the imaginative conservative logo

Frank Meyer was a man looking desperately for faults in the philosophy to which he was most attracted: traditionalism. Finding none, he simply made up another philosophy: fusionism. But instead of coopting the energy and scientific rigor of libertarianism for the traditionalist cause, he simply empowered the former at the latter’s expense…

meyerAmerican conservatism originates from the broad coalition of anti-communists William F. Buckley Jr. assembled around National Review in 1955. While the early conservative movement contained many factions, from Southern agrarians to constitutional monarchists, there were two principal camps: traditionalists, the heirs of Burke and Adams; and libertarians, the heirs of Locke and Jefferson.

These two factions worked together happily for a decade or so until, in the mid-1960s, some NR staff, led by Frank S. Meyer, decided that  American conservatism should be more of a union than a confederation. So, Meyer set out to create a syncretic ideology, which would eventually come to be known as fusionism, blending economic libertarianism with social traditionalism.

The implication is clearly that American conservatism was meant to be at least two-thirds traditionalist. If the government is regarded as a sort of ideological no-go zone, that only means more attention must be made to social and cultural concerns. The point wasn’t to institute a new “Permissive Culture”, but rather to move away from the popular idea that social reforms must come in the form of government programs.

Most conservatives today would accept that basic notion. They realize that more government isn’t the solution to our woes, because a lack of government isn’t the problem. The problem, rather, is the aggressive secularization of our society, the liberalization of our mainline churches, the collapse of traditional social institutions, the creeping relativism in our culture, the triumph of left-wing extremists in our education system, and—well, if only we could list them all in a few lines!

But Meyer’s reasoning was fatally flawed. In a 1962 column for National Review[1], he claimed that traditionalism’s cardinal sin—the fundamental error that necessitated its co-mingling with libertarianism—was that “the simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power, is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil.” In layman’s terms: virtuous acts must be those undertaken freely, not under state coercion.

L. Brent Bozell Jr., in his rejoinder[2], observed (correctly) that, because Meyer was making a theological claim—that is, about the relationship between free will and virtue—it has to be answered in theological terms. And every school of orthodox theology would accept that an act is virtuous regardless of whether it was made freely or not. “We can agree that the freer the choice—i.e., the more difficult it is—the greater the merit,” he writes; but, “by definition, the virtuous act is one that conforms with man’s nature, with the divine patterns of order.”

Bozell’s critique seemed to have sunk in, because Meyer soon reconsidered his line of attack. Two years later, he would concede to the traditionalists that libertarianism rests on “unsound metaphysics”[3]. He pointed out, rather gloomily, that, “however much he may… have contributed to our misfortunes,” the classical liberal of yore “continued to live on the moral capital of centuries of Christendom. His philosophical doctrines attacked the foundations of conscience, but he himself was still a man of conscience.”

In the same 1964 essay, Meyer revised his critique of traditionalism, condemning “the authoritarianism with which that emphasis [on precedent and continuity] has been associated.” Yet, again, this is specious. It’s impossible to believe Meyer didn’t recognize an organic tradition of political liberty in the thought of Burke and Adams and that he sincerely felt one needed to be imported from libertarianism.

It may surprise some to know how deeply traditional Meyer’s metaphysical views were. A deathbed convert to Catholicism but a lifelong student of the Western canon, Meyer’s thought was deeply grounded in Christian ontology:

We must then hold steady on course with our philosophical eye on “basic principle,” upon “the truth of the great tradition of the West.” As Meyer viewed it, that truth, of course, is symbolized in the Incarnation: it is through this symbol that the individual becomes the “central moral entity” and society and community are seen merely as matters of convenience and utility, not ends in themselves…

Unquestionably, from any perspective in Meyer’s thinking, it is the Incarnation which is the primordial principle to which the “conscious” or “principled” conservative will turn in commence.[4]

Murray Rothbard suggested that, in practice, fusionism makes only nominal concession to traditionalism and that Meyer was, effectively, a “libertarian manqué”.[5] We should judge that the opposite is more likely true. Meyer was, by his own admission, a “metaphysical” traditionalist. He even made clear that a libertarian political order isn’t justified in itself; rather, it’s justified by its ability to maintain a traditionalist social order.

The official mechanisms of conservatism (National Review, the Republican Party, CPAC, the Young Americans for Freedom, etc.) neither renounced classical fusionism nor formally dislodged its traditionalist wing. They did, however, quickly succumb to a near-total hegemony of crude libertarian thinking: a kind of monomaniacal and hysterical fear of government. Reagan himself joked that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” which quickly became the tone and tenor of all center-right discourse. Precious little attention, if any, was paid to social issues. Yet these were the issues that concerned Meyer most.

Why, you ask, did this come to pass? My best guess: libertarianism’s strict “government = bad, liberty = good” dichotomy was easier to market in magazine and stump speeches. And that’s understandable. Both libertarians and traditionalists were horrified by the sheer size and power of the Soviet state; libertarians simply don’t have to bother with “the simulacrum of virtuous acts” or “divine patterns of order.”

