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Fusion Is Philosophy, not Party Politics

By Stephanie Slade

For the last seven years, and perhaps even longer than that, figures within the conservative chattering classes have been filing reports on the supposed death of fusionism. If those sweeping declarations didn’t strike you as questionable at the time, last summer’s release of a statement of principles for “freedom conservatives,” which boasts more than 250 signatories who have decidedly not given up on fusionist ideas, should prompt at least some pause. 

But if reports of its death are exaggerated, so is the notion that its triumphant return is assured. Will fusionism have a future? Perhaps the best that can be said is that this is an open question. Any answer will turn on how effectively its advocates, myself among them, can put to rest a pair of unfortunate misconceptions about what fusionism actually means.

The first and most prevalent error—one committed even by many of fusionism’s would-be defenders—is that the term refers to an alliance of convenience between economic libertarians and religious traditionalists formed during the Cold War years. Nearly every article on the demise of fusionism represents it in this manner, and many go further astray by explicitly conflating fusionism with the “three-legged stool” of libertarian, traditionalist, and hawkish interests historically associated with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. 

As a matter of fact, however, the fusionist label was not coined to describe that coalition or any other. It was coined to describe a philosophical synthesis of classical liberalism and religious traditionalism elaborated in the mid–twentieth century by a National Review senior editor named Frank Meyer.

Meyer’s view was that Western civilization draws on two deep sources of wisdom and that, in the American context, a conservative’s purpose is to defend them both. “Contemporary American conservatism has been a blending of two lines of thought,” he said in 1965. “One stream that emphasizes [...] tradition on the one hand and virtue as the end of man’s existence on the other, and another stream that emphasizes the use of reason and the primacy of freedom as a necessary precondition of virtue.”

Properly understood, then, fusionism is a marriage of two value sets or intellectual lineages, not merely an alliance between two political factions. To be a fusionist is, by definition, to cherish both parts of our civilizational patrimony—to view liberty (interpreted as freedom from aggression, coercion, and fraud) and virtue (interpreted in keeping with Judeo-Christian tradition) as non-negotiable and mutually reinforcing. 

The modern tendency to conceive of fusionism in coalitional terms reduces its philosophical claims to party politics. A coalition is a construct fit for a particular time and place, while philosophies have pretensions to perennial importance and even eternal truth. Seeing fusionism as an amalgamation of groups with competing priorities rather than as a coherent set of shared commitments allows critics to dismiss fusionism as feeble and contingent—something whose time passed with the fall of the Soviet Union. But as Federalist Society co-founder Eugene Meyer puts it, fusionism “stems from the principles of our civilization’s Judeo-Christian ethic. And if that is true, it applies yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

A second misconception is that fusionism amounts to mere libertarianism or even libertinism. According to this view, fusionism brought about the cultural depravity of recent decades by privileging individual freedom over higher-order goods such as tradition, order, community, and a belief in transcendent or objective morality.

Again, fusionist texts undermine the claim. Meyer’s writings were replete with encomia to virtue, which he called man’s proper end and most important duty: “the hard-won prize of millennia of civilization.” He rejected utilitarian ethics and secular progressivism, defended “the authority of God and truth,” contended that a society cannot function well “without implicit acceptance of an absolute ground of value,” and rebuked non-fusionist liberals for failing to appreciate that they were living “on the inherited moral capital of centuries of Christendom.” By insisting on “the priority of the individual person,” he declared, “I am not therefore proposing a Robinson Crusoe social theory or maintaining that the person is a monadlike atom, cut off and isolated from other persons.”

Meyer forcefully denied that it’s appropriate for government to inculcate or enforce virtue. For him, the state’s two essential functions were protecting “the rights of citizens against violent or fraudulent assault” and adjudicating legal disputes. “But since this institution must possess a monopoly of legal physical force” to be able to carry out those functions, he warned, “to give to it in addition any further power is fraught with danger.”

That is a far cry from suggesting virtue does not matter. The fusionist position is that individuals and private institutions are responsible for the crucial work of cultivating a virtuous society. To say that certain problems “are not properly or effectively solved by state action is not to deny their existence,” Meyer wrote. “Rather it is to call upon the imaginative exercise of voluntary altruistic effort to restore a widespread sense of responsibility for social well-being and to guard against moral degradation of citizens.” At various points, he commended “the learned, the priestly, the prophetic” and “the intellectual and moral leaders” who feel obliged to “maintain the prestige of tradition and reason, and thus to sustain the intellectual and moral order.” 

