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Fusionism and Federalism

I spent the weekend at an excellent conference on the work of Frank S. Meyer, a leading post-war thinker of the right.  His major effort has generally been called fusionism –an attempt to marry classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. But he himself did not claim the term “fusionism”: that was a label others affixed.  He saw himself as revealing the complementary nature of liberty and tradition rather than creating a new alloy out of disparate materials.   For Meyer, liberty was the end of politics, and that fact could be apprehended by reason. But because of the constraints of human knowledge, traditions were important as  a guide for the appropriate realization of liberty. And traditions help men choose virtue when political freedom appropriately gives them that choice.

Besides its importance in reconciling liberty with tradition analytically, fusionism had and continues to have important political implications. The right in the United States and in most other nations in the West is made up of an alliance of classical liberals and traditional conservatives.  But liberty is forward looking, dynamic and results in no fixed patterns. Traditional conservatism, in contrast, is all about preserving the established inheritance of the past.   Meyer’s work was an important landmark in post-war politics in helping to keep the right together.

Another of Meyer’s ideas, developed also by Friederich Hayek and W. B. Allen, was that the United States faced less tension between classical liberalism and tradition than other societies because the preservation of its Constitution, an essentially classical liberal charter, became itself its greatest tradition.  I would add that one specific feature of the U.S. Constitution—federalism—has also proved important to fusionism.

The original Constitution provides the states with almost plenary powers and, even today, if the Constitution were correctly interpreted, states have very substantial powers. Because of these powers, citizens of a particular state are able if they choose to pursue many traditional values within politics.  In classical liberal terms, this pursuit can be understood as assessing the appropriate extension of the harm principle that delimits liberalism.  It is difficult to determine a priori when the actions of one person harm the actions of the other.  For instance, it is not clear that prostitution and gambling are victimless crimes, if one believes that a family can suffer harm.

But while states are free to formulate a particular balance between liberty and license, informed by their particular traditions, the federal government has no such powers over morality. But the federal Constitution does sustain free movement, free trade, and free speech among citizens of the United States. And these freedoms permit citizens both the information and capacity to exit their state if its traditions strike the wrong balance for them.

Thus, the structure of the United States Constitution is itself fusionist. It permits a plurality of communities of the kind dear to traditional conservatives within an essentially liberal order. As one of the participants in the conference remarked, federalism embodies a practical form of Robert Nozick’s notion that individuals might be best off if they could choose among different utopias which were themselves empowered to realize different ideals. Polycentric forms of social ordering with free choice among the centers offers the best political structure to combine classical liberalism and traditional conservatism.

Reader Discussion

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on March 09, 2015 at 15:48:17 pm

Different utopias, yes, but with rational limitations.

Let's say that only one state had welfare. People from other states who want to get welfare would exercise free movement and gravitate to that state to get their free money. The people who are better at handling their money would move to other states. Eventually the number of people preferring free money would become dominant in the state, and would, through the election process, eventually bankrupt the state. Should we equate welfare with "harm?"

I don't know, but I do expect, that the federal government rationalizes much of its nationalization policies on the theory of that kind of gaming of the system. The rationale would be that they do certain things at the national level to protect us from harming ourselves at the state level.

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Scott Amorian
on March 10, 2015 at 10:32:59 am

What is interesting is the fact that the fusionist hypothesis is itself but a form of robust democratic theory. This is reflected in the apostrophe penned by Tocqueville, when he wrote, "if I lived among a democratic people, I would prefer to see it adopt the monarchical constitution rather than the republican form. I would prefer that you instituted two legislative assemblies rather than one, an irremovable judiciary rather than elected magistrates, provincial; powers rather than a centralized administration. For all of these institutions can be combined with democracy, without altering its essence. As the social state becomes more democratic I would attach more value to gaining all or a few of these things, and by acting in this way I would have in view not only, as I said in another part of this work,k to save political liberty, but also to protect the general progress of the human mind." [Chapter 2, volume 2, Democracy in America, note R in Nolla Schleifer edition].

Tocqueville embraces the federalism argument as a comprehensive brief for democracy and liberty much in the manner you have discussed. That his sketch looks very like the U. S. Constitution speaks volumes.

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W. B. Allen

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