Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate,
edited by George W Carey.
ISI Books, 1998,
Cloth, xxii + 231 pp., $25.

“Freedom is a great thing, but one should not run the danger of destroying oneself in the pursuit of it,” the libertarian philosopher John Hospers wisely counsels in an essay included in the present work. Much the same might be said about the zealous pursuit of ideological purity within political movements; surely the only thing more silly than Leninist doctrine itself was the catty disputes among its various adherents. There are better uses for pickaxes.

Yet the “conservative crackup,” to borrow the phrase of one American spectator, during the past decade arguably is the result not of political fanaticism so much as historical contingency. The end of the Cold War brought to a close the tactical alliance of anti‑Leftists, freeing the constituents to undertake zero‑sum ideological quests for domination of the movement’s party apparatus and media organs. While this account typically is offered by hostile observers rather than by the conservative participants themselves, past exercises by liberals in wishful prophesy have had an uncanny way of being realized in those conservative leaders from Nixon to Gingrich who began to believe what critics alleged about them. So the arrival of Georgetown University professor of government George W. Carey’s expanded second edition of the Freedom and Virtue anthology is most timely.

Collecting and, in some cases, judiciously excerpting essays by the postwar era’s leading conservative and libertarian theoreticians, Carey undertakes to “reveal the character and nuances” of the sources of division between them, while identifying also “the areas of agreement, which if nothing else, have served to unitethe two schools at the level of practical politics.” This latter vision, the “fusionist” paradigm advanced most ardently by Frank S. Meyer and M. Stanton Evans in the present book, remains the professed strategy of the conservative movement, despite what many of the other essayists regard as its tactical and intellectual failings. Excepting a few instances of hyperbole, the pieces Carey has collected are generous in tone and rigorous in content, akin more to exchanges at the Philadelphia Society than on Crossfire.

While it would be foolish to presume to offer too many generalities about essays by a group diverse enough to include L. Brent Bozell, Murray N. Rothbard, Russell Kirk, and Tibor R. Machan, several indeed emerge in Freedom and Virtue. First, there is the terminological difficulty repeatedly acknowledged by essayists. If “liberal” no longer connotes in contemporary parlance what it does when used in a nineteenth century context, which proposed successor—”classical liberal,” “libertarian,” or perhaps Kirk’s suggestion of “old‑fangled liberal”—most suitably captures its content? There is little agreement about categories among the participants themselves, as is seen in conflicting definitions offered for “fusionism” and other concepts. The difficulty in establishing common meaning is further exacerbated by the inclusion of writings spanning several decades.

Thus the book begins with an essay by M. Morton Auerbach, author of The Conservative Illusion, a 1959 work probably justly unremembered today, who believed he’d stumbled across a conversation stopper by detecting that Edmund Burke’s political imagination drew from both medieval and liberal principles. Noting such a truism isn’t nearly as clever as Auerbach fancies, and he seems exercised mostly by incomprehension at how “medievalists” like Kirk and Frederick D. Wilhelmsen should be allowed to make common political cause with “classical liberals” such as Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. Since Carey employs a pro‑con format, three respondents—Evans, Meyer, and Kirk—dispatch of Auerbach’s thesis with breezy confidence, although their philosophic and historical bases for so doing differ in the respects that anyone familiar with their respective work would anticipate.

Maybe unwittingly, Auerbach does render one invaluable service in hinting at the limited capacity of any label or system to describe philosophic consciousness or historical experience. As Eric Voegelin argued elsewhere, we ought not be overly concerned with competing definitions of ideology at the expense of transcendent reality, which is the proper object of philosophical inquiry. Here, then, can be found another point of convergence within Freedom and Virtue: the conservatives and libertarians alike have a healthy skepticism about the perfectibility of man and from this metaphysic follow two distinct but prudential approaches to political life. What ultimately divides our essayists is the role for government they urge in response to a shared conception of the human condition; this distinguishes them from both those sophist‑technicians who think that seamlessly “packaging the message” is an exhaustive account of political life and the social scientists who, like Jerry Z. Muller and his recent Conservatism anthology, privilege empiricism over metaphysics.

