An NRO Flashback
Editor's note: This review appeared in the June 17, 2002, issue of National Review.
Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement, by Kevin J. Smant (ISI, 425 pp., $29.95)
For fifty years, most American conservatives have stood for three basic propositions: that American foreign policy should seek to end totalitarian regimes; that the domestic functions of government, and especially of the federal government, should be strictly limited; and that the moral precepts traditionally associated with Christianity (sometimes the formulation includes Judaism as well) should be upheld.
These propositions attracted distinct, though overlapping, constituencies to conservatism: defense hawks, libertarians, social conservatives. The coalition thus created has achieved some political success. Arguably, it had something to do with the achievement of its paramount goal, the overthrow of Communism.
But whether the coalition made sense in terms other than those of expedience has always been disputed. Sometimes, it has been disputed by people who accept one or more of the conservative propositions but reject others. Some libertarians, for example, opposed the Cold War. Often, the intellectual coherence of conservatism has been challenged by people who shelter under none of its tents. Thus liberals charge that there is a deep contradiction between advocating low taxes and condemning low morals.
In the founding generation of modern American conservatism, no one tried harder to answer that charge than Frank Meyer. Meyer attempted to show that traditionalism and libertarianism were indeed compatible and that both were necessary. He succeeded in persuading most conservatives. His thought became, to a large extent, the philosophical basis for American conservatism. But conservatism has grown less philosophically inclined over the years, and most young conservatives have never heard of him. For those who wish to make his acquaintance, Kevin Smant’s new biography, appearing on the thirtieth anniversary of Meyer’s death, is a good place to start.
Like so many of his generation of conservative intellectuals, the Newark-born Meyer had been a Communist — working for the party as an organizer first at Oxford and then in the Midwest. He met the woman who would be his wife, Elsie Bown, at a party class he was teaching in Chicago. In the 1940s, however, both of them began to develop ideological doubts.
In Smant’s telling, the key episode came after Meyer enlisted, for both Communist and patriotic reasons, to fight the Nazis. He was quickly discharged for having flat feet. The recovery from surgery on both feet kept him immobilized for eighteen months. Naturally, he read — the Federalist Papers, for example, with much of which he found hihimself agreeing. Other readings impressed on him the strength of the West’s belief in the dignity of the individual. Meyer became a sort of moderate Communist. He wanted a democratic, gradualist, and peaceful Communist party, one more deeply rooted in American tradition. For a while, he thought the party was moving in his direction; but the re-imposition of Stalinist discipline dashed those hopes. Elsie and he argued their way out of the party together.
He was briefly a Truman Democrat. But books like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences pushed him rightward. In addition, liberals seemed to his mind not to understand the nature of the Communist threat. Liberalism had grown too relativistic and too collectivist to grasp any longer the moral case for freedom, and thus lacked the intellectual resources to resist Communism. Worse, both major political parties now drank deeply from this liberalism.
Meyer started to write for the conservative publications The Freeman and The American Mercury. When William F. Buckley Jr. asked him to write for a magazine he was starting, Meyer accepted. For fifteen years, he served as NR’s book-review editor. He also had a regular column, titled “Principles & Heresies.”
Meyer believed that he must “unremittingly trace his errors to their sources” and start over. In his columns and elsewhere — most notably in his book In Defense of Freedom — Meyer argued for a recovery of what he took to be the main current of the Western tradition. That tradition, he wrote, held both freedom and virtue “in balance and tension.” It regarded virtue as the highest end of man, but over time it came to see freedom as both a precondition of true virtue and man’s highest political end. Traditionalists and libertarians both objected to Communism and liberalism. Meyer claimed, however, that they had not only “a common enemy” but “a common heritage.”
Meyer’s mix of libertarianism and traditionalism came to be called “fusionism,” but he didn’t think he was fusing anything. America’s Founders were concerned about both freedom and virtue. Only in the 19th century were these ends divided. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, classical liberals became too utilitarian and hostile to religion and tradition. In reaction to them, classical conservatives defended authoritarianism.
Both had part of the truth. The conservative — and, at the time Meyer wrote, the traditionalist — was correct in affirming the existence of an objective moral order and the importance of virtue. The classical liberals, and now the libertarians, were right to oppose statism. These truths were not at war, but merely “contrary emphases in conservatism” as Meyer was trying to define it. But either emphasis, if pursued to the exclusion of the other, risked error.
Traditionalists could slight the cause of freedom, failing to see that virtue cannot be coerced. They could fail to see that the individual was the locus of virtue. (Toward the end of his life, as he moved toward the Catholicism he would embrace on his deathbed, Meyer increasingly stressed that this failure missed the significance of the Incarnation.) They could be too critical of reason, leaving them no way to choose among traditions where conflict existed. Against Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke, Meyer wrote that “to make tradition, ‘prejudice and prescription,’ not along with reason but against reason, the sole foundation of one’s position is to enshrine the maxim, ‘Whatever is, is right,’ as the first principle of thought about politics and society.”
