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An Open Letter to Russell Kirk


Friends of mine recently shared with me your two articles, “Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries” and “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians.” In these articles, you claimed that an unbridgeable gulf separated the moral and philosophical positions of conservatives and libertarians. You concluded, therefore, that there was little hope for these two groups to form a united front against the over-arching state in America.

While I have only the utmost regard for your scholarship and your dedication to the principles of freedom, I firmly believe that much of what you wrote in your articles is erroneous. In the hope that you, and perhaps other conservatives, might re-examine and re-consider some of your antipathies towards libertarians and libertarianism, I am writing to share my thoughts with you. In so doing, I believe that it is important to focus on areas of agreement as well as on those issues on which we disagree. Why is it important for conservatives and libertarians to open channels of communication with one another? All over the world people are questioning the principles of socialism. One of the few places on earth where the populace, by and large, is still not questioning domestic socialist policies is the United States. Central government planning has been tried in education, assistance to the poor, farm policy, trade, highways, health care, and on and on. In all areas, it has proven to be a dismal failure. Yet, Americans continue to believe that as long as they call their socialism “free enterprise,” they, unlike the Soviets and Eastern Europeans, will make it work.

Therefore, it is up to conservatives and libertarians to show Americans not only the immorality but also the futility of socialism in America. Working together, we can help guide Americans back to the vision of the Founding Fathers — the vision of private property, unhampered markets, limited government, voluntary charity, and individual responsibility. The opening up of a dialog between conservatives and libertarians might enable us to cooperate in developing new and better ways to uproot the welfare state which has gripped the people of the United States (and the rest of the world) in this century. I am a libertarian, not a conservative. I believe that people should be free to live their lives as they wish, as long as they do so peacefully. In other words, as long as conduct does not involve the infliction of violence or fraud on another, it should not only be tolerated, it should also be legally protected. Therefore, I see government as having the following limited functions: to protect people from domestic and foreign foes who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful activities (police and armed forces), and to serve as a means for people to peacefully settle their disputes with one another (judiciary). I view the Constitution not as a grantor of people’s rights but rather as a necessary device to prevent our elected representatives from interfering with rights which pre-exist government. In your articles, you stated that a person who believed in “an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, established American way of life, and a free economy — why, actually is a conservative” rather than a libertarian.

Nevertheless, despite my beliefs in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, and a free economy (more on “established American way of life” later), you are mistaken in calling me a conservative rather than a libertarian. Why? Because while you and I share a common commitment to “an enduring moral order,” for example, we significantly differ with respect to means and ends. To me, as well as most libertarians, freedom, not a more moral society, is our highest political end. As long as a person does not use force or fraud against others, he should be free to choose between virtue and vice, morality and immorality, wisdom and foolishness, and good and evil. After all, if God loved us so much as to entrust us with this wide ambit of freedom, under what authority do we permit Caesar to interfere with it? Does this mean that individuals will always choose correctly or morally when confronted with choices in life? Of course not. But it is only through a continuous process of having to choose, and of having to bear the consequences of choice, that the individual can ever hope to gain a high sense of conscience, responsibility, and morality.

If the individual’s choices are made for him by Caesar (or anyone else), as many conservatives suggest should be the case, then how can the person’s conscience and sense of morality ever be expected to grow and develop? So, while freedom is the highest political end of libertarians, we also know that freedom is the only means by which people in society not only prosper financially but also, through the process of choice, nurture and develop a high sense of consciousness, responsibility, and morality. There is no question that in a free society, people engage in sin and self-destructive conduct.

But sometimes it is only when a person is ensnared in the deepest throes of sin, in the very depths of despair, when life has lost all meaning, and when the concept of God is nothing but a silly joke — that he is pulled from the depths of hopelessness and despondency by the mysterious, attractive force of love, forgiveness, and the cross. I do not simply believe this to be true. I know it to be true. And the reason I know it to be true is that it is the method by which I became a follower of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is very tempting to tamper with these “natural” processes of human growth by passing laws to hasten their effect, as conservatives many times wish to do. But God neither needs nor desires Caesar’s method of incarceration and fine to assist or facilitate His “natural” processes of bringing man to terms with himself and his Creator. Furthermore, all of us, conservatives and libertarians alike, know how dangerous and destructive it is when the state intervenes in the “natural” processes of the market place. The reasoning remains the same with respect to the “natural” processes of the development of the soul.

I do not dispute that “order” is a valuable feature of any society. However, “order” in the moral sphere which is enforced by the political and legal process means nothing either for the individuals in that society or for their God. In the ultimate analysis, morality can come only from deep within the willing spirit of the individual. What would it mean to God, for example, if a person loved Him with all of his heart, mind, and soul simply because if he failed to do so, the state would send him to jail?

