Historian Thomas Fleming once observed that “memory is not history.” What Fleming meant is that the way we remember things is not necessarily the way they happened. This, apparently, is as true of the ascription of terms as it is the recollection of events.
A case in point: one of the most recognizable lines of 20th century conservatism is the title of Richard Weaver’s 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. In fact, despite the impressive quantity and quality of Weaver’s writings, his entire corpus seems to have been reduced, if the internet is any guide, to this single phrase. The irony is that “ideas have consequences” did not come from Weaver, but from his publisher, and that Weaver did not care for the line to which he almost solely owes his fame.
A similar fate has befallen Frank Meyer. Meyer, a prominent figure in postwar American conservatism, is best known for his attempted “fusion” of traditionalist conservatism and libertarianism. Even today, Meyer’s name is nearly synonymous with “fusionism.” But just like Weaver, the term most commonly associated with Meyer was not his creation, but rather came as something of a pejorative from his colleague and critic, L. Brent Bozell. While Meyer certainly did attempt to harmo nize traditionalism and libertarianism, he disavowed the fusionist label, saying that he was not attempting to fuse two disparate elements together, but was simply attempting to show that “although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, [they] 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.”
Meyer worked out his libertarian-traditionalist thesis over the course of two dec ades, from 1955 until his death in 1972, in dozens of articles and in his 1962 book, In Defense of Freedom. The progression of Meyer’s analysis, from polemicist to serious theorist, offers a glimpse into the internecine conflicts that racked conservatism during the early years of its post-World War II resurgence. More importantly, his work holds valuable insights into the resolution of the enduring tension between freedom and virtue.
Meyer was born in 1909 in Newark, New Jersey. Like many students of his generation, he discovered and accepted leftist doctrines during his college years (at Princeton University and Balliol College, Oxford). It was during his time at Balliol, in the early 1930s, that Meyer became enamored of communism, so much so that he joined and became ac tive in the Communist Party upon his return to the United States. It wasn’t until he read F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while serving in the U.S. Army in 1945 that he began what William C. Dennis termed “an agonizing reappraisal” of his communist beliefs. This process led him, ultimately, to the postwar conservative movement.
“Movement” may be too strong a word to describe conservatism in those early days. For the first several years following World War II, conservatism was as much a gathering place of opposition to contemporary political and social trends as it was a coherent movement. Two strains of this opposition, however, quickly took form: libertarianism and traditionalism. The libertarians deplored the growth of the state and the collectivization of individuals that was so common in Progressive, socialist and totalitarian societies. The traditionalists, noless concerned about the growth of the state, lamented more the obliteration of traditional society and its methods of communicating enduring values. As these two lines of thought developed, their differences of emphasis led to a tension over which was the true conservatism and the true enemy of liberalism.
It was this tension to which Meyer devoted much of his writing. Libertarians and traditionalists, he believed, upheld different parts of the Western tradition, with its dual emphases on freedom and virtue. In Meyer’s view, the Greeks and Old Testament Israel, both of which the West would later claim as influences, were the first societies in history to separate earthly power from heavenly power, and to thus deny their rulers at least some of the authority that regents enjoyed elsewhere. But both, he added, still left the individual subsumed within society. It was the Incarnation of Christ, what Meyer called a “flash of eternity into time,” that led to the recognition of the unique dignity and worth of each individual, and his subsequent liberation from the prerogatives of the collective, be it the state or society. (For an extended treatment of this subject, see Chapter Eight of M.Stanton Evans’ The Theme is Freedom. While Evans doesn’t follow Meyer’s analysis exactly – he is considerably less complimentary of the Greeks and sees more cohesion in the impact of the Old and New Testaments on Western political theory – he still closely follows Meyer’s conclusions, and offers a fuller historical analysis in support of them.)
The Western tradition, then, is definitely oriented towards the freedom of the individual, but since it is also based in religion, that freedom is meant to be used to develop virtue. Freedom and virtue, in this view, are not only each important in themselves, they rely on each other for their mutual preservation.
