Russel Kirk vs. the Libertarians

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was an eminent author whose many diverse talents as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist were celebrated in Bradley J. Birzer’s superb biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative. In his youth, Kirk’s intellectual development as a conservative was mainly influenced by the writings of Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Christopher Dawson and T.S. Eliot. A brilliant political theorist, Kirk’s conservative mind was sometimes unpredictable when applying the principles of conservatism to modern society. His argument with liberals was mild compared to his quarrel with libertarians, and his disputes with both were well supported by a prose style pleasantly crisp, clear, and logical.

As Birzer points out, Kirk did not dislike the classical type of liberalism. The older liberalism was rooted in a well-trained experience of education and the arts. That kind of liberalism was meant to liberate the human spirit from the chains of ignorance and a flat-lined existence. What Kirk disliked was the newer liberalism, the kind that led inevitably to political collectivism, by which any group successfully organized could achieve its goals, whether they were honest or not. That kind of liberalism was rooted in rebellion against the old order that Europe had created and known off and on since antiquity. To be liberated from God and all traditional theological notions was at the heart of the new liberalism. This would result, of course, in binding human souls in the chains of rank materialism and new moral doctrines to be defined by the philosophers with the biggest sticks. Left without Divine grace to guide and propel him through life, the new liberal found comfort by herding with his own kind. Thus the seeds of the older and once revered liberalism, following the twofold appearance of the Industrial Revolution and the rising tide of Democracy, were re-planted and nurtured into the wolf pack mentality of modern liberalism. Voltaire and Rousseau, liberals to be sure along with the atheist Diderot, paved the way to the libertine blood shedding of the French Revolution. The insane Marquis de Sade’s lifestyle seems to have singularly prefigured the demented galloping libertinism of modern times.

Defining Terms

There is perhaps no issue on which Kirk more deserves to be studied and appreciated than his ongoing dispute with libertarians, and perhaps there is no writing of his that deserves more to be examined on this subject than his 1981 essay published in Modern Age, “Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries.” It is pertinent first to point out how a “sectary” is defined. The broadest definition in the context used by Kirk is a person known to espouse politically heretical views, and to espouse them with a kind of bird-like or insect-like (chirping) conviction. Kirk was an orthodox conservative as demonstrated by two facts: his deep devotion to the politically conservative icon Edmond Burke, and his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 45. For Kirk both liberalism and libertarianism were political heresies because they were founded upon a worldview that in the main was contrary to the eternal verities.

Now it is useful to define three more terms before going deeper into Kirk’s philosophy: (1) conservatism, (2) liberalism, and (3) libertarianism. In both theory and practice, it is impossible to have a political philosophy without a compatible moral philosophy. Whenever a great political storm rages in society, it is usually because of a difference in moral perspectives. (1) In matters of politics, the conservative prefers small government; in matter of morals, conservatives prefer traditional morals, usually but not always based on a religious heritage. (2) In matters of politics, liberals argue for a strong government with a strongly “progressive” agenda. In matters of morals, liberals prefer individual freedom to decide right from wrong, and thus in practice liberalism is distant from, neutral toward, or indifferent to the traditional moral values dear to conservatives. (3) Libertarians are a hybrid of conservatives and liberals. In matters of politics the libertarian is opposed to any strong central government with an agenda that restricts or impedes individual freedom. For example, the tendency of liberals to propose gun control laws may be repulsive to libertarians. In matters of morals, libertarians are opposed again to the conservative imposition of legal restraints on licentious conduct; libertarians, for example, are likely to oppose conservative efforts to outlaw pornography. All the above distinctions are in certain details debatable, and there are no doubt many people whose values are a mixed bag of conservative, liberal, and libertarian.

Divided Loyalties

In matters of both politics and morals, there is a deeply emotional and philosophical divide between people who are mostly liberal and people who are mostly conservative. However, the divide between liberals and libertarians is only provisional, since they usually agree on the social issues but disagree on granting an increase of regulatory powers to the State. The divide between libertarians and conservatives is also provisional, since they agree in opposing the aggressive enlargement of power in the State, but disagree as to the social issues.

