CommoN SENSE ThE PAST ANd FUTURE oF ThE dEbATE bETwEEN

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CommoN SENSE: ThE PAST
ANd FUTURE oF ThE dEbATE
bETwEEN LibERTARiANS
ANd CoNSERVATiVES
Fusing conservatism and libertarianism continues to work—
so ignore any theoretical difficulties, writes John heard



American conservatism                                  they bought, borrowed, or stole from Native
For many Australian politicians and political          Americans. American conservatives have always
thinkers, being labelled a conservative is still       been, in this way, town and country types. The
faintly embarrassing, if the term itself is not        conservative tradition in America was also,
outright pejorative. Unlike the UK Tories and the      by virtue of being rooted in these narratives of
US Republicans, Australian centre-right parties,       America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ and territorial
personalities, and leaders have shied away from        expansion, effortlessly American.
what would appear to be the correct usage, or              Australian Liberal Party members are not often
the most obvious way to describe their political       mistaken for Snowy River stockman types or
leanings. Except when claiming to be a fiscal          bushranger heroes, but the American conservative
conservative, or perhaps a social conservative,        machine, more explicitly at least since Reagan,
Australians haven’t tended to view conservative as     has produced a veritable parade of archetypal,
a coherent, winning designation.                       down-home, good ol’ boys and girls. This is seen
    That is not the case elsewhere, certainly not in   as a fact of life in America, something that has
the United States, where conservative is a powerful    long hampered centre-left and Democratic Party
omnibus brand. Wrapped up in the label is an           efforts to achieve any sort of broad-based national
evocative, catholic strain of American thought.        electoral success. It has become a cliché to write
Historically, it has taken in the independent-         of the divide between red states and blue states,
mindedness of the Jeffersonian republicans—the         and—as snarky New Yorkers have been known to
authors of America’s westward expansion—               quip—‘blue states lose.’
and assimilated it with strong intersubjective             Once one gets beyond the basic, sometimes
sensibilities.                                         contrived Americanness of the designation,
    The social cohesion fostered by a common           though, the philosophical and political reality
sense of purpose and common heritage then—             is much less stable. The label conservative is not,
the camaraderie of settlers—has often sat
alongside American conservatives’ commitment
to self-sufficiency and a view of diluted federal        John heard has honours degrees in
power as virtuous. Such deep tensions and                arts and law from the University of
important similarities linked people living in the       Melbourne, and contributes regularly to
new nation’s precarious townships with agrarian          publications in Australia and overseas.
types struggling to master the new America that




                                                                                Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy   31
LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




           in fact, a fixed or even a known quantity. When              Eisenhower, who almost ran as a Democrat
           prodded for certainties, American conservatism           before he ran as the first free-trade Republican
           often tilts, and American conservative politicians       presidential candidate in 1952, actually failed to
           too often fall over.                                     win over the conservatives in his new party. They
               Certainly, the label has slipped off some            sided with Robert Taft, a staunch protectionist.
           previously canonical figures. The so-called paleo-           Similar divisions persist in conservatism today.
           conservatives, for instance, who were ascendant          The rifts between various competing interests,
           during the middle and late Cold War years, quickly       affiliations, ideologies, and individuals are so
           lost influence during the first Bush administrat-        marked, and apply to issues so central to any poli-
           ion, when the so-called neoconservatives gained          tical movement’s identity and structure, that it can
           the upper hand. Indeed, the title conservative is        be safely claimed that what characterises American
           claimed, often with great relish and sincerity, by       conservatism is not—like liberalism—its first-order
           demagogues, movements, and ideologies once               coherence, but rather its first-order multiplicity.
           considered clearly not conservative, or at times         There is no one issue that all conservatives align on,
           even typically liberal.                                  unless it is championing America’s best interests.
               So, the Democratic Party’s Barack Obama                  Beyond that, coherence only seems to come
           praised Ronald Reagan during a primary-season            later, and at a superficial level, if it comes at all. This
           debate, and John McCain—the maverick Repub-              means that the designation conservative in America
           lican candidate—has seemed at times to be intent         denotes a deeply unstable grouping, something
           on waging a near one-man campaign to have                that no doubt contributes to the dynamism and
           climate change rebranded as a conservative cause.        the energy of the conservative movement, but that
           And while there is a bright line that links up           also makes understanding American conservatism
           someone on the centre-left in America with New           a difficult job for outsiders.
           Deal figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
           and ideas such as government intervention and            Fusionism in America
           labour protection, there is no such policy unity, or     These twin marks, the Americanness alongside
           even continuity, on the centre-right.                    the dynamism, define what Americans mean
               Today’s conservative is not necessarily—             when they call someone a conservative, and
           indeed, probably not—2004’s George W. Bush-              have done so from the movement’s outset. But
           style ‘compassionate conservative,’ and he or            what about an underlying philosophy: Is there a
           she is almost certainly not a 1950s anti-Israel          unified idea of what it means to be a conservative?
           conservative. And, while many conservatives              Is conservatism a coherent political philosophy?
           think they’re naturally against big government           Should it be dropped for something else?
           spending, Republican administrations under                   The former question is not as interesting as the
                                                                    latter two. As I’ve argued previously in Policy,
           Reagan and the younger Bush actually grew
           the size of the federal bureaucracy and budget,               In the absence of any binding document,
           sometimes exponentially.                                      or a creed for instance, that dogmatically
               Even the majority of conservatives who call               sets out conservative beliefs, conservatism
           themselves free traders, and think they are safe to do        is generally held to be just that which most
           so, are on doubtful ground, as Robert E. Lighthizer           self-identified conservatives support.2
           pointed out recently in the New York Times:
                                                                       However, inasmuch as there might be a set of
                For almost 100 years after the Civil                conservative beliefs, the movement has typically
                War, the Republican Party (led by men               been understood to rely on a form of ‘fusionism.’
                like Lincoln and McKinley) was overtly              The concept of fusionism has certainly been
                protectionist. Theodore Roosevelt, a                used to answer questions about conservatism
                hero of John McCain’s, wrote that ‘pernic-          and coherence.
                ious indulgence in the doctrine of free                Fusionism was, of course, the political mix of
                trade seems inevitably to produce fatty             traditional (social) conservatism with libertarian
                degeneration of the moral fiber.’1                  ideas and movements. It was first championed by



