Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?
The Foundations of the Libertarian-Conservative Debate
Nathan W. Schlueter and Nikolai G. Wenzel




The Book

For much of the last century, political argument and action in America have been organized around two competing movements, progressivism and conservatism. Progressivism (also called modern liberalism)1 first emerged in the early part of the twentieth century. It is animated by sustained philosophical arguments about equality, justice, and the common good. Although the philosophy of progressivism is not monolithic, we would argue that the arguments of progressivism find their most mature and sophisticated expression in the writings of John Rawls (for an overview, see Tomasi 2012).

Conservatism too is animated by serious philosophical arguments about equality, justice, and the common good. But conservatism has no John Rawls. Instead it has a Russell Kirk, a Richard Weaver, a William F. Buckley, an F. A. Hayek (if indeed Hayek is a conservative), a Harry V. Jaffa, and so on. Because conservatism in America first appeared as a reaction to progressivism, it has been more commonly and easily defined by what it is against than what it is for. Indeed, as George Nash observes in his definitive history of American conservatism, “The very quest for self-definition has been one of the most notable motifs of [conservative] thought since World War II” (Nash 2006 [1976], xv). As a result, although conservatives have effectively challenged the arguments of progressivism, they have often failed to offer a clear, unified, and attractive alternative.

This failure is partly the result of a deep tension within the conservative movement between libertarianism and traditionalist conservatism (if indeed, both belong in the same family!). Although there have been notable efforts to resolve that tension through a kind of “fusionism” (see Meyer 1996) or, more recently, “conservatarianism” (see Cooke 2015), those efforts have not succeeded.2 The reason is that the issues dividing libertarians and conservatives are not merely pragmatic; they are fundamental. Although fusionist libertarians find common ground with small-government conservatives, many libertarians are quite unhappy to be lumped in with a conservatism that (to them) has more in common with progressivism in its eager use of the state. Unfortunately, those issues have not been explored with the care they deserve. The debate between libertarians and conservatives has more often been characterized by journalistic polemics than careful inquiry. Hence the title and purpose of our book.

We hope to offer in this book a serious exploration of the philosophical, political, and economic issues underlying the libertarian–conservative debate. At the same time, we believe that a civil, informed, and energetic argument between a libertarian trained in economics (Wenzel) and a conservative trained in political philosophy (Schlueter) offers a more interesting, illuminating, and engaging format for readers than an impartial survey of the issues. There are many great books on libertarianism and many on conservatism. We have learned much from those conservative and libertarian books. However, these books often seem to be talking past one another, sometimes in unhelpful ways, and we are not aware of any book in which libertarians and conservatives engage one another in sustained argument.3 Indeed, the field of debate between libertarians and conservatives is littered with straw men. To be sure, the subtitle of our book is intentionally tongue-in-cheek: Libertarians do not necessarily promote selfishness, as conservatives sometimes suggest. Indeed, it is precisely their preoccupation with justice and human flourishing that causes them to be so skeptical of the state. Nor does libertarianism necessarily rest on reductive materialism or libertine atheism. And if conservatives see a positive role for political authority in providing for things like education and care for the poor, this does not necessarily make them socialists, any more than support for a healthy moral ecology makes them theocratic puritans.

Our goal in this book is to get past the ad hominem and straw man arguments one often finds in the debate between libertarians and conservatives and to engage the ideas and arguments on their own terms. We are not interested in scoring debater’s points. Although we have not avoided frank and direct speech, we have sought to avoid the kind of inflammatory polemic that generates more heat than light. Likewise, although we survey the various schools of thought within libertarianism and conservatism, we are primarily interested in seeking to identify and defend those that we find to be the best foundational arguments within libertarianism and conservatism. We leave it to politicians, policy analysts, and poets to convert these arguments into the currency of political practice.

A Bit about Us

The authors first met at a Hillsdale College faculty meeting in the winter of 2007. Schlueter, a philosophy professor, learning that Wenzel was new to the economics faculty, inquired into Wenzel’s academic interests. “Constitutional economics,” Wenzel replied—to which Schlueter impishly retorted, “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” A heated discussion ensued, and a friendship was born that carried us through two popular courses on the libertarian–conservative debate and eventually to this book. In the meantime, Wenzel gave Schlueter his first bow tie, and Schlueter taught Wenzel how to mix a martini. We even enjoy periodic performances of American folk, bluegrass, and roots music (but those who have had the privilege of hearing “The Low Down Dirty Docs” will understand why we kept our day jobs).

Wenzel has said that if all conservatives were like Schlueter, he might be one too, a sentiment Schlueter gladly reciprocates with respect to Wenzel and libertarianism.

