Selling anarchism to movement conservatives

Stephen Baldacchino on how “fusionism” ruined movement conservatism:

But other influential movement founders held the opposite view. Taking sharp issue with the “New Conservatism” of Kirk, Nisbet, Peter Viereck, and others, Frank S. Meyer, who would become a prime architect of the movement, declared sweepingly in a 1955 article that “all value resides in the individual; all social institutions derive their value and, in fact, their very being from individuals and are justified only to the extent that they serve the needs of individuals.” Meyer’s radical individualism, which he attributed in large part to John Stuart Mill, was shared to various degrees by numerous others whose ideas helped shape the early conservative movement, including the economists Ludwig von Mises, Friederich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

Movement conservatism was thus divided from its beginning on the central issue of man’s moral nature and its relation to politics and liberty. Yet, by the mid-1960s, serious theoretical argument had given way to an ostensible consensus, dubbed “fusionism.” This ideological position, whose leading exponent was Frank Meyer himself, has been summarized as holding that “virtue is the ultimate end of man as man,” but that individual freedom is the “ultimate political end.” Indeed, according to Meyer’s relatively mature, “fusionist” position, the “achievement of virtue” was none of the state’s business, hence not a political question at all.

Despite its label, Meyer’s “fusionism” never achieved a genuine philosophical synthesis of Burkean conservatism and the ideology of classical liberalism or libertarianism. A genuine synthesis would have been impossible, for the two opposing positions are based on contradictory assumptions…

elevates the pursuit of liberty to the highest goal of politics while ignoring freedom’s dependence on moral restraint and its corresponding institutional and cultural supports. True enough, in his overtures for the traditionalists’ support, Meyer pays homage to man’s higher ends, even to religion, yet it is clear from his writings that he remains at a loss concerning what those ends entail. As late as 1962 he was still asserting, for example, the reality of the “rational, volitional, autonomous individual” versus the “myth of society.”…

In the end, all that separated Meyer’s fusionist position from libertarianism was the superimposition of a few traditionalist-sounding rhetorical flourishes. In respect to their practical import for how Americans participate in private and public life, the two positions were identical. Such was the considered opinion of the late libertarian scholar and activist Murray N. Rothbard, as expressed in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age. Yet, beginning in the mid-1960s, large numbers of Americans who would have been reluctant to embrace libertarianism that was labeled as such found themselves able to do so when it was newly packaged, with the assistance of Meyer and his fusionist allies, as “conservatism.”…

Ironically, in the same 1981 issue of Modern Age in which the libertarian Rothbard explained that Meyer’s fusionism was actually libertarianism, Russell Kirk posed the question of what conservatism (of the traditionalist or pre-fusionist variety) and libertarianism have in common. His answer was that, except for sharing “a detestation of collectivism”—an opposition to “the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy”—conservatives and libertarians have “nothing” in common. “Nor will they ever have,” he added. “To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of fire and ice.”…

If society is considered less than real, the highest goal for which the individual can strive is to be able to do as he or she pleases to the greatest extent possible. And since doing as he or she pleases is synonymous with freedom by the fusionists’ definition, it follows that, for them in their heart of hearts, there never can be too much liberty or (which is to say the same thing) too little government. To view the world in the light of such broad generalizations discourages subtlety of mind and attention to the needs of actual historical situations. “If you believe in the capitalist system,” Rush Limbaugh explained in a September 2009 television interview, “then you have to erase from your whole worldview what does somebody need. It’s not about need. . . . it is about doing whatever you want to do.”

13 Responses

  1. The intellectually deep posts hardly ever get any commentary.

  2. What apparently happens when you get an anarchist who’s also a rigorous thinker in the area of political theory:

    There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

    My guess is that Rothbard (Hoppe’s mentor) thought it best to avoid some of the issues addressed by Hoppe.

  3. There is no escape from collectivism, as icr’s example illustrates. Even a libertarian order must be maintained as a collectivist venture.

    Indeed, the very structures of individual freedom that libertarianism lauds (such as individual liberties and property rights) must be maintained through collectivist governmental sanction.

    Libertarian critiques of the failure of gov’t control are cogent, but that is the limit of their usefulness. It is just as bad as Liberalism in its use of a “fantasy script” in place of actually human nature and social reality.

  4. Fusionism is a cultural Marxist infiltration of the right, although I’m not convinced that wasn’t Buckley’s intent.

  5. Meyer was probably the original Neocon.

  6. Is this post intellectual? It looks to me to be about political tactics. Meyer is the brilliant tactician who set up the ideology of the current Republican party. An ideology which motivates culturally conservative foot-soldiers to fight for the power and wealth of a plutocratic elite: an elite which hates them and their beliefs and which has done less than nothing for them. The cultural conservative intellectual elite seems pretty clued in to this problem, but the foot-soldiers don’t seem at all clued in. Just angry in a poorly focused way.

  7. That article seems to be going along OK until the end. He seems to embrace a kind of slushy moderation:

    the tendency has been for political power and the control of government to lurch back and forth between Big Government “progressives” who are prone always and everywhere to “teach obedience” and Small Government “conservatives” (or libertarians) who are prone always and everywhere to “let go the rein.”

    Because guided by abstract generalizations rather than historical reality, ideologues of both types are blind to the changing proportions of liberty and restraint appropriate to actual circumstances.

    OK, but how are we supposed to know what proportions of liberty and restraint are appropriate to current circumstances (and how do we know that some linear combination of what the two parties are selling is the good stuff anyway)? Presumably, there has to be some guide, but what? What is the good which should be aimed at if it is neither the liberty of libertarians or the liberty of liberals? It isn’t enough to bitch that our politics don’t aim at the right goal and to bemoan the fact that we don’t really seem to have any kind of normative framework in mind at all. You gotta embrace a particular, specific framework, no?

  8. Hi Bill,

    I agree that the theory part of the article was week. What made it interesting for me was the quotes from Meyer and Limbaugh. I hadn’t realized how extreme they were.

  9. Co-opting the devil to your cause always ends badly.

  10. A section of the comments to that article where a tad saddening. A proportion were defending fusionism and libertarianism. Nevertheless one shouldn’t be surprised because it could possibly be a right-liberal website for all one knows or possess those influences.

  11. Front Porch Republic is an interesting classical liberal website.

  12. Yes, I read through some of the libertarian counter-attack in the comments. It’s incredible how much confidence they have in idiotic ideas like “self-ownership”, as if that sort of nonsense was an argument-clincher. I’m not sure if I would call FPR a right-liberal website. Definitely some of the writers fit that description, but I think there are also a couple true reactionaries among them.

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