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Fusionism … Again?

By Allan Carlson

On the American political right, the tension between “traditionalists” concerned with social issues and “libertarians” concerned with free markets apparently remains high. In the not-too-distant past, the traditionalist author Russell Kirk described genuine libertarians as “metaphysically mad,” a “sour remnant … founded upon doctrinaire selfishness.” For his part, libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek charged that traditionalists openly embraced “coercion … for what [they] regard as the right purpose” and so were “alien to the American tradition” and “often … embarrassing.”

This tension has resurfaced within the tea party movement, where some activists have loudly insisted that social issues like same-sex marriage or abortion be shelved in favor of a strict focus on cutting the costs of government. The C-PAC (Conservative Political Action Coalition) conference in February divided over “gay rights” and same-sex marriage.

An earlier response to this tension was called “fusionism.” The grand architect was William F. Buckley, but it was from Frank Meyer that fusionism gained theoretical coherence. His book In Defense of Freedom described conservatism as an embrace of “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man,” while “reason operating within tradition” formed the core principle of the Western world. Meyer and his fellow travelers insisted that the American founders in Philadelphia had adopted the “fusionist” scheme of James Madison, in preference to the “authoritarian” ideas of Alexander Hamilton and the “libertarian” approach of Thomas Jefferson.

Numerous traditionalist and libertarian advocates refused to buy into fusionism. Politicians, however, found it immensely useful. As Senator Barry Goldwater – to whom freedom and order became catchwords – declared in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention:
“This party … has but a single resolve, and that is freedom – freedom made orderly for the nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom – balanced so that order, lacking liberty, will not become a slave of the prison cell; balanced so that liberty, lacking order, will not become the license of the mob and the jungle.”

Ronald Reagan also found the “ordered liberty” of fusionism attractive. As he declared in his 1979 speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency:

“A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality – and above all – responsible liberty for every individual; that we will become that shining city on a hill.”

Fusionist economists also emerged, notably Wilhelm Roepke, of German birth and later Swiss residence. Trained in the same “Austrian School” of economic thought as Friedrich Hayek, Roepke also drew effusive praise from Russell Kirk, particularly for his book A Humane Economy.

Like a good “Austrian” economist, Roepke deemed liberty his first principle. He called for a “free economic constitution” that would embrace “the market, competition, private initiative, a free price structure and free choice of consumption.” He argued that a system of free economic competition alone could deliver “discipline, hard work, decency, harmony, balance and a just relation between performance and payment.”

However, Roepke parted company from Hayek and other Austrians on several key points. Roepke believed so strongly in the link between private property and liberty that he favored public efforts toward “the restoration of property for the masses.” He argued that the industrial worker ought to at least own a home and family garden. This alone, Roepke maintained, would render each family “independent of the tricks of the market with its wage and price complexities and its business fluctuations.” The restoration of property could be advanced by far-seeing corporations as well as through progressive death duties on large landed estates.

Roepke also gave unusual attention to the natural, or traditional, family, as having claims equal to those of the individual. The family did not exist for the state, he said; it was “pre-statal, or even supra-statal.” Derived from “monogam[ous] marriage,” he said, the family was “the original and imperishable basis of every higher community” and the very foundation of civilization.

From these principles followed economic consequences. With Switzerland as his model, Roepke favored the “decentralization of cities and industries, the restoration of some more ‘natural order,’” He called for personal encouragements to “the artisan and the small trader” and the purchase of locally produced goods. He looked with admiration to a countryside of small family farms, for such families “give each member a productive function and thus become a community for life.” A “far-sighted” state would protect such farms, he said.

Roepke’s Humane Economy also accepted a limited social security system. While condemning the cradle-to-grave welfare states of Scandinavia and Great Britain, he said that there must “naturally be room” for limited public old-age pensions, health and accident insurance, widows’ benefits, and unemployment relief in a modern free society.

Roepke concluded that a humane economy reconciled “the immense advantages of the free market economy with the claims of social justice, stability, dispersal of power, [and] fairness.” Such an economy involved “the organic building-up of society from natural and neighborly communities.”

Back to America. Many analysts now contend that an American conservatism resting on the fusion of traditionalist and libertarian conservatives around limited government, a free market, and inherited values is dead. They point to the end of the Cold War, which eliminated the powerful glue of anti-Communism that – they maintain – was the only effective bond between traditionalists and libertarians.

In a limited respect, this may be true. Certainly the Republican Party – the favored political vehicle of most conservatives in recent decades – has largely failed in restraining public spending and growth of the welfare state, in balancing the federal budget, and in protecting natural families from the social engineers.

All the same, the theoretical case for a form of fusionism remains strong. The formula is simple. Traditionalists need to remember that the free market, wisely constrained by custom, community values, and measures guarding against monopoly, is the servant of families, the source of new wealth, and the only economic system compatible with a broader liberty. For their part, libertarians need to remember that the family is the true defender of liberty. As the English journalist G.K. Chesterton once explained: “[The family] stands for liberty for the very simple reason … [that] it is the only … institution that is at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on the state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state.”

On such mutual understanding, a movement that is fresh, creative and compelling might grow once again. If this occurs, the prospects for conservatism are bright, indeed.

The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and an associate professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.