Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Sunday Review: In Defense of Conservatism

A Review of In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo.
Frank S. Meyer
Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962.

The most prominent media outlet of the postwar conservative movement was William F. Buckley's National Review. One of the writers and editors of the National Review during its early years was Frank Meyer. He earned a reputation for his promotion of “fusionism,” or the amalgamation of two seemingly incompatible streams of conservative thought into one coherent movement. On the one hand was the older anti-statism of the pre-WWII classical liberals such as Friedrich Hayek. On the other hand were the proponents of the so-called New Conservatism represented best by Russell Kirk. Although he addressed the controversy between the two conservative schools on numerous occasions, his most thorough treatment appeared in the pages of In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo.

Early on Meyer writes that the purpose of his book is “to vindicate the freedom of the person as the central and primary end of political society.” This not so subtly hints at which side of the conservative divide he will adhere.

In his first chapter,Meyer gives a nod to both traditions. He credits nineteenth century liberalism for its concern for individual liberty. He argues, however, that liberals allowed their commitment to liberty to overshadow any concerns about individual morality. He claims that liberalism's “utilitarian” ethics “denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being.” While asserting the value of liberty, it divorced itself from traditional ethics rooted in natural law and the nature of man. Because of this error, liberalism has evolved into twentieth century “collectivist liberalism.”

In contrast, the nineteenth century conservatives held the line against utilitarian ethics and scientism, but failed regarding the nature of man. They preserved natural law ethics. They failed to see, however, that moral good requires that “good must be voluntary.” Consequently, Meyer objects to the attempt of New Conservatives to prescribe some kind of morality in the name of order.

Meyer argues that the root of the New Conservative error is its view of society. He points out that the New Conservatism holds “an organic view of society, by subordination of the individual person to society and, therefore, a denial that the freedom of the person is the decisive criterion of a good polity.”

This is where Meyer parts company with the New Conservatives and shows his hand. He clearly leans toward the classical liberal or what is known today as the libertarian wing of the conservative movement. Instead of basing his views on the nature of society, Meyer rests them upon the nature of men as individuals. Consequently, he appeals to he Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and modern spokesmen for conservatism such as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater. Throughout the next chapters on liberty, order, and the bureaucratic state, Meyer lays out his case for libertarian conservatism.

As in the Declaration of Independence, Meyer argues that preservation of individual liberty is the primary function of the state. He writes that liberty is “not alien to the conservative view of man's nature and destiny, that is arises naturally from conservative assumptions, and that it can be effectively defended only upon the basis of those assumptions.” Meyer does not elaborate in any systematic way on what these conservative assumptions might be. In general, throughout the book he alludes to human beings as autonomous individuals with freedom of the will. The only associations with moral worth are voluntary ones. Although as an individual every man lives in a social milieu made up on all kinds of social and political groups, none of them have any legitimate claims upon him.

This does not mean that Meyer dismisses virtue or the authority of objective morality. He wants to show that individual freedom and moral authority are not incompatible. He writes that the American order “is the most effective effort ever made to articulate in political terms the Western understanding of the interrelation of the freedom of the person and the authority of an objective moral order.”

Meyer rejects the battle cry of the New Conservatism—order.

The order of the New Conservatism restricts individual freedom in the name of virtue. They see virtue, not freedom, as the end or purpose of political society. Sometimes they call such freedom “ordered liberty.” This pursuit of order is in the name of community. They see society is a “living organism.” No individual member of society can ignore the moral claims of the community of which he is member.

Meyer objects to these claims. He argues that the New Conservative view of society as a “living organism” is nonsense. It has no life. It has no rights. It has no moral claims. Moreover, the New Conservatives such as Russell Kirk conflate individual freedom with such various ends as “submission to the will of God” or “demands of social cooperation.”

Meyer rejoins that “If virtue is the true end of man's existence, it can only be achieved in freedom.”

In addition, he warns that the New Conservatism can only lead to the same end to which collectivist liberalism has led:  Leviathan and the bureaucratic state. In a prescient passage that the last fifty years has confirmed, Meyer warns about the threat to freedom from the modern bureaucratic state composed of the government, corporations and unions, media, and academia. The daily headlines today confirm the existential threat to which Meyer alludes.

So what is the locus of virtue? Meyer points to the individual. Every person must cultivate virtue for himself. Even the family must be conceived in these terms. It is not the family as an “institution” that instills virtue, but as a group of individuals.

Meyer concludes that a good political and social order is good only to “the degree that men live as free persons, under conditions in which virtue can be freely realized, advanced and perpetuated.”

Meyer's book is a good, short work on at least one conservative view of liberty. It can be enjoyed most by those with a little philosophical bent and who are cognizant of the divisions between different streams of the conservative movement that persist this day.

One strength of the book is that, like many of the early books on conservatism, it deals with principles rather than politics. Because principles undergo change less rapidly than politics, the book seems broadly relevant even today. But that is also its weakness. Meyer does not connect his conservative principles with politics, readers must make their own connections. Moreover, most readers of conservative books today prefer to read the more relevant, but less enduring, essays addressing  contemporary events on the political scene. The books of Coulter, Malkin, and Beck far outsell anything written by Frank Meyer or any other early polemicist of the conservative movement.

One wonders, too, if Meyer might rethink his positions if he lived today. Our cultural climate has changed radically since 1962. Moreover, would he embrace today's libertarianism? Many contemporary libertarians have abandoned the notion of natural law or morality. They shrug their shoulders about the moral and social questions posed by narcotics, prostitution, and abortion. They not only argue that these questions should be beyond the scope of the state or federal government, but also seem to avoid making any moral judgments at all beyond the question of freedom.

And even if the majority of the communities to which we belong--family, neighborhood, city, and state--are to some degree involuntary, does that really mean that we are autonomous individuals without any obligations to these communities? And should the state or society really have no concern about the moral character of its citizens?


BrianR said...

Yeah, you pose a very good question.

Modern small-"L" libertarianism is often conflated with Libertarianism, and IMO Libertarianism isn't really a philosophy of individual freedom as much as it is an ideology of anarchy.

The Founders didn't believe in unfettered liberty, which is of course anarchy. They believed that there were bounds on what could properly be regulated, but that most regulation should take place at the local level, which could be much more responsive to local requirements and mores.

Examples would include the contemporary "blue laws" that were in effect, and that they were never considered paticularly onerous. Contrast that with the modern equivalent, drug laws, and the difference in the two ideologies becomes apparent. Another example would be the laws against adultery -- a criminal offense in many parts of post-Revolutionary America. How can modern Libertarians accommodate those facts with their claim that their ideology is based on true "constitutionalism?

In fact, they can't, which is generally why many of them become hysterical and irrational when confronted with such history.

RightDetour said...

Hey Brian!

Your recognition of "local level" is exactly what's missing in the debate on-going debate between Libertarians and those New Conservatives like Russell Kirk. Because the Conservatives talk about society in the European tradition of "organic whole" they fail to give due attention to our federal system of divided sovereignty between the national government and the states. The federal government lacks the constitutional authority to enact laws to cultivate virtue in its citizens. The states, as you say, possess that authority. Instead, these days our national government often subverts the efforts of states to uphold republican virtue.