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Whatever Happened to Rational Conservatism?

Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco [i.e., business interests]… It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection (Conservative Reader, p. 34).

Reverence? Art? Science?  How many American “conservatives” today would agree with this passage (which goes on and on in the same vein)?

Contemporary conservatives do indeed have more in common with a particular branch of anarchism than they do with the conservatism of Kirk’s anthology.  Its lineage goes back to Max Stirner (1806-1856) and his American translator and follower, Benjamin Tucker.  It advocates a radical version of possessive individualism.  Stirner’s utopia is Hobbes’s dystopia.  The second section of Stirner’s book, Das Ich und Sein Eigentum (which I would translate as The Self and Its Property) is entitled “The Owner” and begins with an attack on liberalism.  Stirner would have opposed all social programs, all efforts to provide for the common good.  His diatribes about the sovereignty of the individual and the horrors of communism are the direct ancestor of Ayn Rand’s opinions. 

Rand Paul and his allies would find much to like about Stirner’s philosophy.  Yet Stirner can sound like a solipsist and a sociopath.  His book exposes how repugnant possessive individualism would be if followed to its logical conclusions.  If a Great White Shark could articulate its philosophy of life, it would sound like Stirner.

What we now see now on the political landscape are not conservatives, but free-market fundamentalists who combine a hostility to beneficent government with the religious beliefs of medieval peasants.  Conservatism has failed to conserve itself.