The Freeman), V, 9 (March, 1955), pp. 334–36 and Samuel B. Pettengill, "Crusading in Asia," (The Freeman), V, 10 (April, 1955), pp. 430–32.

Modern Age

Much like The Freeman, Modern Age provided conservatives and libertarians a forum in which to voice their respective opinions. Founded in 1957 by the late Russell Kirk, Modern Age represented the "traditional" camp of the conservative movement, although it was receptive to a wide-range of opinions.  The very first issue contained Felix Morley's "American Republic or American Empire," (Modern Age) I, 1 (Summer, 1957), pp. 20–27, a particularly stinging criticism of interventionist foreign policy.  The following essays deal with the conservative/libertarian paradigm:

  • Donald Atwell Zoll, "The Future of American Conservativism: a New Revival?" (Modern Age) XVIII, 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 2–13;
  • Ronald Hamowy, "Liberalism and Neo-Conservatism: Is a Synthesis Possible?" (Modern Age) VIII, 4 (Fall, 1964), pp. 350–59;  
  • Donald Atwell Zoll, "Philosophical Foundations of the American Political Right," (Modern Age), XV, 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 114–29;
  • M. Stanton Evans, "Varieties of Conservative Experience," (Modern Age) XV, 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 130–37;
  • Gary North, "Reason, Neutrality and the Free Market," (Modern Age) XV, 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 138–42;
  • Russell Kirk, "Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries," (Modern Age) XXV, 4 (Fall, 1981), pp. 345–51; 
  • John Hospers, "Conservatives and Libertarians: Differences of Theory and Strategy," (Modern Age) XXV, 4 (Fall, 1981), pp. 369–80. 

New Individualist Review

This brief but brilliant journal was edited by several of Hayek's students from the University of Chicago (including Mises Institute Senior Faculty member Ralph Raico).  Published from April 1961 until the winter of 1968, the New Individualist Review'sdecline left a gaping hole for libertarian scholarship. See

  • Edward Facey, "Conservatives or Individualists: Which Are We?" (New Individualist Review) I, 2 (Summer, 1962), pp. 24–26. 
  • John Weicher, "Mr. Facey's Article: A Comment" (New Individualist Review) I, 2 (Summer, 1962), pp. 26–27. 
  • William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Hamowy, "'National Review": Criticism and Reply" (New Individualist Review) I, 3 (November, 1961). pp. 3–11.  
  • James M. O'Connell, "The New Conservatism" (New Individualist Review) II, 1 (Spring 1962), pp. 17–21. 
  • John P. McCarthy, "The Shortcomings of Right-Wing Foreign Policy" (New Individualist Review) II, 1 (Spring, 1962), pp. 44–52. 
  • Benjamin A. Rogge, "New Conservatives and Old Liberals" (New Individualist Review) II, 3 (Autumn, 1963), pp. 31–34. 
  • Ralph Raico, "The Fusionists on Liberalism and Tradition" (New Individualist Review) III, 3, pp. 29–36.

National Review

Love it or hate it, National Review's role in the conservative/libertarian movement is hard to deny. From its inception in November, 1955, Bill Buckley's magazine was to exert a profound influence on the shape and direction of the conservative movement. Almost from the beginning, however, the magazine's masthead indicated that the "extreme" individualism and isolationism of the libertarian movement would not be tolerated.  While the occasional libertarian managed to sneak his way into its pages, National Review was (and remains) vehemently interventionist.  Most of the following essays are negative attacks on libertarians, or libertarians attacking other libertarians:

  • Ramesh Ponnuru, "1984 in 2003?" (National Review) Vol. 55 Issue 10, p. 17, 2p.
  • Ramesh Ponnuru, "A Duty of Government?"  (National Review ) Vol. 54 Issue 19, p. 24. 
  • William F. Buckley "Murray Rothbard, RIP" (National Review) Vol. 47 Issue 2, p. 19, 2p .
  • "Has the Libertarian Movement Gone Kooky" (National Review) Vol. 31 Issue 31, p. 967, 7p. 
  • Ernest Van Den Haag, "The Libertarian Argument" (National Review) Vol. 27 Issue 25, p. 729, 3p. 
  • James Jackson Kilpatrick, "The Libertarians: Nothing if Not Consistent" (National Review) Vol. 27 Issue 39, p. 1117, 4p. 
  • Ernest Van Den Haag, "Libertarian Ideology," (National Review), XXXI, 23 (June 8, 1979), pp. 725–39. 
  • Jerome Tuccille, "The Failure of Libertarianism," (National Review), XXIX, 16 (April 29th, 1977), pp. 489, 511.

For a more recent debate between National Review and the libertarians, see Jonah Goldberg's, "Libertarians Under My Skin," " Farewell, Lew Rockwell" and "The Libertarian Lobe." Responses here, here and here.  David Frum's infamous article, "Unpatriotic Conservatives ," received a host of criticism (and rightfully so). See in particular Justin Raimondo's "Commissar Frum ," Samuel Francis's "'Mainstream' Conservatives Opposing Frumpurge (Quietly, Belatedly)," Williams Rusher, "Civil war on the American right," and Gene Callahan's "Axis of Drivel."

Libertarian Forum, Left and Right, and the RRR

Rothbard produced a large amount of writings that deal with definitional problems associated with the conservative/libertarian split. See

  • Murray Rothbard, "A Note on Burke's Vindication of the Natural Society," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 1958), pp. 114–18.
  • Murray Rothbard, "Stop Reagan!" (The Libertarian Forum), VIII, 12 (December,  1975), pp. 1–2. 
  • Murray Rothbard, "To The Elections" (The Libertarian Forum), IX, 10 (October, 1976), pp. 1–2. 
  • Murray Rothbard, "The End of Ideology," (The Libertarian Forum), X, 3 (March, 1977), pp. 1. 
  • Murray Rothbard, "The Tuccille Defection," (The Libertarian Forum), X, 4 (April, 1977), pp. 4–5.  
  • Murray Rothbard, "New Right: National Review's Anniversary ," (Left and Right), II, 2 (Winter, 1966), pp. 8–13.
  • Murray Rothbard, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," (Left and Right), 1, 1 (Spring, 1965) pp. 4–22 (or in HTML).  
  • Lew Rockwell, "Unity on the Right." (Rothbard-Rockwell Report) V, 5 (May, 1994), pp. 17–19.
  • Lew Rockwell, "Paleoism: Past, Present, and Future" (Rothbard-Rockwell Report) VI, 12 (December, 1995), pp. 1–9.
  • Lew Rockwell, "Conservative Wars" (Rothbard-Rockwell Report) VI, 11 (November, 1995), pp. 5–9. 
  • Murray Rothbard, "Dead Wrong" (Rothbard-Rockwell Report) V, 10 (October, 1994), pp. 11–12.  
  • Murray Rothbard,For a New Isolationism.
  • Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty.

Frank Meyer and Fusionism

Frank Meyer was a long-time editor of National Review and the originator of what Brent Bozell called "fusionism." It represented Meyer's noble attempt to unite conservatives and libertarians under a banner of anti-statism and tradition.  For many, Meyer's philosophy was nothing novel. Rather, it merely represented a certain type of libertarian, e.g., one who believed in the limited powers of the state, all the while holding Judeo-Christian values.  A good place to start is Meyer's book, In Defense of Freedom, in which he defines his philosophy. See also:

Recent/Relevant Writings

The recent war in Iraq has only compounded the conservative/libertarian rift. A new round of zoo-like curiosity from the left has turned the names Strauss and Kristol as well as paleo- and neo- into household regulars.  Below are a host of internet articles that cover the war, neo-conservatism, and the general state of conservatism and libertarianism (including Hayek's classic "Why I am Not a Conservative."

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Jude Blanchette is a research fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. jblanchette@fee.org. A version of the bibliography appeared on LRC. Post Comments on the Blog.