This book is not about its authors, but our readers may want to know something about what brought us to our respective positions. Schlueter’s first interest in politics came as a young activist, participating in marches, protests, debates, and election campaigns. He paid his way through college working for the city, collecting trash and recyclable materials, paving roads, and flushing fire hydrants. The inefficiency he saw during his time there made a lasting impression on him.

After graduating from Miami University of Ohio (his time there overlapped with that of Rep. Paul Ryan), Schlueter went on to pursue a PhD in politics at the University of Dallas, where he studied in depth the principles of the American founding. This study was reflected in his first book, One Dream or Two? Justice in America and in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Schlueter first encountered libertarian ideas during a postdoctoral fellowship at Liberty Fund in 2000, where he read the works of James Buchanan, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, and Wilhelm Roepke. He next turned to the works of Wendell Berry, where he found an interesting and attractive combination of traditionalist, localist, communitarian, and libertarian ideas. This interest resulted in his next book, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, edited with Mark Mitchell.

But perhaps the most decisive moment in Schlueter’s intellectual development came with his move to Hillsdale College in 2005. There he found a rich, diverse, and energetic culture of debate and inquiry among faculty and students on the nature of free government and a free society. He was able to write most of this book in 2011–2012 while he was a Fellow at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Institutions and Ideals, for which he is immeasurably grateful. There he also immersed himself in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre and John Finnis, who provided him with the most important philosophical foundations and framework for organizing and synthesizing his ideas. Schlueter lives in Hillsdale with his wife, Elizabeth, and their eight children.

Wenzel was initially a bright-eyed Wilsonian institutionalist and social democrat. After graduating from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he was convinced that the U.S. government could solve all the world’s problems . . . except those that required multilateral cooperation. A brief stint in the U.S. Foreign Service quickly disabused him of this view. He realized that his professional frustrations were not accidental but matched the theory of bureaucracy and politics he was reading at night (see Sowell 1996). After just one tour (in Mexico City), Wenzel left the State Department. The following two years were an exciting whirlwind of TV appearances and congressional testimony about the State Department’s negligence in issuing visas to the 9/11 terrorists.

But Wenzel was drawn to the intellectual life, rather than the policy circles of Washington, DC. In the State Department, he had discovered conservative thought as the only obvious alternative to the social democracy of his youth. But conservatism was dissatisfying, as it was still too willing to use the state to advance its own purposes. So further reading led Wenzel first to libertarianism, then to the Atlas Network—and a PhD in economics at George Mason University. Originally concerned with the lot of the poorest in society (a lingering preoccupation), Wenzel was drawn to public choice theory and the intellectual humility of the Austrian school, both of which have an institutional home at George Mason University. He is now involved in several libertarian academic groups, including the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, the Association of Private Enterprise Education, and the Mont Pelerin Society. On a lark, Wenzel was a delegate to the 2013 Florida Libertarian Party convention; illuminated, inspired, and energized, he nonetheless returned to his comparative advantage in the world of ideas.

Where We Agree

Before we develop our disagreements, it will be helpful to the reader to know where we agree. Although some people will find some of these areas of agreement questionable, we will not spend much time defending them here. (That will have to wait for another book.)

First, we agree with Richard Weaver that ideas have consequences (see Weaver 1984). Human action is not simply behavioral responses to external stimuli. It is profoundly shaped, conditioned, and motivated by our ideas about reality. The great conflicts among fascism, national socialism, communism, and liberalism in the twentieth century—as among Islamism, communism, progressivism, libertarianism, and conservatism in our own—point, for good or ill, to the powerful causal influence of ideas on human action.

Moreover, in these pages, we are not simply engaged in a power game of competing ideas; rather, we are both interested in the truth of our ideas. Aeschylus reminds us that we suffer into truth. In that spirit, we have sought through our conversations and the writing of this book to learn from each other, just as we hope that the poet William Butler Yeats was correct when he wrote that “truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone.” Although we each find strong reasons for holding our respective positions on the libertarian–conservative debate, we agree there is no “silver bullet” deductive argument that conclusively determines the debate one way or another. Moreover, we are each aware of weaknesses in our own positions that we do our best to acknowledge. This is not the first book on political authority, and it certainly will not be the last. There is much work that remains to be done, but we hope at least to have cast some light forward.

Second, we reject modern liberalism (or what we shall call here progressivism). We believe that progressivism involves an unreasonable distrust in the ability of human beings to cooperate and coordinate voluntarily to meet their needs in civil society and an unreasonable trust in the capacity of government experts to solve complex social problems. Moreover, progressivism is animated by an “ideal theory” (see Rawls 1971) that overemphasizes the importance of good intentions and underemphasizes practical feasibility (see Tomasi 2012, 197–225). As a result, we think that progressives have a pattern of protecting or promoting well-intentioned institutions and programs that are demonstrable failures. Although (like ideal theorists) we are concerned with identifying and defending principles of justice, we believe that feasibility is a constituent part of justice and not merely a secondary consideration. A sound public philosophy must take people as they are and not as we want or imagine them to be.

