Political self-descriptions are hard, and the road which one must travel before arriving at a comfortable destination is long and winding. At least it should be, if you think about things seriously.
For my own part, the journey began during my youthful infatuation with republican socialism. That flame burned brightly before fading away, leaving nothing but several bookshelves furnished with titles including the acronym IRA.
It is hard to pinpoint a specific time when I became disillusioned with “the cause.”
The process was gradual: as I devoured more history books, it became harder to accept that in the future socialism would create wealth or happiness, given how in the past it had resulted in nothing but poverty and despair.
My nationalism also withered over time, as my interests broadened beyond the previously absorbing question of whether Ireland should be one jurisdiction or two.
Thus, I entered my voting years shorn of leftist leanings, but unsure of where my sympathies lay.
I was not a socialist, of that I was sure. Was I, therefore, a conservative? The general appeal of the term was clear enough, especially for one who no longer wanted to fundamentally transform society.
But the late 2000s was not a time for embracing the past or defending institutions which had so obviously failed us.
More importantly, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil could articulate a vision of what role the state should play, or how society should be organised. I was in search of a coherent political philosophy, and neither of these parties were offering one.
It was in this environment that I discovered libertarianism.
Thankfully, the first libertarian philosopher whose arguments I examined in detail would also prove to be the most enduring influence to this day: Professor Milton Friedman.
Like many modern students, I came across him on YouTube, by watching the ten-part ‘Free to Choose’ series which was released along with his landmark book in 1980 (you can watch the first episode here).
Friedman’s arguments – and his manner of delivery – captured and held my attention.
This small, mild-mannered economist, born to a poor Jewish immigrant family in New York, could seemingly explain any point with ease while demonstrating a breadth of knowledge which appeared superhuman.
His stance was refreshingly independent.
“I’m not a conservative. A conservative is somebody who wants to keep things the way they are,” he said. “The word ‘liberal’ means of and pertaining to freedom. I believe in freedom, and a true liberal is somebody who believes in freedom.”
Liberalism in the American context had already become completely intertwined with statism, as it soon would in Europe also. Friedman, in contrast, called himself a libertarian – and if he were one, I was one.
There were many other political guides whose writings influenced me as I continued to study libertarian thought.
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty provided a profound argument against the majoritarian tendencies which I saw all around me, and which I knew had been ever-present within the Ireland which my parents had grown up in: different bullies, using the same means, to dissimilar ends.
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek was extremely useful in explaining how the totalitarian roots of Nazism lay within the Left, and his essay on ‘Why I am not a conservative’ provided a neat summation of the problems within the conservative worldview: namely the fact that often times a “conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes.”
By my early 20s, I was confident that libertarianism contained within it the correct prescriptions for how a government in a free society should be allowed to operate.
I continue to believe in it. I believe that the vast majority of economic activity should be conducted within the private sector; that free trade should be practiced between nations; that government should be constitutionally limited; that ‘victimless crimes’ are no crimes at all; that prostitution, gambling and drug use should be legal; and that the state has a responsibility to protect people from others, and absolutely no business in protecting people from themselves.
Yet there was something lacking, and there always will be.
Freedom is not an end in itself. It can only be a means to an end: and that end is to live a worthwhile and noble life, while respecting your neighbours’ right to do the same.
While the ascent of freedom has continued in recent centuries, and with great benefits, history demonstrates the industrial-scale horror which educated, sophisticated people can inflict upon each other.
It is deeply unfair to blame the darkest chapters of modern history on the advance of what used to be known as classical liberalism, but the loss of that sense of community which conservatives often decry has clearly played a key role in humanity’s recent difficulties.
Faith in political institutions has declined, and a widespread ennui afflicts Western societies where people never been wealthier in material terms, and yet where they remain poor in spirit, and dissatisfied with their lot.
The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet’s seminal work, The Quest for Community, demonstrated how the alienation of modern life created serious problems, most notably the tendency for people to seek to solve the problems of atomisation by adopting statist solutions, no matter how absurd or abominable they might be.
The leading conservative philosopher Yuval Levin has built upon these ideas more recently, as has Patrick Deneen, whose best-selling book Why Liberalism Failed can be seen as an indictment of libertarianism as well.
Has their work – or recent events – shaken my faith in libertarianism?
No, but it has reminded me of the importance of continuity and community, without which no civilisation can endure.
That is why I remain a libertarian in practice, but a conservative in philosophy. I wish to preserve freedom, but I know that it is an ordered liberty that I seek.
As Burke wrote, society is a contract between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. The preservation and passing on of freedom should be the most important responsibility within that contract.
For conservative libertarians, it usually is.