Conservative v Libertarian or Libertarian Class A v Libertarian Class B?

by Scott Morales

I never formally placed libertarians into two classes. However, I did recognize a difference but considered one as libertarian and the other as conservative, conservative in the Anglo-American sense: conserving American’s independence, the recognition of unalienable individual rights coming not from man but beyond, and the freedom from tyranny in every form. Doing so because it’s right, and not doing so is a violation of nature, virtue, and morals. I looked at libertarianism as more of a technical means to getting to this conservative moral ground.  So, as is usually the case when I read something from Robert Higgs, I’m forced to reconsider my understanding. Higgs’ essay, “Freedom: Because It Works or Because It’s Right?” discusses “…two broad classes…” of libertarians, “Consequentialists versus deontologists”.

Libertarians divide into two broad classes: those who espouse a free society because it gives better results than an unfree society, and those who espouse a free society because they believe that it is wrong to deny or suppress a person’s right to be free (unless, of course, that person is suppressing the equal right of others to be free). “Consequentialists versus deontologists” is the oft-encountered labeling of this difference. It is unfortunate that so much energy has been devoted to infighting between these two groups.

As I mentioned before, F.A. Hayek is often claimed by the libertarians. However, I consider him a conservative precisely because he makes the moral case for liberty not simply on the grounds that the people will be more prosperous via it’s application to economics, but that coercion of the innocent is morally wrong. (His case is made incredibly strongly here.) Now, I can see how he can be like Higgs and answer “both” when asked whether he “…was a consequentialist or a deontologist in…” his “… libertarianism…”.

As I was reading the essay, I realized why I did define these classes as libertarian and conservative. It’s because the arguments often made by libertarians are not on moral grounds. Most of the libertarian proponents pursue “Strategy 1”, as Higgs calls it, and make the “consquentialist” argument with statistics and studies claiming that libertarianism just works better. That seems to me to be more focused on the best way to setup a society to function and its required element, freedom, was not indispensable if a more superior way were to be found. It has that pragmatic priority to it, which carries the implication that if something works, it’s right; which smells an awful lot like Hegelian historical determinism to me, and I don’t agree with that at all. Perhaps that is a reason why I recoil at being labeled a “libertarian” (well at least until I read this essay, now I’ll need to say, ” primarily a deontologist libertarian, secondarily a consequentialist” and expect a bewildered look).  Seldom, if ever, have I seen a libertarian make a moral argument, or if I have, I classified it as the conservative argument. I definitely see a common genus with deontologist libertarianism and  conservativism.

Higgs goes on to discuss how, by not making the moral argument or pursuing “Strategy 2”, we hurt our chances of “winning” the argument, and that Strategy 1 is rarely decisive and is subject to the caprice of the once persuaded:

…because the war of the wonks—not to mention the professors, pundits, columnists, political hacks, and intellectual hired guns—is never-ending, one can never rest assured that once a person has been persuaded that freedom works better, at least in regard to situation X, that person has been won over to libertarianism permanently. If a person has come over only because of evidence and argument adduced yesterday by a pro-freedom wonk, he may just as easily go back to his support for government intervention tomorrow on the basis of evidence and argument adduced by an anti-freedom wonk.

However, if we do pursue the moral reasons for liberty, Strategy 2, Higgs argues our chances of winning are much better.

In contrast, once the libertarian has persuaded someone that government interference is wrong, at least in a certain realm, if not across the board, there is a much smaller probability of that convert’s backsliding into his former support for government’s coercive measures against innocent people. Libertarianism grounded on the moral rock will prove much stronger and longer-lasting than libertarianism grounded on the shifting sands of consequentialist arguments, which of necessity are only as compelling as today’s arguments and evidence make them. Hence, if we desire to enlarge the libertarian ranks, we are well advised to make moral arguments at least a part of our efforts.

As a conservative (or deontologist libertarian), I was delighted to read the essay and recommend to all to take a once over. I continue to believe libertarians and conservatives have far more in common than is frequently recognized.



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