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.