Libertarian and Conservative Controversies: Revisiting the Traditionalist v Individualist Debates

by on 31 March, 2010


Conservatives and libertarians can learn from revisiting past debates, writes Will Church.

Much can be learned from revisiting past debates. This being most pertinent when parallels can be drawn with current debate. In my time as a member of the youth wing of the Australian Liberal Party I’ve been both spectator and participant in many debates taking place at the fault line of the party’s conservative/classical-liberal divide.

I approached the editors with my intention to cover the debates from the Post World-War II American intellectual right for three reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s demonstrative of how conservatism is in a constant state of internal debate. These debates should be expected because conservatives are thinkers by nature, and these debates revolve around the nature of conservatism and its philosophical coherence. Secondly, it was largely from the debate between the individualists and traditionalists that modern American conservatism took its form. A fact that tends to inspire confidence that conflict can yield intellectual synthesis – though perhaps not along the lines of Hegelian dialectics for that implies a “progression.” Thirdly, I believe there are obvious parallels with ongoing debates within our party – particularly within its youth wings.

The dispute between traditionalists and individualists may not have happened were it not for the liberal humanist hegemony of the 30s. In the words of the great historian of conservatism George H. Nash:

“The intellectual roots of anti-conservatism, like so much else in the intellectual traditions of the American Right since 1945, lie in responses to the 1930s. To the classical liberal wing of this heterogeneous movement, the 1930s were a time of collectivism and Big Government. To traditionalists the era was one of philosophical nihilism, totalitarianism, and the disturbing emergence of mass culture.”[i]

In terms of a modern parallel the individualists were closest to what are now called “libertarians.” Before philosophers such as Robert Nozick[ii] and John Hospers enunciated a lucid and compelling libertarian philosophy there was the individualists – some of whom preferred to be called “classical-liberal.” Their idols were the Austrian economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises and the polemicist and author Albert Jay Nock. They opposed the New Deal, Keynesianism and government interference in both personal and economic spheres of human affairs. They tended to rail against foreign entanglement and US military involvement abroad, on this point they continued the isolationist legacy of the “Old Right.” Their ideological mercenaries were an eclectic bunch who tended to be journalists rather than academics but were often émigrés and ex-radicals. Their anti-statism and extreme individualism often bordered on anarchism. Prominent figures within the individualist camp were Frank Chodorov, Henry Hazlitt and Frank Meyer. Meyer was an ex-communist radical turned Libertarian; he had an association with William F. Buckley Jnr with whom he co-founded the National Review. Meyer was somewhat more moderate than his fellow-travellers, and was to be the creator of “fusionism.” “Fusionism” was the philosophy that sought to unify the individualist and traditionalist philosophies, laying down the principles now broadly accepted as those principles embodying American conservatism.

The traditionalists were united in their conviction that American society was facing a moral and intellectual abyss, though they often differed as to the culprit. Professor of English literature and avowed Southern-Agrarian Richard M. Weaver traced the decline of modern civilization to medieval Europe and the philosophy of William of Ockham.[iii] Weaver blamed nominalism for the gradual decline of civilization manifested by a denial of transcendental universal values for relativism and materialism.[iv] For Leo Strauss the wreckers of civilization were to be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. His genealogical account started with Machiavelli reaching a critical point with Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan.[v] The Moderns from Hobbes through to Locke through to Rousseau and Burke had abandoned reason – the source of contemporary nihilism and relativism. (Strauss was to be a key influence on predominantly Jewish thinkers like Irving Kristol who later became the intellectual architects of the so-called “neo-conservative” movement.) The Germanic émigrés Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Peter Viereck blamed moral decadence on the rise of democracy, egalitarianism and the triumph of humanism at the expense of Christianity. Despite their apparent intellectual diversity the traditionalist right were all in concordance that modern society had revolted against its cultural heritage. Their intellectual leader was without doubt Russell Kirk. Kirk’s conservatism was the prudential politics of Edmund Burke and the realisation of “Jeffersonian principles.” In 1953 he published his cri de Coeur for a “new conservatism” The Conservative Mind..”[vi]

Meyer took issue with Kirk's The Conservative Mind. The debate that ensued was perhaps the most important debate in the intellectual development of Post World-War II American Right. Meyer argued that traditionalism lacked any clear or distinct principles and carried with it, “no built in defence against the acceptance, grudging though it may be, of institutions which reason and prudence would otherwise reject, if only those institutions are sufficiently and firmly established.”[vii] In other words traditionalism stands to protect institutions and customs merely because they are established, thus it fails to be a real antidote to the liberal collectivist hegemony.

