Conservatism and Libertarianism: Shared Origins, Shared Assassins – A Reply to Charles Shier | Adam Garrie

The following is my reply to an article which itself was a reply to one that I wrote earlier this month. The initial article, There Is No Inherent Contradiction Between Traditional Conservatism And Libertarianism in Britain, postulated my view that in spite of ongoing intellectual arguments seeking to present traditional British conservatism as antithetical to contemporary libertarianism, in reality, traditional British conservatism has helped to cultivate, guarantee and expand many if not most of the very things that libertarians wish to achieve.

In his reply to my article (True Conservatism and Libertarianism are Mutually Exclusive), Mr. Charles Shier asserted that what he sees as the contradictions between traditional British conservatism and contemporary libertarianism, cannot be reconciled in the future and have never been bound together in the past.

To understand the relationship between libertarianism and traditional British conservatism, one must examine that which most libertarians would be happy with in the real world, as opposed to the high flung ideals which libertarians publicly espouse. Most libertarians in the year 2020 would be broadly happy to live in a country where the sanctity of the freedom of speech was a matter of constitutional principle, rather than one where freedom of speech has been terrifically eroded with multiple pieces of both British and EU legislation. In 21st century Britain, both statutory and arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of speech stifle liberty based on the erroneous notion that it is the state’s duty to protect the abstract feelings of fringe groups from jokes, criticism and even qualified praise.

Likewise, most libertarians would very much wish to live in a country whose currency is backed by gold rather than by nothing (fiat). Most libertarians would also like to live in a country in which public spending was low, most infrastructure was financed privately and one in which there was no humbug about going to war in a far off land in order to ‘preserve the human rights’ of those one intends to fight.

The aspirations of today’s libertarians largely reflect the realities of British society prior to the world wars. In particular, all of the libertarian aspirations described above substantially correspond to the realities of life during the golden age of Pax Britannica (1815-1914).

Although there were robust Parliamentary arguments throughout the 19th century regarding what today is often called classical liberalism versus traditional conservatism, none of these arguments were made in pursuit of ballooning the state into the socialist leviathan that it became after 1945. Indeed, such arguments would have generally horrified both Tories and Liberals of the 19th century. Even Joseph Chamberlain’s radical programme in Birmingham appears tame and even modest when compared to the big state/big socialism of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Of course, when comparing 19th century radicalism with 20th century socialism, some might argue that it was a slippery slope, but this is not a point I care to argue in this piece. What is relevant is that between 1815 and 1914, Britain was a place that most libertarians would recognise as a country where government was vastly smaller that it became in the 20th century and in many ways smaller than it was in the 18th century. 19th century Britain was also a country that still valued free speech whilst today, Britain has become a country which sneers at free speech, preferring instead to fly the supine red flag of state sanctioned egalitarianism.

In this sense, whilst the term had not been invented in the 19th century, with the benefit of hindsight, the conservatism of 19th century Britain was vastly more libertarian than just about anything in mainstream or even fringe British politics in the 21st century.

As Mr. Shier correctly implies, the term libertarianism is an Americanism which itself was invented by those in the United States who felt that a land founded on the principles of individualism had strayed from their 18th century origins during the course of the second half of the 20th century.

In this sense, whilst the word libertarianism was invented as a means of drawing a distinction between the values of America’s founding fathers and the big government America of the post-New Deal era, the term has made its way to Britain and for understandable reasons. Although Britain’s conceptions of liberty are rooted in the prescriptive tonic of history (as expressed in Britain’s non-codified constitution), whilst America’s are rooted in the letter and spirit of a single document (America’s codified constitution), the universalist/internationalist dogmas of socialism threatened the traditions of both countries in the 20th century and continue to do so into the 21st century.

The fact of the matter is that whilst British liberty is more reflective of a “please refrain from stepping on my toes” attitude as opposed to the American admonition “don’t tread on me”, when viewed from the position of continental states that have precious few historical liberties when compared with the English speaking world, these trans-Atlantic differences suddenly feel less significant.

Of course, it was not only America’s constitution but its geography and history that have created a country where freedom is more individualistic than it is in the smaller and less topographically rugged Britain. Insofar as this is the case, whilst those in Britain and the US tend to use what is left of their freedoms in some different ways, the roots of both can be traced back to Runnymede, 1215.

The main thrust of Mr. Shier’s argument is about something beyond contrasting old world vs. new world liberty. It would appear that Mr. Shier very much shares my disdain for the kind of selfish, avaricious and even anti-social variety of libertarianism preached by some of the 21st century’s pied pipers of such beliefs.

To address this matter, one must return to an analysis of pre-war Britain in order to understand that whilst society was more rooted in community, Christianity, a common purpose and shared values, none of these things were imparted to British subjects under the red jackboot of the state. Rather, these values  arose naturally as a consequence of sincerely held attitudes among individuals who formed families, communities, villages, cities and ultimately an Empire which spanned the globe. When Britain was a more conservative country, it was a place in which people used their freedom to renounce rogue eccentricity and embrace self-restraint. This made Britain a far more stable and pleasant land than those in which people were forced to behave properly at the point of a bayonet.

Today we see the opposite. Whilst the rulers of post-war Britain tended to embrace varying degrees of socialism (typically under different names), the result has been an abolition of both individual liberty and the community values of a tolerant and well-mannered Christian nation. Just because today’s ultra-libertarians might appear to reject the values of traditional British conservatism, the joke is largely on them due to the fact that when Britain was a society with a smaller government and fewer restrictions on the freedom of speech, it was also a more mild mannered, less extravagant and less vulgar land.

This reality was in fact noted by the father of post-Napoleonic continental conservatism, Klemens von Metternich. Metternich called Britain the “freest country in the world, because [it is] the most orderly”. Britain’s symbiotic traditions of liberty and conservatism were noticed by a man known to Europe as a master of order, but not a man who had much time for the kinds individual liberties that were common in the English speaking world of his epoch.

Mr. Shier concludes by rightly pointing out that traditional British conservatism cannot be taken to the same extremes as libertarianism and socialism. This is because moderation guided by tradition is a central feature of British conservatism.

Sadly, many so-called conservatives of this era have sacrificed moderation on the altar of capitulating to socialism. By contrast, no such sacrifice would be necessary for British conservatives if they sought to rekindle the traditions of liberty. This is because British conservatism guaranteed and promoted libertarianism before libertarianism was even a word.


Photo by Jeff Burak on Unsplash.

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