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Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries By RUSSELL KIRK

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1. The Progeny of J. S. Mill
ANY DISCUSSION OF the relationships between conservatives (who now, to judge by
public-opinion polls, are a majority among
American citizens) and libertarians (who,
as tested by recent elections, remain a tiny
though unproscribed minority) naturally
commences with an inquiry into what these
disparate groups hold in common. These
two bodies of opinion share a detestation of
collectivism. They set their faces against
the totalist state and the heavy hand of
bureaucracy. That much is obvious
What else do conservatives and libertarian’s profess in common? The answer to
that question is simple: nothing. Nor will
they ever have. To talk of forming a league
or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.
The ruinous failing of the ideologues
who call themselves libertarians is their
fanatic attachment to a simple solitary
principle- that is, to the notion of personals freedom as the whole end of the civil
social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled
folk, in the sense that they live by certain
abstractions of the nineteenth century.
They carry to absurdity the doctrines of
John Stuart Mill (before Mill’s wife converted him to socialism, that is). To
understand the mentality of the libertarian’s of 1981, it may be useful to remind
ourselves of a little book published more
than a hundred and twenty years ago: John
Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Arguments that
were flimsy in 1859 (and were soundly
refuted by James Fitzjames Stephen) have
become farcical in 1981. So permit me to
digress concerning Mill’s famous essay.
Some books tend to form the character of
their age; others to reflect it; and Mill’s
Liberty is of the latter order.
That tract is a product of the peacefulness

and optimism of Victorian England;
written at the summit of what Bagehot
calls the Age of Discussion, it is a voice
from out the vanished past of nineteenth century meliorism. The future, it turned
out, was not to the school of Mill. As Mill
himself was the last of the line of British
empiricists, so his Liberty, with its
foreboding remarks on the despotism of
the masses, was more an epilogue to middle-class liberalism than a rallying-cry.
James Mill, John Stuart Mill’s austere
doctrinaire father (what sour folk many of
these zealots for liberty turn themselves into!) subjected his son to a rigorous course of
private study. By the time he was eight
years old, J. S. Mill knew nearly everything
that a doctor of philosophy is supposed to
know nowadays; but his intellect was untouched by the higher imagination, and
for that Mill groped in vain all his life long.
J. S. Mill became all head and no heart, in
which character he represents Jeremy Bentham; yet in truth it was Mill himself,
rather than Bentham, who turned into
defecated intellect.
Mill exhibited but one failing, so far as
emotions go, and that not an uncommon
one-being too fond of another man’s
wife. F. A. Hayek has discussed this
association and its consequences for Mill
and his followers. Mill eventually married
this dismaying bluestocking, Harriet
Taylor, the forerunner of today’s feminist
militant. He was devoted to her, and she to
humanitarian abstractions. It was under
her tutelage that he wrote On Liberty. The
intellectual ancestors of today’s libertarians
were no very jolly crew.
“By slaying all his animal spirits,” Ruth
Burchard writes of Mill, “he was utterly cut
off from his instincts-instinct for life, instinctive understanding of nature, of
human nature in general and of his own in
particular.” It might be interesting to examine

how these deficiencies in Mill
characterized and vitiated the whole
liberal movement in English and American
thought; and how they affect the vestigial
form of nineteenth-century liberalism that
now styles itself “libertarianism.” But we
must pass on, remarking only that this imperfect apprehension of human nature is
readily discerned in the pages of Mill’s
essay On Liberty.
That book displays a strong power of
logic, and some eloquence: but there runs
through it Mill’s error that the tranquil
English society of his own day was destined
to become the universal pattern for all
mankind; and it is injured, too, by Mill’s
curious assumption that most human beings, if only they were properly schooled,
would think and act precisely like John
Stuart Mill.
Now the younger Mill, in his essays on
Coleridge and Bentham, had remarked
truly that the cardinal error of Bentham
was his supposition that the affairs of men
may be reduced to a few simple formulas,
to be applied universally and inflexibly – when actually the great mysterious
incorporation of the human race is infinitely subtle and complex, not to be
dominated by neat little abstractions. Yet
into precisely this same pit Mill falls in his
Liberty. In his introductory chapter, he
declares his object to be the assertion of
“one very simple principle, as entitled to
govern absolutely the dealings of society
with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used
by physical force in the form of legal
penalties, or the moral coercion of public
opinion. That principle is, that the sole
end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering
with the liberty of action of any of their
number, is self-protection. That the only
purpose for which power can be rightfully
exercised over any member of a civilized
community, against his will, is to prevent
harm to others.”
This seems an attractive solitary simple
principle. It sufficiently defines the convictions of twentieth-century libertarians, I
believe. But the trouble with it is that

