FREEDOM AND VIRTUE: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate,
edited by George W. Carey (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998, 231pp, $39.95
Available from AD Books)
What is the proper relationship between freedom and virtue? Can human societies survive by solely embracing a libertarian concept of freedom or liberty? Or does freedom need to be ordered by the virtues for stable and civilised society to exist?
The relationship between freedom and virtue has received much attention in recent years, in part due to the overwhelming evidence of continuing moral decline in Western societies. In the United States, conservative thinkers argue that such moral decline is the result of widespread adherence to the libertarian concept of freedom - an understanding that holds individual freedom or liberty is not the means to achieving a particular human end, but rather that it is an end in itself.
So dominant has this understanding of freedom become that both popular music and commercial advertisements tell us that individuals should be free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The only restriction is that in exercising their freedom they do not impinge on the freedom of others.
Drawing on the work of James Madison and the other founding fathers of the American republic, conservative thinkers argue that shared values, morals and virtues are required for the order and stability of society. They assert that freedom or liberty without virtue can only result in chaos and the inevitable dissolution of civilised society.
Recent "conservative" critiques of libertarian thought would therefore appear to dismiss the possibility that libertarianism and conservatism could share any theoretical or philosophic commonalties. However, Freedom and Virtue, edited by George W. Carey, offers a collection of essays by eminent American intellectuals that examine whether there are in fact similarities between "libertarian" and "conservative" thought. This examination occurs through the debate over the proper relationship between freedom and virtue.
The question posed by Carey, and which the contributors have been assembled to answer, is whether "it is possible to 'reconcile' the libertarian concern for individual liberty with the conservatives' preoccupation with order and virtue? Or are the differences so fundamental that the two schools can never be joined at the theoretical level?"
The essays centre around the work of conservative thinker Frank S. Meyer and his argument known as "fusionism", which maintains that the theoretical differences between "libertarianism" and "conservatism" could be reconciled. Many of the essays, while referring to Meyer's work, deal more broadly with whether there can be a theoretical reconciliation; others deal directly with the soundness of Meyer's argument.
It is important to note that these essays, in investigating "libertarian" and "conservative" thought, touch upon some fundamental questions in political philosophy: What is the nature of man? What should be the role of reason, tradition and religion in the ordering of society and the state?
While it is not possible, in this review, to comment on the arguments advanced by all sixteen separate contributors to Freedom and Virtue, all essays offer important insights into this investigation. There is also much robust debate between the contributors, with argument and counter-argument making for interesting reading.
Through its investigation of libertarian and conservative thought and the proper relationship between freedom and virtue, this book offers an accessible, well-balanced and interesting introduction into some of the foundational questions of political philosophy.
Alex Sidhu has recently completed an Honours year in political science at the University of Melbourne.