As an ardent classical liberal, I think from time to time about the differences between the two main inheritors, in America, of the (classical) liberal tradition: conservatives and libertarians. What are the differences? Why can’t we, joint inheritors of the ideology that built the modern world, get along?

The many explanations and contours of that debate could fill volumes, so I’ll just quickly focus on one aspect here.

Libertarians, generally speaking, are more doctrinaire and focused on first principles. There has been some recent drift away from that in recent years, to the point where “libertarian” is starting to mean a bunch of things it didn’t used to mean (and probably shouldn’t mean). But in general, libertarians have been more interested in analyzing first principles and playing them out into prescriptions about public policy (or lack thereof, in the case of full anarcho-libertarians).

Conservatism is a bit more complicated. There is a strain in conservatism that intentionally rejects doctrine and ideology in favor of reverence for established patterns and caution about rapid change. (I am typing on a wobbly table at a Chinese buffet, so I am not going to look up a bunch of quotes right now, but you can see some of them in this older, but still very useful, article by author Robert Bidinotto.)

As it turns out, much of what conservatives are conserving is, in fact, a set of principles . . . or at very least the results of the application of a set of principles. The accumulated wisdom, traditions, culture, and social and legal norms of the countries of the English-speaking world are built from, and inextricably linked with, classical liberalism . . . and classical liberalism is undergirded by a set of principles. The principles have enough force to produce doctrines. Natural rights, free markets, the sovereignty of the individual human person—and the need for government to protect, but never molest, these things—are all doctrines to which conservatives adhere—even those who are, in principle, wary of principles!

Classical-liberal principles are also more consonant with natural law, and with organic and evolved human wisdom, so when conservatives seek to conserve such wisdom, they are in fact conserving classical-liberal principles.

And yet it is easy to understand why conservatives of the Burkean/Kirkean/Buckleyite variety would be wary of explicit ideology and doctrine. Bad ideologies are just about the most dangerous force in the world. They can provide justification for people—people who might otherwise have been perfectly normal—to do terrible things. Human history—and most especially the history of the totalitarian monstrosities of the 20th century—stands in grim testimony to the destructive power of bad ideologies. Better no ideology at all than a bad one.

But even good ideologies can go wrong when they become unmoored from accumulated human wisdom. The late Murray Rothbard is a libertarian giant. He was prolific, brilliant, accomplished, and highly influential. Reading him, and listening to his lectures, you get the impression that he’d read every book in the known universe over the course of his long and illustrious career. In his work as a libertarian (specifically an anarcho-libertarian), he was following classical liberal principles to the conclusions to which he believed they led. The result cumulatively was a massive—and, in the main, positive—contribution to the vast corpus of classical liberal thought.

But there was one area where he went horribly wrong:

but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.

In The Ethics of Liberty, as in his other works, Rothbard provides compelling reasons to believe that his conclusions will advance the cause of human liberty. But he goes way off the rails with his children-starving principle. I go into a bit more detail in my soon-to-be-published book, but deep exploration is not the purpose of this piece. For now, suffice it to say that since parents are the cause of their children’s existence, they have an obligation to take care of them, just as you are obliged in any situation in which you have acquired some responsibility. (E.g., you can be required to provide restitution to a neighbor if you knock over his fence with your lawn tractor, because you are the cause of the damage.)

The conservative doesn’t simply follow a principle to (what appears might be) its logical conclusion. He thinks, “Nearly every every person believes that parents must not let their children starve. (Almost) every parent on Earth would be horrified by assertions to the contrary. Perhaps there is a good reason for that. Perhaps we should be wary of any principle or doctrine that says otherwise.”

I am personally very interested in exploring principles. My instinct is not simply to accept a thing because it has long been done that way. I want to know whether we can figure out a principled reason why. But watching Rothbard go so badly off the rails here, I start better to understand why a strain of Western-style conservatism expresses wariness of ideologies and doctrines.

In the end, I believe that there is a way to find some synthesis here. The principles matter. The solution to a bad ideology is a good ideology, and the principles of classical liberalism provide the best blueprint yet devised for a good ideology. But ideology must be tempered by restraint, humility, and wisdom, and that is where this conservative approach excels.

The ultimate victory of human liberty depends on the success of classical liberalism. And classical liberalism would benefit greatly from an increase in ideological coherence—and comity—among conservatives and libertarians. If we can learn from each other, and work better together, the individual human person will be the ultimate beneficiary.