The difficulty for libertarian voters is that, in a mainly two-party system, they cannot dominate (since their allegiances are mostly provisional) but they can bargain to their advantage by aligning their votes with either mainstream party depending on the issue at hand. Since the libertarian alliance with either conservatives or liberals is likely to be a fragile alliance, a libertarian candidate who is clearly identified as such is unlikely to be elected President by the majority of voters, for the simple reason that he is unlikely to have earned the trust and/or confidence of those many voters who regard themselves as mostly liberal or mostly conservative. Rightly or wrongly, people tend not to favor a candidate they cannot wholly embrace. A libertarian candidate, therefore, must either announce his “third party” status in the hope of building a constituency of voters (often resulting in defeat) or must camouflage his provisional loyalties by joining one party or the other that the public perceives to be dominantly liberal or conservative. He will tend, often as not, to be a thorn in the side of either party he joins.

John Stuart Mill’s Heresy

All this said, the specifics of Kirk’s argument with the libertarians may now be addressed. Kirk begins by allowing that libertarians and conservatives have one thing, and one thing only, in common: they both detest the liberal collectivist state which burdens the individual with total control over his destiny. Collectivism’s gain of enormous territory over several continents throughout the 20th century cannot be denied. That universal collectivism is still on the march cannot be denied. The question as to whether that march can be halted by conservatives and libertarians making common cause against liberals seems not to have a positive answer. For Kirk, mixing conservatism and libertarianism to fight liberalism is like mixing fire and ice; it can’t be done.

Reaching back into the historical origins of modern libertarianism, Kirk cites a passage from the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill which, once disseminated throughout Europe, became in brief the libertarian equivalent of the Golden Rule:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty and action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

(This exception would seem to refer only to the police powers of the state to prevent such things as murder or theft.) Kirk then cites how a contemporary of Mills, one James Fitzjames Stephen, very easily demolished Mills’ argument as naive and impractical. As Stephen put it, “To me the question whether liberty is a good or a bad thing appears as irrational as the question whether fire is a good or a bad thing. It is both good and bad according to time, place, and circumstance, and a complete answer to the question, ‘In what cases is liberty good and in what bad?’ would involve not merely a universal history of mankind, but a complete solution of the problems which such a history would offer.”

As Kirk rightly asserts, Mills was a shallow and simplistic thinker. Human liberty is too complex to be ruled by one simple dictum. What Mills neglects is the factor called “force” in human affairs. It is one thing to allow free speech; it is quite another thing to tolerate unlimited speech under the pretext that free speech harms no one. The Nazis of the 1930s had unlimited free speech and ruined Germany with it because they were able to “force” the contents of their free speech into becoming the groundwork for abominable, oppressive, and criminal laws. Kirk concludes: “It is consummate folly to tolerate every variety of opinion, on every topic, out of devotion to an abstract ‘liberty’; for opinion soon finds its expression in action, and the fanatics whom we tolerated will not tolerate us when they have the power.”

Six Reasons for the Libertarian Hell

The essential defect of libertarianism is that it advances and defends with a kind of perverse relish every novelty, sane or insane, that is known to man. With a similar zeal it is happily tolerant of destroying the influence of the past, especially those traditions of the past, including the religious ones, that preach the restrained use of our freedoms. Chesterton had seen this before Kirk when, opposing the avalanche of liberalism that had fallen upon civilization during his own lifetime, he referred to the need for us to respect the democracy of the dead, who, by far, far outnumber the living. As Kirk put it, “The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority, temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics. In a highly tolerant society like that of America today, such defiance of authority on principle may lead to perversity on principle, for lack of anything more startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism…. the dream of an absolute private freedom is one of those visions which issues between the gates of ivory; and the dreadful speed with which society moves today flings the libertarians outward through centrifugal force, even to the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