These were unpopular notions in Meyer’s day, and they remain so today. Both freedom and virtue, as concepts, were (and are) anathema to the political left, which Meyer labeled the “liberal-collectivists.” But despite his view of liberalism as the principal enemy of his worldview, he reserved much of his writing, and his most polemical attacks, for some his fellow conservatives who, in his view, undermined what should have been a unified movement against the leftist monolith. While he was capable of incisive criticism of both the statism and the social subjectivism inherent in liberalism, when he wrote “in defense of freedom,” he had in mind certain conservatives who he felt tended towards a more benign form of collectivism.
Meyer and “The New Conservatives”
Meyer labeled this group the “New Conservatives.” These conservatives, exemplified in Meyer’s mind by Russell Kirk, stressed the importance of moral and so cial order, virtue, community and tradition. Included with Kirk in this group were, among others, Bozell and Robert Nisbet. The problem in Meyer’s mind was not that these figures stressed values like virtue and tradition, it was that he believed they stressed them to the point of excluding liberty and reason.
The role of reason in society was indeed a point of contention between libertarians and traditionalists. While the more dogmatic libertarians touted the ability of reason alone to direct society, traditionalists emphasized the importance of tradition in guiding reason. This Meyer interpreted as an uncritical acceptance of the past and the wholesale denial of any role for reason in shaping and changing society. With Kirk in mind, he wrote,
“To recognize that there is a need to distinguish between traditions, to choose between the good and the evil in tradition, requires recognition of the preeminent role (not, lest I be misunderstood, the sole role) of reason in distinguishing among the possibilities which have been open to men since the serpent tempted Eve and Adam ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But this is exactly what the New Conservatives refuse to recognize. The refusal to recognize the role of reason, to acknowledge that, in the immense flow of tradition, there are in fact diverse elements that must be distinguished on a principled basis and considered in their relationship to present realities, is a central attribute of New Conservative thought.”
As an expression of the compatibility of tradition and reason, this statement is well-grounded. But it’s much shakier as an actual representation of Kirk’s views which, in truth, seem remarkably similar to Meyer’s. For instance, in Prospects for Conservatives, Kirk wrote, “If tradition sinks into mere unquestioning routine, it digs its own grave; for man then approximates vegetal nature, disavowing reason and conscience as correctors and restorers of tradition.” He added, “The man who respects tradition… is not a reckless reformer who would alter society and human nature upon some utopian design, but a thinker who tries to reconcile the best in tradition with the constant necessity for change. …tradition is the means by which [a] healthy society preserves the wisdom of our ancestors and applies that wisdom to the new problems which it faces.”
Here we reach a difficulty in understanding the differences between Meyer and Kirk, for the above lines indicate a closer degree of agreement than their polemics against each other would indicate. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that, with the passage of time, the fuller exposition of their views revealed less disagreement than there initially seemed. Meyer himself indicated that this may have been the case, observing in a footnote that by 1962 he found Kirk’s writing to contain less anti-reason and anti-freedom sentiment than his opinions of the previous decade. The theory of a slowly-developing compatibility between Meyer and Kirk was supported by Evans, who believed that although “Frank and Russell were early on at swords’ points…their positions were more congruent than at first appeared…” That Kirk, and some of Meyer’s other targets, had the advantage of writing for a couple decades after Meyer’s death makes this view more plausible, since the modern reader has a clarity into their beliefs, and their compatibility with Meyer’s, that he may not have had.
This problem reappears in Meyer’s analysis of the traditionalists’ understanding of beliefs on community. Here his target was Nisbet, specifically his 1953 book The Quest for Community, in which Nisbet argued that the growth of the state has been primarily at the expense not of individuals, but of communities and voluntary associations, and that the restoration of freedom requires the restoration of community. While expressing his appreciation for Nisbet’s “admirable precision and…deep concern for the oppression of the personality in a collectivizing society,” he nevertheless believed that Nisbet’s communities are themselves inherently collectivist and get no nearer to “the vindication of the person” than do the liberal collectivists. True, a plethora of smaller communities is preferable to a single centralizing, collectivizing power. But such, thought Meyer, do not challenge collectivism itself.
