False and True Connections Between Libertarianism and Conservatism
An analysis of the dispute between Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe regarding the relationship between libertarianism and conservatism, with a proposed solution to the problem.
In 2007, Walter Block published a piece in Reason Papers (pdf) defending what he calls “plumbline libertarianism”:
In brief, plumb-line libertarianism is the view that human actions are justified only if they are consistent with private property rights, which are themselves, in turn, defended on the basis of homesteading or voluntary acts such as purchase, gifts, etc.
Plumb-line libertarianism may be defined in terms of pure libertarian principle: It does not compromise this political-economic perspective, not to curry favor with leftists or rightists. As stated above, it is entirely consistent with this view to make alliances with advocates of these other views, but the plumb-line libertarian will never confuse his own philosophy with either of these two others.
This is in contradistinction to the Hoppean views that “Conservatives today must be antistatist libertarians”, and “Libertarians must be conservatives”, where we have the following definition (extracted from Democracy: The God that Failed):
“Conservative” refers to someone who recognises the old and natural through the “noise” of anomalies and accidents and who defends, supports and helps to preserve it against the temporary and anomalous. Within the realm of the humanities, including the social sciences, a conservative recognizes families (fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren) and households based on private property and in cooperation with other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, ancient and indispensable social units…
Conservatives (or more specifically, Western Greco-Christian conservatives), if they stand for anything, stand for and want to preserve the family and the social hierarchies and layers of material as well as spiritual-intellectual authority based on and growing out of family bonds and kinship relations.
According to Block:
Hoppe goes so far as to assert that “Conservative refers to someone who believes in the existence of a natural order”… The difficulty is that “natural order” is this author’s synonym for anarcho-capitalism. This assertion implies, then, that conservatives are not limited-government libertarians, or “minarchists.”
From reading the relevant pages of Democracy, including the excerpts I’ve given above, my own interpretation must be that by “natural order” Hoppe instead means the historically normal tendency for peaceful members of human society to raise traditional families and attempt to lead classically virtuous and productive lives.
But despite their differences, it is clear that Hoppe does share the same belief in “plumbline” libertarianism as Block (p.200):
…libertarianism (Rothbardianism) is a systematic law code, derived by means of logical deduction from a single principle… This axiom is the ancient principle of original appropriation… I believe this theory to be true, indeed to be irrefutably true.
At this point we have a distinction between the legal system of libertarianism and the social tendency of conservatism. An essential connection is presented to us as follows:
Conservatives are convinced that the “natural” and the “normal” is old and widespread (and thus can be discerned always and everywhere). Similarly, libertarians are convinced that the principles of justice are eternally and universally valid (and hence, must have been essentially known to mankind since its beginnings). That is, the libertarian ethic is not new and revolutionary, but old and conservative.
I would critique this from the following perspective. If it is true that the principles of justice are eternally and universally valid, then it is clear that as far as their truth-values are concerned, they are timeless, and in this sense they are neither new nor old. They are rather like the truths of mathematics, which are discoverable, albeit with varying levels of difficulty, by any thinking person at any time in history. For example, the theorems of geometry were true before Euclid discovered them, and they would still be true even if he hadn’t. We could appeal to a conservative to agree with these theorems because of their ancient character, but as Block points out in so many words, that hardly seems prudent when we can appeal to the conservative merely on the basis of their being true.
Similarly, Hoppe writes “Even primitives and children are capable of grasping the principle of original appropriation, and most people usually recognize it as an unquestionable matter of fact”. And yet the same could be said about the sentence “1+1=2”. Does that make the sentence “1+1=2” something “old” and “conservative”?
If we were attempting to teach maths to conservatives, perhaps the ancient character of so much mathematics would help us to persuade them of the truth contained therein. But what then if we were attempting to demonstrate Fermat’s Last Theorem, the proof of which is decidedly new and revolutionary? Our shrewd efforts will now come unstuck, since the reasons for which they accepted what we previously taught have now become good reason to reject us. Our strategy has become something of a double-edged sword.
The differences between the sentence “1+1=2” and the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem are merely complexity and date of discovery. The implication of the metaphor, then, is that even if the tactic of appealing to the mere simplicity and age of so much libertarian thought may actually succeed when it comes to persuading the conservative, we are now rightfully restricted when it comes to advocating modern, complex, or non-intuitive conclusions, since we defended the ancient, simple and intuitive conclusions merely on that basis. In other words, “conservatives must be libertarians” is true only for those libertarian principles which happen to be of a similar age and simplicity to conservative principles, and then only out of expediency.
Ultimately, this is a question of strategy on which the libertarian movement is divided. There may be particular situations where it will seem advantageous for a libertarian to justify his views in some odd way or another so that conservatives will join his side, despite the inevitable shortcomings of this approach, and the weakness or even outright falsity of the modified arguments. To remain honest, however, libertarians must present as true only those arguments with which they genuinely agree. We must remember that the reasons we’ve seen for conservatives being libertarians are independent of the reasons for which libertarianism is a defensible political philosophy.