For Kirk there is a genuine metaphysical madness propping up the libertarian’s world view; whereupon he proceeds to list six reasons why libertarians are not only so few and harmless as not to count for much in the total scheme of politics, but they are also repellent in the extreme, so repellent as to resemble the unfortunate inmates of “mental homes.” The first reason has to do with what Kirk regards as the withdrawal from transcendental values. Libertarians tend to regard this life as all that there is, and so the aim of life is mere producing and consuming with little or no thought about a life and judgment yet to come. Such a worldview is bound to be essentially materialistic, and therefore anathema to conservatives. There is no way that this fundamental divide between libertarians and conservatives can be bridged.

The second reason to consider is the fact that libertarians exalt liberty above order as the foundational requirement for a just society. Kirk regards this as patently absurd. Any well-run society must begin to be established with a sense of order that is agreed upon by all, such as the Constitution provides for the United States. This is at the heart of conservatism, but is not at the heart of libertarianism. “In exalting an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.”

The third reason consists of looking at “what binds society together.” For the libertarian it is self interest, pure and simple; cash-only self interest. For the conservative it is something far beyond that; namely, the belief that the human race is bound together by a belief in the “community of souls” that stretches from the dead through the living to the yet unborn. At the heart of the conservative vision of social glue is “what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbour.”

A fourth reason for the incompatibility of libertarianism and conservatism is the fact that libertarians assume the fundamental goodness of humans as individuals and society as a whole. This is not only controverted by the behavior of humans all around us, but it ignores the Judeo-Christian teaching of the Fall through original sin. And since all humans are born with this moral flaw, utopia itself is impossible. Libertarians think human flaws and failing can be corrected by the principle of unadulterated liberty. But the world has shown (the Serpent tempting Adam and Eve is the first great example of a failed revolution in pursuit of utopia) that the desire for freedom to subvert the law to one’s own will is at the bottom of the libertarian impulse. Hence the failure of Marxism and all other -isms that promised heaven on earth and produced hell instead, as the Soviet Union finally had to admit.

The fifth reason why conservatives and libertarians cannot be reconciled is that the libertarian balks at the power of the state to control and restrain the conduct of its members, whereas the conservative knows that social order depends on the very exercise of that restraint for the good of individuals and of society as a whole. According to Kirk, “Without the state, man’s condition is poor, nasty, brutish, and short – as Augustine argued, many centuries before Hobbes.” People, left to themselves, can become anarchists on the least pretext. This we see proven in the conduct of many maniacs whose doings are reported in the nightly news. Only a power exterior to the person, such as a government is, can restrain society from becoming a wild vortex of mad persons.

The sixth reason for the mad metaphysics of the libertarian is rooted in the observation that he thinks “this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego.” One need go no further than to look at the writings and person of that perhaps most swaggering of libertarians, Ayn Rand. Leaving aside her voluminous writings in defense of triumphant egos, the course of her personal life showed the world how perfectly content she was to have all her wants and desires fulfilled, when she might better have exercised sexual self-control for the sake of her husband and a certain disciple who had raised her upon the pedestal on which she so defiantly stood. Anyone familiar with Rand’s writings knows it is not a slander, just truth-telling, to say that her hatred for altruism made it difficult to view her as anything but a mean-spirited and self-absorbed libertarian.

Kirk concludes by reasoning that the conservative, though loathing liberal socialism, has more in common with the socialist than with the libertarian. The socialist at least declares allegiance to some moral order outside himself, while the libertarian’s self-made moral abyss seems bottomless. The question may well be asked whether there is anyone more willing than the libertine libertarian to defend every kind of self-absorbed hedonism (whether marginally normal or disgusting beyond words). Look at what has happened in the course of Kirk’s lifetime until our own, confirmed by psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple’s remark: “In the modern view, unbridled personal freedom is the only good to be pursued; any obstacle to it is a problem to be overcome.”

