The resurgent American conservative movement of the 1950s embraced two conflicting schools of thought. The first, consonant with the principles of libertarianism, held that maximizing individual liberty should be the chief end of political society; the other took its bearings from the principles articulated by Edmund Burke and stressed the need for an organic community grounded in the precepts of an objective, divinely ordained moral order. In 1962, Frank S. Meyer, then on the editorial board of the National Review and a regular contributor to its pages, wrote In Defense of Freedom, in which he endeavored to resolve the apparent differences between these two schools the in hope of rendering American conservatism philosophically coherent and consistent. In the same year, L. Brent Bozell, also a member of National Review’s editorial board, portrayed Meyer’s undertaking as an effort “to promote and justify modern American conservatism as a ‘fusion’ of the libertarian and traditionalist points of view.” This characterization of Meyer’s purpose as a “fusion” struck a receptive chord and soon thereafter the words fusion or fusionism were widely used to describe constructs designed to render libertarianism and traditional conservatism philosophically compatible. Over the decades, Meyer’s efforts at this philosophical conciliation have attracted the most attention so that fusionism is closely associated with his writings, most notably In Defense of Freedom.
Meyer’s fusionist philosophy rests on certain cardinal points, the most fundamental being that freedom is necessary for virtue; that an act or course of behavior that results from compulsion, coercion, or habituation cannot be virtuous. Accordingly, he held that individual freedom is the “central and primary end of political society,” the realization of which, in turn, is the criterion by which to measure the goodness of the social and political order.
In his efforts to merge libertarianism and traditional conservatism, Meyer eschewed relativism. He agreed with the traditionalists that there are “good ends” or “absolute truths and absolute values towards which men should direct themselves” and also acknowledged that freedom, although indispensably necessary for virtue, does not guarantee virtuous decisions or behavior. Freedom, he maintained, is neutral with respect to virtue and vice and for this reason its exercise entails risks. Yet in his view, “without freedom no moral end can be achieved by the particular kind of being man is” nor would “spiritual and moral ends” have any meaning. Thus, he concluded, these risks had to be accepted, particularly for the purpose of realizing the virtues that traditional conservatives championed.
Another key element of Meyer’s effort at conciliation attempted to show how these ends could be realized without invading or intruding on the domain of individual liberty. In practice, he found much to admire in the American constitutional order and tradition bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. This tradition, he argued, recognizes the primacy of freedom within the context of an objective moral order. Meyer believed that the writings of James Madison and John C. Calhoun are best interpreted as efforts to provide theoretical solutions for the simultaneous realization of freedom and virtue. In a more general vein, he argued that the maintenance and improvement of the social order, in keeping with the tenets of traditional conservatism, comes about through the noncoercive influences of intellectual and moral leaders who possess “the understanding and imagination to maintain the prestige of tradition and reason.”
Throughout his effort to fuse libertarian principles with traditional conservatism, Meyer emphasized that institutions, associations, and communities played a vital role in creating conditions that would conduce individuals to opt freely for virtue. At the same time, he insisted, the “locus of virtue” is the individual person, not the society or the community. The inculcation of virtue through education, for instance, “depends upon the individuals persons who do the teaching and upon the beliefs and ideas they hold.” Similarly, although he regarded religious institutions as supremely important in inculcating virtue, Meyer asserted that individuals must have the freedom to accept or reject their teachings.
At the level of everyday politics, Meyer’s formulation was flexible enough to accommodate both the libertarian and traditionalist forces that composed the heart of the conservative movement during the 1960s. At the theoretical level, however, his fusionism came under severe attack. The most notable of these was L. Brent Bozell’s extensive critique, which appeared in National Review. Writing from the perspective of Catholic natural law teachings, Bozell rejected both the priority Meyer assigned to individual freedom of choice and his understanding of the nature of man. Bozell argued that to accord primacy to the maximization of individual liberty means that “there is no point at which men are entitled to stop pulling down the ‘props’ [both state and social] which every rational society in history has erected to promote a virtuous citizenry.” Consequently, Bozell continued, the net effect of according individual freedom priority is to render the realization of virtue “as difficult as possible.” Without the help of props provided by the society and state, individuals would confront numerous and formidable challenges that only a few could meet with success. Whereas Meyer pictured man as capable of heroic choices, readily capable of overcoming the obstacles to virtuous decisions, Bozell pointed out that Christian teachings held otherwise. Man is unique “among created beings,” he wrote, because he “has the capacity to deviate from the patterns of order—to, as it were, repudiate his nature, i.e., he is free. So viewed, freedom is hardly a blessing; add the ravages of original sin and it is the path to disaster.”
Meyer’s effort scarcely fared any better from the libertarian perspective. Murray Rothbard maintained that, in the last analysis, Meyer’s political philosophy was essentially libertarian. Its minor deviations from libertarianism he attributed to Meyer’s desire “to find a face-saving formula to hold both very different parts of the conservative movement together in a unified ideological and political movement.” “Intellectually,” he believed, fusionism “had to be judged a failure.”
Rothbard’s estimate is widely shared today by both libertarians and traditional conservatives. Nevertheless, although fusion seems to be impossible at the theoretical level, it is useful in explaining and understanding the sources of division among those who have consistently opposed the principles and policies of modern liberalism.
Carey, George, ed. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/ Libertarian Debate. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Press, 1998.
Kirk, Russell. The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays. George Panichas, ed. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Press, 2006.
Meyer, Frank. In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1962.
Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Press, 1998
Schneider, Gregory, ed. Conservatism in America since 1930: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
Originally published .