Should Conservatism Seek to Destroy the State?

by Alexander Salter

For their own sake, as well as the sake of the civilization which they love, conservatives can and should deny the state’s legitimacy, on the grounds that it is destructive of the true, the good, and the beautiful…

Two philosophies rarely seem as opposed as conservatism and anarchism. The Continental, Throne-and-Altar variant of conservatism obviously treats anarchism as anathema, but even the Anglo-American variant, as a political philosophy, rarely has nice things to say about its rowdy cousin. For example, Russell Kirk, the founder of post-War American conservatism, had this to say about anarchy:

When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.

We see here a widely-shared definition of anarchy: no law governing human behavior, no institutions constraining men’s avarice. It’s obvious why a conservative in Kirk’s tradition—which is really the tradition of Burke, Tocqueville, Acton, and Hayek—could not embrace such a scheme of social organization.

But is this what anarchy really is? Many have used the same word to mean different things, and there was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a sizeable contingent of anarchists who affirmed no law over man save his own will. Furthermore, they were often all too willing to use violence to bring about their vision. But there are other ways of understanding anarchy, ways which are much more amenable to a traditionalist conservatism grounded in prudence and restraint. This is why some other conservative thinkers and men of letters had a more positive opinion of anarchy. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son, wrote concerning his political philosophy: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.”

What a strange combination! Anarchy and unconstitutional monarchy! The war of all against all, or Leviathan unchained! This is an interesting juxtaposition, worthy of a series of essays in its own right. Here, I restrict my attention to unpacking the first part of Tolkien’s affirmation. Exactly what kind of anarchy is not only compatible with, but supportive of, conservatism?

I am a political economist, so it’s not surprising that I would make recourse to the academic literature[1] on the political economy of anarchy in offering my answer. Anarchy in this sense is the philosophy of the illegitimacy of the state. Furthermore, “state” takes on a very specific definition: The political body that claims a monopoly on the use of violence to adjudicate disputes, often paired with a monopoly on the creation and enforcement of social rules. In other words, anarchy is opposed to post-Westphalian sovereignty. It is not opposed to law and order; it is opposed to anybody having exclusive control over its production. It is not opposed to property; it is opposed to the use of state power to decide appropriate distributions of property. It is not opposed to institutionalized religion; it is opposed to the use of state power to decide acceptable forms of religious worship.

Why, exactly, should a conservative seriously think about supporting such a position? First, I should own up to playing it a little fast and loose with terminology early in my essay. Conservatism, in Kirk’ sense, is not so much a political philosophy as it is a group of related norms and principles concerning the nature of man, the nature of society, and the nature of politics. In Kirk’s own words: “The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.” Applied to politics and civil society, conservatism looks favorably on tried-and-true institutions and practices, and hence is skeptical of radical innovation and abrupt change in social affairs, especially in those things that make social cooperation possible. Universities, religious bodies, fraternal organizations, and other organs of civil society are not only viewed favorably, but as essential to individual and social flourishing. Any force that opposes these intermediary institutions ought to be viewed with extreme skepticism.

Historically, there has been no more radical and innovator and destroyer of intermediary institutions than the state. From the state-building projects of early modernity, to the absolutist periods in England and on the Continent, to nationalist aspirations in the late nineteenth century and the totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth, the state has been singularly hostile to the primary institutions and folkways that constitute a nation and are the proper objects of its primary loyalty. Conservatives have a tendency to blame power- and profit-hungry bourgeoisie for this process, who supposedly corrupted the state, transforming it from a means of pursuing the common good to a reckless consumer of cultural capital in the name of financial gain. It’s true that the middle classes, dating back to early modernity, bear some of the blame for setting the state loose. But to castigate the commercial classes is to mistake the accidents for the substance. It was the state, and the massive force at its disposal, that was ultimately responsible for the terrible social leveling that has occurred in some form since the French Revolution. It was the state that tried, and often succeeded, at erasing any other sources of man’s loyalty, rendering him as a mere cog in the social machine, with no value or dignity except that derived from utility to the state. It took Constant’s “liberty of the ancients”[2] and stripped it of its few redeeming graces, creating an engine of death and destruction the likes of which the world had never seen.

The proceeding discussion points towards a solution to the puzzle. Conservatism, as Kirk understood it and as many traditionalist conservatives understand it today, embraces a society of ordered liberty, with the love and passion for justice counterbalanced with sober restraint regarding man’s use of power. These are the ends to be achieved. Anarchism is the means of achieving these ends, opposed as it is to history’s greatest organization at undermining those ends.

But what is the alternative to modern states and sovereignty? From where else could social order arise? The answer lies in the defining feature of the Western legal and political tradition. As the legal philosopher, Harold Berman argued, the uniqueness of Western legal-political affairs was the development of several overlapping, and often competing, sources of law. During the High Middle Ages, for example, in a single geographic territory were bodies for adjudicating and enforcing the king’s law, manorial law, ecclesiastical law, and commercial law, just to name a few sources of legal authority. While each of these organizations obviously claimed different jurisdictions, none were sovereign, in the sense of having final right of appeal and enforcement. Furthermore, since the boundaries between these areas were often porous, those who had disputes often could choose the jurisdiction to which they would be subject. Almost everywhere else in the world, at any point in human history, the law had dominion over the individual. Only in the West did institutions develop, inimical in essence to sovereignty, that that gave individuals some measure of control over the law.

This precious inheritance, the fruits of which are our modern conceptions of liberty under law, has been steadily eroded by state sovereignty since the sixteenth century. Conservatives thus have good reason to oppose the modern state and return to the roots of their own tradition. Conservative anarchism is thus not a contradiction, and still less is it nonsensical. It is the simple recognition that the values conservatives cherish cannot be maintained in a world where any organization claims the coercively-enforced right of final and unquestionable command.

Embracing anarchy does not require conservatives to embrace violent revolution, or even civil disobedience. But for their own sake, as well as the sake of the civilization which they love, conservatives can and should deny the state’s legitimacy, on the grounds that it is destructive of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Affirming sovereignty in the hopes it may someday fall within conservative hands is a siren song that must be resisted. Thankfully, in an age where our political institutions seem incapable of giving us more meaningful “choices” than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, delegitimizing the state, in the name of ordered liberty¸ is more feasible than ever.

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[1] Powell, Benjamin and Stringham, Edward “Public choice and the economic analysis of anarchy: a survey.” (Springer Business + Science Media, 2009).

[2] Constant, Benjamin The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns (1819).

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