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Why Fusionism Fails—and How to Make It Succeed

By Matt Zwolinski

For most of the twentieth century, libertarians and conservatives found themselves fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in the major ideological battles of their day. Initially drawn together by a shared opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal, both groups largely defined their worldviews in terms of opposition to socialism, both at home and abroad. As long as the expansion of state power in the direction of socialism seemed inexorable, both conservatives and libertarians could see their primary role as standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”

That changed in 1989. As writers like Matthew Continetti have argued with respect to conservatism, and as John Tomasi and I have argued with respect to libertarianism, the collapse of the Soviet Union threw both groups into a crisis of identity. Without socialism to define itself against, it was no longer entirely clear to either group what it was for. Nor was it clear whether there was enough left in common between the two groups to form the basis of a stable coalition. Like a husband and wife whose children have left home and who no longer have that shared, defining project to shape and occupy their lives, libertarians and conservatives have been forced to take a hard look at their relationship and discern how, or whether, to move on with their lives together.

All of this is related to, but somewhat distinct from, the question of “fusionism” with which this symposium is concerned. Frank Meyer launched the fusionist project at a time and in a context where the question of the relationship between conservatives and libertarians was very much of interest. William F. Buckley’s National Review was working to define the boundaries of the American conservative movement. At the time, it was not at all clear whether there was room for libertarians like Milton Friedman, or further on the fringe, Ayn Rand, at a table where the likes of Russell Kirk and Willmoore Kendall already occupied  seats.

Nevertheless, Meyer took pains to point out that fusionism was focused not on the general compatibility of libertarianism and conservativism, but rather on a more specific question about the compatibility of freedom (so prized by libertarians) and virtue (beloved by conservatives). The core fusionist idea, as Meyer saw it, was to defend the “double allegiance” to freedom and virtue which lay at the heart of the American political order.

In what follows, I will explain why I think Meyer’s fusionist project fails on a theoretical level. Freedom and virtue are both good things. But it is a mistake to think that we must therefore never choose between them. A commitment to freedom will sometimes run afoul of a commitment to virtue, and in such cases we must choose which master we will serve. Nevertheless, while freedom and virtue do not always go together, it is still true that they often do. There is thus a potential for a more moderate form of fusionism. This potential can only be realized, however, if both libertarians and conservatives abandon the idea that their own preferred value is a moral absolute.


Why Fusionism Fails

The essence of Meyer’s fusionist position is that it is possible to maintain a “double allegiance” to both freedom and virtue. His chief reason for holding this position was his belief that virtue simply cannot exist without freedom. “Virtue,” Meyer argued, “is only virtue when freely chosen.” If you give money to the poor only because I have compelled you to do so, you have not acted in a virtuous way, since part of what it means to act virtuously is to choose, and to choose on the basis of the right kind of reasons. Freedom is thus a necessary precondition for virtue. And so, Meyer concluded, “virtue cannot be enforced or brought about by political means.”

Meyer’s premise in this argument is sound. An act done under compulsion is not a virtuous act, at least not in the fullest sense of that term. The problem with Meyer’s position is that his conclusion – that “virtue cannot be enforced or brought about by political means” (emphasis added) – does not follow from this premise. For even if coercion cannot be used to directly compel a virtuous act, it can nevertheless be used to establish the conditions of virtue, or to make virtuous action more likely.

To see this, think about certain vicious behaviors such as drug abuse, the use of pornography, the solicitation of prostitutes, and so on. Each of these actions is, arguably, both vicious in itself and degrading of one’s moral character. Meyer’s point is that someone who refrains from these activities only because they are forcibly prevented from engaging in them gets no moral credit for that abstention. And that is true as far as it goes. But it is also true (in principle at least) that by using coercion to make access to these activities more difficult, the state can prevent many people from going down a path that would lead them to develop serious vices. One of the most effective ways of avoiding sin is to avoid what Catholic theologians call the “near occasions of sin.” And coercion – whether through outright prohibitions, or taxes, or zoning laws that relegate activities to difficult-to-access areas – can help make those occasions considerably less near.

This point applies not just to the avoidance of vice, but also to the development of virtue. Aristotle famously argued that virtue is a matter of habit. We become virtuous, in other words, by doing the kinds of thigs that a virtuous person does. At first, we do them without understanding. We don’t know what it is about an action that makes it virtuous, or what circumstances call for this sort of action rather than that. But, over time, if we are attentive and guided by experienced teachers, we learn to identify and perform virtuous actions on our own. The key point here is that virtue is the result of a process, and it is a process that starts with action that is not generally guided by a correct understanding and motivation, and thus not fully virtuous in itself.

Thus, even if coercion cannot be used to force virtuous action directly, it can still be used to compel (or nudge) people into performing the actions that generally lead toward virtue. This is a point that should be obvious to anyone who has ever raised a child. Parents force their children to do all sorts of things – to brush their teeth, to say “sorry,” to help a friend in need – in the expectation that by doing so, the child will be more likely to develop the knowledge and motivation to perform these actions on their own – at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.

States are clearly in a much poorer position than parents to engage in this kind of guidance. But there is no reason in principle why states could not use systems of public education, mandatory public or military service, or subsidies for character-building cultural activities to pursue, however imperfectly, a similar end.