Next, in defending the claim the libertarians must be conservatives, Hoppe writes:
What the countercultural libertarians failed to recognize, and what true libertarians cannot emphasize enough, is that the restoration of private property rights and laissez-faire economics implies a sharp and drastic increase in social “discrimination” and will swiftly eliminate most if not all of the multicultural-egalitarian lifestyle experiments so close to the heart of left libertarians.
By “multicultural-egalitarian lifestyle experiments”, Hoppe is referring to “vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, drug use, promiscuity, pornography, prostitution, homosexuality”, and so on. He laments “the decay of families, divorce, illegitimacy, loss of authority, multiculturalism, alternative lifestyles, social disintegration, sex and crime.”
I substantially agree with Block’s response to this point.
With the exception of crime, which is necessarily a violation of person and property rights, and, possibly, “multiculturalism” (if this is understood in terms of coercive force), there is not a single entry on this list that is necessarily incompatible with libertarianism. Take illegitimacy, for example. It cannot be denied that this is often, nay, virtually always, a tragedy, both for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. We know that illegitimacy plays a causal role, for example, in increased crime, suicide, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism rates, and with other indices of social and economic disarray. But for all that, we must hark back to basic libertarian principles to assess the assertion that illegitimacy must be incompatible with the tenets of this philosophy. Clearly, it is not.
To expand on this point, I might add that Hoppe’s conjecture could be compared to the conjecture that businesses which provide poor quality customer service would, ceteris paribus, go out of business in the competitive marketplace, thanks to the discretionary abilities of the consumers under those conditions. This might very well be true, yet it is hardly an argument that libertarians should offer excellent customer service in their professional lives. The transition from the observation “Behaviour X is unlikely to survive in the free market” to “Those who advocate the free market should not exhibit behaviour X” is not a small one. Libertarians might use their understanding of the market to predict socially successful behaviours and thus attempt to perform them, but there is hardly a logical or ethical contradiction if they do not value social success so highly compared to the costs of attempting to carry out the behaviours associated with achieving it.
At this point the true connection between libertarianism and conservatism can be made apparent. Note that Block claims that there is something wrong about illegitimacy: it’s not merely a poor lifestyle choice for those involved, but a tragedy. However, as he points out, there is nothing that libertarianism can say in condemnation of illegitimacy, since it is not necessarily coercive.
In fact, there is no praxeological proof that there is anything at all wrong with illegitimacy, nor with drug use, homosexuality, promiscuity, prostitution, nor any of the other manifestations of “multicultural-egalitarian lifestyle experiments”.
What do these behaviours have in common? I contend that they are all (with the possible exception of homosexuality) manifestations of relatively high time preferences. They are behaviours with high short-term benefits but potentially significant long-term costs.
The critical impact of our time preferences on how we live our lives is described by Hoppe in Time Preference, Government, and the Process of De-Civilisation (p. 322):
Within the constraints imposed by external and biological factors an actor sets his time preference rate in accordance with his subjective evaluations. How high or low this rate is and what changes it will undergo in the course of his lifetime depend on personal psychological factors. One man may not care about anphing but the present and the most immediate future. Like a child, he may only be interested in instant or minimally delayed gratification. In accordance with his high time preference, he may want to be a vagabond, a drifter, a drunkard, a junkie, a daydreamer, or simply a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who likes to work as little as possible in order to enjoy each and every day to the fullest. Another man may worry about his and his offspring’s future constantly and, by means of savings, may want to build up a steadily growing stock of capital and durable consumer goods in order to provide for an increasingly larger supply of future goods and an ever longer period of provision. A third person may feel a degree of time preference somewhere in between these extremes, or he may feel different degrees at different times and therefore choose still another lifestyle-career.
Block, like m0st economists of the Austrian School, has a very keen understanding of the role of time preference, and I propose that it is this understanding which informs his views on illegitimacy. Illegitimacy is easily linked with the relatively high time preferences of the parents (lack of restraint, lack of precaution-taking, lack of planning, etc). If the respective individuals had lower time preferences, they may have accepted some short-term disutility in order to secure a more stable long-term future for themselves and their children.
Note that this is not a blanket criticism of illegitimacy: given the respective value scales of those involved and the choices available to them, it’s possible that having children outside of marriage was the correct course of action available to them at the time. However, it more often than not appears to those people with an awareness of the role of time preference in our lives that illegitimacy is a terrible long-term cost to bear for very short-term gains, and that those who produce illegitimate children probably lack the correct information or understanding that would help to produce for them the much greater happiness in the long run. In other words, there is a view that those people with high rates of time preference have, in some sense, falsely valued the options available to them.