32   Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy
                                                                             LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




the late William F. Buckley, Jr, and Frank Meyer       back to Buckley and the fusionism that exemplified
at National Review, and gained widespread              National Review. What most people don’t know,
exposure during the candidacy of Barry Gold-           however, even in the U.S., is what fusionism
water in the 1964 presidential election. By the        was, and how the minds that helped to forge the
time of Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980            modern conservative movement were split from
presidential contest, it had mainstreamed,             the beginning.
becoming the preeminent political movement of
the postwar era. It was the driving force behind       Freedom or virtue?
Reagan’s unprecedented second term (1984)              It is often said that fusionism only arose because
sweep of the electoral college.                        external factors pushed two unlikely forces
    The intellectual and organisational resources      together. The struggle to defeat communism
(think tanks, lobby groups, student energies)          abroad, and cultural and political unrest at
invested in and unleashed by leading fusionist         home, is usually cited as the relevant contextual
thinkers and leaders helped to carry George H. W.      pressure, the necessary catalyst in the formation
Bush to victory in 1988, and laid the groundwork       and coherence or otherwise of what became the
for the Republican Revolution in Congress. This        great settlement of American conservatism.
was a conservative ascendancy that only started            Given the competing, perhaps conflicting,
to look overcooked in 2006, after voters elected a     moral and political motivations of the constituent
new sort of ‘compassionate conservative’ (George       conservative and libertarian ideologies, this
W. Bush) to two fairly miserable (and fairly           claim seems right. Only some sense of a grand
non-conservative, the unstable designation having      world-historical event—the Soviet threat to the
slipped again) terms in the White House.               American way of life, or the civil unrest that
    Most conservatives in America today would          characterised the United States in the 1960s—
trace their intellectual and political patrimony       would push people who disagreed so fundamentally



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                   create a freer society. Whilst many achievements have been made,
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                                                                                Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy   33
LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