The point that I have tried to make in this section is essentially the same as that made by Brent Bozell in his trenchant critique of fusionism, “Freedom or Virtue?” As Bozell writes, “if freedom is the “first principle” in politics, virtue is, at best, the second one.” In other words, a political philosophy devoted to maximizing liberty in the political sphere is going to entail less than maximum virtue in the personal sphere; a political philosophy devoted to maximizing virtue in the personal sphere will lead to less than maximum freedom in the political. A theory can have only one fundamental principle, one maximand. It can, of course, have multiple values, but when those values come into conflict, one is faced with inevitability of a choice – and a trade-off.


Responses to Two Objections

I want to respond pre-emptively to two objections that might be raised against my argument. The first objection, anticipated by Meyer himself and articulated more recently by Stephanie Slade, argues that the twin commitments to freedom and virtue do not come into conflict because they apply to different domains – to “different though interconnected realms of existence,” as Meyer put it. Liberty, according to this view, really is the one highest value – but only in the political sphere. The personal (or “intellectual” or “moral” or “spiritual”) order has its own single ultimate end – virtue. There are indeed two masters, but peace betwixt the two is kept when each is relegated to its own proper dominion.

The problem with this objection is that, as Meyer himself notes but does not fully seem to appreciate, the two spheres are not entirely separate. There are, he writes, “interpenetrations between the spheres, effects upon each sphere from developments in the other.” In other words, what happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington. Political rules, as we have seen, can make personal virtue easier or more difficult to obtain. Prioritizing the maximization of liberty in the political sphere therefore means that we are not crafting political rules with an aim to maximizing personal virtue. If virtue really is the highest end in the personal sphere, this cannot but have implications for how political rules ought to be crafted.

The second objection is a more pragmatic one. Perhaps it’s true that, in principle, coercion can be used to promote virtue by indirect means. But politics is a clumsy tool, and taxes and bans and regulations create all kinds of unintended consequences, often leading to even worse vices than the ones they aim at preventing.

This objection is rooted in an important truth. Government agents often lack the knowledge and the motivation to carry out the ends we assign to them. But as Bozell notes, this argument hardly suffices to establish the absolute priority of liberty that libertarians seek. Even if it is true, as Acton claimed, “that power tends to corrupt,” all this means is that we face a question of prudence. In every case, we must ask “will this grant of power, in this instance, for this object, produce a net good for the individual members of the commonwealth?” In some cases, it will not, while in other cases it will. But in either case, the question is one of balancing competing ends, not clinging dogmatically to freedom (or virtue) an absolute and exceptionless principle.


Toward a More Moderate Fusionism

So where does that leave the fusionist project? My argument so far has attempted to establish that virtue and freedom do not always go together. If one is really concerned to maximize virtue, this will sometimes require the sacrifice of freedom (and vice versa). But even if virtue and freedom do not always go together, they might nevertheless often do so. And they might do so in ways that are not merely formally compatible, but mutually reinforcing. Thus, the core fusionist insight that virtue and freedom are, in many if not all respects, complements rather than competitors, remains unscathed by my critique.

Indeed, there is much to be said for that core insight. Meyer was correct to focus on the significance of choice, as a linking concept between virtue and freedom. But to Meyer’s argument we might also add, in a more Hayekian or Millian spirit, an emphasis on knowledge. Knowing what virtue is, and what precisely it requires, is something that individuals must learn. And that learning is a process that requires that individuals be free to act on what Hayek called “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” After all, what it means to act virtuously in one context will often be quite different from what it means in another. The bravery required to risk one’s life in battle in a martial society is a different thing from the bravery needed to speak one’s mind in an atmosphere of stifling intellectual conformity. What precisely it means to be honest depends, in large part, on the specific nature of the relationship, the roles, and the context of the agents involved. Any attempt to impose a singular ideal of virtue from the top-down thus operates on the basis of radically incomplete information, and thus risks stifling rather than abetting the development of virtue.

            Virtue thus requires freedom, even in more ways than Meyer himself seemed to recognize. But freedom is not a mere means to the development of virtue. It is an independent, intrinsic value in itself. It is this intrinsic value of freedom that gives power to the objection raised by those who resist paternalistic interference – “But it is my life to live!” Even when paternalism is successful in achieving its end, there is a moral cost to the infringement of individual autonomy that it involves.

            A plausible form of fusionism must thus accommodate both virtue and freedom. It must accommodate the insight that there is not just one intrinsic value but (at least) several. This rules out the more radical forms of “conservatism” such as Catholic Integralism. It also rules out the more radical forms of libertarianism. Meyer was right to exclude the libertarianism of Rothbard from his fusionist project, though perhaps not entirely correct in his reasoning. Strict libertarian views such as Rothbard’s, as Tomasi and I argue, are distinct from earlier forms of classical liberalism by the monistic, rationalist, and absolutist nature of their commitment to liberty. But one can believe that freedom is intrinsically good without believing that it is absolutely so. A rejection of absolutism – on both sides of the partnership – is the key to any successful fusionist project, both philosophically and pragmatically. Until libertarians and conservatives can see each other as offering genuinely distinct forms of intrinsic value, any marriage between the two is doomed to be one-sided, fragile, and incomplete.

Matt Zwolinski is the director of University of San Diego's Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy, director of USD’s undergraduate minor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. He is the author, with John Tomasi, of The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism (Princeton, 2023).


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