In January Sean Speer, former economic policy advisor for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, participated in a debate hosted by Students for Liberty Canada and the Carleton University Campus Conservatives. His opponent was Matt Bufton, co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Liberal Studies. The resolution was “Conservatives and Libertarians are natural allies and should view themselves as partners working towards common goals.” Speer argued for the affirmative in these opening remarks. Bufton’s rebut will follow.
My job today is to persuade you that libertarians and conservatives are natural allies and that we ought to work together as part of a common political coalition.
There are two dimensions to this debate, intellectual and political. On the Facebook page promoting this event the discussion focused principally on the latter dimension. There were recriminations and rehashes of old political fights, such as: so and so supports supply management; such and such is too socially conservative; Maxime Bernier lost the Conservative Party leadership by 645 votes; the fusionist project is self-evidently a failure.
Matt, my able opponent, will likely make similar arguments. His focus will also mostly be on politics. He will argue that libertarians have been too frequently let down by conservatives. He’ll have various examples – including several from the Harper government of which I was a part. Drugs, prostitution, and refugees are only some of the policy areas he’ll cite. There are no doubt others.
Are these evidence of a deep fissure between libertarians and conservatives? Or are they merely tensions to be managed within a broad-based political coalition? Would libertarians win more of these intra-battles if they were in a coalition with liberals or leftists?
But more fundamentally: are these even the right questions?
I will argue that they’re not. A singular focus on the political expression of fusionism – that is, the alliance between libertarians and conservatives in our electoral politics – neglects the much more important questions about their intellectual and philosophical interrelationship.
Furthermore, I intend to argue that libertarians and conservatives are natural allies and that we ought to work together as part of a common coalition and that the reason for this is less about politics and more about our common roots in the Anglo-American tradition.
My statement will start with a focus on libertarianism, then I’ll speak about conservatism, before setting out the case for their intellectual alliance. In case you’re not persuaded by that point, I will wrap up with some observations about the political dimension – namely, the realpolitik of brokerage parties and why, on balance, I think libertarians ought to be more comfortable in a political alliance with Conservatives than with Liberals.
When I was in university I was drawn to libertarianism. Its live-and-let-live perspective made a lot of sense to me and it was kind of subversive, which is fun for undergrads. Also the parties were better than the conservative ones.
This experience isn’t unique to me. Libertarianism is a natural entrance point to the Right for many young people. There’s a logic to its focus on individualism, the role of markets, and the benefits of pluralism and tolerance. It’s also easy to be swept up in the powerful idea of freedom. It’s a compelling vision – incidentally, at the risk of being accused of trying to butter up my opponent, I’ve learned a lot about libertarian thought from Matt over the years.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve drifted. It’s not that I no longer place a value on freedom or liberty. I do. But I’ve started to place it in a broader intellectual and political framework involving competing and overlapping preferences and priorities.
This is partly because I’ve come to recognize the world’s complexity. Not everyone can exercise freedom well. More freedom isn’t the answer to every question. And it’s a necessary but insufficient answer to the question about the good life: freedom for what?
Libertarianism might be termed a “thin ideology.” That’s not a pejorative by the way. As a philosophy, it brings a lot to the table. But I think Matt would agree – in fact, I think that I’ve heard him argue – that libertarianism doesn’t purport to answer this fundamental question.
A thin ideology needs to be attached to a “thicker worldview” – a more textured perspective – if it’s to have meaningful expression and provide a satisfying answer to the question: freedom for what?
Matt may argue that we need not answer that question; that is up to individuals to decide; that society is a tapestry of individuals exercising their freedom as they see fit.
There’s of course something to this. Societies without freedom don’t tend to be vibrant, healthy, and dynamic. Free-choosing people have given us great artistic, cultural, technological and social progress, and other types of accomplishments. Subjugated people typically live in depravity, poverty, and backwardness. And, as Frank Meyer, the father of fusionism (who happened to be a libertarian) understood, you cannot have real virtue through coercion – it must be pursued and realized through freedom.
