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Govern yourselves from within, or the state will govern you from without

Posted: December 28, 2013 at 10:00 am   /   by

It has been my contention for some time that libertarians and conservatives need each other more than they know.

The core principles that are front and center in libertarianism sometimes get lost in all the issues and identity politics of the conservative movement. This is an error. Conservatives must always return to the bright, flaming light of that pharos, or risk becoming increasingly adrift in a sea of details and petty disputes with an ever-advancing left.

Without a doubt, conservatives need the bright, pure core of libertarianism to undergird our ideological approach. But right now, I want briefly to point out how libertarianism needs conservatism.

Libertarians, imagine the perfect minarchist world, where we finally have beaten back the statist monster and reduced government to the night-watchman state we’ve always wanted. Finally, mankind is free to govern our own affairs, with the state playing but a minimal role—only taking care of those few things that cannot properly be done through voluntary, private action alone. What now?

In that (currently all-too-hypothetical) world, mankind must . . . wait for it . . . govern ourselves. How do we do that? Yes, the invisible hand will take care of much: people acting in their own interests will certainly redound to the general interest. But when we start talking about the individual, the family, the community, and the institutions of the civil society playing their proper role in making society work (rather than relying on the government to do it for us), what we’re really talking about is a very Burkean-conservative notion: accumulated human wisdom.

Just as conservatism becomes unmoored without an ardent understanding of its own very libertarian core principles, a truly libertarian world becomes non-functional without certain principles classically associated with conservatism: community, tradition, and accumulated human knowledge and wisdom. If we libertarians get our wish of a scaled-back government, we are left with the notion that imperfect humans must now govern our own affairs.

We reject—and rightly so—the rule of “experts.” So what are we left with?

Simply this. The hard-won knowledge of the generations of humans who have come before us. Un-codified—but unbelievably powerful—comprehensions, developed over centuries of trial and error, of what works and what doesn’t. The diffused, specific knowledge of our fellow humans, each more intimately familiar with his own needs, desires, circumstances, and skills than any of us can be. That is not just an Adam Smithian notion . . . that is also an Edmund Burkean notion. These concepts are sine quibus non of a functional libertarian society. Libertarians . . . we need conservatives and conservatism!* **

In the course of his video below, Bill Whittle touches upon a subject that forms a pivotal piece of this puzzle: If we do not govern ourselves from within, the state will govern us from without. In other words, a libertarian society stripped of these conservative notions of human tradition and wisdom—and even, we daresay, of the Christian notion of personal self-restraint—will revert back to a statist society in short order.



* You will note that I refer to myself as both a conservative and a libertarian. I would hope, dear reader, that the reason why I do this is starting to become plain.

** Granted, Burke’s feelings about natural rights run counter to the typical libertarian’s, so libertarians perhaps do not hearken back to Burke on that subject. Interestingly, though, neither do conservatives, who in the main are far more likely to hearken back to the Founders’ understanding of natural rights, and thus to their main influence on the subject: John Locke.  (And that, dear reader, is yet another way in which conservatives and libertarians are more alike than different!)

Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

Managing Editor at Western Free Press
Christopher Cook is a writer, editor, and political commentator. He is the president of Castleraine, Inc., a consulting firm providing a diverse array of services to corporate, public policy, and not-for-profit clients.

Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including (now a part of Western Free Press) and He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to
Christopher Cook

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Govern yourselves from within, or the state will govern you from without