Furthermore, I have yet to find two conservatives who share the same vision of morality. For example, some conservatives have argued, on moral grounds, for the legal elimination of rock and roll (What would I have done without the music of Buddy Holly, Linda Rondstadt, and Bob Dylan?!), gambling (Our weekend poker games in high school kept us out of trouble!), Ёìáùâïù magazine (I bought it in college just for the articles!), and alcohol (I rarely touch the stuff but I have lots of friends, including conservatives, who would undoubtedly be hauled off to jail!). In other words, once we turn the power to convert us into moral human beings to those who wield political power, inevitably the moral standards will reflect the views of those who have won the reigns of power.

In Nazi Germany, the vision of an “ordered” society included the elimination of Jews, Catholics, and other “undesirable” elements in society. More recently, the Chinese tyrants have succeeded in establishing “order” by making illegal many of the “immoral” aspects of a free society. One major problem is that many conservatives often mistake a principled defense of freedom of choice for a moral sanctioning of the “wrong” choice in human behavior. For example, until recently, one of the issues which has deeply divided conservatives and libertarians has been whether drugs should be legalized. Libertarians have long argued that the government has no legitimate role in interfering with how a person treats his own body — that the individual, not the State, has sovereignty over what he does to himself, even if this means self-destruction. We have also argued that drug laws, while perhaps well-intentioned, could never achieve their desired results and would instead end up causing a worse situation than that which existed before the laws were passed.

Conservatives responded that drug legalization could not be countenanced because that would imply a moral sanction of drug usage itself. They referred to libertarians as “libertines” who had no sense of commitment to “right” conduct over “wrongful” conduct. The notion that libertarians were defending the right to choose, rather than the choice itself, was quickly disregarded. Now, it is true that some people (not necessarily libertarians) favor drug legalization so that they can take drugs without fear of fine or imprisonment. But isn’t that what freedom is all about — the legal protection of those peaceful choices which the majority do not favor? If people are “free” to do only the “right” or “responsible” thing, as they are in China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, then they cannot truly be considered free. Show me a society in which some people are not pursuing “wrongful” conduct, and I will show you a society of tyranny and repression.

Furthermore, what if people do use their freedom in such a way that they risk losing their souls in Hell? Will coercion really change that which they feel within their hearts? Will incarceration or fine save their souls? And what effect does sinning by others have on my soul? Conservatives sometimes seem to have the notion that if everybody else in society has rejected God that somehow God will hold that against those of us who have not rejected Him. I don’t believe that for one moment! Does not God love me so much that He will judge me on my life rather than on how everyone else chooses to live his life? If He loved me so much as to incarnate Himself, suffer humiliation and crucifixion, and then show me that there is life after death, then surely He loves me enough to judge me on my own merits rather than on the way everyone else has chosen to live his life. And while I am far from being a biblical scholar, it is my understanding that God would have spared even Sodom and Gomorrah had there been just a few righteous people in the city. I believe, and I hope that you will agree, that it is highly unfair to suggest that libertarians are libertines simply because they favor, as a principle, legal protection of freedom of choice.

Was Jefferson a libertine because he favored freedom of speech and freedom of religion? After all, don’t some people use this freedom to read, study, advocate, or practice atheism? Should government be used to stop this “wrongful” conduct? Of course not! Again, this is what freedom is all about! Not only must we be willing to tolerate the right of people to choose, we must also be willing to fight for it, even when, and especially when, the choice is an unpopular one. Now that more and more people are discovering the immorality and destructiveness of the government’s war on drugs, I hope that conservatives will re-examine and re-consider the fairness of the accusations made against those of us who have long called for drug legalization.

After all, conservatives are not calling William F. Buckley, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and other non-libertarians who are now publicly calling for drug legalization, libertines. Why should not the same presumption of a principled commitment to liberty, rather than libertinism, be extended to libertarians? As you may know, there are libertarians who are now claiming that one of the reasons that Americans have not moved towards libertarian ideas is that there are many libertarians who have chosen to live their lives “wrongfully” or “sinfully.” They claim that these people have given libertarianism a bad name and that that is one of the main reasons that libertarianism has not yet taken hold in the United States.

They now wish to banish these types of “undesirables” from the freedom movement so that our ideas will become more attractive to mainstream Americans. Oh, that life were so simple! But even if it were, are we not treading on thin ice when we begin to pass such judgment on others? I confess that I personally am not in a position to do so. I happen to be one of God’s biggest sinners. And unfortunately, I have a long way to go in pulling the beams out of my own eyes before I am sufficiently competent to pull the specks out of other people’s eyes. And, while I have met only a few of the people living on earth during my lifetime, I have yet to encounter a single person who has achieved such mastery over his life and conduct that he is now competent to begin passing judgment over, and reforming, others.