           about so much (as libertarians and conservatives        not their libertarian complement, had always
           must do) to marry their political fortunes.             been central to American conservatism.
               The idea that only an external force could              Jeremiah Atwater, writing before Mill in 1801,
           align the conservative and libertarian movements        stated the inverse of Mill’s freedom imperative:
           certainly runs through the early literature produced
           by Buckley and his associates at National Review.            Man, from cradle to grave, is constantly
           American conservatives worried then, right at the            learning new lessons of moral
           outset, that there might be some inherent conflict           instruction, and is trained to virtue
           in fusionism: perhaps one could not pursue                   and order by perpetual and salutary
           freedom and virtue at the same time.                         restraints … restraints imposed by the
               The anxiety seems to have been foundational,             family, by the schools, by government
           then, and historical broadsides launched from                and laws, and even by … public opinion,
           either side of the newly-aligned camps have been             which, in a country where Christianity
           collected in a tidy, useful book, Freedom and Virtue:        is believed, compels even profligates to
           The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, edited by               be outwardly virtuous.5
           George W. Carey of the Intercollegiate Studies
                                                                       But Carey suggests that historically, ‘the times’
           Institute. While some notable early advocates
                                                                   were changing, and a new threat had emerged:
           eventually decided otherwise—Catholic thinker
                                                                   ‘conservatives believe[d] that the damage to the
           L. Brent Bozell’s essay ‘Freedom or Virtue’ and his
                                                                   fabric and cohesiveness of society due to the loss
           later work are apposite here—most conservatives
                                                                   of virtue and a common morality, [was] even more
           decided they could live with the contradictions
                                                                   devastating than that anticipated by Atwater.6
           inherent in their new project. The debate itself,
           however, provides an invaluable insight into                Many people, of various backgrounds
           the early years of contemporary American con-           and political affiliations—but especially con-
           servatism, not least because it appears to rule out     servatives—came to think that America’s perceived
           the idea that communism provided the glue that          decline required a concerted cultural effort, and a
                                                                   unified political one. Fusionism was the unlikely
                                                                   conservative-libertarian response.
           It was concern over America’s                               That it was libertarianism and not some
                                                                   other ideology that conservatives decided to
     decline, and not primarily the threat                         co-opt appears to have been an accident of sorts. As
     of communism, that bound together                             Carey notes, it was concern over America’s decline,
                  early fusionist thinkers.                        and not primarily the threat of communism, that
                                                                   bound together early fusionist thinkers:
                                                                        Virtually all conservatives during
           held fusionism together. Past debates also suggest
                                                                        the Cold War period were strongly
           ways the movement adapted to future challenges.
                                                                        anti-Communist and, accordingly, supp-
               Certainly, it was much remarked, from the
                                                                        orted a strong national government
           earliest days of the fusionist movement, that
                                                                        … [whereas] many libertarians felt the
           while John Stuart Mill in On Liberty—a seminal
                                                                        Soviet threat was vastly exaggerated,
           document in the libertarian and classical liberal
                                                                        primarily as a cover to expand the powers
           traditions—stated that ‘the only purpose for
                                                                        of government.7
           which power can be rightfully exercised over any
           member of a civilized community, against his                But it was Buckley’s penchant for libertarianism
           will, is to prevent harm to others,’3 conservatives     (he used both conservative and libertarian to
           more generally, ‘while concerned with individual        describe himself throughout his life) and the
           liberty, strongly believe that shared values, morals,   force of his personality, and influence alone,
           and standards, along with accepted traditions, are      that ensured that libertarians replaced the (often
           necessary for the order and stability of society.’4     anti-Semitic) authoritarians who had previously
           Such conservative views, Carey points out, and          influenced American conservative thought.




34   Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy
                                                                              LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