At this point I would like to offer a new definition:
Conservative: one with a relatively low degree of time preference.
This definition allows us to treat the Hoppean hypotheses in a new light. Given this definition, typical conservative behaviours could include furthering one’s education, saving and investing, engaging in sexual self-restraint, nourishing long-term relationships, viewing marriage as a long-term commitment, caring for one’s health, building one’s professional reputation and network, and so on. The type of lifestyle that this conservative leads is in all likelihood very similar to the life that the Hoppean conservative leads. However, this definition also allows for a wider variety of views (this conservative need not have any particular opinions on the existence of a natural order, elitism, the virtues of “normalcy”, etc), while still capturing the essence of the type of character evoked in most people’s minds by the description “conservative”.
In materialistic terms, the lowering of our time preferences is associated with economic growth through capital accumulation; indeed, as the key to advancing civilisation by multiplying the marginal productivity of labour. Hoppe goes on to write in Time Preference (pp. 323-326):
The saver-investor initiates a ‘process of civilization”. In generating a tendency toward a fall In the rate of time preference, he successfully raises himself – and everyone directly or indirectly connected to him through a network of exchanges – from barbarism to civilization and from human childhood to adulthood… The aforementioned tendency toward a fall in the rate of time preference and the accompanying process of civilization will proceed so long… as no one interferes with another’s acts of nature-appropriation and production.
Competing with the tendency toward a falling rate of time preference, another opposing tendency comes into operation with the existence of government. By simultaneously reducing the supply of present and (expected) future goods, governmental property rights violations not only raise time preference rates (with given schedules) but also time preference schedules. Because appropriator-producers are (and see themselves as) defenseless against future victimization by government agents, their expected rate of return on productive, future oriented actions is reduced all-around, and accordingly all actual and potential victims become more present-oriented.
This is the key insight: that government property rights violations act overwhelmingly in opposition to the interests of those with low time preferences. By inflation, capital gains tax, income tax, corporation tax, inheritance tax, and so many other ways in which governments consume wealth, rob savings and interfere with our ability to provide for our future, they prevent low time preferences from being appropriately rewarded by the marketplace. Similarly public welfare, public healthcare, misguided marriage laws and other forms of mass subsidy all incentivise destructive short-term-oriented lifestyles.
This pattern is no less clear when it comes to the business cycle, with monetary and fiscal policies firstly encouraging unsustainable short-term capital consumption, and then providing massively destructive bailouts, stimulus packages and inflation, all to prevent short-term economic collapse.
If it’s true that government property rights violations tend to remove the rewards which would otherwise accrue to those with naturally low time preferences, then we have a clear explanation as to why libertarians (those who oppose government property rights violations) would be significantly more “conservative” (in the new sense of the word) than could otherwise be expected of their demographic. Those naturally inclined to have lower time preferences than others have a proportionally stronger interest in having those preferences rewarded; hence, they are more likely to be anti-statist.
This should not be a controversial observation. Whom do we expect to find campaigning for higher public sector pay, but public sector workers? Whom do we expect to find agitating for business subsidies, but lobbyists employed by those businesses? Similarly, whom should we expect to discover is opposed to the whole raft of time preference-increasing property rights violations committed by governments, but people with low rates of time preference, i.e. conservatives?
It is true that the Hoppean conservatives – those who aspire to classically virtuous and productive family lives in the context of a natural order – are among those people in society with relatively low rates of time preference. However, this analysis has shown that anybody with relatively low time preferences should have a particularly strong interest in the free market (although of course this selfish interest is negated by the extent to which the individual can exploit government violations for personal gain). We can now understand why the Hoppean conservatives along with simple traditionalists, savers, market-oriented business people and other types of productive and virtuous members of society might all exist in greater numbers among the libertarian movement than could otherwise be expected.
In summary, I affirm that Block’s plumbline libertarianism (Hoppe’s Rothbardianism) is the correct basis for all libertarian ethics. I disagree with the view that all conservatives must be libertarians, only because the logical irrefutability of libertarian ethics is without reference to their simplicity or date of discovery, nor to anyone’s particular behavioural preferences. I disagree with the view that all libertarians must be conservatives, due to the lack of a necessary relationship between universally valid principles of justice on the one hand, and the personal preferences historically associated with human happiness on the other.
I do agree with Hoppe that the non-conservative modes of behaviour are made far more widepread by the effects of government property rights violations. I contend that Hoppe, Block and economists of the Austrian School in general share an enlightened view of the role of time preferences in human prosperity and happiness, which itself is the foundation of those views generally considered to be “conservative”. I therefore propose an alternative definition of “conservative” which I believe provides us with greater flexibility and a heightened predictive power. In particular, it provides us with a direct explanation of the historical relationship between libertarian and conservative views. Rather than concluding that libertarians must be conservatives, I conclude that people with low rates of time preference are more likely to be libertarians.