Burke vs. Libertarianism

Given the larger-scale battles conservatism as a whole faces (We few, we happy few, we band of brothers… against the whole of 21st century culture), it’s nonetheless good to get familiar with some of the philosophical differences between various strands of conservatism. (See the excellent collection of essays, by the heavyweights, in Freedom or Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate.)

While I disagree entirely with his preferred interpretation of Burke (do we really need conservatism to become more RINO?), in “Burke Not Buckley”, law professor Carl Bogus emphasizes Edmund Burke’s communitarian sentiments and briefly contrasts the 20th century Burkeans (e.g., Robert Nisbet and, most importantly, Russell Kirk) with the more libertarian-oriented William F. Buckley:

At the most fundamental level, Burke was a communitarian. It is institutions—governmental, professional, religious, educational, and otherwise—that compose the fabric of society. Each of these institutions has classes of people who devote their careers to preserving and improving them: jurists serve the law, scholars their disciplines and universities, clerics their church, and so on…

For the Burkeans of 1950s, emphasis on community was at the heart of a properly conceived conservatism. Kirk wrote: “True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.” Robert Nisbet titled his book The Quest for Community.

Though it may surprise people who have been taught that Edmund Burke is the father of modern conservatism, the Burkeans were, in fact, defeated by a rival group with a nearly diametrically opposed view. The leader of that group was William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review. When, in 1952, Buckley first articulated his philosophy in God and Man at Yale, he called it “individualism,” though the nearly absolute laissez-faire philosophy he advocated became better known as libertarianism.

And to that I say: thank god for the deus ex machina pen of William F. Buckley.

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