The Death of Fusionism

Jacqueline Otto argues that there are issues and demographics that are ripe targets for cooperative work between conservatives and libertarians. These may bring a message of free markets and individual liberty to a wider audience, especially the religious. I concede that point as readily as I point out the opportunities for cooperation between libertarians and liberals on many issues. 

However, the issue at hand is not cooperation between two groups but fusionism, an explicit alliance that has been the dominant strategy for libertarians over the past fifty years. While libertarians have been placed generally on the right in recent history, fusionism is ultimately a losing strategy because an explicit alliance closes us off from prime audiences on the left, center, and elsewhere on the political spectrum. A few words on the history and nature of fusionism will be informative for this discussion.

The term fusionism was popularized in the early 1960s by William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer of the National Review. These were the early days of both the conservative and libertarian movements as we now know them. Both were growing in the context of and in response to the Cold War consensus, in which both major political parties and most public intellectuals believed that the New Deal had fixed the problems of capitalism and that the government should manage a mixed economy. Anyone outside of this worldview was something of a radical, and a lonely radical at that.

To make a long and more complicated story short, Meyer and Buckley worked to combine these small but growing forces into a broad conservative movement. Evidence can be seen in Buckley’s assistance in creating Young Americans for Freedom, an explicitly fusionist organization – as can be seen in its founding Sharon Statement. Meyer sought to give philosophical justification to this alliance with his 1962 work In Defense of Freedom, where he claimed that liberty is essential to the pursuit of virtue, and that virtue is necessary for the maintenance of social order. He saw harmony between the libertarian and conservative positions.

The alliance had three main branches, which can be thought of as the legs of a stool. One leg featured the traditionalist conservatives influenced by the teachings of Russell Kirk and primarily his 1953 book The Conservative Mind. Kirk advocated a Burkean conservatism, emphasizing respect and adherence to religious, cultural, and political traditions.

Composing the second leg were the anti-communists, led by organizations such as the John Birch Society, which was created to reveal communist conspiracies to overthrow the government. While most Americans opposed communism, the fervent anti-communists tended to argue for stronger fighting against communist ideas at home and for actively destroying the USSR abroad. They were the strongest numerically of the other partners in fusionism.

The third leg was made up of classical liberals, later to take the name libertarians, and drew influence from a number of economists and philosophers. Inspirations for this group included Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand to name a few (as Otto mentioned, there are very few noted free market economists who are not libertarians). In general they advocated for extreme limits to governmental power and maximization of individual liberty. While they lacked in numbers they brought the strongest intellectual components to the alliance.

I make time for this historical tangent because it is important for understanding where we are today. Over time some libertarians dismissed fusionism to chart their own course. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard come to mind. In the 1970s the Libertarian Party was formed; in the 1980s the Cato Institute grew into a successful and respected think tank; and libertarianism increasingly became a self-aware and sustaining movement. Still, with exceptions fusionism was the dominant strategy for libertarians for the past fifty years. While I take issue with fusionism today, it makes sense that libertarians embraced in the latter half of the 20th century.

Let’s return to the present, where the dynamics have shifted dramatically. Communism, an existential threat to the United States and to freedom everywhere, gave a common enemy to conservatives and libertarians. It has almost entirely crumbled under its own weight and inefficiency. Where once libertarians and conservatives could debate intelligently on the pages of National Review, now the traditionalists are all but forgotten, replaced by pandering to social conservatives who see heroes in the likes of Rick Santorum. Once we could unite behind Barry Goldwater, but for years now those on the right have taken their marching orders from the imperialist big government neoconservatives under George W. Bush and the puppet master Karl Rove. The fusionist stool is irreparably broken. Fusionism is dead, and conservatives killed it.

While the conservatives have spent the past 20 years destroying their credibility with moderates and young people, the libertarian movement has been gaining traction. We now have our own institutions ranging from think tanks and academic centers to student groups and grassroots networks. There is a line from Jacqueline’s essay which I find particularly inaccurate: “the survival of the free market is at stake; as we watch the overall trend of my generation veering left, I fear the war for liberty may be lost while we on the right skirmish over degrees of freedom.” This is just wrong. Young people are not moving “left.” They are just moving away from conservatism. Stephen Moore recently cited a study by the conservative Young America’s Foundation in the Wall Street Journal, saying “One important finding is that it’s no longer cool to be conservative on college campuses. For example, the term ‘conservative’ is a turnoff to the young, viewed favorably by 28% and unfavorably by 32%, though terms like ‘free markets,’ ‘entrepreneurship,’ and ‘limited government’ are viewed positively.” What this study shows is that the libertarian elements of conservatism remain popular; the rest has become toxic to young people.

