Liberty Matters

Friendly AND Ferocious Fusionism


Liberty Fund has a long history with Frank S. Meyer (as do I) going back at least to 1980 with a proposal by David Franke to republish In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo, a project returned to off and on and eventually completed in 1996, as In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays, which I edited, and for which I wrote a foreword along with a private memo to the Liberty Fund Board of Directors. Since then, there have been at least three Liberty Fund colloquia on Meyer and his argument for what came to be called “fusionism”.
My own history with Meyer included meetings of the Philadelphia Society in Chicago and two road trips to visit Meyer at his home in Woodstock, New York, in the 1960s. In a long memorial to Meyer in National Review, April 28,1972, C. H. Simonds wrote of his trip to Woodstock:
“The way to Frank’s wound through the little town, along and then across Tannery Brook and up Ohayo Mountain to a trim white house tucked among old trees. Frank came to the door in uniform—turtleneck, baggy pants held up by bright red suspenders with “POLICE” on the clips—ushered one in, made a drink. Elsie appeared . . .made one welcome in the kitchen . . . books from floor to ceiling . . . the house was insulated not with rock wool or Fiberglass but with the wisdom of the West.”
Meyer died on Holy Saturday, 1972, a few hours after being baptized into the Catholic Church. I find it interesting that the author of the fine essay before us, Stephanie Slade, managing editor of the libertarian magazine Reason is herself, as she writes in the March 2021 Reason article, “Is There a Future for Fusionism,” “a churchgoing Roman Catholic,” a libertarian “uneasy with secularism and community break down.” As such she is an ideal author to bring to our attention again Meyer and the true nature of fusionism. I welcome her for it. Meyer deserves a revival.Slade begins her essay with a summary of what she describes as “a well-worn tale” of the origins of fusionism, an uneasy coalition of economic libertarians and religious traditionalists, held together by the charisma of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the shared enemy of global communism. I would add to this list a hostility to the New Deal and its expansion after WW II. There was a large and contentious pamphlet literature about whether such a coalition was possible. Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom was his answer to this argument.
Slade shows in her article for this symposium that for Meyer the libertarian-conservative alliance was not a mere marriage of convenience, but a bond, a union, between two perspectives on the same question: how should we live? As she states well, freedom is the ideal for the political order, or governmental sphere, so that humans may choose for themselves how to act virtuously in the social order. Coerced or compelled virtue is not virtue at all. Slade gets this important point, that so many of Meyer’s critics miss, and explains it well. As Meyer argued, achieving virtue is the most important of problems, but… “I am not contending that it is a political problem, that it is not the concern of the state…. Freedom, though it is the end of political theory and action, is not the end of man’s existence.” And Slade makes another important point, also often neglected: For Meyer his formulation of the freedom/virtue tension was not a novel one but was inherent in the American Founding itself and in the philosophical roots upon which it was based. In Meyer’s own words: “Neither virtue nor freedom alone, but in the ineluctable combination of virtue and freedom is the sign and spirit of the West.”
Meyer dedicated his 1964 collection of essays, What is Conservatism? (there is a new 2015 edition of this book, with a foreword by Jonah Goldberg) to his friend Richard M. Weaver, “pioneer and protagonist of the American conservative consensus.” In his well known essay, “Conservatism and Libertarianism: The Common Ground,” Weaver writes:
In conclusion, I maintain that the conservative in his proper character and role is as a defender of liberty. He is such because he takes his stand on the real order of things and because he has a very modest estimate of man’s ability to change that order through the coercive power of the state. He is prepared to tolerate diversity of life and opinion because he knows that not all things are of his making and that it is right within reason to let each follow the law of his own being.
That is a pretty good definition of libertarianism. Meyer quotes this passage too in “Richard M. Weaver: An Appreciation” in Modern Age, Summer-Fall 1970.
Two additional points:
Slade quotes Meyer as saying that to a certain extent people can be forced to act as though they were virtuous. “But virtue is the fruit of well-used freedom. And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake of virtue—or vice.” I would like this to be so, but I am not sure it is true. Over time, perhaps over a generation, can a coerced act become a habit or just an unquestioned situation, and can the habit then become thought of as a virtue? I have worried over this issue a long time. Relatedly how can a country have a virtuous people if they are dependent on help from their government for their daily existence. Take me as an example, I am in my eightieth year, comfortably off, yet I have Medicare, Social Security, a big mortgage, and charitable gift deductions. I did not ask for any of these benefits. Indeed, I oppose them all, but I have certainly organized a good bit of my life to take advantage of these subsidies. And I got a stimulus check!
And here is a point, for which I think Slade would have some agreement. Some think that libertarianism unchecked by State-promoted virtuous conduct will lead to a libertinism that threatens liberty itself. But I would argue that, as with the market which corrects its errors over time, unchecked libertinism, in a free society, will be largely self-correcting. But then the libertine must be allowed to pay for his own mistakes. Indeed, his freedom to act will allow him over time to discern his mistakes for himself. Yet today we live in a therapeutic society where the governmental sphere not only forgives mistakes but provides programs at public expense to repair any damages. Quoting Richard Weaver again: both conservatives and libertarians, “…believe that there is an order of things which will largely take care of itself if you leave it alone. There are operating laws in nature and human nature which are best not interfered with or not interfered very much. If you try to change or suspend them by government fiat, the cost is greater than the return, the disorganization is expensive, the ensuing frustration painful.”
In his own day Mayer, if not exactly a winner in a contest, spoke to many Americans of various persuasions on the right that fusionism made sense. Returning, in conclusion to Slade’s brief history of fusionism with which I began, “As long as the Cold War endured…each wing [of the fusionist coalition] was willing to cede some ground to the other…[T]he differences between the libertarians and the traditionalists did not seem so great. Their interests, at least, were aligned.” But with the collapse of the Soviet empire, changing mores, new technologies, conspicuous consumerism, a growing dependence on government handouts and crony capitalism, a growing sense, in some quarters, of American economic and moral decline, Slade writes that “…in the last few years the alliance’s inherent tensions have come to a head. It's increasingly common to hear that, whatever value there may have been in cooperation during the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s ‘and ‘80s, the era of good conservative feelings is over.” Often the airing of these differences has been acrimonious and uncompromising without much meeting of the minds.
But Meyer loved to argue and debate too. He wrote dozens of articles and columns about fusionism and traveled widely to give speeches at colleges and seminars. Despite his somewhat ferocious style on the podium, Murray Rothbard wrote of him that it was one of Meyer’s “remarkable attributes that without giving an inch in argument, he was able to separate the personal from the ideological more clearly than almost anyone I have known: and so, he could continue to be close friends with people who differed sharply from him in many areas.” We could use more of this. Stephanie Slade has been one to do this recently, speaking and writing about Meyer and fusionism lately, at the Acton Institute, with Jonah Goldberg at the Remnant, with Oren Cass at American Compass, and elsewhere. Her interview with Oren Cass was especially cordial on both their parts. She seems to have become a new ambassador for fusionism able to exchange views cheerfully, cordially, and thoughtfully. With her work and Donald J. Devine’s new “fusionist” look at most of world history, The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, fusionism has not exhausted its course.