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Nov 20, 2014

Fissionism: Why Libertarianism Should Extricate Itself from Conservative Entanglements

The libertarian alliance with conservatism is called “fusionism.” It needs to end.

“Conservatism” is a slippery word. All but the most dogmatic ideologies have some degree of internal diversity, but conservatism is especially hard to pin down, and therefore especially easy to strawman. One reason for this difficulty is that looking for a theory of conservatism that most conservatives share, or even a set of overlapping theories, is a fool’s errand. Conservatism very often consciously rejects the idea of a theory of conservatism, in fact. So when I say that today’s topic is conservatism, and conservative-libertarian fusionism, you’ll have to forgive me for being vague about what exactly I mean. I can only offer a general sketch.

In the most general sense, conservatism is a sort of Burkean traditionalism, emphasizing the wisdom of deference to inherited institutions and beliefs. It is not itself a belief system, but rather a disposition. This picture gets muddled in America, however. America’s traditions and customs are rooted in Enlightenment liberalism, which in Europe was the bane of conservatism. So American conservatives defend traditional American values, like rebellion against authority, radical individualism, and secularism in government. Or was that the traditional family, communitarianism, and law based on Christian morality? I can never remember, and American conservatives often can’t, either.

This tension in American conservatism leads to bizarre philosophical and historical contortions. Moses was a founding father. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a conservative. Liberty reached its zenith in 1789 with the adoption of the United States Constitution, and has steadily declined ever since. America is chosen among nations; freedom-lovers should be patriots.

Which brings me to conservative nationalism. The enlightenment liberals fought for the free movement of goods and people across borders, envisioning a future of peace, commerce, and community among people of diverse countries of origin. It is no accident that Romanticism’s parochial backlash against Enlightenment ideals coincided with the rise of the modern nation-state. The identification of ethnic and cultural heritage with one’s status as subject of the state was a powerful tool for social control. Two world wars later, the idea persists, albeit in weaker form.

Taken to an extreme, conservative nationalism, combined with the hero-worship of the founding fathers, starts to look eerily fascist. Robert Griffin, a scholar of fascism, went so far as to call “palingenetic ultranationalism” the central theme of fascist ideology. “Palingenesis” means “rebirth,” roughly. On Griffin’s theory, fascists tend to fixate on an idealized golden age, blame current ills on the corruption of the old values and customs, and promise a new era that recaptures the glory of old by purging the decadent old guard and replacing them with right-thinking new leaders. I don’t mean to suggest that American conservatives are fascist or approve of fascism. I just want to make it clear why it’s reasonable that libertarians squirm a bit when conservatives talk about the founders with rhapsodic reverence, rail against the perceived decline of American values, and insist that we must “restore” or “take back” the country. Myths—like the conservative mythicization of the founding era or Mussolini’s idea that fascist Italy was the successor of Imperial Rome—often serve rhetorical purposes. Pining for a return to an imaginary 1789 golden age seems like cover for conservatives’ more authoritarian impulses.

There’s a lot to admire about the founders, but they weren’t the last exponents of the classical liberal tradition. Where is the conservative love for Lysander Spooner? For Murray Rothbard? Why does conservative opposition to the growth of the state turn to a desire to preserve the status quo in the wake of every statist victory? And why does conservative support for small government mysteriously evaporate when one passes through the doors of the Pentagon? How can conservatives reconcile support for “traditional values” with support for capitalism, which we know undermines traditions and transforms societies?

The father of “fusionism,” the philosophical and political alliance of libertarianism and conservatism, was Frank Meyer. Meyer thought libertarianism and conservatism dovetailed nicely, that they weren’t even really separate things. The National Review article “The Fusionist” summarizes Meyer’s position thus:

Traditionalists could slight the cause of freedom, failing to see that virtue cannot be coerced. They could fail to see that the individual was the locus of virtue. (Toward the end of his life, as he moved toward the Catholicism he would embrace on his deathbed, Meyer increasingly stressed that this failure missed the significance of the Incarnation.) They could be too critical of reason, leaving them no way to choose among traditions where conflict existed. Against Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke, Meyer wrote that “to make tradition, ‘prejudice and prescription,’ not along with reason but against reason, the sole foundation of one’s position is to enshrine the maxim, ‘Whatever is, is right,’ as the first principle of thought about politics and society.”

The characteristic error of libertarianism was to undermine “belief in an organic moral order,” even though this belief was in truth “the only possible basis for respect for the integrity of the individual person and for the overriding value of his freedom.” So “both extremes” were “self-defeating: truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”

Meyer was simply wrong about libertarianism. Belief in an “organic” ethics, i.e. one rooted in evolved traditions, is hardly sufficient, let alone necessary, for respecting individual freedom. It may be the case that individualism “uninformed by moral value” easily yields to tyranny, but that elides the entire question of which values are the correct ones. Conservative values? Why should that be the case? Indeed, it seems that in many cases conservative values are harmful to the cause of liberty, encouraging obedience to illegitimate authorities and glorifying war.

Let’s consider a concrete example of the damage fusionism continues to do to the libertarian cause. One of the worst effects of the strategic political alliance between libertarians and conservatives has been the introduction of a strain of illiberal Buchananite nativism into some corners of the broader libertarian movement. Ron Paul answered a question at the September 7th, 2011 debate at the Reagan Library about the merits of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border by drawing a parallel to the behavior of totalitarian governments like North Korea or the old USSR. The full response is classic Paul: slightly rambling, earnest, showing hints of what Paul’s critics have called paranoia. I’ll just quote the last few sentences:

In economic turmoil, the people want to leave with their capital. And there’s capital controls and there’s people control. So, every time you think of [a] fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in.

Paul could clearly see that controls over the movement of goods or the movement of people stem from a tyrannical impulse. Yet, if you looked at his broader rhetoric on immigration during the campaign, this point becomes muddled. His statements were full of promises, couched as law-and-order conservatism, to strictly enforce existing immigration laws and full of exhortations, couched as non-interventionism, to worry about securing our own borders rather than the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Where does that stuff come from? It sounds so unlike the Paul who was worried that the US might, as it became more totalitarian, use the border security apparatus to prevent people from fleeing. Paul either believed both of these positions, which sit in tension if not contradiction, or felt he needed to appeal to populist conservatives. In either case, the libertarian cause suffered.

Sometimes I see libertarians who arrived from the political right (as I did) react with extreme hostility to the ideas of libertarians who arrived from the left or lean left. Suppose this hostility is justified—that “left” libertarianism represents a socialist incursion into libertarian thought. If that’s true, then surely we should also be wary of unwanted conservative intrusions? Yet people who arrived at libertarianism from the right seldom seem concerned about conservativism’s influence on libertarianism. Conservative incursions often go unremarked, because for so long they were just business as usual. We have been living with fusionism for over fifty years now. It’s time we recognize the damage that’s done and take corrective measures.

If there’s going to be a libertarian sea change in this country, it won’t be because the Republican party won elections. Setting aside the question of whether elections are even a promising avenue of reform, it’s clear that however libertarian change happens, opinion on the left and the right needs to change, and that means dialogue with the left and political alliances with the left just as much as dialogue and alliances with the right. That process of outreach to both left and right has been hampered by fusionism. Conservatives aren’t going to like it, but libertarians need to extricate ourselves from conservatism. We need to reverse fusionism.