While youth are turned off by conservatism, the student movement for liberty has grown at a rapid pace. Spurred on by the electrifying Ron Paul campaigns as well as dissatisfaction with the Bush-Obama big government continuum, college students are not just embracing libertarian ideas but taking up the cause of spreading them on campus. The first Students For Liberty Conference in 2008 featured 100 people. This past February’s International SFL Conference showcased over 1400.

Beyond these shifting dynamics and demographics, it is worth stating with emphasis that libertarians are not “on the right,” and it is harmful for us to think so. Our ideas are accepted across the traditional spectrum and inform elements of any political philosophy. From gay marriage to the drug war to the failure of social security to a respect for individualism and entrepreneurship, Americans hold pro-liberty positions. What makes libertarians unique is that while others may hold these beliefs casually, we advocate them absolutely. We are not left or right, but occupy the radical center of political discourse.

David Boaz of the Cato Institute made a very insightful comment at the 2013 International SFL Conference that explains why young libertarians are so concerned about social issues and as such are moving away from conservative fusionism:

The Republican party reacted very negatively when black people started demanding their civil rights. And now republicans wonder why black people do not want to vote for them. The Republican Party reacted very negatively when women started demanding the right to have careers and be involved in politics and economic life. And now republicans are reacting really really negatively to gay people demanding simple legal equality. Equality under the law. So my advice if there are any republicans watching is: don’t do the things today that will cause you 20 years from now to say “how come gay people won’t vote for us?

This is a fundamental problem for the conservative movement, and why libertarians would do well to put distance between our two camps. Libertarians should not remain silent on social issues or allow ourselves to be placed “on the right,” for that is a losing brand saddled with intolerance and hypocrisy. A close fusionist alliance with the right closes libertarians off from moderates and social liberals who are prime targets for our ideas. Where are the most exciting libertarian victories being won right now? In marriage equality and drug legalization. We should focus on those issues just as much if not more than economic freedom.

We are witnessing the maturation of the most libertarian generation in recent memory. There was a time when we needed conservatives for numbers and for institutional support. But now we have our own libertarian institutions and our numbers are growing every day.

This is not an argument against working with a political party, or against reaching out to different groups, or against identifying as a conservative-libertarian, progressive-libertarian, or any other type. The possible permutations of libertarianism are numerous, and that is a very good thing. It is the diversity of our movement that gives it strength. My argument is against a formal alliance of conservatism and libertarianism, against saying “the liberty movement is a branch of the conservative movement.” My argument is for building our own libertarian movement with our own institutions, centered on a youthful and forward-looking libertarian brand.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The State of the Debate by Jacqueline Otto

    Jacqueline Otto emphasizes that libertarians and conservatives share the goal of a more market-oriented economic system. That system can be ours, she argues, but only if we work together. As a result, she criticizes what she calls “the practice of keeping separate encampments.” She stresses the individualist and voluntary character of the Christian faith, which she sees as a proper complement to a market order. She warns that should we fail to emphasize the morality of capitalism, those on the religious left will be happy to dismantle it for us.

Response Essays

  • An Unequal Treaty by Jeremy Kolassa

    Jeremy Kolassa argues that fusion with traditional American conservatism has failed. The divide on social issues is simply too deep. Even in economics, conservatives have tended to be pro-business rather than pro-market. When voters see special favors for corporations being touted as free-market solutions, they lose interest in markets as a policy. That makes market advocates’ jobs so much harder. The unequal treaty needs to end, and libertarians need to assert an independent political identity.

  • Avoiding Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society by Jordan Ballor

    Jordan Ballor argues that the libertarian exaltation of political liberty is dangerous: By privileging the power of the state, this worldview both gives the state too much importance and also undervalues the independent institutions of civil society. In reality, these institutions are bulwarks against the state. They represent the happy medium between atomistic individualism and Rousseauan collectivism. He ends with a plea for Burkean conservatism as the best way of constraining the statist/collectivist impulse.

The Conversation