The characteristic error of libertarianism was to undermine “belief in an organic moral order,” even though this belief was in truth “the only possible basis for respect for the integrity of the individual person and for the overriding value of his freedom.” So “both extremes” were “self- defeating: truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”
As M. Stanton Evans notes in the foreword to Smant’s book, Meyer was both a polemical and a unifying figure. He never hesitated to do intellectual battle with representatives of either “extreme” within conservatism. He also moved from theory to practice, advising Young Americans for Freedom, the American Conservative Union, and the New York Conservative Party. Arguments were also settled, and intra-conservative unity forged, in long late-night phone calls from his home in Woodstock.
Meyer’s fusionism was not without critics, even within NR circles. Whittaker Chambers, in a letter to WFB, had a memorable put-down of Meyer as doctrinaire. James Burnham found him insufficiently realistic about tactics. Still, Meyer largely prevailed. His writing may have been “often heavy and stiff,” as Smant rightly notes. But conservatives were ready to accept his thesis, no doubt in large part because so many of them had both libertarian and traditionalist tendencies themselves. From the 1960s on, the federal government gave fusionism a powerful boost by seeming to promote moral and social decay at every turn, subsidizing illegitimate births and blasphemous art.
Fusionism lingers among conservatives and Republicans to this day. Meyer’s influence can be seen in Charles Murray’s remark, in his book In Pursuit, that if Adam Smith and Edmund Burke could admire each other, why can’t he admire both? In 1995, Ralph Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, spoke as a fusionist in counseling the new Republican Congress that “in an essentially conservative society, traditionalist ends can be advanced through libertarian means.” Around the same time, William Kristol urged conservatives to practice a “politics of liberty” and a “sociology of virtue.”
The influence of fusionism has not been wholly positive. Meyer contributed to an unfortunate tendency among conservatives toward theoretical maximalism, as in his casual reference to “the totalitarian implications of the federal school lunch program.” Another instance of that maximalism was his assertion that “society does not exist” (a phrase Margaret Thatcher later used). Did libertarianism really have to be founded on such extreme individualism, rather than, say, skepticism about or fear of the state?
In Meyer’s thought, virtue is aligned rather too neatly with religion and tradition, and reason with libertarianism. Many “traditionalists” defend tradition precisely insofar as it embodies, and helps guide people toward, sound moral principles that are rationally defensible.
The largest problem with Meyer’s synthesis is that he leans too heavily on the proposition that virtue must be freely chosen. It is true that the law cannot compel the internal assent of the will. But that truth does not by itself yield the Millian libertarian conclusions that Meyer draws from it. It does not mean, that is, that virtue is impossible under compulsion. Whether to obey the law is always a moral choice, for one thing; and one can do the right thing for the right reason even if the law provides an additional reason for doing it.
It would be pointless, in just the way Meyer supposes, for the law to attempt to compel religious belief. But there is a point to using the law to protect a moral ecology that supports people in the exercise of virtue. Laws help form character. They teach. Many times, they do so in ways compatible with strict libertarianism — by punishing some classes of unjust action, or allowing industry to be rewarded. But Meyer provides no good reason for abjuring non-libertarian morals laws in all cases.
Another reason that Meyer’s fusionism is not wholly adequate as a guide to conservatives is that it was the product of his times. The notion that libertarian policies would yield a society that moral conservatives would approve was most plausible when applied to a largely traditionalist society. Ours is manifestly no longer one. The threat of “regimentation” and “planning,” which Meyer understandably feared, is not what it used to be either.
Meyer also wrote at a time when America had a stronger sense of itself as a unified culture than at most points in its history, including our own. The conservative triad that he helped to develop — anti-totalitarianism, free markets, moral orthodoxy — has nothing to say about cultural cohesion, and not enough to say about patriotism. Meyer helped to produce a real novelty: a conservatism relatively indifferent to the transmission of culture down the generations.
What he did, however, was enough. Those of us who generally believe in both free markets and conservative morals have a lot to thank Meyer (and his like-minded colleagues) for. There was nothing inevitable about the way conservatism developed. It could very well have moved in a more statist direction, in which case America would probably now be weaker and poorer.
Smant summarizes Meyer’s achievement well. He does, however, leave out a nice anecdote. At one of the editorial meetings, Priscilla Buckley stepped in to defuse an argument between Meyer and Burnham. Meyer turned to her and said, “You are the grease in our crankshaft.” Years later, the Washington Post wrote a story that mentioned the incident, correcting Meyer’s quote to “You’re the grease on the axle.” The Post may have known a lot about cars, Miss Buckley remarked, but not much about Frank Meyer.