It’s a little more difficult to determine the veracity of Meyer’s criticism on this count, simply because he seems to be reading between the lines more than analyzing Nisbet’s direct statements. With that said, there is a sense in which a reading of The Quest for Community can reach the conclusion that Nisbet valued the community above the individual. I will add, parenthetically, that this is not how I read the book, but I allow that it is not an entirely unreasonable impression. Even so, Nisbet would clarify this matter in his book, Twilight of Authority, writing that “Conservatism shares with [classical] liberalism a primary concern with the individual and with freedom of individual thought and action as against the claims of the total social order, but the conservative ideologists have for the most part seen this individual freedom as an inextricable aspect of a kind of social pluralism, one rich in autonomous or semi-autonomous groups, communities, and institutions.”
That is to say that, for Nisbet, in the actual practice of mankind, freedom is found in independent communities, not in atomized individuals. Even though Nisbet retained his belief in the value of the community as a hedge against the state and as the context for individuality, he readily expressed his underlying concern for the freedom and independence of the individual in Twilight of Authority. Unfortunately, this book was published in 1975, three years after Meyer’s death, so we don’t know the extent to which Nisbet’s clarification satisfied Meyer’s criticism.
While it’s possible that Kirk and Nisbet’s earlier writings were not sufficiently clear, it’s still difficult to dismiss the possibility that Meyer simply misunderstood the traditionalists (and some libertarians). Kirk believed that Meyer had never read his main works, a claim that seems to be supported by Meyer’s paltry sourcing of Kirk’s writings. Even Weaver, whose influence on Meyer was obvious, said that although his arguments against the collectivists were “brilliant with destructive analysis,” some of his critiques of the traditionalists were “a straw man.”
Though Meyer seems to have misfired in some of these criticisms, his respect for both the traditionalist and libertarian perspectives was sincere, as was his desire to express their compatibility. Can the traditionalist emphasis on the attributes of a healthy society – virtue, duty and a rootedness in tradition – be combined with political philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of the individual? For Meyer, the question was not can these emphases be combined, but how they can. His answer began with understanding the proper relationship of the individual to society.
Society and the Individual
Meyer believed that “society is not a real entity,” a common, but easily misinterpreted libertarian refrain. What this statement means is not that society as a framework of interrelating individuals, associations, and institutions does not exist, but that it does not exist as an actual entity that can be considered in the same manner as an individual. Meyer explained,
“It is true, of course, that there would be no political or social institutions, nor any meaning to political inquiry, if men lived as single isolated individuals. To insist…that the individual is the criterion by which institutions and political theories should be judged is not to deny the immediate and obvious meaning of the phrase, ‘man is a social animal,’ that is, that each man has a multifarious set of relationships with other men. The error arises when from this simple truism the conclusion is drawn that the set of relationships between men itself constitutes a real entity – an organism, as it were, called ‘society,’ with a life and with moral duties and rights of its own… By nature of the case, if society is an organism, the men who make it up can be no more than cells in the body of society; and society, not they, becomes the criterion by which moral and political matters are judged. It is in society, not in individuals who make it up, that right inheres; and whatever ‘rights’ individual men may be allowed are pseudorights, granted and revocable by society. The moral claims of the person are in effect reduced to nothingness.”
Here Meyer is a step ahead of many modern libertarians, who jauntily declare that society doesn’t exist and move on to other topics. But society obviously does exist, a truth borne out by even a casual observation of man’s lived experience. The question, then, is not so much whether or not society exists, but how it exists and what its relationship to the individual is. To place society above the individual, to make it and not him the object of political theory, Meyer believed, risked justifying all manner of depredations against him.
