Philosophy & Ideas

A Kirkian Critique of Libertarianism

The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defence …[1]

These words, spoken by John Galt in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, encapsulate the essence of libertarianism: a utopian society founded on unbridled individualism. This utopian vision ought to perturb all thinking conservatives. Yet, in the current age of political disruption, libertarianism and conservatism are increasingly used interchangeably, or in conjunction, thus indicating a breakdown in the distinction between these once rivalrous traditions of the Right. The American conservative luminary Russell Kirk had a keen perception of the distinction: conservatism represented the very negation of ideology while libertarianism, which he characterised as “a genteel form of anarchism”, was to be counted among the “absurd ideologies” that risked diverting conservatism into “ideological fanaticism”.[2] In what follows I mount a Kirkian critique of libertarianism.

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Conservatives and libertarians share the conviction that individual liberty is integral to a prosperous and prospering society. This has provided a basis for making common cause on a number of issues, most prominent amongst them today the defence of free speech. Indeed, manning the barricades together in defence of free speech might go some way to explaining the aforementioned conflation. However, conservatives, unlike libertarians, can never regard individual rights and liberty as isolated ends unto themselves. This is because conservatives understand that freedom is contingent on order, something captured in Kirk’s notion of “ordered liberty”.[3]

Unlike abstract individual rights, the freedom to act is intrinsically delimiting. To choose one course of action is to eschew another. Moreover, once realised, an action circumscribes the possibilities for future action. In social contexts, humans are not only constrained by their own delimiting actions, but also the realised actions of others. Co-operation constitutes its own form of limitation. When a family, association or business chooses one course of action, it eschews other courses of action and is in turn bound by the limitations arising from its realised actions (and those of other entities). In fact, the very act of voluntary association entails a form of delimitation, as individuals have finite time and resources at their disposal, and voluntary association invariably entails the adoption of duties and responsibilities.

Limitation is a necessary by-product of free action realised, and thus of freedom itself. For freedom unactualised is no freedom at all. Freedom, if it is to be actualised, and not merely conceptualised, requires an ordered social world constituted by authorities, laws, conventions, customs and cultural norms—an ordered context in which a multiplicity of agents, acting individually and in concert, can realise their freedom in ways and to extents which promote and maintain the common good of all.

Diminishing or removing ordered liberty might increase abstract freedoms in theory. But in practice it can result in less, not greater, freedom to act. Take, by way of illustration, the rules that govern traffic (an agreed side of the road upon which to drive, traffic lights, stop signs and so on). The removal of such traffic regulations would undeniably entail an increase in the abstract liberty of citizens. In practice, however, it would constrain their actual freedom to act, for the traffic chaos that would ensue from such a removal would likely limit mobility, particularly in cities.

At the heart of the libertarian ideal is the assumption that the freedoms and prosperity achieved in Western liberal democracies can be preserved and expanded in the absence of the vast majority of institutions, customs and cultural norms which have made those very achievement possible. In other words, libertarianism posits a utopian political society in theory, untested in history and unsupported by the common human experience of coexistence. The weight of historical experience attests to the fact that humans are, by nature, order-making creatures. At all times and in all places human communities have established and sought to maintain a network of authorities, traditions, conventions, customs and norms by which to order their collective identities, guide their collaborative endeavours and manage their interpersonal relations. There is certainly room for debate about the optimum size of government and the proper scope of its authority. But restricting the scope of government to merely policing individual physical security is unlikely to establish a sufficiently ordered social context in which abstract theoretical rights can be actualised. 

Like all utopian political visions, the means to the imagined libertarian nirvana require the radical transformation of the existing order. The unnerving thing about Atlas Shrugged is that the libertarian revolutionaries led by John Galt callously engineer the destruction of the ancien régime before escaping to their new Eden (hidden in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado) whence they plot to recreate the world after their own image.

Suffice to say, not all libertarians are cut from the same cloth. Much like conservatism, or Marxism for that matter, libertarianism has spawned its own assorted permutations, whether it is the distinction between so-called “thick” and “thin” libertarians, that drawn between anarcho-capitalists, limited government libertarians (minarchists) and strict constitutionalists, or even that between left-leaning and right-leaning libertarians.[4] Nor do all libertarians seek to burn down the existing order as a means of arriving at the libertarian promised land.

