In the early 1960s, Conservatism was in crisis. For nearly thirty years, the size of the American government had been exponentially increasing under successive welfarist Presidents – both Republican and Democrat. This was the direct result of the ‘Roosevelt Revolution’ in the United States. Not only was economic freedom steadily being trampled upon, but many felt that America was losing its traditionalist values as well.
At the time, the Conservative movement was split between two opposing forces: the “New Conservatives” like Russel Kirk, who advocated for the enforcement of traditional values, as well as an increased role of government in the economy; and the “Libertarians” like Ayn Rand, who advocated that the government give people more economic freedom and abandon traditional morality.
In this fractious time, Frank S. Meyer propagated the idea of ‘fusionism’ as an alternative to the existing (and oppositional) Conservative ideologies. Instead, Meyer put forward the idea that traditionalism and libertarianism were different sides of the same coin, each emphasizing separate parts of a fully Conservative narrative. He solidified his ideas in 1962 with his hallmark book, In Defense of Freedom. The ideology, described so articulately by Meyer in his book, began the movement which would eventually inspire Barry Goldwater to run for President in 1964, and for Ronald Reagan to do the same in 1980.
As the book is written to be a defence of freedom, liberty and individualism are at the core of Meyer’s writing. The author purports, first of all, that economic freedom – namely Capitalism – is the only economic system in which people can pursue their dreams unhinged by government. But almost paradoxically, Meyer emphasizes virtue almost as much as he does freedom; believing that Judeo-Christian morality, upon which Western Civilization is based, is the foundation of a good lifestyle.
To understand the fusionism that Meyer proposes, one must understand his criticisms of both New Conservatism and Libertarianism. Meyer agrees with traditionalists that virtue is required for one to live a good lifestyle, but attacks them on one of their most highly-esteemed axioms. He proposes that the individual, not the community, is the basic unit of society; therefore all individuals ought to pursue virtue in their own way. Meyer’s basic principle is that for an individual to make a virtuous choice (and by extension, make a Godly choice), he or she must have the freedom to choose between right and wrong as long as choosing ‘wrong’ does not negatively harm someone else.
He posits that if someone is forced to do good by the government, it is not the individual who is doing something virtuous worthy of Salvation. Instead, they are only going through the motions that are forced upon them by government. Meyer goes even further in saying that because human beings are imperfect and prone to corruption when given power, it would be impossible for the government to enforce a traditionalist utopia without twisting virtue to serve the desires of the men in charge. He concludes, therefore, that giving people freedom to choose both socially and economically is the best option.
But Meyer had his disagreements with Libertarianism as well. He felt that the movement embraced moral relativism as a result of their rejection of traditional morality. Fusionism, the book describes, must accept an object moral order while simultaneously allowing individuals to reject that moral order should they choose. In the political sphere, freedom may be the end that must be obtained, but in the social sphere, freedom is a means to the end of being virtuous. Meyer also rejected the Utopian aspects of Libertarianism, listing three things that the government must do without the private sector: management of the military, police, and the judiciary. With that said, he still sided with Libertarians in the struggle against the “Leviathan” state and Keynesian Economics.
In Defense of Freedom set the stage for a Conservative revival. Just two years after it was published, Barry Goldwater won the Republican Presidential nomination with his adherence to Meyer’s ideas, effectively resulting in a Conservative takeover of the disorderly Republican Party. Meyer’s ideas also paved the way for the Neoconservatism of the 1980s, as well as the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, a follower of Meyer’s ideology, albeit with some differences.
Ultimately, In Defense of Freedom is a must-read for Conservatives; we will surely need it in the 21st Century just as much as it was needed in the 20th.