But Meyer’s argument wasn’t simply consequentialist. He viewed this as an inversion of the actual relationship of individuals to society. “Society and the state were made for individual men,” he wrote, “not men for them.” If this is so, there are obvious limitations on what may be done to the individual in the name of so ciety. Indeed, there would seem to be a contradiction in using force against an individual in the name of the institutions that exist to protect him. While allowing for the importance of social institutions, Meyer believed that individuals are metaphysically prior to them.
In fact, he said, social institutions are themselves evidence of the individualist basis of society. In a point brilliant in its simplicity, Meyer observed that, even in an institution as vital as the family, it is not the institution that is most important, but the individuals acting within it. “The family as an institution,” he wrote, “cannot guarantee the raising of the young in the paths of virtue…only individual persons, acting through the form of the family, can do so.” While Meyer agreed with the traditionalists that preserving traditional social forms is of the highest importance, he pointed out that it was not the family that taught virtue, but individual family members “acting through the form.” To place “the family” above individual members of an actual family, whose personal decisions determine the effectiveness of the family in its social role, was another inversion of the actual relationship of the individual to society.
To Meyer, society is comprised of and made for individuals. It owes its existence to them, and they are its end. All social activity is oriented, fundamentally, towards the individual. Echoing Ludwig von Mises, he concluded, “Truth has meaning only for persons; beauty illumines the consciousness only of persons; virtue can be pursued only by persons.”
Given his past collectivism, and his awareness of its horrors, it’s not surprising that Meyer was at pains to delineate the rights of the individual. That collectivist thinking is endemic on the left was all the more reason, he thought, for conservatives to stand staunchly for the individual, hence his concern that talk of communities risked falling into the same collectivist trap. Meyer believed that “by their refusal to take a principled position in defense of a state limited to establishing the conditions of freedom, they disqualify themselves as effective opponents of liberal collectivism. The New Conservatives are left neither the champions of Leviathan that the collectivist liberals are, nor the enemies of Leviathan that the principled conservatives are, but are mere critical observers of Leviathan undiminished.” While this may not be entirely fair – the traditionalists certainly were principled enemies of Leviathan – this statement shows how important the primacy of the individual was in Meyer’s philosophy.
Virtue and Freedom
Meyer’s prioritization of the individual invited the criticism that he either didn’t think or didn’t care about virtue. Indeed, this has long been a challenge from some quarters of conservatism, that individualism excludes social order and freedom excludes virtue. But this charge as it pertained to Meyer was obviously false, and more than a little unfair itself. Meyer was no less concerned about the development of personal and social virtue than were the traditionalists, but he believed that the enforcement of virtue was not properly a function of the state. He explained,
“Certainly the concern of the New Conservatives with the achievement of virtue is a just concern. Ultimately this is the most important of problems. All that I am contending is that it is not a political problem, that it is not the concern of the state, that virtue cannot be enforced or brought about by political means. Political thought and political action must be concerned with establishing and maintaining the conditions of freedom. True, freedom, though it is the end of political theory and political actions, is not the end of men’s existence. It is a condition, a decisive and inte gral condition, but still only a condition of that end, which is virtue. The New Conservatives are right when they insist that a consideration of men in society must come to grips with the question of virtue. They are only wrong in demanding that the problem be solved by the exercise of political power. But here their error is a serious one, for it is an error which they share with the collectivists who care not at all for virtue or for freedom.”
For Meyer, virtue was impossible without freedom. That is, virtuous actions could not be truly virtuous if they were not freely chosen. Coerced virtue was no virtue at all. He believed that “Men cannot be forced to be…virtuous. To a certain extent, it is true, they can be forced to act as though they were virtuous. But virtue is the fruit of well-used freedom. And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake of virtue – or vice.”
