Liberty Upsets Patterns — and Conservatism

Conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible because they aim at fundamentally divergent political ends.

Aaron Ross Powell
8 min readJan 16, 2023

Since the rise of the “fusionist” movement that grew out of mid‐​century anti‐​communism, many libertarians have allied themselves with conservatives. While we can debate whether such alliances have been helpful in advancing libertarian goals, the fact is that conservatism and libertarianism are distinct political theories that serve different ends. The liberty libertarians strive for upsets traditional patterns–including the very patterns political conservatives seek to conserve.

Liberty and the Patterns of Culture, Institutions, and Values

In his classic work of libertarian political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick introduces the phrase, “Liberty upsets patterns.” What he means is that if we start with any social pattern–such as an equal wealth distribution or a particular set of living arrangements, and then introduce individual autonomy and choice, eventually the pattern will change from its starting point. The only way to maintain the initial pattern, then, is to restrict people’s liberty to deviate from it. When people are free, they will use their freedom in unanticipated ways, establishing new patterns in place of the old.

This is a problem for conservatives who like to think of themselves as allies of libertarians as well as for libertarians looking for allies among conservatives. If political conservatism is ultimately about conserving certain cultural arrangements and institutions, as well as a preference for “traditional” ways of doing things, then it exists in tension with the disruptive nature of liberty. When liberty upsets those arrangements or allows people to more easily abandon the traditional ways, political conservatives have to restrict liberty to retain their preferred social and economic patterns.

Culture is a durable pattern of preferences and resulting behaviors. Yet its durability isn’t absolute and the pattern of culture changes all the time. It used to be that the American Top 40 was filled with rock ‘n roll music, but preferences have changed and the charts are now filled with much more hip‐​hop and R&B. Baseball used to be “America’s pastime,” but now football is “America’s game.” There used to be a pattern where the “cool kids” wore acid‐​washed jeans and their moms wore high‐​rise jeans, then there was a pattern where neither would be caught dead in either; yet now we’re back to a pattern where youth culture combines both to create acid‐​washed, high‐​rise jeans. Homosexuality used to be taboo, you kept your sexual orientation to yourself, and you feared being found out. Now, it’s in the cultural mainstream.

These cultural patterns changed because people had the freedom to express different preferences and had the wealth and the privilege to act upon them. The only way to keep culture static would be to outlaw people from acting on their changing preferences. And even in the most authoritarian regimes, people still find ways to import dissident literature or unapproved movies and music, like the smuggling of rock n’ roll behind the communist Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s. They find ways to express themselves, even if they have to keep it hidden, such as the women in some Islamic countries who wear colorful clothing under their mandated burqas.

Political Ideologies as Competing Pattern Preferences

One way to think about political ideology is as a framework for the governing rules and institutions that create and maintain certain patterns. Political philosophy takes ideological concerns, preferences, and conclusions and asks how we can arrange laws and political organizations to promote those values.

For example, progressives dislike the disparities in power that result from racial and gender discrimination, e.g. wealth versus poverty, business owners versus employees, etc. They believe these are harmful and unjust situations, and so their political philosophy is grounded in the pursuit of legal rules and political institutions that will alter the existing relationships into something more egalitarian. They do so even when it requires the state to impinge on some kinds of liberty or to curtail certain traditions. Thus, prioritizing egalitarian preferences over other values leads to progressive politics.

Libertarians believe that individual liberty is valuable (in politics, it is the highest value) and ought to be respected. They dislike relationships that coercively restrict individual liberty. Libertarians have different reasons for giving liberty such a prime place. Some see individual liberty as the best way to enable and promote virtue. Others take a strict natural law view of rights. Still others believe that state claims to authority are without moral foundation, or that all of us have equal dignity, or just that political and economic liberty yield the best results in terms of happiness and wealth. But all of them share the political libertarian goal of creating and supporting rules and institutions that will maximize individual liberty.

Conservatism, as a political ideology, seeks to maintain those social and economic patterns that conservatives prefer or believe are conducive to a good society. Thus, in contrast to libertarianism, political conservatism is not about identifying, cultivating, and maintaining those patterns of rules and institutions which maximize liberty. Instead, it is about maintaining social patterns which result in a society that aligns with the conservative’s cultural values and personal tastes.

For example, a conservative might hold the following beliefs:

  • Secularism is bad and more people ought to be religious.
  • Women are having too few babies and it’s bad that so many are choosing not to have children at all.
  • Life in decadent, cosmopolitan cities is undesirable when compared to living in virtuous, rural, small‐​towns.
  • The cultures that immigrants bring are inferior to American culture, and to the extent their cultures displace American culture, immigration is a threat.