But let us be clear. The end goal of libertarianism in all its guises represents a radical change from the existing political, economic, social and cultural order. If this is not the end goal, then what is in view is probably better thought of as a misnamed classical liberalism, or even a form of conservatism (if not exactly Kirkian). Incrementalist libertarians who seek to peaceably and carefully deconstruct “big government” by exploiting the existing institutional order, rather than by more revolutionary means, are no different from salafis who seek to transform secular Muslim societies into sharia-ruled Islamic states through democratic institutions. In both cases the end point is radically different from the departure point, even if the journey is slow and methodical.

According to Kirk, “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology”, which he defined as “an abstract rigorous set of political dogmata” or a “political religion”, something “promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful”.[5] Kirk’s verdict came with a warning: “men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another”.[6] The pertinent question for conservatives is whether libertarianism constitutes an ideology on Kirk’s terms.[7]

On the face of it, libertarianism relies on both dogma and faith, thus qualifying as a “political religion” promising terrestrial paradise, with every chance that this paradise would in fact turn out to be an earthly hell. Libertarianism’s central dogma is that government is intrinsically oppressive. Its faith is that by either removing or severely curtailing government, humans will become better, freer and more prosperous.

A disconcerting article of faith at the foundation of the libertarian edifice is the naive hope it vests in human nature. The libertarian small-government utopia is predicated on the idea that humans are inherently good, contrary to all historical, communal and personal experience, and that if they were left absolutely free to pursue their own selfish ends, a just, functional and prosperous society would spontaneously follow. But on what grounds are we to believe that this utopia would succeed where all others before it have failed to overcome the barrier of human nature? On what basis are we to believe that a society of individuals, each swearing to “never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for their own”, would not ultimately result in a Hobbesian nightmare?[8]

The libertarian dream of a society defined by unbridled individual autonomy flies in the face of a truth comprehended as far back as Plato: “a state comes into being since each of us is not independent, but actually needs the support of many people”.[9] It also ignores Aristotle’s sobering insight that, “when devoid of virtue, man is the most unscrupulous and savage of animals”.[10] As Calvin understood, if the severity of existing laws is incapable of wholly stamping out wickedness, by what right do we think fewer laws would result in less wickedness?[11] The collective wisdom of human experience testifies that humans are dependent on each other for their wellbeing. It also teaches that humans can threaten, and even destroy, that wellbeing.

Burke wisely noted that “the constitution of a state … requires a deep knowledge of human nature”.[12] Conservatism’s great strength is its anthropological realism, a realism deeply rooted in the now unfashionable Christian narrative of human beings made in the image of a good God, yet fallen into rebellion against the divine moral order instituted by that God for their wellbeing. Kirk understood that human beings are walking paradoxes; both “good and evil … are intricately interwoven in their natures”.[13] He further understood that “when the good predominates, it ordinarily is by virtue of emulation, habit and obedience to just laws”.[14]

This anthropological realism led Kirk to the conclusion that politics is an exercise in prudence rather than a grand project to re-engineer human nature. Political prudence, for Kirk, entailed a judicious, cautious and sagacious approach to political change grounded in the art of the possible, with the “possible” to be determined by the constants of human nature and the collective wisdom of generations past.[15]

In the libertarian universe, it is the state which is “intrinsically immoral”, as Robert Nozick has suggested, and individuals intrinsically good.[16] Libertarians assert that individuals can be entrusted to live in harmonious co-existence, free to selfishly pursue their own ends, provided there is no moral order standing in the way. The only crimes in the libertarian utopia are property infringements and contract violations (physical harm against another, theft, fraud and breach of contract). One can only assume that the libertarian expectation is that such crimes will be infrequent enough to be managed by only modest policing and judicial institutions, lest the libertarian nirvana traduce the dogma of “small government”.

