Liberty Matters

Conservatives' Burden

I appreciate the opportunity to continue this discussion of Frank Meyer and fusionism with Stephanie Slade, Bill Dennis and Henry Olsen. As should be clear from my initial contribution, I agree with Slade about the merits of Meyer’s underlying vision. I also think more can be said in response to the contemporary challenges from some on the Right who urge greater governmental intervention in the name of promoting virtue or advancing the national interest. 
In considering whether the promotion of virtue should be the object of governmental intervention, it is necessary to consider both the nature of virtue and the capacity of governmental intervention. On the former, Meyer maintained that true virtue had to be freely chosen. Coerced observance of proper rules may minimize social conflict, if not virtue. Intent matters. When we turn to government action, however, intent is not enough. Even the most well-intentioned governmental action may fail to achieve its goals. In many cases, it may even be counterproductive. 
Those conservatives who would argue against Meyer’s formulation have a particularly heavy burden to carry, as they must maintain both that coercing virtue is desirable and that government—and the federal government in particular—is capable of providing inducements for virtuous conduct that will actually succeed. So even if one rejects Meyer’s individualist conception of what makes for virtuous action, one must still articulate why the federal government is going to be more proficient at directing the production of virtue than it is at directing the production of mundane goods and services. 
Meyer was influenced by the work of F.A. Hayek, which demonstrated the folly of central economic planning. Were he alive today, he would no doubt be further influenced by the wealth of social science research showing how governmental intervention has done far more to emasculate and hobble the institutions of civil society than it has done to reinforce them. Pervasive governmental intervention in nearly all aspects of private life has done more to atomize our existence and undermine virtuous pursuits than a libertarian conception of the state ever could.
Meyer the political strategist would also likely observe that allowing the state to cater to the state of people’s souls would directly empower those forces most responsible for challenging traditional moral constraints on individual behavior. A wise sage once said that the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many of one’s afternoons. The time spent planning and directing is time few people have. Statecraft as soulcraft is no different. Should we embrace the idea that governments should intervene to direct, encourage, and proselytize virtue, it will not be those who advocate for the traditional family or classical conceptions of virtue who will be at those committee meetings or populating the bureaucracy of virtue. Those folks have better things to do with their time. Rather it will be those who seek to use the state to upset the traditional moral order and eviscerate traditional mediating institutions. Such interventions not only make the climb toward virtue “steeper than it needs to be,” as Slade warns. It is an invitation and opportunity for those who would instead encourage descent.