solitary simple principles, however tidy,
really do not describe human behavior,
and certainly cannot govern it.
James Fitzjames Stephen, a forthright
man of affairs and a scholar in the law,
perceived with irritation that fallacy which
makes Mill’s Liberty a frail reed in
troubled times; and in Liberty,. Equality,
Fruternity, which Stephen published in
1873, he set upon Mill with a whip of scorpions. John Stuart Mill, in Stephen’s eyes,
was hopelessly naïve:
“To me the question whether liberty is a
good or a bad thing,” Stephen wrote, “appears as irrational as the question whether
fire is a good or a bad thing? It is both good
and bad according to time, place, and circumstance, and a complete answer to the
question, In what cases is liberty good and
in what is it bad? would involve not merely
a universal history of mankind, but a complete solution of the problems which such a
history would offer. I do not believe that
the state of our knowledge is such as to
enable us to enunciate any ‘very simple
principle as entitled to govern absolutely
the dealings of society with the individual
in the way of compulsion and control.’ We
must proceed in a far more cautious way,
and confine ourselves to such remarks as
experience suggests about the advantages
and disadvantages of compulsion and
liberty respectively in particular cases.”
In every principle premise of his argument, Stephen declared, Mill suffered
from an inadequate understanding of
human nature and history. All the great
movements of humankind, Stephen said,
have been achieved by force, not by free
discussion; and if we leave force out of our
calculations, very soon we will be subject to
the intolerant wills of men who know no
scruples about employing force against us.
(So, one may remark, the twentieth century libertarians would have us stand
defenseless before the Soviet Russians.) It is
consummate folly to tolerate every variety
of opinion, on every topic, out of devotion
to an abstract “liberty”; for opinion soon
finds its expression in action, and the
fanatics whom we tolerated will not
tolerate us when they have power.

he fierce current of events, in our century, has supplied the proof for Stephen’s
case. Was the world improved by free
discussion of the Nazis’ thesis that Jews
ought to be treated as less than human?
Just this subject was presented to the
population of one of the most advanced
and most thoroughly schooled nations of
the modem world; and then the crew of
adventurers who had contrived to win the
argument proceeded to act after the
fashion with which we now are dreadfully
familiar. We have come to understand, to
our cost, what Burke meant by a “licentious toleration.” An incessant zeal for
repression is not the answer to the complex
difficulties of liberty and order, either.
What Stephen was saying, however, and
what we recognize now, is that liberty cannot be maintained or extended by an abstract appeal to free discussion, sweet
reasonableness, and solitary simple principle.
Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill
dreaded, and they dread today, obedience
to the dictates of custom. In our time, really, the real danger is that custom and
prescription and tradition may be overthrows utterly among us-for has not that
occurred already in most of the world? – by
neoterism, the lust for novelty; and that
men will be no better than the flies of a
summer, oblivious to the wisdom of their
ancestors, and forming every opinion
merely under the pressure of the fad, the
foible, the passion of the hour.
It may be objected that libertarian notions extend back beyond the time of Mill.
Indeed they do; and they had been
refuted before Stephen wrote, as John
Adams refuted them in his exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson and with John
Taylor of Caroline. The first Whig was the
devil, Samuel Johnson informs us; it might
be truer to say that the devil was the
original libertarian. “Lo, I am proud”
The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can
bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He
desires to be different, in morals as in
politics. In a highly tolerant society like
that of America today, such defiance of

