Liberty Matters

Is Fusionism a Zombie Ideology?


In “Freedom and Virtue: Masters of Their Own Domains,” Stephanie Slade adroitly summarizes the late Frank S. Meyer’s “fusionist” political philosophy, highlighting Meyer’s insight that liberty and virtue, properly understood, are not in conflict with each other. To the contrary, true virtue can only be achieved under individual liberty.  Accordingly, a proper concern for virtue is not merely compatible with an individualist political philosophy, it requires it.
The key question, and one to which Slade devotes inadequate attention, is whether Meyer’s fusionism retains any contemporary relevance. Some of Meyer’s specific policy views seem outdated and out-of-place in 21st century America, as Slade readily concedes. This is no surprise, as the issues of the day in the 1950s and 1960s, when Meyer did most of his writing, seem quite distant from the discrete policy fights of today. Accordingly, one may be tempted to discard Meyer’s fusionism as something of a Cold War relic that provides little guidance for today’s political questions, a zombie philosophy that survives in some corners but lacks any enduring insight. This view may be tempting, particularly for those who believe we have a new nationalist age, but it is mistaken. 
Meyer’s philosophy was called “fusionist” because it fused the libertarian emphasis on individual liberty with a traditionalist emphasis on virtue. “A social order is a good social order to the degree that men live as free persons under conditions in which virtue can be freely realized, advanced, and perpetuated,” he wrote. A political tactician as much as he was a theorist, Meyer understood the need to build coalitions and advance practical policy programs. He got his hands dirty in policy activism and political campaigns. Yet he nonetheless believed political agendas should reflect enduring principles. His fusionist philosophy was anchored in immutable truths about human nature and the pursuit of virtue. As such, the philosophy endures, whether or not it retains the same degree of political appeal. 
Meyer’s largely libertarian view of government was not based on a rejection of objective truth or embrace of moral relativism. To the contrary, it grew out of his conception of human nature. Individuals should be free to choose because that is what virtue itself requires. In his words, “good and truth cannot be enforced, because by their essential nature they cannot be made real in men unless they are freely chosen.” 
Coercing individuals to engage in ostensibly virtuous acts would not actually produce virtue. At best it would produce no more than “a virtue that consisted in conforming one’s behavior to external dictation.” Granting such power to government risked the use of state power for ignoble ends. After all, those seeking to live truly virtuous lives would not be spending their days manipulating the levers of state power in an effort to control others. As Meyer often warned, power given to the state for even the best of reasons could readily be used for the worst of reasons, and often was. To hope that those in power would be prudent and virtuous themselves was “a slender reed” upon which to rest the defense of freedom or virtue. This insight is no less true today. If anything, we have decades more evidence in support of the claim.
Much of Meyer’s writing centered on an effort to distill the essence of a distinctly American conservatism. He had no interest in transplanting a conservative vision from abroad, for it would be alien to America’s governing institutions and traditions. In this sense, Meyer’s project was inherently liberal, for the American project—and our constitutional order—is founded on liberal principles. American conservatism, as Meyer saw it, consisted of six essential elements: (1) a belief in an objective moral order; (2) political individualism in opposition to collectivist ideologies; (3) anti-utopianism; (4) strict limitation of government power; (5) support for the U.S. Constitution, and (6) anti-Communism. All but the last of these remain relevant today. There is nothing outdated about a belief in traditional morality, adherence to constitutionalism, or opposition to collectivism and utopianism. To the contrary, these principles speak directly to current political conflicts.
Attempting to map the political positions of old onto the political conflicts of the moment is a risky task, but much of Meyer’s writing spoke to concerns that have re-emerged in the 21st century, albeit in an updated guise. He embraced the Hayekian critique of central economic planning, warning of the practical and political danger posed by government control of economic power. Whatever the dangers of woke capital, they are less than the danger of woke political control over capital. Meyer was also attuned to the dangers posed by the post-New Deal administrative state. Though not a dominant subject of his writing, Meyer’s critiques of overweening executive power and regulatory enforcement seem positively prophetic today.
Meyer revered the Constitution and its division and dispersal of government power, even if his understanding of our constitutional system was, at times, off-kilter. The Constitution of 1787, in Meyer’s view, “was the closest that human beings have come to establishing a polity which gives the possibility of maintaining at one and the same time individual liberty, underlying norms of law, and necessary public order.” It was this constitutional promise that a genuinely American conservatism would need to conserve. 
Federalism was important to Meyer even if, under the influence of his National Review colleague James Kilpatrick, Meyer’s conception of federalism tilted a bit too far toward state sovereignty, and largely ignored the implications of the Reconstruction Amendments. This caused him to mistake the Constitution for a “compact” among the states and embrace Calhounian notions of interposition—and at a time when such notions were utilized to defend racial segregation. More than many of his contemporaries at National Review, he recognized how such notions were deployed in defense of racial subjugation and other evil purposes. Nonetheless, Meyer would not yield. He believed strict constitutional limits on federal power were essential, and needed to be observed in even the most trying circumstances. “A free constitutional order is precarious civilizational growth, he warned. “Once riven asunder, it is not easily attained again.”
Were Meyer still writing today, one suspects he would be a steadfast opponent of resurgent populism and identitarian creeds, whatever their political orientation. He disparaged the legacy of Andrew Jackson and rejected any form of racial identity. In Meyer’s view, the crude populism of George Wallace was “alien to the spirit of conservatism,” even if Wallace correctly assailed the “naked elitism” of contemporary progressives. A man of principle, no amount of liberal tears could lead to Meyer’s endorsement of Wallace’s agenda, even if the conventional Republican alternative was wanting. One suspects he would have had a similar reaction to the 21st century populism of Donald Trump. MAGA could not make America great again if it failed to preserve the limits on governmental power that were a core component of that greatness.
As a fierce opponent of collectivism in all its forms, today’s tribal politics would have caused Meyer great concern. His opposition to collectivism was nonpartisan and nonstrategic. Led by principle, he opposed collectivism in every form, even when embraced by potential political allies. He sharply criticized Russell Kirk and other “new conservatives” of the 1950s for failing to reject the “collectivist spirit of the age.” There is little reason to think he would not respond to the renewed conservative nationalism in equivalent terms. Practical political calculations would not justify an embrace of conservative identitarianism, even if divorced from its cruder ethnic manifestations. Practical political considerations could not justify the abandonment of principle.
This may be the most important message to draw from Meyer’s work. Whether or not his precise formulation of fusionism or American conservatism maintain their political resonance, his emphasis on subordinating political agendas to timeless principle can provide a compass point for contemporary debates. Winning is not its own reward. Political victories are only worthwhile insofar as they advance a worthwhile cause. And if victories on such grounds cannot be achieved today, priority must be placed on changing those underlying conditions. In this fashion, Meyer’s fusionism is not only an aid to navigating the wilderness, but a reminder of why the trek is worthwhile.