Meyer himself undoubtedly contributed to this confusion. In fact, I’m tempted to say that it’s his most lasting contribution to the American Right. Powerful as his mind was (not to say how lucid his writing), it was basically unoriginal otherwise. In his mad rush to bind libertarians and traditionalists closer together, he planted a seed of self-doubt in the latter’s mind, informing them—like some dangerously incompetent physician—that they were genetically predisposed toward tyranny. It simply wasn’t true, and the history of Anglo-American politics is a testament to that fact. But it was the only way he, a fundamentally traditionalist thinker, could impress upon the center-right the need to hew themselves to the libertarian cause.

Meyer was a man looking desperately for faults in the philosophy to which he was most attracted and, finding none, he simply made one up. But, instead of coopting the energy and scientific rigor of libertarianism for the traditionalist cause, he simply empowered the former at the latter’s expense.

Yet Meyer is still well worth reading, if only because we can trace the decline of the American conservative movement through his work – and, I hope, work backwards toward its restoration. This will require seven radical changes in American right-of-center politics.

(1) Conservatives will revisit the classics of traditionalist thought (beginning, ideally, with The Conservative Mind) and recognize the deficiencies in their own “metaphysics”. They’ll realize that abstract liberty is specious: easy to articulate, but impossible to sustain in practice.

(2) We will accept that the restoration of liberty must correspond with a restoration of order: desecularizing society, deliberalizing the churches, restoring traditional social institutions, rejecting the culture of relativism, routing left-wing extremists from academia, etc.

(3) We will rediscover the vital importance of the Fall, literal or metaphysical, in understanding society and politics. The proper premise for anti-statism isn’t that man is good and wise, and therefore best placed to make decisions about his own life. No; government simply never has been, and never will be, the repository of morality and wisdom.

(5) We will begin to recognize the many other authorities that must work on man to make him fit for freedom. “Conscience is an authority,” Newman wrote; “the Bible is an authority; such is the church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise, such as hereditary legislations; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories; such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.” (And such are marriage, the family, humane education, etc.)

(6) We will make peace with the fact that, while libertarians and traditionalists can work together toward common goals—opposing social engineering, defending competitive markets, etc.—our fundamental principles are irreconcilably opposed to one another.

(7) We will prepare ourselves for the uncomfortable realization that, in the twenty-first century, libertarians and traditionalists are at odds more often than we’re in accord. In an age where the greatest threat to liberty comes, not as an assault on liberty itself (as during the Cold War), but on the institutions and mores that make both liberty and order possible, libertarians have sided with the Left. They’ve gone arm-in-arm demolishing marriage and the family, repealing laws against recreational drugs, stamping out the last of the pro-life movement, tearing down our national borders, and generally cementing the Permissive Culture. Like the old iconoclasts, they smash the face of God in God’s name: they serve liberty by destroying its foundations.

If conservatives have the courage and wherewithal to undertake these course-corrections, Meyer the manqué may finally develop into the traditionalist he always was at bottom. The conservative movement he helped found may salvage what’s left of the American order. Liberty may finally come to rest on its laurels.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Frank Meyer, “The Twisted Tree of Liberty“, The National Review.

[2] L. Brent Bozell, “Freedom or Virtue?“, The National Review.

[3] Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism“, Modern Age.

[4] John P. East, “The Conservatism of Frank Straus Meyer“, Modern Age.

[5] Murray Rothbard, “Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqué“, Modern Age.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. “a man looking desperately for faults in the philosophy to which he was most attracted: traditionalism. Finding none…” Could one be that there are many competing traditions and that to appeal to any one of them as ultimate accessible/practical standard of right or wrong is to fail to escape the barbaric logic of tribalism? Otherwise put, with traditionalism, the way to truth is orthodoxy, rather than the path leading from orthodoxy to truth proper.

  2. As an explicit disciple of Meyer’s, and overlooking the title, I find this a rather good analysis of what happened to Meyer’s progeny and reasonably balanced overall but misses the important point that to Meyer freedom was first politically but not philosophically or morally. The virtue question is not as Bozell argued about individual virtue but about a society that passes laws to force virtue. Give the guy a break and read his main work “In Defense of Freedom” where he says: “Freedom remains the criterion principle, the guide; but the application of principle to circumstances demands a prudential art. The intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation always affect the realization of any general principle. Furthermore, no practical situation can be the realization of a single principle, however important. The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.” The book is published at the same time as his supposed error, two years before his supposed “sinking in” Bozell’s correction. Better, read his most sophisticated statement of his philosophy In his “Western Civilization” published as the final chapter in the Liberty Fund edition where it is clear that “fusionism” IS Western tradition. Donald Devine, Senior Scholar, The Fund for American Studies

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: