How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism

By Duncan Whitmore

In Part Four of this continuing series of Fighting for Liberty, we explored the nature of radicalism and its value for the fight for freedom. In this part, we will do the same for conservatism before concluding with some final remarks on reconciling conservatism with radicalism as part of a libertarian political strategy.

While a precise definition of conservatism is debatable, it seems reasonable enough to summarise it as a preference for traditional customs, conventions, cultures, and morality in addition to the institutions which uphold them. Contrary to the popular view of conservatism as rigid and uncompromising, it is not averse to change; the dedicated conservative is not trying to trap humanity in a time warp. He does, however, recognise that existing institutions – standing on the shoulders of centuries of human experience – must provide the starting point for any prospective change. In the words of Edward Feser, paraphrasing J L Austen: “[T]hough tradition […] might not always give us the last word, it must always give us the first word.”1 As such, change is likely to be relatively slow and undertaken within an evolutionary “arc of continuity”, with each new building block placed carefully upon one underneath instead of demolishing the entire foundation in revolutionary fervour. Another, more explicitly pro-freedom way of describing it, is a preference for “spontaneous” or “organic” order generated gradually by millions of individuals as opposed to consciously engineered order from the centre.

In the last part, we noted that libertarians – in contrast to Marxists and social engineers – simply do not have the option of demolition, of wiping the societal slate clean before merely “hoping” that liberty will prevail as the dust settles. Thus, adherence to conservatism in the manner described may assist the libertarian movement in two ways:

  • It can help to nourish the non-state institutions that would be necessary to support social co-operation in the absence of the state, sensitising us to the level of cultural diversity that a given society can sustain;
  • Given that liberty has flourished in the Western world more extensively than in any other, we should look to the specific cultural and institutional history of the West to determine why this is so.2

To at least some extent, therefore, we can see that libertarians need to adopt conservative attitudes.

However, it is abundantly clear that any efforts of modern conservatism to preserve freedom have been an abysmal failure, and if such conservatives today identify with freedom at all then it is either residual or in name only. In the UK, for instance, we are saddled with a governing Conservative Party that has not only implemented the greatest peacetime power grab in history as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, but is seemingly committed to vast state spending, the rampant greening of the economy, and the authoritarian policing of speech and censorship. While, therefore, such conservatism cannot be our model, it is useful to understand how it arrived at where it is so that libertarians can avoid its pitfalls if they are to adopt conservative attitudes as part of their strategy.

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What about the Poor?!


What about the Poor?!

By Duncan Whitmore

When discussing the virtues of a free society libertarians are able to expound with enthusiasm the benefits of private property, free exchange and non-violence. Most of the nagging questions – “how would policing work?”; “how would we regulate unscrupulous companies?”; or the clichéd classic “who will build the roads?!” – can be dealt with fairly straightforwardly as it is not difficult to show how such a free society would deal with these matters in a vastly superior way to one that is imbued with statism. Indeed, the struggle in this regard has less to do with formulating convincing arguments and more to do with tackling an inherent unwillingness to consider radical solutions.

However, there is one question that always presents a seemingly insurmountable difficulty – what would happen to the poor? By this, we do not just mean the accusations of a free economy being “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog”, which, again, are relatively juvenile sound bites that can be disposed of fairly easily. (Indeed, it is social democracies that are the true zero sum games as any redistribution of wealth or gain of power to the benefit of one must necessarily come at the expense of another). Rather, what we mean is the fact that a free world has no means of “caring” for the poor. In particular, there would be no “official” institution or “social safety net” to help those who were genuinely less fortunate. A libertarian might mumble a few words about the importance of charity but, with an outright declaration by one’s opponent that such a system is necessary, one may be tempted to concede that this is the Achilles’ heel of a libertarian society. After all, statists excel at conjuring the illusion that all of the care and compassion is on their side while they are able, quite easily, to paint proponents of the free market as little more than selfish money grabbers.

It is high time that libertarians (and their free market oriented fellow travellers) took the offensive against this problem by turning an apparent weakness into an advantage. By offensive, we mean not just constructing adequate rebuttals to the charge that capitalism cannot care for the poor. Rather, we need to set ourselves the more ambitious goal of proving that capitalism benefits the least well off as its primary effect, and that the poor do not benefit merely as an incidental consequence of making the rich richer. Continue reading