Kirk responded by dismissing the “social atomism” of "individualism." For Kirk conservatism was not an “ideology” with principles that could be expounded in the abstract. Instead it is tried and tested institutions, prescription and established custom that provide the pillars of a successful society. Furthermore, freedom cannot exist outside an ordered society where human conduct is governed by authority and respected prescription; “without just authority and respected prescription, the pillars of any tolerable civil order, true freedom is not possible.”[viii] Kirk’s writings are very reminiscent of Burke. He revered Edmund Burke and sought to claim the statesman for conservatism. Kirk attacked the idea that by rejecting political theories based on “abstractions” Burke had rejected theorizing – thereby rendering Burke of little relevance to those interested in crystallizing a conservative theoretical framework.  Burke rejected “‘bad theory’ – that is doctrinaire, speculative, abstract, and without adequate reference and relevance to political practice.”[ix]

Meyer was predictably less than complimentary about Kirk’s revival of Burke. He excoriated Kirk’s tendency to treat Burke’s suspicion of rationality as if it were an essential ingredient of conservative philosophy:

It is absurd, therefore, because one conservative voice in one period showed an underlying hostility to reason, to maintain, as is today so often done, that Edmund Burke’s attitude to reason is an essential element of any definition of conservatism. True no conservatism can accept utopian reliance upon the limited reason of one generation (or one school of thought within that generation), which ignores the tradition and builds upon arrogant confidence in its own experience ratiocination. But conservatism is not antirational. It demands only that reason operate upon the foundation of the tradition of civilization, that is, upon the basis of accumulated reason, experience and wisdom of past generations.[x]

F. A. Hayek entered the debate with his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” which was published in his summa The Constitution of Liberty and in an anthology of essays edited by Meyer What is Conservatism. Hayek agreed with Meyer and the individualists that conservatism lacks principles and fails to inspire confidence as a bulwark against the rising collectivist tide. Hayek held that conservatism fears or at least distrusts change given its “fondness of authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.”[xi] Connected to this fondness of established authority is the sentiment that arbitrary power is tolerable so long as it is for those ends or purposes the conservative approves of.[xii] Flowing from this he adds that conservatives tend to: (i) defend privilege and hierarchy without reason; (ii) blame democracy for the ills of society; and (iii) exhibit hostility towards new ideas. Of the latter Hayek finds that conservatism is anti-intellectual because it rejects, “well-substantiated new knowledge because of some of the consequences which seem to follow.”[xiii] This he believed is part of the reason for the tendency of conservatism to embrace nationalism; “strident nationalism” provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism.[xiv] Readers of Hayek’s numerous works might find his rejection of conservatism difficult to reconcile with the obvious parallels between his theory of “spontaneous order” and his rejection of rational design and the political writings of Burke. (Not to mention the critique of rationalism offered by conservatives like Michael Oakeshott.[xv]) Whilst Hayek’s protestations against conservatism were strong we do well to note in that same essay his reservations and criticisms regarding ‘liberalism” and even its applicability to his own (Old Whig) philosophical creed, “however reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Moser, or Donso Cortes may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, laws, morals and conventions.”[xvi]

Naturally, not everyone agreed with Hayek’s analysis. However, there was a strong sentiment from many in the Right that conservatism was lacking at a theoretical level. Meyer shared this sentiment but increasingly started to distance himself from a doctrinaire individualist position. In What is Conservatism Meyer compiled an anthology of essays from various antagonists across the individualist/traditionalist spectrum in which he made his case for a fusionist philosophy.  He felt that the clash between the two comes from a failure to delineate between the moral and political realm. The individualist penchant for libertinism and the traditionalist preference for legislating morality both stem from forgetting that, “in the moral realm freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end, which is virtue…in the political realm freedom is the primary end.”[xvii] Flowing from this failure to dichotomise the individualist falls into the trap of libertinism and denies the inherited moral capital of Christendom.[xviii] Whereas, the traditionalist deprives himself of the classical-liberals empirically grounded economic theories, “in his reaction against its unsound metaphysics.”[xix] He also tends to conflate a respect for tradition with a mindless and arid repetition of what others have done before him. Having distilled the errors of each Meyer called for a dialectical synthesis to bring into fruition a reconstructed conservatism. His vision was somewhat realized in the political doctrines of politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It’s fair to say that modern conservatism has taken a course of fused liberal and conservative principles; however, a blue print for a new philosophy along the lines Meyer describes has yet to emerge. The ingenuity and creativity of Meyer is to be admired but we must face the actuality of the dynamics within the intellectual right:

“Conservatives often say their movement is a fusion of libertarianism and traditionalist conservatism. That was in theory. In practice it worked something like this: libertarians quoted Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman while taking care of economic issues like tax cuts, privatisation, and free trade. Traditionalist conservatives quoted Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot, and handled more abstract ideas like God, authority, and tradition.”[xx]

Kirk’s essay “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” published in Freedom and Virtue provides a very powerful case against both the possibility of an individualist/traditionalist fusion and “libertarianism” as a creed. For the sake of avoiding repetition I will not review all the arguments but I find a few of them quite compelling.