On these points, Meyer is on mostly solid ground. It’s not clear, however, that state-enforced virtue was as high a priority among the traditionalists as he thought. Kirk, who stressed prudence in politics, seems to have been more concerned with conservatism as a mindset than with a set of conservative policy proposals. He was certainly not a libertarian, and would doubtless have argued against removing legal restrictions that he thought buttressed virtue, but neither did he develop a platform that put the state forward as an enforcer of virtue. Nisbet was even less in favor of politicized morality, exhibiting downright hostility towards the Religious Right, and its attempted nationalization of social and moral issues, that developed in the Reagan era. Perhaps the primary opposition to Meyer’s position on virtue was Bozell, who argued for the ability of coercion to secure virtue. Meyer, Bozell and Evans had a public back-and-forth on this question, and Meyer’s arguments don’t seem to have resonated with Bozell, whose point of view remains popular with some conservatives.
Meyer’s position on coercion and virtue appears mostly correct, although with some clarification. As Meyer said, it seems that all coercion can do is cause people to act virtuously, not to actually be virtuous. While this would undoubtedly give the outward appearance of virtue, it wouldn’t necessarily reflect internal virtue. The problem is that Meyer focused on proving that virtuous acts cannot be coerced, when perhaps he should focused on the related but separate assertion that people cannot be coerced into being virtuous. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is less obvious that a coerced act cannot be virtuous than it is that a person cannot be coerced into actually being virtuous.
The latter statement is not only more easily proven, it is more to the point. If society is made for individuals, for their physical and spiritual growth, then merely inducing the appearance of virtue would not appear to be a valid use of state violence. If, however, it is the appearance of virtue that we are after, then state action to that end becomes more plausible. But the mere appearance of virtue is not the aim of the good society, rather it is ac tual virtue instilled in the thoughts and voluntary behavior of men. To view virtuous acts as an end in themselves approaches the kind of utilitarianism that traditionalists despise. It would further seem to be antithetical to one of the key messages of the New Testament, the primacy of the heart’s orientation and the insufficiency of the Law to change it.
Whatever the case, even those who have historically accepted a role for the state in the enforcement of virtue must by now admit the truth of Meyer’s statement that, “If the state is endowed with the power to enforce virtue, the men who hold that power will enforce their own concepts as virtuous.” A cursory look at the state and direction of modern politics provides sufficient evidence that these concepts will rarely resemble those of conservatives. Those concerned with virtue might well consider the caution of Puritan theologian John Cotton, who advised, “Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will.”
Virtue and Coercion
All this said, there is a need for precision when discussing virtue and coercion, because unless coercion is strictly defined, the argument against it can easily morph into an argument against all forms of social restraint. This Meyer rejected. While he obviously disagreed with conservatives who saw a role for the state in enforcing virtue, he had no more use for libertarians who discounted virtue’s importance. These “libertines,” he thought, threatened civilization by removing all social restraints on individual behavior. He wrote that “civilization is a fragile growth, constantly menaced by the dark forces that suck man back towards his brutal beginnings.” Social restraint is vital to preserving not only virtue, but also freedom because, “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.”
Meyer was under no delusions about human nature, and the likelihood that men would pursue virtue of their own volition. He believed in the necessity of a moral order in society, and he further believed that the setting of standards was the responsibility of this moral order, not the political order. He elaborated.
“…on the one hand, freedom is essential to the nature of man and neutral to virtue, and vice; on the other hand, good ends are good ends, and it is the duty of man to pursue them. I deny only that…these two premises are contradictories. …How can true ends be established elsewhere than in the intellectual, the moral, the spiritual order. Where can the conditions for freedom be established but in the…political order? A good society is possible only when both these conditions are met: when the social and political order guarantees a state of affairs in which men can freely choose and when the intellectual and moral leaders… have the understanding and imagination to maintain the prestige of tradition and reason, and thus to sustain the intellectual and moral order throughout society.”
Virtue and freedom, then, go hand in hand. Meyer concluded,
“To the degree that either of these conditions is lack ing, a society will not be a good society, and the in dividual men who constitute it will suffer in their humanity. Granted the highest development of freedom in the political order, a failure of the responsible interpreters of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual order would make freedom a useless toy by depriving men of standards by which to guide their lives. On the other hand, given the most elevated intellectual, moral, and spiritual understanding, the subordination of the political order to the enforcement of that understanding, the denial to men of the freedom to accept or reject it, would make virtue and truth rote.”