    For libertarians, America in the 1960s was,        None of them, however, thought that this was a
in many respects, nowhere near Mill’s ‘civilised       bad thing for fusionism. They were right. Indeed,
society,’ and for conservatives, the breakdown in      in an influential early response to Auerbach, Kirk
marriages, family life more generally, faith, and      argued that ‘conservatism is not an ideology,’
other key institutions was alarming enough to          immediately deflecting any philosophical debate
warrant radical innovation—even getting into bed       on the coherence of fusionism to a winning
with libertarians. Many of the essays contained in     defence of how it might work on a practical
Carey’s collection have, therefore, both classical     level. That it worked on a practical level soon
liberals and more obvious conservatives looking        became obvious.
out at the 1960s and the years since, and deciding
that America was indeed facing a ‘precipitous
decline.’ This common cause encouraged them              There is a solid argument that it
to sideline their philosophical differences, with
the usually unspoken understanding that once
                                                         makes no sense to ask a person
things had been put right they would simply              to be virtuous if he or she has no
splinter off again.                                      chance to choose virtue.
    Fusionism must have been, then, a shaky thing
to behold. As a new political movement, it was
improbably balanced between the proleptic or               Then it took the nation.
idealistic and the ridiculous. Indeed, many reviews        It didn’t matter so much after that if the boys
of Buckley’s early books, and fusionist essays in      at National Review couldn’t tell you, discursively,
National Review and elsewhere, are tinged with         what fusionism was, and how precisely it worked.
a version of the widespread liberal derision he        American conservatives simply said that it would,
came in for, if not characterised by an unbridled,     and demonstrated that it did. Frank Meyer showed
dismissive tone.                                       a similarly deft hand, turning Auerbach’s snide
    A liberal commentator of the time, M. Morton       comments about feudalism and the medieval into
Auerbach, writing in the 30 January 1962 issue of      sound-bite-sized instructions on how American
National Review (the paper is included in the Carey    conservatives could turn the movement’s neg-
collection) certainly thought he had the fusionists’   atives (a history of tension, incoherence) into
number. He somewhat gleefully pointed out the          positives (conservatism is a dynamic showcase,
historical instability of the term conservative.       teeming with ideas). Conservative think tanks in
‘Anyone who has tried to apply the term,’ he           America continue to demonstrate this strength,
wrote, ‘knows that the word is extremely flexible,’    contributing a vast network of competing ideas,
before taunting the young men at Buckley’s new         platforms, and thinkers, and feeding the best
magazine with a stream of questions:                   examples into conservative politics at every level, on
                                                       issues as diverse as abortion and the estate or ‘death’
    Could this [instability] be why it has
                                                       tax to biofuels and the Second Amendment.
    become so important for National Review
    to maintain an imaginary escape tunnel
    connecting [Edmund] Burke with James               The future
    Madison, i.e., joining medievalism                 In the post-Cold War era, many American
    [Auerbach’s pejorative description of              conservatives have questioned fusionism. Some
    virtue theory] with classical liberalism?          libertarians, buoyed by the relatively strong
    Will conservatism continue to offer                performance of Ron Paul in the Republican prim-
    nothing more than an array of mutually             aries, think it might be time for a fully-fledged
    exclusive ‘principles’ from which all are          libertarian party. Others, usually secular virtue
    invited to pick what suits them? Is this           ethicists or natural-law-inflected Catholic thinkers,
    the age of do-it-yourself conservatism?8           worry that the pursuit of freedom, far from making
                                                       space for virtue, has too often crowded right reason,
  To which Buckley, M. Stanton Evans, Frank            religion, and transcendental ideas out of the public
Meyer, and Russell Kirk answered, variously, yes.      square. There is also talk of new alignments. For



                                                                                  Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy   35
LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




           one, Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute has argued         Others try to argue as though those things that
           that libertarians and left-leaning liberals should     brought libertarians and conservatives together in
           join forces to become ‘liberaltarians.’9               the past no longer compel them with the same
               Often, critics point to the underlying philo-      sense of urgency.
           sophical incoherence of the movement and try to             These critics usually mistake anti-communism
           use that as a lever. They lift up the whole history    for the glue that held fusionism together. The
           of conservatism and pretend they have discovered       better claim would seem to be that fusionism is
           some particular, wriggling instability attributable    still needed—perhaps more so now than when
           to fusionism alone. Some write as though all of        Buckley was setting up National Review. Certainly,
           the tensions, the signal rifts that have always        the cultural indicators assembled by William
           characterised American conservatism, would melt        Bennett, and cited by Carey in the introduction to
           away if only conservatives embraced some singular      the debate collection, would horrify conservatives
           vision—freedom, perhaps, or virtue.                    alarmed at American decline in the 1960s:
               There is not room to investigate this claim
                                                                      Since the 1960s … [the U.S. has seen]
           closely, but it is enough to wonder why anyone
                                                                      a 560 percent increase in violent crime
           would want to jeopardise the broad political
                                                                      … a 400 percent increase in illegitimate
           appeal of fusionist conservatism.                          births … and more than three times as
               Further, while some modern libertarian                 many children living in single parent
           positions—on human life, marriage, sexual ethics,          homes. In 1940 … talking out of turn;
           and censorship—would appear to offend against              chewing gum; making noise; running in
           the conservative’s deepest sensibilities, there is a       the halls … were identified as leading
           solid argument that it makes no sense to ask a             problems in the public schools. In the
           person to be virtuous if he or she has no chance to        1990s these problems were replaced by
           choose virtue.                                             drug abuse; alcohol; pregnancy; suicide;
               M. Stanton Evans carries this idea further to          rape; robbery; and assault.11
           argue that there might be, in fact, a particular
           conservative (fusionist) philosophy, and that              Even in places where the centre-right discourse
                                                                  on politics and philosophy is not as nuanced as
                                                                  it is in America, where labels like ‘libertarian’
                                                                  and ‘fusionist’ are often unknown, if not rejected
        Even in places where ... labels like                      (perhaps ignorantly) outright, fusionism has
     ‘libertarian’ and ‘fusionist’ are often                      continued to have an outsized influence. Around
                unknown, fusionism has ...                        the time of his death, many British papers and
                     an outsized influence.                       commentators noted what Buckley and National
                                                                  Review meant for Britain, and how they had
                                                                  cleared a wide space for the distinctly fusionist
                                                                  phenomenon now known as Thatcherism.
                we can contribute to it certain primary               In Australia, John Howard’s four-term prime-
                and constant affirmations. The con-               ministership was quite deliberately modelled—it
                servative believes that ours is a God-            has since become clear—on a homegrown variant
                centred, and therefore an ordered, uni-           of American conservatism. Giving the 2008
                verse; that man’s purpose is to shape his         Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise
                life to the patterns of order proceeding          Institute, Howard described his ‘proud record’ in
                from the Divine center of life; and that, in      unambiguously fusionist terms:
                seeking this objective, man is hampered
                by a fallible intellect and vagrant will.             The former Australian government,
                Properly construed, this view is not only             which I led, was accused of many things,
                compatible with a due regard for human                but never of betraying its essentially
                freedom, but demands it.10                            Centre-Right credo. We pursued a blend
                                                                      of economic liberalism—in the classical




