Opinion: Conserving Conservatism
THE REIGN OF THE USSR
In the mid-1900s, the Soviet Union reigned in terror among vast portions of eastern Europe. Its inability to lead and maintain a stable government became more apparent as the freedoms of citizens of the USSR were stripped away. The State controlled speech, property, commerce, religion, and social interaction.
As chaos ensued, American libertarians and conservatives feared the plague of communism infecting Eastern Europe would make its way home. Anticipating the ideological arrival, various political thinkers proposed a fusion of conservatism and libertarianism to combat the rising influence of the radical left. As conservatives later adopted Fusionism, traditional conservatism became less about conservation and more about progressive individualism; this ideological transformation blurred the line between freedom and virtue, ultimately transforming conservatism into a quasi-libertarianism.
Fusionism was the result of these attempts to close the ideological gap between traditional conservatives and libertarians. Political writer Frank S. Meyer was the philosophical father of Fusionism, introducing the idea in his book “In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo.” Meyer argues that the government’s sole purpose is to provide a police force, military, and functional legal system, leaving all other issues up to the individual. In response to Meyer’s claim, conservatives quickly criticized the apparent lack of virtue and morality within the proposed government. In his 1962 essay titled “The Twisted Tree of Liberty,” Meyer responds to critics, explaining the Fusionist’s view on virtue:
“[Fusionism] maintains that the duty of men is to seek virtue; but it insists that men cannot in actuality do so unless they are free from the constraint of the physical coercion of an unlimited state. [The] simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power is not virtue…”
Meyer argued that political freedom is necessary for an individual to act virtuously. A citizen under State imposed restriction, regardless of their moral intent, will not have sufficient freedom to act virtuously.
On the surface, Meyer’s theorized fusion of libertarianism and conservatism is a well-reasoned attempt at cooperation. By not entirely neglecting the importance of virtue, Meyer appeals to traditional conservatives while fulfilling the insatiable desire for unbridled freedom on behalf of libertarians. But it did not go unopposed. Conservative pundit L. Brent Bozell Jr. strenuously resisted the adoption of Fusionism by the conservative movement. In his famous essay “Freedom or Virtue,” Bozell identifies two erroneous propositions made by Meyers. First, he opposed the idea that an individual’s “ability to choose meaningfully and thus to restrain his appetites depends on [his] external circumstances.” Second, he pointed out a fatal error in Meyer’s subsequent argument that “The more these circumstances favor the choice, the better he can restrain his appetites and so achieve virtue.”
To Meyer, the more freedom an individual enjoys, the more potential they have to act virtuously. Taken to its full logical extent, this argument assumes that an abundant possibility of vice and sin would provide the best circumstance for virtuous action. A society that not only allows but promotes the spread of pornography would then provide more opportunities for one to be virtuous by rejecting pornography.
This idea of freedom and virtue, Bozell explains, commits the logical fallacy of “turning the proposition, ‘the state that governs most will govern worst,’ into the proposition, ‘the state that governs least will govern best.’”
Our society has now sacrificed the American family and traditional marriage on the altar of individual liberty; conservatives have become relaxed, too comfortable with the morally bankrupt Fusionist idea of liberty. “As long as you don’t enforce it on me,” is now the conservative response to the errors of a morally degenerate society. As a result of the weakness of conservatism, society has instated freedom in place of its once-upheld traditions and virtues. Liberty without virtue, as Burke explained, “Is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
The Fusionist view of human nature assumes humans are naturally virtuous in a state of complete freedom. This classical-liberal assumption, originating from Rousseau, Locke, and Thomas Paine, distorts Conservatism today. Unbridled liberty is not a prerequisite for virtuous action, for virtuous actions are initiated by the will of the individual; deciding between vice and virtue is not in the action itself but in the conscious decision beforehand. Thus, the imposition of moral guidelines, rules, and duties are not restrictions of the free will of man but create a society that nurtures virtue and human flourishing. A conservation of traditional conservatism is necessary — not only for the conservative movement itself but for the conservation of the inherited moral and traditional values of the nation. Only a conservatism not sacrificed on the altar of unbridled freedom is a conservatism worth conserving.
Written by: Jacob Christensen
Contributer at the Cougar Chronicle
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author.
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints