Liberty Matters

Righteous Meddling and Human Excellence

“American religious authorities have long sought to use the public square as a surrogate pulpit,” writes Henry Olsen. “Virtue, it seems, simply does not want to stay locked in the closet.”
I thank him for bringing a dose of historical description to Frank Meyer’s prescriptive work. It is certainly true that “those who contend there is a single right way of life” have often sought “to control or influence public space and law so that that way is endorsed or made easier by public pronouncement.” 
But should we conclude that this human tendency is right, or that the struggle against it is a waste of effort? That is not so clear. Sin is a human tendency too, after all. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork, the exasperating failure of one ring bearer after another to resist the lure of power is not supposed to be taken as a sign that power isn’t dangerous or worth combatting.
Meyer anticipates this very objection. “That the ideal can never be realized in an imperfect world is no more reason for giving up the effort to move towards it than—to use an analogy from mechanics—the impossibility of ever achieving the perfect frictionless machine is reason to give up the effort to reduce friction to a minimum,” he writes. “Nor, however much contemporary circumstances inhibit an easy or quick achievement of a markedly closer approximation to the ideal, is this a valid objection to the judgment of those circumstances in the light of an ideal end.”  
Meyer’s claim here is this: The extent to which a society operates in accordance with the “fusionist” framework—that is, the extent to which the governmental sphere is oriented to protecting individual rights and liberties and the non-governmental sphere is oriented to the pursuit of virtue—the better it is. Working toward a freer and more virtuous society is worthwhile even if mankind will never fully achieve either.
It’s more or less a truism to say that the more moral a population is—concerned with the pursuit of human excellence and possessing habits and consciences well-formed for that pursuit—the better it is. Likewise, the more effectively a state carries out its duty to preserve life, liberty, and property—and the more restrained it is in exercising its awesome coercive power when it isn’t absolutely necessary—the better it is (and the better off we all are). Some states come closer than others on this score. That too is an empirical reality and should be reason enough to strive.
The fact that history—including American history, Olsen helpfully reminds us—is full of righteous meddling by the state illustrates one of the points of my earlier essay: that Meyer’s fusionism was more of an innovation than even he realized. 
The deep-seated desire to prioritize both liberty and virtue was not new. It permeated the rhetoric of the American founders and the writings of Adam Smith. For centuries before the emergence of fusionism, people understood that both are necessary and neither alone sufficient. What they lacked was a framework for putting that intuition into practice. Meyer was the first to articulate a straightforward answer, showing us how to keep virtue and liberty from pulling antagonistically against each other. It is now within our power to move toward greater harmonization of the two, even if we continue to be limited (as in all things) by our baser natures.
I thank Jonathan Adler for raising another common objection to Meyer’s thought: that it was suited to the Cold War era in which he wrote but has little modern relevance. He correctly points out that this critique misses fusionism’s timeless qualities. Meyer “believed political agendas should reflect enduring principles,” Adler writes. “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.”
According to Adler, Meyer gave us more than a substantive theory about the separation of the governmental and non-governmental spheres of life. He also modeled a “nonpartisan and nonstrategic” approach to politics, one in which “practical political considerations could not justify the abandonment of principle.” For Meyer, Adler says, “winning is not its own reward. Political victories are only worthwhile insofar as they advance a worthwhile cause.” That lesson could hardly be more pertinent for conservatives today.
Finally, I thank William Dennis for adding a layer to the argument about how a big, interventionist government can be a problem even from a traditionalist perspective. Meyer tended to focus on the risk that a state with enough power to enforce its idea of virtue on the population would eventually descend into tyranny. Dennis points to a softer threat: the ways that government programs breed dependence, which in turn interferes with the attainment of virtue.
While a robust welfare state may seem to lead to human flourishing, the tradeoffs can be large and unexpected. I have pointed out that big government can erode not only the incentive to work hard and pursue self-sufficiency but also the sense that we are personally responsible for helping our neighbors in need. Dennis, channeling the late historian Richard M. Weaver, notes that by shielding people from the consequences of unvirtuous choices, it can become more difficult for us to learn from them. “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,” he writes. “But then the libertine must be allowed to pay for his own mistakes.”
The attainment of human excellence is always an uphill climb. But post-liberal conservatives who believe the state can help through the coercive enforcement of virtue might need to think harder about how exercises of government power are currently making the ascent steeper than it needs to be.