Regarding man as an imperfect creature, the division between conservatives and libertarians occurs because the former see an imperative for the state to shepherd errant persons toward greater virtue, whereas the latter are leery about entrusting too much power to the state when its guardians always will be fallible men. Conservatives embrace a paternalistic structure whereas libertarians favor a minimalist one. Ironically, but insurmountably, fusionism can never be a lasting paradigm precisely because defining the state’s proper aims and scope is intrinsic to politics, since issues of the day must be analyzed within some theoretic framework. Murray Rothbard puts it most explicitly: “Intellectually, the concept must be judged a failure.”

Since the specifics of conservative and libertarian statecraft are more exhaustively articulated in other works, the richness of the present book is found in the colorful arguments and unexpected concessions which often emerge. “My instincts are libertarian, and I am sure that I would never have joined effort with the conservatives if I had not been convinced that they are the defenders of freedom today,” Richard M. Weaver confesses. Advancing Hobbes as the creator of a liberal state that permits the “greatest range of human liberty consistent with peace,” Walter Berns complains that he’s a conservative because libertarians’ view of nature is wrong: “I do not believe that without government there can be any order.” Machan contends that “man is perfectible” and conservatives are anti‑rationalistic, but Meyer observes that it is the “pure” libertarians like Machan who cannot satisfactorily account for concepts like Providence and honor. And so it goes for 225 pages.

One recurrent criticism voiced most forcefully by Bozell and Wilhelmsen is that the logic of libertarianism implies a belief in the Ubermensch. What they find particularly objectionable is the view expressed by Meyer that virtuous actions are not ethically meaningful unless men perform them “free from the constraint of the physical coercion of an unlimited state.” Drawing from Thomistic philosophy and employing withering rhetoric, Bozell denounces as a “burlesque of reason” the “inner logic of the dictum that virtue-not-freely-chosen is not virtue at all.” The genius of his essay alone justifies the purchase of Freedom and Virtue. “In short, libertarianism’s first command—maximize freedom—applies with equal vigor to all of society’s activities; and the meaning of the command, in effect, is this: virtue must be made as difficult as possible,” Bozell sarcastically concludes [italics original]. “While only a few men, if any, can be expected to meet the challenge successfully, the proliferation of unvirtuous acts in the objective order is one of the prices that must be paid for the fulfillment of heroic man.”

Robert Nisbet offers a caveat of his own, observing, “I believe a state of mind is developing among libertarians in which the coercions of family, church, local community, and school will seem almost as inimical to freedom as those of the political government.” Later in the volume, Nisbet’s fear appears to be realized in Paul Kurtz’s assertion that: “It is not evident that religious societies are any more moral than non-religious ones. Religious societies may be insensitive to other forms of injustice. They may seek to impose order, hierarchy, and the status quo on those who resist it.” In a tightly reasoned reply, Edward B. McLean challenges the adequacy of Kurtz’s secularized political assumptions. “All constructive notions of liberty are infused with the predicates of Christian faith and cannot be sustained without their explicit or implicit guidance,” McLean notes.

Notwithstanding Kurtz’s superstitions, most of the libertarian essayists expressly reject the accusation that their worldview promotes social libertarianism. Rothbard explains that libertarianism confines its jurisdiction to the political realm; thus maximizing political freedom does not infringe upon moral teleologies. In practice, it is more likely to be an activist state that crowds out subsidiary institutions. “The responsibility for educating the young rests properly with the parent, the family, and not with the state,” Rothbard notes.

What George W. Carey has compiled in Freedom and Virtue is a succinct (but unfortunately unindexed) primer on the two coexisting political visions that long have animated the American republic. Surely Auerbach is wrong to accuse conservatives of desiring to conflate the two, for, as Carey himself suggests in referencing The Federalist, the United States’s original contribution to political history is the self-conscious if imperfect attempt to structure a regime which might benefit from both traditions. 

Morgan N. Knull was at the time of writing a graduate student in political philosophy at Louisiana State University and editor of Civil War Book Review.