The Libertarian Juggernaut

The following observations, my own, are rooted in Kirk’s analysis of the Libertarian Juggernaut. Below are just several of the many “unbridled personal freedoms” the libertarian may insist he must be free enough to encounter by changing the law in his favor. The libertarian insists not only that his demands are morally rightful, but that they must be socially approved and licensed by society as lawful. In other words, he is willing to impose his own values on society, even when, at the same moment, he opposes society imposing its values on him. The list is by no means exhaustive.



Child Pornography


Child Prostitution



Same-sex marriage




In the case of abortion, it cannot be denied that over the last fifty years a holocaust of the unborn (40 million infants since Roe v. Wade) has occurred; a holocaust defended by Hollywood celebrities who might oppose the slaughter of one seal but hardly raise an eyebrow against the slaughter of forty million unborn humans. Many abortionists have profited from this slaughter. Many might-be mothers have chosen to believe that their lives will be somehow enhanced by killing their unborn child rather than giving the child life and nurturing that life to fulfillment. Thus, the libertarian impulse is to change the law to tolerate even the most outrageous type of late term abortion. The Libertarian Party in 2012 issued the following statement: “Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” Would the same policy toward the killing of adults be viewed with the same indifferent neutrality, the same assumption of a good-faith view toward the right of adults to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The medical profession has never asserted that the unborn child is not a human being with a separate identity and DNA different from both parents. That being the case, the “cutting out” of the unborn child cannot be viewed merely as one would view the cutting of one’s hair or one’s toe-nails.

In the case of pornography, the libertarian demands that the older laws banning pornography must be changed to enable freedom of speech guaranteed in the 1st Amendment. This argument was refuted by the Supreme Court decision of 1942 in the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, which said in part that obscene “expressions are no essential part of any expression of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be deprived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” So what the libertarian in this case really wants to enable is not free speech, but rather the freedom to debase culture by justifying and guaranteeing pornography on a colossal scale never known in once authentically Christian societies. All this rank hedonism is to be legalized, it should be remembered, not for the authentic First Amendment right to speak like a civilized adult, but for the sake of a titillating sensation in one’s pants.

In the case of child pornography, libertarians have yet to openly demand its legalization; yet because of the legalization of pornography in general, it was inevitable that child porn, the most degenerate form of porn, would increase. The sexual abuse of children must be some kind of perverse satisfaction for those who have lost respect for children altogether. Live streaming of child porn on the internet has been documented. Statistics show that the United States is the largest producer of child porn in the world, further demonstrating that the libertarian demand for selfish sexual gratification through pornography will ultimately produce the destruction of childhood innocence. A Japanese entrepreneur has invented a childlike doll for the purpose of sexual congress. Since the doll will likely soon be marketed on a large scale in North America, the libertarian defense for its marketing will be that it harms no one. But we know that child porn has been discovered in the homes of many arrested pedophiles. How is it that we should not expect sex dolls to become dry-runs for the real thing?

In the case of legalizing prostitution, many countries now do so, in spite of the fact that worldwide the incidence of violence against prostitutes is very high. The case some will make for legalizing prostitution is that it cannot be stopped anyway. The same logic applied to murder or any other crime would be absurd. One has to reason that the porn film industry promotes prostitution just by the fact that actors are paid for their performances on the screen. A great number of such sex workers have died of disease or suicide. In the 1980s the Massachusetts Libertarian Party supported a campaign to repeal anti-prostitution laws. The venereal sickness or death of prostitutes and their infected clients, and the all too frequent homicidal violence committed against prostitutes, is apparently less important to the libertarian than the tickle in the pants. As Irving Babbitt noted nearly one hundred years ago: “Sexual unrestraint has wrought and is wreaking fearful havoc to society…. Religion may be right after all in dealing with the whole question of sex in terms of the inner life.” How much more true is this today than it was one hundred years ago? That question the libertarian does not want to hear, nor does he want to hear any religious person’s answer to it.