In a fusionist framework, liberty and virtue are not at odds; when government protects the former, it creates the space in which citizens can pursue the latter. As Meyer put it, “freedom [...] is a necessary political condition of a virtuous society, not only because the high likelihood is that the standards imposed by men with the power of the state would not in fact be virtuous standards, but also because, even if they were virtuous, to impose them upon individual persons would immensely reduce their ability to act virtuously at all and absolutely destroy their potentiality for active, creative, positive virtue.”

To the extent that virtue is lacking in our culture today, fusionism offers a compelling explanation: Thanks to well-intentioned but misguided public policy, government has disastrously encroached on the private sphere of action. 

Under fusionism, individuals and non-state institutions are expected to be on the frontlines of solving social problems and cultivating healthy mores. But in a world in which an enormous, elaborate, and intrusive government bureaucracy claims all manner of responsibilities that have nothing to do with protecting basic liberties—and appropriates our money for its own purposes, whether we like it or not—people naturally learn to see themselves as passive observers, not active participants. Our problem-solving capacity is diminished; private institutions are crowded out by better funded, if less effective, government agencies; and in response to every challenge, a cry of “more tax dollars!” becomes the only lever anyone can think to pull. 

Voices on both the far left and the post-liberal right commonly blame markets for transforming citizens into consumers and producing the decadent culture we see today. But markets reward hard work and creativity, while a pervasive assumption that it’s the state’s job to do things for us is linked to moral decay. We are made less virtuous as well as less free when government is not properly limited.

For this reason, fusionists have tended to prioritize the fight to roll back damaging public policies and shrink state power more broadly. A free society won’t necessarily be a virtuous society, but a less and less free society is almost certain to be less and less virtuous as well. And getting government to quit meddling in places it doesn’t belong can go a long way toward promoting human flourishing. Just think of the ways that poorly structured welfare programs have been shown to discourage family formation, encourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies, erode people’s work ethic, promote a sense of entitlement, and so on. Or consider the many recent examples of government power being wielded to punish small businesses and other private organizations that wish to operate in accordance with a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality.

At the same time, if fusionists mean what we say about virtue being our highest value, we need to be willing to invest far more energy into efforts to change the culture and build institutions that reground society in age-old moral truths. Fusionism insists that this be done in the non-governmental sphere, through non-coercive means such as persuasion, social pressure, and market activity. But it also insists that it be done. To ignore traditional virtue and focus only on maximizing political freedom, as some libertarians might have us do, is to undermine one of the two pillars of fusionism. 

Americans must once again learn to think of ourselves as the principal agents of social improvement—and this has to begin with those of us who identify as fusionists. It is true that overweening government makes that task more difficult than it should be. But we cannot wait until we have achieved an ideal slate of public policies before we get to work in the non-governmental sphere. Fusionists don’t just believe freedom underlies virtue, after all. We also believe virtue underlies freedom. 

Limited government is far easier to sustain when the population is virtuous than when it is not. Without a strong, healthy culture, and a set of robust non-state institutions to support that culture, efforts to scale back or eliminate public programs will be met with suspicion by many. Where avarice abounds and individuals are reluctant to voluntarily help those who fall on hard times, people will expect the state to step in. Honesty, integrity, and a shared sense that we have moral obligations to one another contribute to the broad social trust that makes a free society possible.

Government is a poor vehicle for inculcating virtue; indeed, it very often inhibits that effort. But human ingenuity has an excellent track record at finding unexpected ways to route around government attempts to hem it in. Meyer called upon the “learned” and “prophetic” to sustain a vibrant and virtuous culture, but given the scale of the challenge in the twenty-first century, we need artists and entrepreneurs just as much as priests and prophets. More than that, we need everyday people who are willing to show up and step up within their communities. As the scholar Yuval Levin wrote in his 2020 book A Time To Build, “It is up to us to launch an age of social replenishment. That will require intellectual, cultural, political, spiritual, moral, and economic work. We each can have a part to play, if we want one.”

Anyone who sees fusionism as the pursuit of freedom above all is missing half the equation. But if misconceptions about fusionism are widespread, that is probably a sign that fusionists have done a poor job as ambassadors of our ideas. “Neither virtue nor freedom alone, but the ineluctable combination of virtue and freedom, is the sign and spirit of the West,” Meyer wrote. “The West is in decay not [...] because ‘the free society has come to take priority over the good society’ but because freedom has declined as virtue has declined. The recovery of the one demands the recovery of the other; the recovery of both is the mission of conservatism today.”

As Americans, we are blessed to have received this dual inheritance. Here’s hoping we can find a way to deliver it intact to those who will come next.

Stephanie Slade is a senior editor at Reason, a fellow in liberal studies at the Acton Institute, and a media fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University of America.


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