What then should be our attitude towards those who choose “wrongfully” or “sinfully” — those who live lives of less than divine perfection but who inflict no violence or fraud on others? Imprisonment? Fines? Banishment? Ostracism? Hatred? The answer is: none of these! Instead our attitude should be one of unconditional and unending acceptance, love, and forgiveness. (Please don’t get the impression that I am very good at this — I am not, but I am trying.) After all, was not this the attitude which Christ had towards the woman involved in adultery? Is not this the attitude which Christ has towards you and me?

Then, let us use God’s, not Caesar’s, methods in helping to bring our fellow humans to a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment! The achievement of freedom in the United States ultimately turns on self-reform and self-improvement rather than on condemnation or reform of others. Those of us who favor a free society must re-dedicate ourselves to improving our own understanding of the principles of freedom and to developing improved and attractive ways to generate interest and enthusiasm for our philosophy among others. And in order to raise the moral consciousness of others in society, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the improvement of our own moral thinking and conduct in order to attract people to our convictions and beliefs. In your articles, you expressed a deep and profound respect for the “well-established American way of life” and indicated that it is important for us to conserve this.

I, as well as many libertarians, firmly disagree with this proposition as it applies to the type of economic system which has existed in the United States in the 20th century. As you know, the welfare state, which has characterized the United States in this century, but not the previous century, is founded on evil and immoral premises. When the coercive force of the political process is used to take money from one person and give it to another, the process constitutes stealing and nothing but stealing. The act does not become moral simply because the majority of our fellow citizens have decided to legalize it. It continues to constitute a severe violation of one of God’s great commandments. It continues to be sinful regardless of whether it is committed by conservatives, liberals, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists, or anyone else in society.

God’s laws against wrongdoing are not affected by the fact that the sins are committed by the multitude, no matter how virtuous they may be as individuals, through their political system. The truth is that Americans in this century have enshrined the violation of this sacred commandment into their legal and political system, and one can only wonder how long God’s justice on the American people will continue to sleep. My major difference with conservatives is that they wish to conserve, rather than end, an economic system which is not only evil and immoral but also a denigration of the great God-given gifts of life, liberty, property, and conscience which once constituted the great heritage of this nation. The welfare state is not a way of life which is worth conserving! Yet, how many times have I heard conservatives speak about whether there should be less government funding of education (rather than calling for its elimination), whether there should be a smaller government safety net for the poor (rather than calling for its elimination), and so forth.

The conservative must ultimately confront, within his own conscience, the following problem: Why is it that he is so willing to condemn people whose lives have fallen short of perfection while at the same time so willing to tolerate, accept, and approve of the immorality which has been enshrined within the welfare state? Is it not safe to assume that because stealing is listed in The Ten Commandments, God considers this sin to be significantly greater than those sins which are not listed in The Decalogue? Is not just a little bit of stealing just as egregious as a lot of stealing? How then can any person rightfully condemn others who commit wrongful or sinful acts which entail no violence or fraud against others, and, at the same time, condone and approve of violations of one of God’s greatest and most sacred commandments?

Let us freedom devotees consider an alternative approach: condemn the sin, not the sinner — and remove, not reform, the sin of stealing which we have permitted to become so deeply embedded in our political and economic system! After all, how can the American people ever be expected to seek the ideal of freedom if so many freedom devotees are willing to morally and philosophically tolerate, and even advocate, any degree of wrongdoing in their political system. The question should never be the degree of government funding for education, poverty, old age, etc. The answer should be: there should be no government funding at all for such activities!

After all, what does the sanctity of private property and liberty mean if it does not mean the right of people to decide for themselves how the fruits of their earnings are to be disposed of? It is time that conservatives stopped thinking about how to make socialism, and the immorality of socialism, work better and more efficiently in the United States. It is time that we pulled this evil weed out by its root, once and for all! Many people have the impression that freedom devotees favor freedom because we hate the poor and disadvantaged and love the rich and sinful. On the contrary, we love liberty not only for its own sake but because we also know that a free society results not only in economic prosperity, especially for those at the bottom of the ladder, but also, through the growth-enhancing process of choice itself, in a more virtuous and moral society as well. On the other hand, we know that when the coercive force of government is used to help the poor or disadvantaged, or to eliminate the rich or sinful, the result is an impoverished society of people who have little conception of virtue and morality.

So, we libertarians, like you conservatives, favor liberty and order. The difference between us is that we believe that liberty is the only true and meaningful way to achieve the type of order which is desirable in a society. Order which is achieved at the cost of liberty is not worth having. Thank you very much for considering my thoughts. Hopefully, by opening up lines of communication between conservatives and libertarians, and by maintaining a respectful tolerance for our differences of belief, we can work together to guide America back to the vision of liberty which guided the Founding Fathers and which resulted in God’s most blessed nation in history. My best regards.

Yours for freedom,

Jacob G. (Bumper) Hornberger

Date: March 23, 1990

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.