In the case of child prostitution, we know that such child abuse is devastating. Whatever pleasure is derived from adults sexually abusing children is incomprehensible to normal people, but to put that pleasure on a cash basis is the rock bottom of moral choices. Libertarians have yet to demand the legalization of child prostitution, but perhaps only because they know the backlash upon them would be horrific. Even so, we know of a group called NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association), which is dedicated to the abolition of age-of-consent laws for sex between adults and children. Should that abolition ever occur, it is but a short step from the legalization of pedophilia to the legalization of child prostitution. A new law in the “progressive utopia” of California bars sex workers under the age of 18 from being arrested. This is tantamount to encouraging child prostitution since children will no longer have to fear the authorities who might have deterred their sex trafficking. Only in California. Other states to follow?

In the case of pedophilia, accurate statistics of its occurrence are hard to determine since it is a highly secret activity. Again, NAMBLA can be cited as a proponent of legalization between adult men and boys. NAMBLA is largely based in New York and San Francisco and has ties to homosexual and women’s lib organizations. The organization says it opposes “the extreme oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships.” Evidently it does not recognize the oppression of boys by men who care more about corrupting children than they care about the normal growth of children into their adult sexuality. Arvin Vohra, a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate, has publicly advocated legalizing sex between adults and children. The Libertarian Party is currently struggling to dissociate itself from the growing movement within the party to openly support pedophilia.

In the case of incest, again accurate statistics are difficult to obtain because it is a highly secret activity. What is not secret is that pornographers exult in making incest-themed movies and literature highly popular as the public looks for increasingly sensational subject matter. The legalization of pornography made it inevitable that incest would be a dominant theme in porn that specializes in depicting mother-son, father-daughter, and siblings sex. Again, how much of this porn has spurred-on the actual rise in incest cannot be accurately determined because of the secret nature of the act. Because sex between biologically related persons is still generally taboo, the porn film industry has done an end run around this kind of sex by depicting sex between step parents and their step children and between step siblings. Since American homes now are more than ever before composed of step parents and step children, the conclusion to be drawn is self-evident: there is probably a very large market for step-sex. Wikipedia reports that porn films including actors who are twin brothers engaging in oral and anal sex have been made in Europe. If there is a sizable audience for such movies, who would that audience mainly be if not twin brothers? The usual libertarian approach to whether incest porn should be legal is to ask, Who is hurt by it? Does the question really require an answer?

In the case of same-sex marriage, no previous high civilization in the history of the world ever licensed it. That should tell us something very important. In the United State fifty years ago, if any male had seriously proposed marrying a male friend, he would have been recommended to see a psychiatrist. It is an index of the intimidating influence (read: political correctness) of libertarians that people today who still might regard same-sex marriage as insane are themselves regarded by many, including even some so-called Christians, with contempt. Perhaps never before has the Western world been so vulnerable to the charge that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Even the Supreme Court of the United States, which barely validated same-sex marriage by a single vote in a five to four decision, has for many citizens lost the confidence that this Court is anywhere near the final repository of wisdom and common sense. As far back as 1976 the Libertarian Party came out fully in support of same-sex marriage.

In the case of homosexuality, things have certainly changed. In the early days of colonial North America a soldier was drummed out of the army by order of George Washington. His offense? Sodomy. Today the military protects and legitimizes sodomites. While Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson backed legislation that would criminalize and severely punish sodomites. Universally and throughout history, sodomy has been regarded as perverse … until the libertarians went into action as early as 1972. Under severe pressure from organizations on the Left, the American Psychological Association, managed by about 250 ultra-liberal psychologists, in 1975 resolved that homosexuality was not a mental illness. This was done without scientific research to determine the validity of the declassification. The American Psychiatric Association, under similar intimidating threats, likewise caved in. Thus homosexuality became a civil rights issue backed by those “politically correct” liberals and libertarians, not by scientific research. 