authority on principle may lead to perversity on principle, for lack of anything more
startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed
between libertarianism and libertinism.
Thus the typical libertarian of our day
delights in eccentricity – including, often,
sexual eccentricity (a point observed by
that mordant psychologist Dr. Ernest van
den Haag). Did not John Stuart Mill himself commend eccentricity as a defense
against deadening democratic conformity?
He rejoices, our representative libertarian,
in strutting political eccentricity, as in strutting moral eccentricity. But, as Stephen
commented on Mill, “Eccentricity is far
more often a mark of weakness than a
mark of strength, Weakness wishes, as a
rule, to attract attention by trifling distinctions, and strength wishes to avoid it.”
Amen to that. Passing from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, by 1929 we
encounter a writer very unlike Mill exposing the absurdities of affected eccentricity
and of doctrinaire libertarianism: G. K.
Chesterton. Gabriel Gale, the intuitive
hero of Chesterton’s collection of stories entitled The Poet and the Lunatics, speaks
up for centricity: “Genius oughtn’t to be
eccentric! It ought to be the core of the
cosmos, not on the revolving edges. People
seem to think it a compliment to accuse
one of being an outsider, and to talk about
the eccentricities of genius. What would
they think if I said I only wish to God I had
the centricities of genius?”
No one ever has accused libertarians of
being afflicted with the centricities of
genius: for the dream of an absolute
private freedom is one of those visions
which issue from between the gates of
ivory; and the dreadful speed with which
society moves today flings the libertarians
outward through centrifugal force, even to
the outer darkness, where there is wailing
and gnashing of teeth. The final emancipation from religion, convention,
custom, and order is annihilation-
“whirled / Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear / In fractured atoms.”
In The Poet and the Lunatics, Chesterton offers us a parable of such licentious
freedom: a story called “The Yellow Bird.”

To an English country house comes Professor Ivanhov, a Russian scholar who has
published The Psychology of Liberty. He is
a zealot for emancipation, expansion, the
elimination of limits. He begins by
liberating a canary from its cage-to be
torn to pieces in the forest. He proceeds to
liberate the goldfish by smashing their
bowl. He ends by blowing up himself and
the beautiful old house where he has been
a guest.
“What exactly is liberty?” inquires a
spectator of this series of events-Gabriel
Gale, Chesterton’s mouthpiece. “First and
foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing
to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird
was free in the cage. It was free to be alone.
It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers
would be torn to pieces and its voice
choked for ever. Then I began to think
that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself
limitation. We are limited by our brains
and bodies; and if we break out, we cease
to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be
anything. ”
‘l‘he Kussian psychologist could not endure the necessary conditions of human existence; he must eliminate all limits; he
could not endure the “round prison” of the
overarching sky. But his alternative was
annihilation for himself and his lodging;
and he took that alternative. He ceased to
be anything but fractured atoms. That is
the ultimate freedom of the devoted libertarian. If, per impossible, American society
should accept the leadership of libertarian
ideologues – why, this Republic might end
in fractured atoms, with a Russian touch to
the business.

  1. Why This Breed Must Not Be Indulged
    NOTWITHSTANDING, there is something to
    be said for the disintegrated Professor
    Ivanhov-relatively speaking. With
    reference to some recent remarks of mine
    addressed to the Heritage Foundation,
    there writes to me Mr. Marion Montgomery, the Georgia novelist and critic:
    “The libertarians give me the willies. I
    much prefer the Russian anarchists, who at
    least have a deeply disturbed moral sensibility

(that Dostoevsky makes good use
of), to the libertarian anarchist. There is a
decadent fervor amongst some of the latter
which makes them an unwelcome cross for
conservatism to bear.”
Just so. The representative libertarian of
this decade is humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull. At
least the oldfangled Russian anarchist was
bold, lively, and knew which sex he belonged to.
But surely, surely I must be misrepresenting the breed? Don’t I know self-proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old
gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste,
well endowed with the goods of fortune?
Yes, I do know such. They are the people
who through misapprehension put up. the
cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call
themselves “libertarians” merely because
they believe in personal freedom, and do
not understand to what extravagances they
lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire
“libertarian” causes and publications. If a
person describes himself as “libertarian”
because he believes in an enduring moral
order, the Constitution of the United
States, free enterprise, and old American
ways of life-why, actually he is a conservative with imperfect understanding of the
general terms of politics.
It is not such well-intentioned but
mislabeled men whom I am holding up to
obloquy here. Rather, I am exposing the
pretensions of the narrow doctrinaires who
have imprisoned themselves within a
“libertarian” ideology as confining and as
unreal as Marxism – if less persuasive than
that fell delusion.
Why are these doctrinaire libertarians,
with a few exceptions, such very odd
people – the sort who give hearty folk like
Marion Montgomery the willies? Why do
genuine conservatives feel an aversion to
close association with them? (Incidentally,
now and again one reads of two camps of
alleged conservatives: “traditionalist conservatives and libertarian conservatives.”
This is as if a newspaperman were to
classify Christians as “Protestant Christians
and Muslim Christians.” A libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi.)

