Published June 14, 2021
This piece by EPPC Senior Fellow Henry Olsen is a response to an essay by Stephanie Slade on Frank Meyer and fusionism, part of the Online Library of Liberty’s monthly “Liberty Matters” feature.
Stephanie Slade’s essay on Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” aptly reminds us how libertarian a thinker Meyer actually was. American political history, however, shows us how unrealistic his thought was and remains.
Slade contends that Meyer argued that freedom and virtue can coincide and mutually support one another only if each understands its proper domain. Freedom’s domain is politics; virtue’s domain is private life, unencumbered and unaided by support from public life. Once advocates for virtue understand their limited, but purportedly important, role, there is no inherent tension between them and those who advocate for freedom as the highest good. Virtue, shorn of any legitimate political claim upon freedom, becomes freedom’s handmaid.
In actual political life, however, those who believe that virtue ought to be the primary goal do not believe this and never have. Whether one looks at ancient Israel, the Greco-Roman world, medieval Europe, or America itself, those who contend there is a single right way of life always seek to control or influence public space and law so that that way is endorsed or made easier by public pronouncement. Sometimes it takes a “hard” interpretation of this, such as when Athens condemned Socrates to death for impiety and corrupting the young, or during the Middle Ages when the sovereign carved out space in matters temporal while giving the Church authority over matters spiritual. Nineteenth century European politics was riven by sharp clashes between Catholics, who insisted insofar as possible on controlling education, and Liberals, who fought for the establishment of public, non-sectarian schools. The very belief that there is such a thing as virtue and that all can and ought to share in its glory precludes those who believe in it from easily and readily ceding the public square to libertarian freedom.
American life is and has been no different. American religious authorities have long sought to use the public square as a surrogate pulpit, at least in matters where religious ideas can influence public mores. Hence the battles over laws mandating businesses to close on Sundays and over Prohibition, right down to modern-day battles over prayer in public schools, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Nor is this inclination limited to the right. Left-leaning religious institutions have championed government involvement in the economy and supported welfare state measures at all levels of government. Virtue, it seems, simply does not want to stay locked in the closet.
The persistence of this impulse is readily apparent in how Meyer’s concept of “fusionism” actually worked out in modern politics. Advocates of freedom and virtue did come together politically and understood that each would be master of their domain. But they understood the contours of that domain much differently than did he.
Movement conservatism, fusionism’s political expression, understood that each side would be masters of public policy respecting its primary concerns. Friends of freedom were granted primacy in matters of economics and most domestic policies, while lovers of virtue were accorded sovereignty over what became known as “social issues.” Conservatism to this day is defined by this embrace. A conservative will support cutting taxes and regulations and even in rare instances try to reduce public spending. That person will also oppose same-sex marriage and fight for pro-life legislation, and often back religious voters’ priorities on other matters that don’t require taxation or affect economic activity. That person wants to keep the state in the bedroom while getting it out of the boardroom and simply does not view those positions as contradictory.
Meyer’s views do have political expression in the Libertarian Party, and that entity’s conspicuous and copious failure to gain any political traction is stark testimony regarding the possibility that Meyer’s dream will walk. Nor is this simply a statement of current mores. There is no time in American history when the American body politic was governed by Meyer’s principles.
The Founding era, often held up as an ideal time by liberty lovers, was governed by non-libertarian principles in both the moral and the temporal spheres. Meyer, as Slade demonstrates, believed that government’s only legitimate function was to prevent people using force against one another. Yet from the earliest times the colonies and the newly independent country took much more expansive views. Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, for example, describes how local governments used public funds to support and rehabilitate the poor. The Ordinance of 1785 established the township as the central governmental entity of land in the northwest territories and mandated that one section of each township had to be reserved for a school. State governments owned and operated canals and railroads, too. Meyer’s belief that government interference in the economy is illegitimate is one that even Americans before the Civil War did not accept.
Meyer’s beliefs about that war, and about Abraham Lincoln, speak volumes about his true priorities. Slade glosses over Meyer’s views, noting that he both supported Southern secession and thought Lincoln paved the way for the expansion of federal power that would come after him. Her treatment is much too kind. Jonathan Adler’s essay on Meyer’s thought puts it more starkly. He quotes Meyer as saying Lincoln pursued a “repressive dictatorship” and promoted an “authoritarianism” that was “in terms of civil liberties, the most ruthless in American history”. This is more than hyperbole; it is hatred bordering on irrationality, one triggered by Lincoln’s refusal to allow Southern states to secede from the Union in order to preserve black chattel slavery.
The South’s desire to do that can only be understood as a warped version of a virtue claim. By 1860, Southerners who favored secession actively promoted the “positive good” theory of slavery. They believed, or at least they claimed they did, that the black man was incapable of governing himself and that as a result it was in the black man’s interest that he be held as property by the supposedly superior white man. As with all who place some version of virtue ahead of liberty as a public priority, they needed and sought public protection and control over public laws. They insisted that they be permitted to take their slaves with them into federal territories regardless of the will of Congress or the people in those territories. And when Lincoln’s Republican Party narrowly won the 1860 election, they sought to dissolve the Union rather than permit a democratic majority to even begin to enact laws based upon the idea of black man’s humanity. Meyer did not defend that position, but he so hated any exercise of federal power that he was willing to enthusiastically argue on the deceased slaveholders’ behalf over an issue that the War itself settled.
Meyer’s obsession with the power of a state vis-à-vis the federal government emerges again with regard to civil rights. He argued against Brown v. Board of Education’s desegregation of schools and opposed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s sending of federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce that decision. He opposed federal civil rights laws that sought to end Jim Crow as well as those that sought to end private discrimination against blacks. Nor does he appear to have backed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or any other federal measure that would ensure that blacks could effectively exercise the right to vote guaranteed to them by the 15th Amendment. This is an appalling omission for someone whose other writings sing with praise of human liberty.
This omission is a feature, not a bug, of Meyer’s thought. That feature – the idea that issues of political power ought to take precedence over every other concern of human life – renders his thought politically impotent. The truth is that the pursuit or protection of that liberty has never been, and never will be, the central hub around which American politics radiates. American political life has always had two distinct but related hubs, justice and democratic self-government, and it is the interplay between them that defines and explains our two-plus centuries of political life. Americans, unlike most peoples in human history, have always understood that justice requires a large measure of human liberty and a substantial dose of human virtue. But Americans will always bend one or both of these ideas to force their submission to either democracy, justice, or both.
Frank Meyer, in thought or in deed, would submit to no one and no thing. As such, the libertarian “fusion” he dreamed of makes no compromise to America’s political character or political temperament. American conservatives owe him a debt of gratitude for helping inadvertently to create the modern conservative movement that defeated Soviet Communism and held socialism at bay for forty years. Beyond that, neither conservatives nor Americans more broadly owe him deference or reverence. His political tunes are and will be appreciated only by select audiences.
Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist at The Washington Post. He has previously served as a Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, the president of the Commonwealth Foundation, and practiced law at the firm now known as Dechert. He received his B.A. from Claremont McKenna College and his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. In addition to the Post, his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, National Review, and a variety of other publications.