Let’s Not Settle for Less

Shockingly, dedicating a month to the discussion of libertarian-conservative fusionism has not resulted in agreement. It has, however, articulated some excellent arguments and, in my view, proved one point of my opening essay – that libertarians and conservatives should collaborate where they can to reach young people for the preservation of freedom.

To this end, I utterly reject Clark Ruper’s position that libertarians might have more in common with modern liberals than with conservatives. Certainly liberals today celebrate individual liberty in specific social issues, and if libertarians want to align with liberals in these limited areas, that is understandable. But concessions of personal choices by modern progressives are nothing more than Huxleyan opiates designed to appease and entertain while the fundamental structures of our freedom are destroyed. There is nothing about modern liberalism that ideologically matches the holistic approach to freedom that defines libertarianism.

The key word here is “modern.” The discussion in this forum has delved deeply into the intellectual traditions of libertarianism, conservatism, and liberalism in an impressive fashion. But this escape pod of knowledge is rocketing away from our modern, 21st-century reality. I have argued that libertarians and conservatives believe we stand on the intellectual shoulders of giants, and I think the impressive name-dropping of historical figures here bears it out. We know the ideas of Augustine, Rousseau, Burke, Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, Aquinas and more recently Rand, Rothbard, Kirk, Buckley, and the Pauls. We have studied, and we will work to improve our society based on both their mistakes and on what they got right.

This is not an activity shared by the modern progressives, who suffer from the arrogance of now and believe they can solve the world’s problems because we have invented the smart phone.

That young people are moving away from conservatism is correct, but it misses the larger picture that young people are moving away from caring about politics at all. The minority that does care about politics is indeed rejecting conservatism in favor of libertarianism or progressivism. This is not because of their understanding of the intellectual history articulated in this forum by my colleagues – it is because they reject the modern standard-bearers for conservatism. They are embracing the opiates of personal choice, which they find in libertarianism and modern progressivism.

Ruper at one point says, “If we take a longer view of history, we may very well find ourselves looking back at fusionism 100 years from now as a quaint historical accident.” In the same spirit, I agree that a few generations hence will not know or care much about libertarian-conservative fusionism. This is because in my worst dystopian fears, our children’s children don’t know anything about freedom. The prophetic warnings of authors such as Huxley, Bradbury, and even Rand are that humanity will settle for tyranny far too easily if they don’t understand and value freedom.

To quote C.S. Lewis, as conservatives are wont to do, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

To those who say that fusionism is possible between modern progressives and libertarians, and to those who want to reject conservatives for simply believing in virtue, I would say that you are far too easily pleased.

Now, those who are familiar with Lewis know that he is not putting away all temporal things, but he is making a very Christian argument, similar to Jordan Ballor’s argument, that individual freedom ought not to be our end goal. He is saying that we should strive to use our freedom to pursue good. Jeremy Kolassa points out accurately that not all libertarians and conservatives are in agreement about how to define “good.” The point to keep in mind, though, is that we can continue to debate what free people ought to do, but we should agree that people ought to be free.

I challenge you to adopt a modern concept of fusionism, one that focuses on the structure of limited government and freer markets within which we can debate personal choices. Let fusionism perhaps even be forgotten in time, as long as freedom does not become a footnote in history.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Clark Ruper reviews the history of fusionism, including the growth of independent libertarian institutions that don’t have to depend on the conservative movement anymore. Young people nowadays aren’t moving left, he argues. They are simply moving away from conservatism. The fusionist project is dead, and conservatives killed it.

  • 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.