Firstly, libertarians are located on the same spectrum as Marxists by reason of their inherent materialism. The libertarian political ontology erroneously divides the world into totalitarians and individualists. Instead the schism is between those who believe in a transcendent order and those that, “mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.”[xxi] Irrespective of whether one believes in a universal moral order there is a truth to this statement. The Marxist denies God and substitutes a universal moral order[xxii] with so-called “scientism” grounded in the material dialectic. Likewise the libertarian slides towards crude utilitarianism denying transcendent morality for maximal individual freedom. 

Secondly, flowing from different concept of the individual is a fundamental disagreement about the state and civil society. The libertarian sides with the Marxist in calling for the withering of state – though they each have a very different ends in mind. For Burke the state and civil society are conjoined in a partnership that’s beyond the ephemeral individual:

“the state ought not be considered as nothing better than a partnership in trade…………..It is a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”[xxiii]

It’s clear that there’s a fundamental impasse at the conception of the state, the individual and civil society – and the libertarian is inclined to paint a rather superficial picture.

Thirdly, Kirk presents the case for why the libertarian is utopian. He believes that the libertarian sees human nature as fundamentally benevolent; corruptible only by institutions and the state. Thus, the libertarian is inclined to believe that if people are left to their devices the market will take care of the unfortunate and society will naturally self-order.  Of course conservatives with their pessimistic view of human nature consider this naive. 

I believe libertarian folly is more often than not rooted in a belief that we are essentially by nature rational decision makers.  However, thinkers such as Hayek possibly provide an isthmus between conservatism and classical liberalism here. Hayek’s defence of the market is tied in with a “spontaneously ordering” account of human nature – and not inherent rationality. Hayek does not deprive us of Burke’s ‘little platoons,’ nor does he deny us the state or those traditional institutions essential to conservatism. Perhaps we can have the market and conservatism?  This issue deserves far less superficial treatment than it has been given here but alas there is not space here to elaborate.

I think there are many lessons to be learned for our party from these debates of bygone decades. Particularly as much debate with our party concerns the keeping of conservative and liberal elements within the same tent. I think there are a few points for reflection:

We do well to strike down where ever it rises the totally fallacious conflation of nomenclature with principle – that it’s being the “Liberal Party” therefore precludes us from being a inclusive of conservatives. Just as no one holds that a Magnum Ice Cream belongs in the class of things that possess “greatness,” neither do our American counterparts hold their Republican Party hostage to the philosophies of Jean Jacques Rousseau or James Harrington.

We do well to step back from the ubiquitous trumpeting of “freedom” without locating the term in a context.

We do well to note that there is a tension between liberalism and conservatism, but that does not mean aspects of them cannot cohere.

We do well to remain suspicious of rational design. For it’s here that conservatives and classical-liberals sing from the same page.

William Church is a qualified lawyer and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Queensland. He resides in Brisbane and is Vice-Chair of Brisbane Central Branch of the Young Liberal National Party and a member of ACM QLD Committee. He has strong personal interests in politics, philosophy, history and constitutional issues.


[i] George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Basic Books Inc., 1976; p86.

[ii] See Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, Blackwell Publishing, 1974.

[iii] See i; p 40.

[iv] Ibid;

[v] For a thorough overview and analysis of Strauss’s criticism of Hobbes see Michael Oakeshott, “Dr Leo Strauss on Hobbes” in Hobbes on Civil Association, Basil Blackwell/Oxford, 1975; p132 -149.

[vi] See i. Ibid; p73.

[vii] Frank S. Meyer, “Collectivism Rebaptized,” The Freeman Vol 5, July 1955; p560.

[viii] Russell Kirk, “ Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom,” Chapter 2, What Is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p23.

[ix] See vi. P 165.

[x] Frank Meyer, “Conservatism” in Left, Right, Center: Essays on Liberalism and Conservatism in the United States, ed Robert A. Goldwin, The University of Chicago, 1965; p 2-3

[xi] F.A. Hayek, “Why I am not a Conservative” in What Is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p94.

[xii] Ibid; p93

[xiii] Ibid; p96

[xiv] Ibid;

[xv] See Michael Oakeshott “Rationalism in Politics” in Rationalism in Politics and other Essays, Liberty Fund Inc, 1991.

[xvi] See xiv. Ibid; p91

[xvii] Frank S. Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism” in What is Conservatism?, ed. Frank S. Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p15.

[xviii] Ibid;

[xix] Ibid; p14

[xx] Don Arthur, “Defusing The American Right” in Policy Magazine Vol. 24 No.4, Centre for Independent Studies, Summer 2008-2009; p19.

[xxi] Russell Kirk, “ A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” in Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate ed. George W. Carey, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998; p182-183

[xxii] Ibid;

[xxiii] Edmund Burke, Reflections on The Revolution in France, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Leave a Reply