Why is an alliance between conservatives
and libertarians inconceivable? Why, indeed, would such articles of confederation
undo whatever gains conservatives have
made in this United States?
Because genuine libertarians are
mad – metaphysically mad. Lunacy repels,
and political lunacy especially. I do not
mean that they are dangerous; they are
repellent merely, like certain unfortunate
inmates of “mental homes.” They do not
endanger our country and our civilization,
because they are few, and seem likely to
become fewer. (I refer here, of course, to
our home-grown American libertarians,
and not to those political sects, among
them the Red Brigades of Italy, which have
carried libertarian notions to grander and
bolder lengths.) There exists no peril that
American national policy, foreign or
domestic, will be in the least affected by
libertarian arguments; the good old causes
of Bimetallism, Single Tax, or Prohibition
enjoy a better prospect of success in the
closing decades of this century than do the
programs of Libertarianism. But one does
not choose as a partner even a harmless
political lunatic.
I mean that the libertarians make up
what T. S. Eliot called a “chirping sect,”
an ideological clique forever splitting into
sects still smaller and odder, but rarely
conjugating. Such petty political sectaries
Edmund Burke pictured as “the insects of
the hour,” as noisy as they are ineffectual
against the conservative power of the
browsing cattle in an English pasture. If
one has chirping sectaries for friends, one
doesn’t need any enemies.
What do I mean when I say that today’s
American libertarians are metaphysically
mad, and so repellent? Why, the dogmas
of libertarianism have been refuted so
often, both dialectically and by the hard
knocks of experience, that it would be dull
work to rehearse here the whole tale of folly. Space wanting, I set down below merely
a few of the more conspicuous insufficiencies of libertarianism as a credible moral
and political mode of belief. It is such differences from the conservatives’ under- .
standing of the human condition that

make inconceivable any coalition of conservatives and libertarians.
1. The great line of division in modem
politics – as Eric Voegelin reminds us – is
not between totalitarians on the one hand
and liberals (or libertarians) on the other;
rather, it lies between all those who believe
in some sort of transcendent moral order,
on one side, and on the other side all those
who take this ephemeral existence of ours
for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted
chiefly to producing and consuming. In
this discrimination between the sheep and
the goats, the libertarians must be
classified with the goats-that is, as
utilitarian’s admitting no transcendent
sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are
converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism;
so conservatives draw back from them on
the first principle of all.
2. In any society, order is the first need
of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure.
But the libertarians give primacy to an
abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing
that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be
found only within the framework of a
social order, such as the constitutional
order of these United States. In exalting an
absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the
expense of order, the libertarians imperil
the very freedoms they praise.
3. What binds society together? The
libertarians reply that the cement of society
(so far as they will endure any binding at
all) is self-interest, closely joined to the
nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community
of souls, joining the dead, the living, and
those yet unborn; and that it coheres
through what Aristotle called friendship
and Christians call love of neighbor.Libertarians (like anarchists and
Marxists) generally believe that human
nature is good, though damaged by certain
social institutions. Conservatives, on the
contrary, hold that “in Adam’s fall we
sinned all”: human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed; so the perfection of
society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect.

Thus the libertarian pursues
his illusory way to Utopia, and the conservative knows that for the path to Avernus.
5. The libertarian takes the state for
the great oppressor. But the conservative
finds that the state is ordained of God. In
Burke’s phrases, “He who gave us our
nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed
also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state – He willed
its connexion with the source and original
archetype of all perfection.” Without the
state, man’s condition is poor, nasty,
brutish, and short-as Augustine argued,
many centuries before Hobbes.

The libertarians confound the state with government. But government-as Burke continued-“is a contrivance of human wisdom
to provide for human wants.” Among the
more important of those human wants is “a
sufficient restraint upon their passions.
Society requires not only that the passions
of individuals should be subjected, but that
even in the mass and body, as well as in the
individual, the inclinations of men should
frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into
subjection. This can be done only by a
power out of themselves; and not, in the
exercise of its function, subject to that will
and to those passions which it is its office to
bridle and subdue.” In short, a primary
function of government is restraint; and
that is anathema to libertarians, though an
article of faith to conservatives.

