Robert Nisbet on Libertarians and Conservatives

Over at Powerline, a recent post mentioned an essay on libertarians and conservatives by Robert Nisbet. Nisbet was an extremely throughtful conservative, who was respectful of libertarians (unlike Russel Kirk, whose essay “The Chirping Sectaries” Power Line also mentioned). I reread Nisbet’s piece on the Uneasy Cousins of conservatives and libertarians, written in 1979, and I have to say it holds up relatively well.

Nisbet focuses on both the agreements and disagreements between the two political theories. Among the agreements, he notes four:

1. The dislike of government intervention, especially national, centralized government.

2. The view that equality should be legal equality, not equality of result.

3. The belief in the necessity of freedom, and most notably, economic freedom (although conservatives are more prepared to endorse occasional infringements).

4. The dislike of war and especialy of war society such as during WWI and WWII.

The only one of these that seemed a bit off to me was the last. Nisbet supports his claim with the following:

And let us remember that beginning with the Spanish-American War, which the conservative McKinley opposed strongly, and coming down through each of the wars this century in which the United States became involved, the principal opposition to American entry came from those elements of the economy and social order which were generally identifiable as conservative-whether “middle western isolationist,” traditional Republican, central European ethnic, small business, or however we wish to designate such opposition. . . . [T]he solid and really formidable opposition against American entry [into the two world wars] came from those closely linked to business, church, local community, family, and traditional morality.

It may be so. But to my mind, this element of conservatism seems to be gone. Sadly. (Perhaps the most important remnant is Patrick Buchanan and his opposition to the two Iraqi wars.)

Now the disagreements:

1. Conservatives view the population as composed not of individuals but of natural groups such as the family, locality, churh, region, social class.

2. Conservatives emphasize the importance of social authority, which is valuable in part because it reduces the need for political control. Libertarians believe we must challenge any and all forms of authority, “including those which are inseparable from the social bond. Libertarians seem to me to give less and less recognition to the very substantial difference between the coercions of, say, family, school, and local community and those of the centralized bureaucratic state.”

3. Conservatives support a strong nation to stand up to “despotisms as huge and powerful as the Soviet Union and China survive and prosper. . . For the United States to ignore or to profess indifference to the aggressive acts of these and many other military, aggressive despotisms would be in time suicidal.”

“Libertarians, whom I herewith stipulate to be as patriotic and loyal American as any conservatives,” do no see the U.S. as a “weakened, softened, and endangered nation in a world of Soviet Unions and Chinas and their satellites, but, rather, an American nation swollen from the juices of nationalism, interventionism and militarism that really has little to fear from abroad.” (Remember Nisbet is writing in 1979 at the end of the Carter Administration.)

Here, I largely agree with Nisbet (without necessarily agreeing with the fact that he puts these points from the conservative point of view).

As I said, Nisbet’s points stand up well 35 years later. The whole essay is well worth reading.