Meyer’s criticisms of the libertines within libertarianism had some validity, and more than a little prescience, though he may have imputed libertine impulses where none existed. Murray Rothbard, both a friend of Meyer and a target of his criticism, rather than taking a stance against virtue merely condensed the question down to the fundamental question of compulsion. Rothbard asked, “Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way, a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate the law of the excluded middle.”
Of course, Meyer was not attempting to find a Third Way. The free and voluntary choice of the individual was the answer he preferred, though he thought it important to take a stronger stance on the social desirability (but not the political enforcement) of virtue. A consideration of these points shows that Meyer’s area of disagreement with Rothbard, like that with Kirk, was considerably narrower than it appeared.
Indeed, in his extended analysis of Meyer’s beliefs, Rothbard placed Meyer squarely in the libertarian camp, pointing out that Meyer’s case for the necessity of voluntary choice in the pursuit of virtue not only didn’t clash with the libertarian prohibition of the initiation of force, but was perfectly compatible with it. To Rothbard, Meyer’s appreciation for community and tradition, for the necessary traits of a virtuous society, were not deviations from libertarianism, but were healthy components of the holistic worldview of a thinker who took both political theory and culture seriously.
Meyer could, perhaps, have made his arguments more appealing to traditionalists by expounding how the moral order could enforce standards of virtue, beyond vague references to “maintaining the prestige of tradition and reason.” Even so, his case against the state performing this task were well-argued. In a modern po litical society, rife with centralization, there is nothing more dangerous to virtue than for its proper defenders to relinquish their duties to the state.
Retrospective and Prospective
Meyer admitted that there is a tension between the pursuit of individual freedom from state violence on the one hand and the holding of the individual to his duty to pursue higher goals on the other. But this does not mean that they are opposed to each other. These emphases – liberty and tradition, freedom and virtue – are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they merely compatible. More than that, they are essentially interconnected elements of the same Western tradition, “complementary aspects of the same truth.” Freedom without virtue is as untenable as the reverse, hence Meyer’s impatience with those on either side who would set them at odds against each other. He believed in the need for a balance between the two, writing,
“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.”
It would be difficult to find a more necessary message than this for modern society. The decline of freedom and virtue that alarmed Meyer 60 years ago is now at such an advanced stage that one wonders whether either can be salvaged. What Meyer attempted to show was that to save one, we must rescue the other.
Conservatism has changed dramatically from those early days. Libertarianism has, for the most part, split off into its own movement. The traditionalists have been sent to the back of the class to make room for “New Conservatives” who now dominate the move ment and hold markedly different conceptions of society and the state than Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet did. Meyer’s efforts to form a unified conservative movement, organized around the dual pursuit of freedom and virtue, might easily be thought a failure. But his attempts to show the essential necessity of both were nevertheless of critical importance, in his time and for ours. Taking account of Meyer’s ultimate influence, William C. Dennis concluded,
“Meyer convinced few of his adversaries in his own day…that his reconciliation of the best parts of conservative traditionalism with a libertarianism based in American history could be sustained. He was, however, the first to insist that such a unity was not only possible, but also necessary… Yet for many readers Meyer’s fusionism…will remain convincing simply because it makes such good sense and because the readers believe Meyer described the true nature of American conservatism as they have come to know it through their own experience and study. For these readers it will not be Meyer’s text that seems narrow and doctrinaire, but rather those of his uncompromis ing libertarian and traditionalist critics – the first group irrational in their arid rationalism, the second unaware of the realities of their own tradition.”
With modern conservatism veering ever towards statism, and modern libertarianism becoming increasingly hedonistic, Meyer’s call for a virtuous liberty still resonates with anyone who is troubled by the continued decline of our political freedom and social virtue.