May 2013

Throughout the twentieth century, American libertarians have been drawn again and again to identify with the political right, a tendency known as fusionism. Many factors have contributed to this, including opposition to the New Deal and Great Society, opposition to communism abroad, and similar approaches to issues like gun control and taxes.

Yet a broader view shows a more complicated picture: Libertarians’ 19th-century roots are clearly on the left; most of the important 20th-century libertarian activists were aloof from the Republican Party; and quite a few issues separate libertarians from the political right. Not all of these center on drugs, either. Libertarians are notably more anti-interventionist in foreign policy. They commonly favor easier immigration. And they are skeptical of state-orchestrated projects to create a virtuous citizenry, whether on the Christian model or any other. (It’s not entirely unfair to mention that many of us have been influenced by Ayn Rand. As a result, we are skeptical about God and government alike.)

In recent years, the libertarian-conservative alliance has felt a good deal of strain. The last Republican administration was absolutely no one’s idea of libertarian government, and the conversations about how to fix the GOP after its electoral defeat haven’t always been so encouraging either.

Still, many on the right are quite open to libertarian ideas, including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Represenative Justin Amash of Michigan. A new, more libertarian-leaning Republican Party could breathe new life into fusionism. Or not. We stand at a crossroads.

To discuss the present and future of fusionism, we’ve invited at team of young activists of varying viewpoints. Our lead essayist is Jacqueline Otto, who write for the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism project. Joining her will be Jeremy Kolassa of United Liberty, Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute, and Clark Ruper of Students for Liberty.

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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.

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