Is it possible for the traditional conservative concern with virtue and the good society to be reconciled with the libertarian emphasis on individual freedom? Should libertarianism be considered part of conservatism, or is it an alien presence? These are some of the crucial questions editor George W. Carey and a variety of conservative and libertarian authors examine in Freedom and Virtue.

Setting the terms of this debate is difficult, since conservatives and libertarians, as Carey notes, move in essentially different moral worlds. Most conservatives, true to their Burkean roots, think of man as a historical being. The individual exists in the matrix of a plurality of authorities and lives within social traditions. But if conservatives are thus in basic agreement with Wilhelm Dilthey’s belief that man reveals himself not through philosophical speculation but through history, libertarians generally adhere to a different view. As John Hospers points out, libertarians decide on the proper course of action by consulting theorems derived from their axioms, not the real world.

Conservatives claim that the degree of individual freedom proposed by libertarians may erode public and private virtue. Libertarians argue that virtuous action cannot be coerced, since an action can only partake of virtue (or vice) if it is freely chosen.

The term “freely chosen” has an appealing ring to modern ears, but what exactly does it mean? Virtually everyone would agree that an act performed at gunpoint is neither good nor evil. But the freedom of choice libertarians want is the right to decide upon a course of action after rationally and reflectively considering the alternatives. Frank Meyer, presumably with something like this in mind, declared that every moment in the quest for virtue represents a “new beginning.” There is room for objection here, though. Every moment is not a new beginning; if it were, it would be almost impossible for a person to achieve coherence of character. As Emile Durkheim made clear a century ago, conduct and character are primarily derived from the internalization of socially prescribed norms.

Consider the case of state-sponsored moral education of the sort suggested by Walter Berns. Despite the arguments of libertarians, there is little ground for viewing such education as necessarily “coercive.” How, for instance, is the freedom of a child from the slums reduced by allowing him to judge criminal role models against the teachings of Stoic or Christian philosophy? The conservative attempt to “compel” virtue can therefore be seen for what it is: an effort to foster but not coerce the development of virtuous character.

Traditionalists, of course, do not want the state to bear primary responsibility for promoting virtue; they would prefer to see much of the work done by the “little platoons” that exist between the state and the individual. Many libertarians see philosophy as offering less of a barrier to totalitarian ideology than libertarianism. Viewed in the abstract, this claim has some merit: the individual is freer under the axioms of libertarianism than under the structure of traditionalist society. Viewed historically, the claim has no foundation. During the millennia in which the individual lived under the rule of a “plurality of authorities,” totalitarianism did not appear; it only emerged once the sway of these authorities was broken in deference to the free, atomized individual.

Libertarians agree with conservatives on some matters: both groups are unalterably hostile to the modern totalitarian state. But any wedding between the two can only produce the ill-begotten progeny of syncretism.


[Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate; Edited by George W. Carey; Intercollegiate Studies Institute/University Press of America; Lanham, MD]