The Liberal Democrats in Australia preach that “people should be free to make their own choices and accept responsibility for the consequences, so long as nobody else is harmed”.[17] This moral freedom might sound attractive in theory, but once morality is reduced to a matter of personal preference in practice, the notion of “harm” itself becomes fraught and arbitrary. It is sobering to bear in mind that paedophiles often suffer from the delusion that their heinous actions do no harm to their victims. In truth, humans have a disturbing ability to rationalise and justify all manner of harmful actions, particularly when they are self-serving. In any event, “coercion”, if we must call it such, is a necessary and integral part of the natural order. In what sense can we speak of the freedom of infants to “make their own choices and accept responsibility for the consequences”? We all begin life under the “coercive” care of our parents or guardians. Indeed, our lives often end under the “coercive” care of our children. Put simply, our wellbeing is indelibly tied to the common wealth of all, something articulated in “An Act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia”, otherwise known as our Constitution.

As contemporary conservatism drifts further and further from its erstwhile anchor in Christian anthropology, it finds itself ever more susceptible to libertarian fantasies, such as the inherent goodness of human beings, moral relativism, and the utopian belief in the social wellbeing of unconstrained individualism. The fact of the matter is that conservatism, at least in its Kirkian form, is philosophically at odds with libertarianism, notwithstanding notable overlap. Conservatism’s current flirtation with libertarianism, or worse still, its inability to maintain a substantive distinction between the two, risks setting conservatism adrift from the sound foundations upon which it was built.


Jonathan Cole is Assistant Director of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra. He is the author of Christian Political Theology in an Age of Discontent (Wipf & Stock, 2019).  

[1] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1996), 973.

[2] Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 143. Kirk got the notion of conservatism as the negation of ideology from H. Stuart Hughes.

[3] Russell Kirk, Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, intro. Wilfred M. McClay (Washington DC: Gateway Editions, 2019), iBooks, chapter 4, Conservatives and Individuality.

[4] Walter E. Block, “Natural Rights, Human Rights, and Libertarianism,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 74, no.1 (2015): 33–34.

[5] Russell Kirk, foreword to the seventh edition of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, intro. Henry Regnery (Washington DC: Gateway Editions, 1985), xv.

[6] Ibid., xv–xvi.

[7] Kirk was well aware that conservatives were not immune to “slip[ping] into a narrow ideology or quasi-ideology.” Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004) iBooks, chapter 1, The Errors of Ideology.

[8] Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 979. The oath sworn upon taking up residence in Galt’s libertarian paradise.

[9] Plato, Republic, ed. and trans. Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 369b.

[10] Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), 1253a35.

[11] John Calvin, “On Civil Government,” in On God and Political Duty, ed. with intro. John T. McNeil (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), 4.20.2 (46).

[12] Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” in Revolutionary Writings, ed. Iain Hampsher-Monk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 61.

[13] Kirk, Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, iBooks, chapter 9, Conservatives and Power.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, iBooks, chapter 1, “The Errors of Ideology”; chapter 2, “Ten Conservative Principles.”

[16] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), xi.

[17] Liberal Democrats, “Low Taxes. Small Government. Individual Responsibility,”

  • pgang

    It’s the same old humanist irrationalism at play. Whether it be the Greek’s Form/Matter, Catholic Thomism, or the modernist Kantian dialiect, they all fall into the whirlpool of self destruction when confronted by the philosophical One and Many. Realism or Nominalism – take your pick; but it is a humanist illusion to think you can have both if ultimacy is vested in humanity, nature or ‘reason’.
    The only basis for true liberty is the ontological Trinity of God. From that we have all of the universe including mankind as image bearers of the trinity. Anthropology is thus rooted in the economic trinity of the perfect harmony of the One, which is mutually and completely reliant on a perfectly individual Many. Thus personal freedom and law are both fully complete, yet utterly reliant on each other. This freedom/law symbiosis is the only meaningful foundation for liberty, but it cannot be derived from humanism.
    So a conservative humanism remains ever confused about the root of liberty, just as does progressive humanism. Does it rest within the freedom of the individual (anarchy), or is it found within the state and law (totalitarianism)? The best that humanists can do is to borrow from Orthodox Christian anthropology to solve their irrational dilemma.

  • rod.stuart

    If “Conservatism” is drifting anywhere, it is drifting to the Left.
    Otherwise, why would we have Conservative governments Hell bent on being involved in the education business?
    Why would conservative governments entangle themselves in the health care administration business?
    Why would conservative governments so willingly jump into the insurance business? Why do Conservatives seem to think government is involved in any business?

