In 1960, the great Southern political philosopher Richard Weaver penned an essay titled “Conservatism and Libertarianism: The Common Ground.”
Most people considered Weaver to be a “conservative,” and he accepted the term, but he also thought American conservatives and libertarians had much in common and should work together for a common goal: liberty.
The current internal warfare in both conservative and libertarian camps makes this essay relevant.
Weaver would not have found much in common with modern neoconservatives nor would he agree with left libertarians. The “conservatives” and “libertarians” in Weaver’s essay are the so-called “paleoconservatives” and the Right Libertarians like Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell and others.
And indeed, both of these groups do have much in common, as Weaver illustrated in this beautiful essay.
Weaver defined a “conservative” as “a realist, who believes that there is a structure of reality independent of his own will and desire.” That reality is determined by “a creation which was here before him” and that will exist long after he is gone, a reality that is regulated by human experience and independent of the individual and while not hostile to the individual “cannot be changed radically and arbitrarily.” Most important, “man cannot make his will his law.”
This is precisely the goal of the left, the reformer, the progressive, and Weaver–in 1960–warned against a particular type of radical, one who would “get control of the state to make all men equal or to make all men rich, or failing that to make all men equally unhappy.” The state then becomes the instrument to drive the rest of America to radical’s Utopian dream, or for the conservative and libertarian, a dystopian nightmare. In Weaver’s estimation, this is where the traditional American had to make his stand.
To Weaver, this is the hill on which conservatives and libertarians could form their bulwarks, for the glue that held them together in 1960, and still does to this day, at least the paleos on both sides, was John C. Calhoun’s understanding of the Constitution as a “negative document.”
Weaver pegged that understanding to Calhoun, but the Southern tradition is built on this legal understanding. John Taylor, St. George Tucker, John Randolph, Abel Upshur and every Old Republican who warred Hamilton’s constitutional machinations insisted that the ratifiers of the Constitution sold the document as a limited grant of power restricted by the Bill of Rights and the acknowledgment that all powers not expressly given were reserved to the States and the people thereof.
No one can read the public ratification debates without coming to this conclusion.
Weaver buttressed his claim of conservative and libertarian solidarity by arguing that both sides agreed in a natural “order of things which will largely take care of itself if you leave it alone.” Government “corrections” of political “problems” would typically result in an unending progression of more costly and dangerous situations. Government cannot fix nature, but this has been the dream of every progressive since Marx scribbled his Communist Manifesto.
He also warned against the disposition of the modern radical to silence dissent and prophesied Big Tech’s war on the modern right:
“It requires only a little experience in politics or publishing for one to learn that the enemies of freedom today are the radicals and the militant liberals. Not only do they propose through their reforms to reconstruct and regiment us, they also propose to keep us from hearing the other side. Anyone who has contended with Marxists and their first cousins, the totalitarian liberals, knows that they have no intention of giving the conservative alternative a chance to compete with their doctrines for popular acceptance. If by some accident they are compelled to physically listen, it is with indifference or a contempt because they really consider the matter a closed question–that is, no longer on the agenda of discussable things.”
Weaver summarized that his “instincts are libertarian” and claimed that he “never would have joined with the conservatives if [he] had not been convinced that they are the defenders of freedom today.” Notice he is not talking about Lincoln’s Grand Old Party but “conservatives.” He considered conservatives to be the “tolerant” and “humane” man because he “didn’t feel that terrible need to exterminate the enemy….” For the American, George Washington exemplified the best of the conservative tradition, a “revolutionary” who sought not to overthrow but to maintain natural order and the rights of Englishmen.”
Weaver suggested that the conservative–and his libertarian allies–were the proper defenders of liberty because they understood natural order, tolerated “diversity of life,” and condemned arbitrary power, because as Blake wrote, “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
I discuss Weaver’s essay in Episode 429 of The Brion McClanahan Show.