Friday, October 3, 2008

Conservatism and libertarianism

I used to be a "fusionist," someone who held that conservatism could be harmonized with libertarianism. I no longer believe that. You can be a conservative who sympathizes with certain ideas associated with libertarianism -- the market economy, limited government, and so forth -- but (as I now think) you cannot be both a conservative and a libertarian, in any interesting sense of the word "libertarian." So much the worse for libertarianism. Some of the reasons for this change in view are summarized in my article "The Conservative Critique of Libertarianism," which I wrote for the new Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy. A preview of the Encyclopedia can be found here on Google Book Search, and includes my article. It can be found at pp. 95-97.


  1. The link does indeed pull up a preview of The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, but the copy is one where the reader has to page through successively and is in too small print to be readable. Thus, effectively, your blog entry is not at all helpful.

    I would be interested in your defense of conservatism against libertarianism, as have read what I believe to be every other book and article published on this topic. My conclusion after that rather extensive reading is that what is called "conservatism" is either an incoherent jumble of sentimentalities, and proud of that fact, or a form of Catholic fascism. I would hope that a professional political and moral philosopher would not defend either of those varients.

  2. Craig,

    If you use the "Search in this book" feature on the Google Books page, type in "conservative critique," and scroll through the results, you will find a link that will take you directly to p. 95. Then at the top of the screen you should also see a magnification button, which if you click two or three times will make the text as large as you want it. All of this takes only a few seconds.

    Re: my own views on conservatism, I would certainly defend neither "an incoherent jumble of sentimentalities" or fascism. If you go to the "Articles" page on my main site (, there are several articles there you might find of interest. In particular, you might check out "Hayek on Tradition," "Godless Morality?" and "The Metaphysics of Conservatism."

  3. Excellent Article Dr Feser. And thank you for starting this blog. I have enjoyed reading your work and I look forward to reading more of it.


  4. There are many with conservative values who think the state should have a light hand. It is precisely the freedom guaranteed by the state that allows one to choose their (conservative or otherwise) values.

    There are many on the conservative side who see the state as more than the guarantor of freedom. Like the socialists they wish to co-opt the state to their social agenda.

    Just as proponents of "free" markets still require regulation to enforce bargains and to limit monopolies and anti-competitive practices, libertarians (sane ones at least) still need the state to protect their liberties.

    The type of conservativism that requires the state to be part of the conservative enterprise is incompatible with libertarianism and indeed with liberty.

    However, it is perfectly possible to be a libertarian and to choose a conservative lifestyle.

    1. pretty old comment and you likely aren't going to read it, but all(or almost that) of what you said here is questionable at best and outright false at worst. would like to know if you still hold these views after all this time.

  5. Dr. Feser,

    Would you say that you agree on the whole with Burke's criticisms as outlined in the article, or do you think that Burke's objections are deficient in some ways as well?


  6. Hello Bonaventure, do you mean Kirk's (rather than Burke's) criticisms? If so, then the answer is that I do mostly accept them, at least with the qualifications indicated in the article, and especially as applied to the socially/culturally liberal sort of libertarianism one finds in Reason magazine, the Cato Institute, and the like.

  7. Yes, that is what I meant. (I don't know why I said Burke).

    Thank you for your reply.


  8. Dear Mr. Feser- just wanted to say I was very happy to hear that you started a blog. You've been something of a hero of mine ever since you bravely wrote those articles several years ago about the Left's ascendancy in the University (and, moreover, given your excellent smackdowns of the ever vile and loathsome Brian Leiter).

    Another philosopher's weblog you might want to add to your roll is Just Thomism*. I'm friends with the fellow whose blog it is- he's a graduate of Thomas Aquinas college and is pursuing his PhD at the Angelicum in Rome. He's without question one of the most intellectually gifted people I've ever come across. (And I've known some pretty formidable people - for whatever that's worth). Cheers, -R.


  9. Many thanks, R. -- and I'll take a look at Just Thomism

  10. Dear prof. Feser,
    I regret to bother you but I can't see the article "Conservative Critique of Libertarianism" ...Google Book won't allow me to search "in this book".
    Is there any chance that this article can be sent through?

    Thank you.