In the case of transgenderism (gender confusion), the question is whether it is a mental illness or a civil rights issue. Transgenderism consists of a lack of clarity about one’s sexual identity, a state of mind in which one might alternately feel one is male or female. People who experience this state have come to insist that they do not suffer a mental illness and that they should be granted the same civil rights accorded to homosexuals. These civil rights include the right to “corrective” gender surgery so that a new gender could be claimed. Who is to pay for this surgery? In Brazil the surgery is free, a right according to the Constitution. In America, the insanity is epidemic as even children in some states are encouraged at school to use whichever restroom they feel like using depending on how they happen to identify their sex. At the Outright Libertarian home page the following message can be read: “As the Outright Libertarians, we serve as a two way bridge between the Libertarian Party and those with differing sexual orientations or gender identities. Through activism and outreach, we find free thinking individuals in the gender and sexual minority community and introduce them to the Libertarian Party.”

In the case of drugs and their legalization, the nation has never been so drug-ridden. Whereas a century ago alcohol was commonly the most fatal drug of choice, today it is rivaled by hundreds of competitors equally or more dangerous. The argument for legalizing drugs centers on the hope of eliminating drug cartels. Ironically, the consequence of this logic is that the local or state governments will become the new drug cartels. State after state legalizes (and by legalizing inevitably condones) pleasure seeking through drugs, seemingly unaware that drugs are the natural stimulant to increase in crimes of all kinds, from rape to prostitution to theft to homicide, not to mention the doubled increase in highway deaths in Colorado since the legalization of marijuana in 2013. How did we descend from “every man’s vote is equal to every other man’s vote” to “every man’s vice is as good as every other man’s virtue”? The Libertarian Party argues for the legalization of drugs and porn. The tickle in the mind is to be exalted right along with the tickle in the pants, regardless of the cost in money and lives.

The Libertarian Objection

To repeat: the usual objection libertarians offer to laws that are passed to prevent or limit certain types of behaviour is that these behaviours do not hurt anyone; and if they are by any stretch of logic to be considered crimes, they are victim-less crimes. Attempts to control pleasure-seeking behaviour can never succeed, libertarians say. One form of pleasure-seeking behaviour is sado-masochistic torture. In the city of Kiev in the Ukraine a hotel has opened up that features bizarre theme rooms including a Domination room and a Torture room. Doubtless someone in the United States, not to be outdone, will begin a chain of such hotels, and the usual hedonistic mantra will be trumpeted in the media: If it feels good, do it!

Hardly any reasonable person today will argue that the coarsening of a society is something society ought to tolerate just because certain people insist on their right to coarsen society for their pleasure and profit. There is an economic principle that bad money drives out good money; likewise bad values drive out good values. The libertarian doesn’t care about that because the libertarian doesn’t see the importance of good values compared to his freedom to behave any way he likes. If the way he behaves is self-destructive, so what? Should we not be free to commit suicide? We might ask, a bit of tongue in cheek, “Who is hurt by it?”

During the television debate between libertarian Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk, Rand said it was self evident that the human ego eclipses all else of importance, and that the natural selfishness of the ego cannot better be symbolized than by the dollar sign. Kirk replied it is love and altruism that eclipse all else, and the cross is the symbol of that eclipse. Rand had nothing but contempt for the significance of the cross as a talisman against the dollar sign. She shared Sigmund Freud’s fear and hatred of the Catholic Church, and regarded the altruism preached by Jesus as the greatest enemy of the ego-obsessed ideology she preached in her novels and other writings.  

Since, as always, nature abhors every vacuum, the decline of religion has fueled the rise of amoral libertarianism, of freedom without restraint, the false promise of heaven on earth. That false and promiscuous promise has been aided and abetted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As a postscript, it is worth mentioning Russel Kirk’s judgment of the matter. “The ACLU has been able to harass out of existence public expressions of faith.” And so, true religion and the moral squalour of our times requires that we choose again, and again, and again between the cross and the dollar sign, altruism and egoism, angels and demons incarnate.