Third, we regard the modern administrative state as both unconstitutional and unjust. The administrative state is unconstitutional in at least three ways: First, it exceeds the powers delegated to the national government by the Constitution; second, it creates an unconstitutional, unelected fourth branch of government (the “administrative branch”); and third, it involves the unconstitutional delegation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers to that fourth branch (see Lawson 1994). Of course, these constitutional defects could be formally remedied by amending the Constitution, but this would not remedy the fact that the administrative state is also unjust insofar as it profoundly undermines what we see as one of the most basic principles of political justice, the rule of law (see Epstein 2011), and saps the energy and initiative of individuals within civil society.

Fourth, we affirm the basic moral equality of persons. Persons, as centers of intelligence, value, and action, are the fundamental principles of moral and political analysis. Every legitimate association, including the political association, exists for the good of persons. No person may be mistreated, abused, or sacrificed for the good of others, whether according to the “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” the “general utility,” or any other consequentialist reason. We deny, however, that this moral equality requires material, economic, or social equality, though we differ somewhat on what that moral equality allows and requires.

Fifth, we agree that virtue is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for free government. That is, we disagree with Immanuel Kant’s assertion that “the problem of organizing a state . . . can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent” (Kant 1992, 112). Although well-designed institutions matter, not even the best-designed institutions can save a race of devils from tyranny. We disagree, however, on which virtues are necessary and how they are acquired and maintained.

Sixth, we agree that economic freedom is a matter of basic justice and a necessary component of human flourishing. Thus we not only oppose the administrative state, we also oppose crony capitalism, which cloaks its statism with the language of the free market. Our convictions about the value of economic liberty are strongly influenced by the writings of Nobel Prize–winning economist F. A. Hayek. Hayek’s defense of the free market rests not in the celebration of egoistic individualism but in the humble acknowledgment of the limits of human knowledge and action. Given those limits, Hayek pointed out the singular ability of the free market to coordinate widely dispersed information for the benefit of individuals and associations, and he showed why central economic planning must eventually lead to central social planning. We both object to certain aspects of Hayek’s thought (Wenzel thinks Hayek still allowed for too much government intervention; Schlueter objects to Hayek’s evolutionary account of moral knowledge). We also differ with one another on the extent to which social and political realities can be understood through the lens of economic assumptions. Nevertheless, we are indebted to Hayek’s profound insights into the nature of social orders and his courageous defense of liberty.

In short, both Wenzel and Schlueter believe they are defending some version of classical liberalism. But classical liberalism, like conservatism, is a tradition with a history (see Frohnen et al. 2006, 498–502). It includes such diverse thinkers as Montesquieu, John Locke, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith. Classical liberalism, again like conservatism, is therefore disputed territory. One can identify areas of agreement within classical liberalism (such as those previously listed) but also highlight and develop strains within that tradition that are incompatible with one another. It would not be inaccurate to say that the libertarian–conservative debate is, in many ways, an extended argument on the meaning of classical liberalism.

The Order of this Book

The format of this book consists of parallel chapters in which each of us lays forward his arguments and responds to counterarguments.

In the first chapter Schlueter gives an account of conservatism that integrates the best insights of traditionalist conservatism, neoconservatism, and libertarianism, while correcting what he regards as erroneous tendencies in each. This form of conservatism might simply be called “American conservatism,” because it seeks to preserve and promote the basic principles of the American founding, which conservatives regard as the highest development of the Western tradition of law and liberty. Those principles include limited constitutional government dedicated to securing both individual rights and the conditions for human flourishing; the rule of law; subsidiarity (especially in the form of federalism but also with respect to public policy at the state and local levels); and a commitment to public reason and deliberation. In short, American conservatism is a form of classical liberalism. The American founders drew heavily on the principal thinkers of classical liberalism, especially the Baron de Montesquieu, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith, but they brought to this tradition deep reflection on the insights of history, experience, and premodern political philosophy. Following Christopher Wolfe, American conservatism might also be called “natural law liberalism” (see Wolfe 2009).