  1. The libertarian thinks that this
    world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering
    ego; the conservative finds himself instead
    a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and
    wonder, where duty, discipline, and
    sacrifice are required-and where the
    reward is that love which passed all
    understanding. The conservative regards
    the libertarian as impious, in the sense of
    the old Roman pietas: that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs
    and customs, or the natural world, or his
    country, or the immortal spark in his
    fellow men. The cosmos of the libertarian
    is an arid loveless realm, a “round prison.”
    “I am, and none else beside me,” says the
    libertarian. “We are made for cooperation

, like the hands, like the feet,” replies
the conservative, in the phrases of Marcus
Why multiply these profound differences? Those I have expressed already
will suffice to demonstrate the utter incompatibility of the two positions. If one were
to content himself simply with contrasting
the beliefs of conservatives and libertarians
as to the nature of liberty, still we could arrive at no compromise. There is the liberty
of the wolf, John Adams wrote to John
Taylor; and there is the liberty of civilized
man. The conservative will not tolerate
ravening liberty; with Dostoevski, he knows
that those who commence with absolute
liberty will end with absolute tyranny. He
maintains, rather, what Burke called
“chartered rights,” developed slowly and
painfully in the civil social order, sanctioned by prescription.
Yet even if libertarian and conservative
can affirm nothing in common, may they
not agree upon a negative? May they not
take common ground against the pretensions of the modem state to omnicompetence? Certainly both bodies of opinion
find that modern governments, even in
such constitutional orders as the United
States, seem afflicted by the libido
dominants. The primary function of government, the conservatives say, is to keep
the peace: by repelling foreign enemies, by
maintaining the bed of justice domestically. When government goes much beyond
this end, it falls into difficulty, not being
contrived for the management of the whole
of life. Thus far, indeed libertarian and
conservative hold something in common.
But the libertarians, rashly hurrying to an
opposite extreme, would deprive government of effective power to undertake the
common defense or to restrain the passionate and the unjust. With the libertarians’ in mind, conservatives repeat
Burke’s aphorism: “Men of intemperate
mind never can be free. Their passions
forge their fetters.”
so in the nature of things conservatives
and libertarians can conclude no friendly
pact. Conservatives have no intention of
compromising with socialists; but even

such an alliance, ridiculous though it
would be, is more nearly conceivable than
the coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The socialists at least declare the
existence of some sort of moral order; the
libertarians are quite bottomless.
Necessarily the differences of principle
described above extend to practical questions of the hour. It was recently a plank in
the platform of the Libertarian Party that
expectant mothers should enjoy a right to
abortion on demand; while to the reflecting conservative, the slaughter of innocents is the most despicable of evils.
What amicable practical arrangement
might be attained between two views so
diametrically opposed?
Doubtless the libertarians, long accustomed to skulking in the Cave of
Adullam, soon will be calling Mr. Reagan
a socialist. Adversity sometimes makes
strange bedfellows, but the present success
of conservatives disinclines them to lie
down, lamblike, with the libertarian
hyenas. In considerable part, the victory of
Mr. Reagan and his friends is the renewal
of America’s old moral order, linked with
the Christian concept of ‘society. The victors are not about to consummate a dialectical

union with a faction that denies the
very premises of this country’s civil social
It is of high importance, indeed, that
American conservatives dissociate themselves altogether from the little sour remnant called libertarians. In a time requiring long views and self-denial, alliance
with a faction founded upon doctrinaire
selfishness would be absurd- and practically damaging. It is not merely that
cooperation with a tiny chirping sect would
be valueless politically; more, such an
association would tend to discredit the conservatives, giving aid and comfort to the
collectivist adversaries of ordered freedom.
When heaven and earth have passed away,
perhaps the conservative mind and the
libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis but not until then. Meanwhile, I
venture to predict, the more intelligent
and conscientious persons within the libertarian’s remnant will tend to settle for
politics as the art of the possible, so shifting
into the conservative camp. At the Last
Judgment, libertarianism may find itself reduced to a minority of one, and its
name will be not Legion, but Rothbard.


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