It seems like I should emphasize this point: I’m profoundly committed to freedom and choice – both as a means and an end. My boss at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute Brian Lee Crowley rightly calls freedom the “highest fruit of civilization.”
But, as an end it and of itself, it has some limits.
It falls victim to abstraction. While there’s a logic to it in theory, it’s much more complicated in practice. Most of us don’t think and act as individuals in our everyday lives. We’re husbands or wives or partners or parents or children or so on. Our relational connections are what define us and shape us. This dawned on me when a good friend – someone who had lived a life of what one might call rugged individualism – was deciding what he might do next. He and his girlfriend were weighing their options and considering next steps. He didn’t just come home and tell her what he was doing. They thought of themselves as a unit and ultimately made a choice accordingly. Individualism is useful as a way to think about our social interactions, but it has limits. Rooting an entire worldview in it risks obscuring the world as it is – marked by an intricate network of binding communal and familial relationships.
So freedom, on its own, tells us nothing of how people can and should use it. I would argue that it’s important to the well-being of individuals and society that people exercise their freedom well. Libertarians tend to neglect this point, in my view. They tend to assume that people are innately capable of making wise and virtuous choices even though the evidence all around us belies this assumption. I think this is because libertarians tend to be disproportionately smart, successful, and well-adjusted. But the truth is most of the rest of us aren’t. We’re the “crooked timber” that Kant talked about. We need an institutional and moral framework to help shape and inform our exercise of freedom. Otherwise it can and will devolve into mere license and can ultimately lead to self- and social-harm.
So, I contend that libertarianism needs to attach to a thicker perspective for it to have expression and form. Let me talk about conservative ideas and perspectives before arguing why I think libertarianism ought to attach itself to conservatism.
What is conservatism? Defining it is no easy task. One can only find exceedingly complicated formulations to capture the essence of the conservative disposition. As an example, Bill Buckley used to assert partly in jest that conservatism is “the paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation”. It’s only a slightly more accessible definition than the 400-word Sharon Statement (which founded Young Americans for Freedom) or Russell Kirk’s 10 principles of conservatism or many of the other attempts to encapsulate conservative thought.
Conservatism, properly defined, is less an ideology and more of a disposition or perspective. At its core is an abiding respect for the ideas, institutions, and traditions that we’ve inherited from past generations. This isn’t about mere nostalgia or an unthinking predisposition to the archaic. It’s a recognition that our intellectual and political inheritance has withstood centuries of western civilization for a reason. These ideas, institutions, and traditions have been tested, challenged, and, at times, threatened. They have adapted, evolved, and ultimately endured.
Nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called it a “disposition to preserve” combined with an “ability to improve.”
Twenty-century thinker Michael Oakeshott put it this way: “To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.”
His contemporary, American historian Will Durant, was even more skeptical of novelty and supportive of the tried and tested. As he put it: “Out of every 100 ideas, 99 will likely be inferior to the traditional alternative it was proposed to replace. No one person can become so well-informed in one lifetime to rethink and fully understand the customs and demands of the entire society.”
What does this mean for freedom, you might ask? I concede that the ideas of freedom and choice aren’t necessarily by their nature conservative ideas. In societies where they do not exist, they are radical ones. In societies where they have been lost, they are dangerous ideas.
But in the Anglo-American tradition where freedom and the institutions that sustain it have long been part of our experience, they are conservative. That is, the conservative predisposition is, by and large, about protecting, strengthening, and sustaining the institutions and ideas of liberalism.
Hayek addressed this in his essay “Why I am not a conservative“ when he wrote that “…in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.”
And: “In a country like the United States, which on the whole has free institutions and where, therefore, the defense of the existing is often a defense of freedom, it might not make so much difference if the defenders of freedom call themselves conservatives…”
Samuel Huntington, the great historian, similarly observed that conservatism is contextual. What an American conservative (or a Canadian one for that matter) seeks to conserve is different than a Saudi Arabian or Russian or French conservative. The Anglo-American conservative is seeking to conserve our intellectual and political inheritance of liberalism.