Like classical liberalism more generally, natural law liberalism affirms natural rights, the free market, limited government, the rule of law, and a commitment to public reason as the ground for law and public policy, and it repudiates principles of the ancien régime like religious intolerance, laws of entail and primogeniture, titles of nobility, and mercantilist economics. Unlike some forms of classical liberalism, which rest on philosophical skepticism (as one finds in David Hume and F. A. Hayek), natural law liberalism affirms the capacity of reason to discover natural principles of justice while also holding that reason depends on, grows from, and is limited by experience, history, and tradition. In other words, natural law liberalism rests on a conception of reason (or epistemology) that is neither Humean skepticism nor Cartesian rationalism but moderately realist, oriented toward truth, yet conditioned and limited by experience and tradition. This conception of reason informs the conservative conviction that politics (and with it citizenship, patriotism, and statesmanship) is both a necessary and a permanently problematic feature of human existence. In this book, unless otherwise noted, the words conservative and conservatism will always refer to this form of American conservatism or natural law liberalism.

In Chapter Two, Wenzel makes the case for libertarianism. Although he agrees with the philosophical foundations for libertarianism (in terms of rights and autonomy), Wenzel is a professional political economist. In this chapter, he will summarize the rights-based case for libertarianism and then emphasize the alternate case for libertarianism based on “robust political economy.” Robust political economy integrates the insights from public choice theory and Austrian economics; it recognizes that economic and political actors cannot reasonably be assumed to be benevolent or omniscient, and it seeks to adopt political and social institutions accordingly. After establishing his methodology, Wenzel will identify and examine the three principal schools of libertarianism and their respective roles for government: classical liberalism (defense of rights and solutions to market failure), minarchy (defense of rights only), and anarcho-capitalism (defense of markets and civil society only, as government is not only inherently coercive but also unnecessary). He will ultimately make the case for minarchy: Legitimate government is limited to the protection of rights (life, liberty, and property)—and stops there. As he will make clear in subsequent chapters, unless he adds a qualifying disclaimer, Wenzel will use “libertarianism” to mean “minarchy.”

Any attempt by the state to go beyond this limited role is both immoral and self-defeating, as it will necessarily violate the rights of some to advance the preferences of others. Fortunately, markets and civil society, based on a foundation of individual rights protected by a limited government, offer the greatest opportunity for human flourishing, without the dangers of interventionism by the state.

In Chapter Three, Wenzel will give his arguments against conservatism and respond to Schlueter’s primary objections to libertarianism. In Chapter Four, Schlueter will offer his arguments against libertarianism and respond to objections.

Because one important measure of a public philosophy is how it plays out in practice, the last two chapters will be dedicated to three cases studies: immigration, education, and marriage. We have chosen these particular case studies not only because they are persistent points of disagreement between libertarians and conservatives but because they bear directly and fundamentally on the disagreement between libertarians and conservatives on the nature of the political association and political authority. For each case study, we will explain the response from the competing strains within our school while emphasizing our primary case.

We close this introduction with a note of warning, and encouragement, to the reader: When we first undertook this debate, each of us had confidence that his respective position could rather easily defeat the other. Having now surveyed the territory in depth, we have both lost the naïve confidence of those early days. Like Plato’s treatment of justice in The Republic, the libertarian–conservative debate touches on every subject of human interest and concern: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, even poetry. We are both much more profoundly aware of the limits of our own knowledge and thus also of the arguments in this book. As a warning, then, the reader should not expect to find the last word on the subject here, any more than Plato was the last word in philosophy. Careful readers will doubtless find many places here where the arguments require further support and development. In most cases we are all too aware of those places. But this should also be a source of encouragement for curious readers to take on themselves an exploration of the rich ideas that inform the libertarian–conservative debate. It is material worthy of a lifetime, and more, of study. For those readers, we have included a short list of suggested readings at the end of each chapter. Full citations can be found in the bibliography at the back of the book.

For Further Reading

George Carey’s edited volume, Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, offers a superb introduction to this debate, in the form of point–counterpoint short essays. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson offer an encyclopedic overview of the different strains of conservatism in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, while George Nash offers a history of conservatism in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Frank Meyer, the father of “fusionism” between conservatism and libertarianism, describes the differences between the two schools, while arguing that they are ultimately complementary, in his book In Defense of Freedom.


1. Technically, we should refer to “left-liberalism” to distinguish it from classical liberalism, a point we explain in the following discussion.

2. As Murray Rothbard points out in his essay, “Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqué” (Carey 2004 [1984], 135–162), fusionism is really libertarianism. It is too early to judge the success of conservatarianism, but Charles Cooke’s objections to libertarianism in The Conservatarian Manifesto are not likely to win over libertarians.

3. Carey 2004 [1984] offers a rich collection of essays on libertarianism versus conservatism. Although the individual essays are (mostly) insightful, there is no cohesive thread, and they often talk past each other. We nonetheless owe a debt of intellectual gratitude to the late Dr. Carey.