Ideally, for the conservative, all or most citizens would share those same beliefs and act upon them, or at least not act against them. This would then lead to a world where more people are religious, women decline or postpone careers in order to have children, people stay in the small towns they grew up in, and foreigners either stay in their own countries or adopt the full slate of American values if they do come here while abandoning their native languages and cultures.

Of course not all conservatives share these exact beliefs. Some are more socially liberal and tolerant than others, and they might well disagree among themselves about which patterns of values and behaviors ought to be preserved. But the point is that conservatism, in the sense that it looks to “conserve,” is not forward‐​looking but instead backwards‐​looking, tinged with nostalgia. Some of the conservative’s preferences used to be, at some time and in some place, culturally dominant, and he yearns for a return to that state of grace, or at least desires a halt to the culture’s further drifting away from it. At least as often, however, the nostalgia is for a fictional or romanticized past, one that never really existed except in the imagination of the conservative who would like to see it “exist” once again.

The Ultimate Incompatibility of Conservatism and Libertarianism

Libertarianism began as a radical movement of liberalism rather than as an ally or offshoot of conservatism. However, since the middle of the 20th century many mainstream libertarians have sought and sometimes found allies among political conservatives, initially grounded in a shared appreciation for free enterprise and in opposition to communism. It’s debatable whether fusionism was ever a wise alliance from a libertarian perspective, or whether any genuinely libertarian ends were achieved as a result of it. But what is clear is that the fusionist alliance has broken down as so many American conservatives, most acutely since the rise of Donald Trump, have abandoned whatever libertarian values they might once have held, expressing more concern about preventing the cultural and racial change brought by immigration, or punishing corporations that express or provide platforms for non‐​conservative values, than with small government and economic liberty.

If we understand libertarianism as a philosophy which aims at protecting those social and institutional patterns that maximize individual liberty, and understand conservatism as a political philosophy aimed at protecting those social and institutional patterns that maximize conservative values, then the reasons for this breakdown are obvious.

In a world where most people accept or go along with the conservative’s preferences, he will see little reason to use the state to enforce his preferred patterns because they will be, in effect, self‐​enforcing. This is why, for a time, fusionism looked like it might work. Conservatives were broadly in favor of markets and against regulation because greater wealth is good and because most people’s economic behavior and the resulting outcomes weren’t a threat to conservative preferences. Leftist big government, on the other hand, was a threat. This enabled conservatives and libertarians to find common ground on opposing big government, repealing regulations, and promoting free enterprise.

In a world where society’s contours and tastes largely align with a conservative’s values, he will support political and economic liberty because they bring recognizable benefits such as freedom for his religious practice, plentiful high‐​paying jobs in places he wants to live, and so on. But in a state of freedom, the economy and culture are never static.

In contemporary America, secularism is on the rise while membership in organized religion declines. Women are spending more time pursuing education and careers, are earning more money, and so are having fewer children. The population of cities is growing, in large part because their economic and cultural dynamism make them attractive places to live. Immigrants are introducing new ideas, languages, aesthetic preferences, foods, and ways of living, and many of those are catching on in popular culture.

In other words, the conservative’s preferred patterns are being disrupted by liberty. Being free means people have the option to choose lives that are different, sometimes radically so, from what the conservative prefers. Freedom has increased wealth, making it easier for them to make those choices. And it has increased dynamism, upending old economic arrangements such as those which enabled middle‐​class jobs in small towns.

Conservatives Must Either Curtail Liberty or Give Up Political Conservatism

In this changed world, political conservatism has two options. The first is to reject liberty. In recognizing that political and economic liberty have undermined their preferences, they’ll demand that the state restrict freedoms in order to incentivize or coerce people into returning to the conservative’s preferred way of life or to prevent them from continuing to do things that threaten it. In this case, political conservatism places this pattern above the liberty‐​maximizing pattern, and so conservatism is no longer an ally with, or even compatible with, libertarianism.

The second option begins similarly, in that political and economic liberty cut against conservative values and preferences. But instead of fighting the tide, this conservative accepts it. It’s not ideal from a conservative perspective, but they recognize the need to respect everyone’s liberty to choose, even if their choices are distasteful. In this case, the conservative sees that liberty has disrupted his favored patterns, but he still sees the government’s role as maximizing liberty. But notice that, in taking this path, our conservative isn’t a political conservative at all, because now his political philosophy is aimed at maintaining maximum liberty. Thus there’s no need to make a case for the compatibility of conservatism and libertarianism, because the conservative and the libertarian are now both libertarians, though perhaps with different cultural tastes.

This is why, ultimately, conservatism is incompatible with libertarianism: When liberty upsets patterns enough, the political conservative will either call upon the state to curtail liberty, or just give up conservatism for libertarianism.



Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.