  • pgang

    rod.stuart, Mr Cole has mentioned that conservatism is rooted in Christian anthropology, to which I would agree. Apart from the brief but historically fortunate rebellion by the USA against the Enlightenment which produced their Constitution ‘under God’, conservatism generally takes the philosophy of Christianity but has mostly failed to allow God the ultimate throne. Therefore it sits on the fulcrum between nominalism and realism, attempting desperately not to fall off the knife edge.
    If it is to avoid the excesses of libertarianism it must tilt towards authoritarianism. Given that individiuals, having rejected God’s moral authority, are trending ever more towards anarchy, we are witnessing this counter-balance increasingly in government. It is not surprising then that we are seeing a drift away from traditional conservatism, or the knife edge. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that conservatism is simply dissolving up its humanist backside, rather than suggesting that it is drifting further to the left. Conservative government is now trending towards Realism to offset ever increasing nominalist anarchy. That means more rules and more interference.
    The closing paragraph of the article more or less suggests this. Individual conservatives are siding with nomanilism against the trend towards authoritarianism. But this is equally a dissolution of conservatism. The only way it can survive is to rest upon its Christian roots of co-dependence between the One and the Many, and the only way to rediscover that balance is for both individuals and institutions to adopt Christian Orthodoxy.

  • Ian MacDougall

    “As contemporary conservatism drifts further and further from its erstwhile anchor in Christian anthropology, it finds itself ever more susceptible to libertarian fantasies, such as the inherent goodness of human beings, moral relativism, and the utopian belief in the social wellbeing of unconstrained individualism. The fact of the matter is that conservatism, at least in its Kirkian form, is philosophically at odds with libertarianism, notwithstanding notable overlap. Conservatism’s current flirtation with libertarianism, or worse still, its inability to maintain a substantive distinction between the two, risks setting conservatism adrift from the sound foundations upon which it was built.”
    If most human beings were not good, the modern societies we humans have built would be impossible, and we would live in a Hobbesian world of war of all against all. We don’t. We lock our houses and cars against a tiny thieving minority, not against the majority, who we implicitly trust. Go to any beach in Australia in summer. Leave your stuff on the beach while you have a surf. It will still be there when you get back.
    This is the result of our biological evolution as social hominids descended from the line whose closest other branches are the great apes. If we had spent our time preying on each other, the sabre-toothed tigers and other large carnivores would have exterminated us long ago.
    Conservatism in every age works to conserve the existing social arrangements. In Eighteenth Century Europe, conservatives were working to conserve feudalism, and its hierarchy of rights, privileges, dues and responsibilities. The mass of the population bore it, with various degress of reluctance, simply because every alternative to copping it sweet appeared worse.
    They bore it in England until it cracked in 1640, when a sizeable enough section of the population came out in open rebellion. But the conflict between Parliament and the Monarchy was one between two rather corrupt and moribund sectional interests, and Cromwell’s Puritan-based revolution ended with Cromwell’s personal dictatorship. In 1688 the Monarchy was restored. The real English Revolution occurred in 1776: in England’s American colonies, which were founded not by Royalists, but by the Puritans. (I would argue that it reached its highest form in the subsequent constitutions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.)
    Then the Laki Volcano in Iceland erupted, from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, blanketing ash and ruining crops all over Europe. One arguable result was the French Revolution of 1789, which signalled the end of Europe’s feudal arrangements, much to the dismay and discomfort of the conservatives of the day.
    Conservatives (‘The Right’) want to conserve the existing social arrangements. Their opponents of various persuasions (‘The Left’) want rearrangements. But any conservative who wants to see where ‘conservatism’ can lead should study the history of the Iberian Peninsula, which unlike the rest of Europe, never had a liberal-democratic revolution. And he or she might go on to contrast it with that of anti-Catholic Europe to the north. Meanwhile, any radical who wants to see where radicalism can lead should study the history of 20th C Russia.
    The answer IMHO can only lie in liberalism; which does not necessarily mean the rabble making up the Parliamentary Liberal Party of Australia.

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