36   Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy
                                                                                   LibERTARiANS ANd CoNSERVATiVES




      sense of that term connoting as it does                   Representative Government (New York: Precepts,
      a faith in market forces—and social                       1950), 95–96.
                                                           4
      conservatism. Far from being in conflict,                 George W. Carey, ‘Introduction,’ in Freedom and
      the one reinforced the other.12                           Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, ed.
                                                                George W. Carey (Wilmington: Intercollegiate
    The final question then—should fusionism                    Studies Institute, 1998), xi.
                                                           5
be replaced by something else?—would need to                    Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz (eds),
be answered in light of these facts. Fusionism                  American Political Writing During the Founding Era,
                                                                1760–1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983), II,
was, from the beginning, an eminently practical
                                                                1177.
solution to a particular political problem. If the         6
                                                                George W. Carey, ‘Introduction,’ xiii.
problem has lapsed, or the solution no longer              7
                                                                As above, xvii.
works, then it must be reexamined. In the                  8
                                                                M. Morton Auerbach, ‘Do-it-yourself Conservatism?’
meantime, conservatives have generally resisted                 in Freedom and Virtue, 5.
                                                           9
navel-gazing beyond a basic statement of what                   Brink Lindsey, ‘Liberaltarians,’ The New Republic
fusionism can do, and the movement has been                     (4 December 2006), www.cato.org/pub_display.
well rewarded for that common sense.                            php?pub_id=6800.
                                                           10
                                                                M. Stanton Evans, ‘Techniques and Circumstances,’
                                                                in Freedom and Virtue, 6.
Endnotes                                                   11
1                                                               William J. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural
     Robert E. Lighthizer, ‘Grand Old Protectionists,’
                                                                Indicators (Washington: Heritage Foundation/
     New York Times (6 March 2008), www.nytimes.
                                                                Empower America, 1993), xxi.
     com/2008/03/06/opinion/06lighthizer.html?scp=         12
                                                                John Howard, ‘Keeping Faith With Our Common
     3&sq=protectionist+mccain&st=nyt.
2                                                               Values’ (The 2008 Irving Kristol Lecture,
     John Heard, review of The Conservative Soul: How
                                                                American Enterprise Institute, Washington,
     We Lost It, How To Get It Back, by Andrew Sullivan,
                                                                DC, 5 March 2008), www.aei.org/publications/
     Policy 23:1 (Autumn 2007), 64.
3                                                               pubID.27613,filter.all/pub_detail.asp.
     John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty and



,




         ‘We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure,
        a deed of courage. If we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the
                       mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.’
                                                  F. A. Hayek


    On its 30th Anniversary, The Centre for Independent Studies established a Capital Campaign to create
    a Fund in order to support a major development phase and underpin the Centre’s long-term future.
    The Fund will allow CIS to expand and develop its research programs, and attract leading scholars to
    provide the ideas and resources for the ongoing promotion of liberty. It will strengthen the financial
    independence of the Centre and help CIS secure suitable long-term premises for its ‘community of
    scholars.’ The Fund will also help increase the Centre’s influence, and will reinforce its role as one of
    the few truly independent voices in public policy debates.

    For more information on the CIS Capital Campaign visit www.cis.org.au, contact the Centre on
    (02) 9438 4377, or email cis@cis.org.au.




                                                                                       Vol. 24 No. 3 • Spring 2008 • Policy   37

				
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