Since the early days of the conservative movement, conservatives and libertarians have uneasily coexisted as combatants in the fight against liberal authoritarianism. That both groups have common objectives has not prevented them from occasionally warring with each other, a recurring reality that has raised perplexing questions. Are conservatives and libertarians on the same team? Can they work together? Can they even get along?
The grounds of commonality between more traditionalist-minded conservatives and libertarians has always been extensive, most prominently in the respect both give to individuality and the arguments they make for freedom from the collectivizing impulses of the centralized state. Following from these shared affirmations is agreement on a wide range of connected questions, including the superiority of the market economy and the importance of voluntary associations. However, libertarians and conservatives early on recognized that each group had different priorities, and each suspected that the other’s priorities were off. For conservatives, libertarians’ insistence that all political and social questions be constantly subjected to an abstract standard threatened civic health and social progress, while libertarians suspected that conservatives’ devotion to tradition stood in opposition to reason and, ultimately, liberty.
In the mid-1950s, journalist Frank Meyer launched an effort to solve this conundrum. Meyer, an active communist for much of his young adulthood, had become disenchanted with communism towards the end of World War II, and was brought into the conservative camp by the writings of F. A. Hayek and Richard Weaver. Meyer’s argument was that there is really no tension between libertarians and traditionalists because liberty is in the tradition that conservatives want to preserve. While Meyer’s doctrine came to be called fusionism, he disliked the label and did not consider his work an attempt to fuse two distinct philosophies. It was to prove that libertarianism was an essentially conservative point of view.
“I believe that those two streams of thought,” Meyer wrote in 1960, “although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, can in reality be united within a single broad conservative political theory, since they have their roots in a common tradition and are arrayed against a common enemy.” To Meyer, any disagreement between conservatives and libertarians “is essentially a division between those who abstract from the corpus of Western belief its stress upon freedom and upon the innate importance of the individual person…and those who, drawing upon the same source, stress value and virtue and order…”[i] The disagreement as Meyer conceived it was over different emphases, not different philosophies.
Meyer’s attempts at unity got off to an inauspicious start, as he spent his early time as a conservative thinker lambasting other conservatives, notably prominent traditionalists Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. These Meyer called the “New Conservatives,” and he held that their attachment to tradition and community not only did not effectively combat collectivism, but in the end “rebaptized” it in conservative sentiments. But alongside the danger of a slippery slope to collectivism stood the dangers of unchecked individualism, and Meyer had no more sympathy for libertarian extremists than he did for traditionalist purists. Falling for either extreme neglected essential truths contained in the Western tradition. Meyer explained:
Extremists on one side may be undisturbed by the danger of the recrudescence of authoritarian status society if only it would enforce the doctrines in which they believe. Extremists on the other side may care little what becomes of ultimate values if only political and economic individualism prevails. But both extremes are 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.[ii]
Though his points along these lines were well-considered, it’s not clear what justification Meyer had for supposing that these opinions placed him at odds with the likes of Kirk and Nisbet, both of whom readily admitted that freedom, virtue, and order are always held in a state of tension with each other. Indeed, the more Meyer was at pains to explain that his model conservative was a man who understood the place of reason operating within tradition, who conceived of freedom framed within a superstructure of virtue, the more he seemed to be describing the ostensible objects of his criticism.[iii]
For Meyer, freedom meant an absolute minimum of state control, over the individual and over the economy. If liberty in his view did not reach the anarchic or minarchic ideals of libertarians, the argument at least commended an inflexible limit on government power to the conservative mind. As conservatism transitioned from a scrappy resistance movement to one with substantial political force, these ideas became dominant, and even if the definition of freedom became oversimplified, it was an easy meme that was continuously exposited.
Meyer’s acolyte, M. Stanton Evans, took his mentor’s theoretical skeleton and covered it with the flesh of history, arguing beautifully that freedom – “the idea of imposing limits on government power” – was not only “a doctrine that became the core and essence of American theory at the epoch of our founding,” but was “rooted in the still longer tradition of our English forebears, and more broadly speaking in two millennia of Western Culture.”[iv]
Evans did not argue that freedom was the only feature of the Western tradition, but was rather an outgrowth of its most fundamental tenets. The philosophy of freedom, which Evans was not afraid to call libertarianism, “at all stops along the way, has been dependent on religious values and traditional practice for its survival.” Strip away religion and tradition, and freedom would also soon fall. Because of this, Evans believed that “there is indeed a case to be made for personal freedom and limits on the power of the state – and conservatives are the very people who should make it.”[v]
But despite using the language of libertarianism, the liberty advocated by Meyer and Evans was necessarily moderated by the realities of life. Though fusionists sometimes used immoderate language, they intentionally stopped short of the rationalistic absolutism that reigns among libertarians. Meyer, for all his early criticisms of the traditionalists, remarked toward the end of his life that tradition is “the essence of civilization,” adding that “no single generation of men can of itself discover the proper ends of human existence. At its best…the traditionalist view accepts political freedom, accepts the role of reason and innovation and criticism; but it insists, if civilization is to be preserved, that reason operate within tradition and that political freedom is only effectively achieved when the bulwarks of civilizational order are preserved.”[vi] What Meyer left unstated, but which is true by implication, is that if liberty has civilizational prerequisites, those prerequisites take precedence.
Meyer believed that libertarian absolutists posed a threat to these bulwarks, and he ominously warned that “The first victim of the mobs let loose by the weakening of civilizational restraint will be, as it has always been, freedom – for anyone, anywhere.”[vii] There could hardly have been a more prophetic pronouncement, and Meyer would have surely been shocked to learn that some of his ideological progeny would one day affirm the grotesque consequences of cultural depravity in the name of liberty.[viii]
The fusionists believed that the conflict between libertarianism and conservatism is driven by two camps on either extreme of a single movement. Lop off the extremes, and conservatives are left with a broad tradition that simultaneously reinforces virtue and freedom, that allows individuals to be free to pursue virtue and encourages them to be virtuous in the use of their freedom. This idea has been compelling – a truth evidenced by the continuing attraction that libertarianism has to conservatives – precisely because it is true. The pursuit of virtuous freedom is part of the Western legacy which conservatives defend. Fusionists, and even libertarians, have provided a valuable service to conservatives by reminding them of this fact.
But fusionism ultimately failed to bridge the libertarian-conservative divide because the fusionists were wrong about its source. The problem is not that that two extremes within the same general tradition can’t get along, but that libertarianism and conservatism are distinct philosophies with a wide field of incidental overlap. As the common ground of this overlap – the social virtue that formed the essential context for liberty – has receded and the definition of freedom has become more muddied and expansive, the fusionist case has disintegrated. By adopting libertarian arguments while pursuing conservative goals, fusionists were left naked before the increasingly radical rights claims of an immoral, atomized society. And to the extent that it reflexively relied on fusionist arguments to combat social constraints, conservatism found itself exposed as well.
The arguments that served conservatism so well during the Cold War have thus proven incapable of addressing the new challenges of a society in which the consequences of liberalism have become pressing. The fusionist project shows that while libertarians and conservatives agree on many important questions and must frequently combine in their efforts, their coalition will always be one of convenience and not conviction.