Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (7): Frank Meyer and the Fusion of Virtue and Freedom

Rasmussen and Den Uyl never cite Frank Meyer in their writings. But they should have, because their argument for Aristotelian liberalism coincides with Meyer's argument for a conservatism that combines virtue and freedom.

Meyer went from being an active member of the Communist Party to becoming one of the leaders in the post-World War II conservative movement in the United States. As one of the founding editors of Bill Buckley's National Review magazine, Meyer saw the split in conservative thought between libertarians who stressed individual freedom and traditionalists who stressed social virtue. To overcome that split, he argued that conservatism should be based on an intellectual consensus that combined commitments to political freedom and moral virtue. This attempt to "fuse" libertarian conservatism and traditionalist conservatism became known in the conservative movement as "fusionism."

The best statement of Meyer's reasoning is his book In Defense of Freedom, first published in 1962 and reprinted in 1996, along with related essays, by the Liberty Fund.

One can see in this book the same combination of liberty and virtue that runs through the reasoning of Rasmussen and Den Uyl. Meyer saw his conservative fusion of liberty and virtue as bringing together the partial truths of libertarianism and traditionalism. He wrote: "Although the classical liberal forgot--and the contemporary libertarian conservative sometimes tend to forget--that in the moral realm freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end, which is virtue, he did understand that in the political realm freedom is the primary end" (24). Similarly, in his analysis of traditionalist conservatism, he wrote: "Sound though they were on the essentials of man's being, on his destiny to virtue and his responsibility to seek it, on his duty in the moral order, they failed too often to realize that the political condition of moral fulfillment is freedom from coercion" (25). Meyer's claim, then, is that while the libertarians are right about politics, but wrong about ethics, the traditionalists are right about ethics, but wrong about politics.

Like Rasmussen and Den Uyl, Meyer saw a similar mixture of truth and error in Aristotle's moral and political philosophy. Aristotle was wrong in suggesting that the aim of government was to enforce virtue. But he was right in seeing that virtue must be chosen by each individual. If one recognizes that individual freedom is the necessary condition for virtue, then one should see that a virtuous society must be free from the governmental enforcement of virtue (126-27).

This reasoning led Meyer to conclude that the conservative consensus could bring together virtue and freedom. "That consensus simultaneously accepts the existence of an objective moral and spiritual order, which places as man's end the pursuit of virtue, and the freedom of the individual person as a decisive necessity for a good political order" (155).

In my series of seven posts on the work of Rasmussen and Den Uyl, I have argued that their Aristotelian liberalism can be grounded in a Darwinian conception of natural right that combines freedom and virtue. This could be called Darwinian liberalism. But if Meyer is right about conservatism as a fusion of libertarianism and traditionalism, we might just as easily call it Darwinian conservatism.

The previous posts in this series on Rasmussen and Den Uyl can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A couple of my previous posts on fusionism can be found here and here.


Anonymous said...

And yet,despite Meyer believing that he had fused, as you say, "libertarianism and traditionalism," he was quite critical of Lincoln, of whom you have written - correctly I might add - quite admiringly.

Larry Arnhart said...

Nobody's perfect.