04/09/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

No Liberty Without Order

Does the Republican Party really stand for liberty?

One of the oddest arguments advanced by the GOP and the larger conservative movement over the past three years is that President Obama and the Democratic Party are opponents of "liberty." Of course, the American right embraces a rather simplistic definition of the term.

While listening to the right's rhetoric over the Affordable Care Act and its alleged threat to America, I can't help wondering: can one have true liberty if one is forced into bankruptcy due to unaffordable medical bills? If "Obamacare" helps to reduce this risk, can it not be argued that "Obamacare" actually enhances liberty?

It seems that today's conservatives define "liberty" as the absence of allegedly onerous regulations and laws, rather than defining the term as the ability to pursue happiness unencumbered by arbitrary woes. If one defines "liberty" as the removal of regulations, one can understand where Republicans are coming from. If one defines "liberty" as the elimination of artificial barriers, the Republican argument about "liberty" makes no sense at all.

Remember two years ago, when then-Senate candidate Rand Paul suggested that portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional? At the time, Paul implied that the bill infringed upon the liberty of property owners. From Paul's libertarian perspective, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was nothing more than government overreach.

The problem, of course, is that the legislators who voted for the Civil Rights Act -- including such noble Republicans as Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen -- did so in the name of liberty, specifically the liberty of African Americans who were barred from restaurants, hotels and other places of public accommodation for no reason other than the color of their skin. The Jim Crow laws of the South imposed an artificial burden on African Americans, a burden that infringed upon liberty; the Civil Rights Act was intended to remove that burden. From this perspective, Paul's concept of "liberty" was profoundly shortsighted.

What modern libertarian-leaning Republicans who prattle on endlessly about their odd concept of "liberty" fail to understand is that there can be no true liberty without social order. As conservative philosopher Russell Kirk noted thirty years ago:

In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that "liberty inheres in some sensible object," are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable "liberty" at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.

Order is needed to have a truly free society. Certain social maladies are threats to order, something Republicans used to understand. Discrimination against minorities was a threat to social order, which is why rational Republicans like Dirksen backed the civil rights bill Paul grew to loathe. Widespread pollution and environmental degradation were threats to social order, which is why old-school Republicans like Pete McCloskey fought hard for legislation to keep our air and water clean.

Today's Republicans seem to believe that the only threats to order come from regulations and taxes, never acknowledging that there are times when regulations must be imposed and, yes, taxes must be raised in order to maintain social order. It's as though the only thing we're supposed to fear is government itself.

The GOP's lack of concern about the need for order is a natural consequence of the increased libertarian influence in the party -- an influence Kirk warned against at the dawn of the Reagan era:

The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle -- that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century... Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions. Conservatives, on the contrary, hold that "in Adam's fall we sinned all": human nature, though compounded of both good and evil, is irremediably flawed; so the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect. Thus the libertarian pursues his illusory way to Utopia, and the conservative knows that for the path to Avernus... [A] primary function of government is restraint; and that is anathema to libertarians, though an article of faith to conservatives.

Kirk's criticism of the libertarian vision is much stronger than mine; I do not gainsay the theoretical merits of that vision. However, when transferred from the world of theory to the world of fact, libertarianism can have some gruesome consequences, as Kirk recognized.

Conservatism is not libertarianism. It can never be. It is unnatural to mix the two. As Kirk put it:

To talk of forming a league or coalition between [conservatives and libertarians] is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

There was a time when the Republican Party had real conservatives, men and women who recognized that liberty without order was a recipe for madness and chaos, a path to national suicide. Those days are long since gone. Today, the GOP is dominated by this odd hybrid species known as the "libertarian-conservative," a bizarre breed that refuses to recognize any need for the non-military aspects of government. Kirk warned years ago that a "libertarian-conservative" was a strange formulation:

Incidentally, now and again one reads of two camps of alleged conservatives: "traditionalist conservatives and libertarian conservatives" This is as if a newspaperman were to classify Christians as "Protestant Christians and Muslim Christians" A libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi.

There is no liberty without order, no liberty when economic policies aren't rational, no liberty when citizens are not treated equally, no liberty when the planet has been polluted. That's a truth Republicans used to acknowledge. Now, the party seems to lack that knowledge.

From this perspective, one must ask: who really stands for liberty these days?