In this sense, conservatism can help root and substantiate libertarianism’s emphasis on freedom. It can help to support the aptitudes, ideas, and institutions that are essential for enabling freedom. It can also bring expression to the ends that free people pursue in exercising their freedom.
Which naturally brings me to fusionism.
These questions of libertarianism’s and conservatism’s intellectual interrelationship are at the heart of the fusionist project. When Frank Meyer conceived of fusionism in 1967 he was trying to reason through the question of “freedom for what” and the means by which individuals and society can pursue and realize virtue. In effect, he sought to understand the intellectual foundations of the “good life”. He concluded that it involved an amalgam of libertarianism’s emphasis on freedom and conservatism’s emphasis on order and virtue.
Meyer identified some key principles or ideas shared by libertarians and conservatives. These were:
– They accept “an objective moral order” of “immutable standards by which human conduct should be judged.”
– Whether they emphasize human rights and freedoms or duties and responsibilities, they unanimously value “the human person” as the center of political and social thought.
– They oppose liberal attempts to use the State “to enforce ideological patterns on human beings.
– They reject the centralized power and direction necessary to the “planning” of society.
– They join in defense of the Constitution “as originally conceived.”
– They are devoted to Western civilization and acknowledge the need to defend it against the “messianic” intentions of Communism.
The language has evolved, and the emphasis may have changed in some regards. But these core ideas still animate most libertarians and most conservatives.
In fact, one regularly finds more convergence than divergence between the two groups. This shouldn’t really be surprising. Markets depend on freedom, and freedom depends on underlying values, especially personal responsibility. Responsible people generally value the institutions which have nurtured and sustained them.
But it’s not just that there’s commonality. That’s important. But it’s not the whole story here. Meyer was arguing something more profound. He was saying that you couldn’t have true freedom without it rooted in traditional institutions and you couldn’t have virtue without it rooted in freedom. Libertarianism and conservatism, in this sense, have a deep interrelationship. They are two sides of the same coin.
I would argue that, by contrast, the growing trend of liberaltarianism – that is, the marrying of libertarianism’s emphasis on individualism and modern liberalism’s tendency to relativism and the welfare state – has embedded in its intellectual DNA its own undoing. An intellectual movement with unbridled individual expression – one based on no reciprocal sense of obligation or institutional rooting – as both its means and its end will eventually collapse under its own contradictions.
A historical reading of human experience and insights into human nature tells us that freedom without any obligations or binding institutions is a risky experiment. It might work. But there is plenty of reason to think that it won’t. For that reason (among others), I’d humbly suggest that libertarians continue to throw in your lot with us.
Let me deal briefly with politics. As you might have deduced from my earlier comments, I think that claims that libertarians are too frequently neglected by conservatives are overstated. Just ask social conservatives about political compromise.
It’s less about taking libertarians for granted and more about the inevitable and often difficult trade-offs in a world of brokerage politics. The lesson is less about libertarians and more about the work that we need to do to build public support for ideas of the Right, broadly defined.
As long as our ideas are a non-majority proposition, it will continue to involve major trade-offs – including some that many of us in this room won’t like. This is the subject of another debate – but I do think we all need to look introspectively to understand what we should be doing differently to broaden public understanding and support for a fusionist agenda. Where have we gone wrong? Why is there is still a political bias in favour of government intervention? How can better engage the broader public with our ideas and prescriptions? (Incidentally, I think libertarians have a key role to play in this regard.)
Reforms to the electoral system might change these political dynamics. But still the intellectual dimensions would remain relevant in a proportional representation system. Thus, it would not surprise me if libertarians and conservatives still came together in governing coalitions.
Which is, I suppose, evidence in and of itself that fusionism was not a manufactured co-relationship but rather a natural and organic coming together of ideas and impulses that share some basic insights into human experience and human nature. Fusionism reflects humanity’s innate desire to be free and to be good.
So, with that let me conclude by thanking you for inviting me and for listening to case for fusionism.
I regret that poor Matt now has the unenviable task of arguing contrary to human experience and human nature. I wish him luck. He’ll need it.