Fusionism, to those familiar with the term, is typically viewed negatively by both traditionalist conservatives and libertarians alike. When Frank Meyer wrote of the necessity and compatibility of liberty and tradition (collected and published as In Defense of Freedom in 1962) during a period of increasing tension between libertarians and traditionalist conservatives, few were on board. In the late 1960s, the libertarians, led by Murray Rothbard, would officially abandon the conservative movement, criticizing the fusionists as “apologists for the State using libertarian rhetoric as their cloak.”
Meyer’s legacy is, unfortunately, a warped representation of his actual views. He was never a fan of “fusionism” as a term to describe his perspective. The term actually came from a primary opponent of his views, the traditionalist L. Brent Bozell Jr.
Frank Meyer was not attempting to “fuse” two separate ideas, but rather to emphasize the compatibility and common history of a love of liberty and defense of tradition to achieve a free and virtuous society.
Against the traditionalists, Meyer argued that virtue required liberty. It is not virtuous to simply perform a good act or to be unable to perform a bad act. One must be able to choose between good and evil, and it is that freedom to choose the good that makes the act virtuous. Is a murderer suddenly a more virtuous man because he is locked away in a prison and therefore unable to commit further acts of murder? As Meyer put it, “Unless he can choose his worst, he cannot choose his best.”
Though Meyer’s criticisms were more often directed at traditionalists, he chose to align himself with conservatism over libertarianism. His arguments were primarily about the traditionalist need for liberty, though he did make the case for the libertarian need for tradition. He argued that without an embrace of traditional social values, there is nothing preventing libertarianism from descending into libertinism.
In his In Defense of Freedom, he is often harsh (probably too harsh) in his criticism of conservative philosophy, which may have done more to push traditionalists away rather than encourage them to reconsider the importance of liberty. The traditionalist Russell Kirk, a frequent target of Frank Meyer, did not believe Meyer had actually read much of his own works.
Both libertarians and traditionalists alike saw their opponents’ views as too separate from their own (though figures like Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver are admired by both conservatives and libertarians).
However, both sides also saw Meyer as one of their own. Traditionalists saw him as trying to use libertarian means to traditionalist ends, and therefore, whether right or wrong, he was still at heart a traditionalist. The libertarian Murray Rothbard argued that, since libertarianism was a purely political philosophy and nothing beyond, Meyer fits the definition of a libertarian.
Those vaguely familiar with fusionism and Frank Meyer should take the time to read his essays and become familiar with his perspective. “Fusionism” as a term unfairly misrepresents Meyer’s ideas. He valued libertarianism as a political philosophy and traditional conservatism as a social philosophy. Instead of trying to merge them together, he was trying to prevent them from dividing post-Old Right.
Unfortunately for those sympathetic to Frank Meyer, merely mentioning his name or fusionism may do more to divide than unite due to how he is remembered. There are other traditionalist conservatives who have strongly defended liberty that modern traditionalists have fonder memories of, such as Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver, as well as Roger Scruton. Defenders of Meyer will find much to praise in the writings of these three thinkers.