Monday, June 20, 2011
Meyer and fusionism
“Fusionism” is the label usually applied to Frank Meyer’s project of harmonizing freedom and tradition in a modern conservative synthesis. (Meyer actually disliked the “fusionist” label, since it seemed to imply that freedom and tradition did not form an organic unity and needed therefore to be “fused.” In his view, they naturally go together.) If by “freedom” we mean respect for the rule of law, limited and decentralized government, and a general preference for market solutions over state action, and by “tradition” a respect for religion and the family, then any modern conservative ought to be a fusionist, and most probably are fusionists. But Meyer himself had more than this in mind. In particular, he seems to have been committed to a strict libertarianism of the Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick sort on which any governmental action over and above the police, military, and judicial functions is always and in principle unjust. And he thought that this extreme position followed from a respect for traditional morality.
I used to be committed to this strong form of fusionism myself, but I long ago abandoned its doctrinaire libertarian component. In particular, I now hold that the extreme conception of property rights and self-ownership that one finds in writers like Nozick and Rothbard cannot be reconciled with the theory of rights that follows from traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory. (See my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” – which at the moment is available online here, for some reason – for an exposition of what I now take to be the correct approach to property rights and related issues.)
This by no means entails an endorsement of socialism, the welfare state, or any other sort of nanny state. On the contrary, a traditional natural law account of natural rights in general and property rights in particular still puts stringent limits on what government can do. Its doctrine of subsidiarity requires, on grounds of justice, that economic and social problems should be dealt with as far as possible at the level of families, private associations, and local governments. (We had occasion last year to discuss this doctrine’s implications for the health care debate.) Hayekian arguments for the rule of law, decentralized power, and the superiority of markets over government planning retain their power whatever we think of libertarian natural rights theories. The point is that the claim that outlawing heroin (say) is always and inherently a violation of natural rights, or that even the slightest taxation for the sake of aiding the needy always and inherently amounts to robbery, simply cannot be maintained. Many issues of economics and public morality are more complicated than that, and require careful attention to a number of moral and practical considerations – merely shouting “Taxation is theft!” or “I own myself!” does not suffice. Nor do Meyer’s arguments show otherwise.
Meyer’s main reason for claiming that a respect for traditional morality entails a libertarian political order is that for good behavior to count as truly virtuous, it must be freely chosen – a theme repeated ad nauseam in his book In Defense of Freedom. Now of course, there is much truth in this dictum. We can agree, for example, that forcing people on pain of fines or imprisonment to attend church services would do nothing to promote a genuine religious ethos, and indeed would surely have the opposite effect. (Does anyone deny this?) But this simply does not entail the radical libertarianism Meyer thinks it does. He doesn’t see this because he fails to draw several important distinctions.
We need, for example, to draw a distinction between requiring good actions and forbidding evil ones. Now it is not true without qualification even to say that the former cannot result in true virtue. On the contrary, as every good Aristotelian knows, that is what child-rearing is all about. Children first need to get in the habit of doing what is good – and to be punished for failing to do so – before they can understand the point of doing so, and thus before they can meaningfully choose to do so. By the time they are adults, ingraining good habits in this way is much more difficult. Still, precisely for this reason – that is to say, precisely because adults are adults and thus both responsible for themselves and at least to some extent set in their ways – it is usually counterproductive to try to force them to do what is good in the hope that genuinely virtuous character will result from this. Thus there is to that extent truth in Meyer’s point that virtue – at least in an adult – must be freely chosen.
Still, this is clearly true only where forcing people to take some positive action is concerned. Things are different where forbidding certain actions is concerned – where what is in question is, not requiring anyone to do anything, but merely taking some possible course of action off the table. Suppose you have struggled with drug addiction in the past and I take steps to ensure that you cannot get access to heroin or crack cocaine. Have I made it harder for you to be virtuous? Obviously not. Indeed, I have made it easier, at least in the sense that I have made it less likely that you will fall into a certain hard-to-overcome vice. Of course, many libertarians will still argue that drug prohibition is a bad idea for other reasons. But that is beside the present point, which is that Meyer’s “virtue must be freely chosen” mantra is by itself not a plausible argument for eliminating all laws against immoral behavior.
This brings us to another distinction, namely that between virtues which are best acquired through a struggle against the temptation to act viciously, and those which are not. For example, if you are trying to acquire the virtue of courage, it is a good idea to put yourself in situations where you are going to be tempted to be cowardly and to struggle against that temptation. But if you are trying to acquire the virtue of chastity, it is not a good idea to put yourself in situations where sexual temptations are likely to present themselves, and if you are struggling with drug addiction, it is not a good idea to put yourself in situations where others are using drugs. Hence it would be silly to pretend that a society in which drugs and pornography are easily available is more likely to be a society in which sobriety and chastity are freely chosen. It is quite obvious that such virtues will be less common in such a society. Of course, many libertarians wouldn’t be bothered in the least by such a consequence, but fusionist libertarians would, and that is the point. That “virtue must be freely chosen” simply doesn’t have, in every case of moral decision-making, the implications they think it does. (By the way, those libertarians who wouldn’t be bothered by the fact that virtues like chastity and sobriety would be less common in a libertarian society shouldn’t pretend – as some of them do pretend – that a libertarian political order is “neutral” between competing moral and religious points of view. Here as elsewhere, such a political order is by no means neutral, any more than Rawlsian liberalism is.)
A third important distinction to be made is that between actions that are inherently wrong and those that are not inherently wrong but are wrong only under certain circumstances. Suppose it is always wrong deliberately to get high to the point where reason is seriously impaired. (I realize that not everyone agrees that this is always wrong, but that is irrelevant to the present point – it’s just an example.) If so, then it follows that it is wrong to drink to excess, and also wrong to use crack cocaine. But it is very easy for most people to drink without drinking to excess – that is, to the point where reason is seriously impaired – and without becoming addicted, while it is hardly easy to use crack cocaine in a way that doesn’t involve a serious impairment of reason or risk of addiction. Hence the act of using alcohol cannot plausibly be said to be always or inherently wrong, while the act of using crack cocaine plausibly could be. In that case, though, while Meyer’s “virtue must be freely chosen” mantra would give us a good reason to oppose alcohol prohibition, it would not give us a good reason to oppose prohibiting crack cocaine. Alcohol use can be moderate, and when it is it adds a pleasantness to life that (I would argue) it would be wrong for government to deprive people of. Hence it is not plausible to hold that alcohol prohibition can be justified in the name of promoting virtue. But the same cannot be said of prohibiting crack use. Such a prohibition would not (as outlawing alcohol would) deny anyone anything that is actually good, while it would make it much easier for many people to avoid a certain kind of vice.
Now the point of all this, again, is not to defend any sort of nanny state, nor even to defend any particular legal prohibition. The latter have, to a large extent, to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. (For the record, I oppose legalizing crack, but I also think the drug war has been carried out in too draconian a fashion.) Whenever I criticize some libertarian argument, there’s always some yutz who concludes “Feser wants to impose his reactionary Catholicism on us all!” – as if the fact that I am no longer a libertarian entails that I simply must now be an authoritarian. But to criticize some argument for P is not necessarily to endorse not-P.
The point is rather to show that the issues are more complex than many libertarians, including fusionist libertarians, realize. Shouting “Virtue must be freely chosen!” doesn’t by itself settle things any more than shouting “Taxation is theft!” does. Some taxation does amount to theft – indeed, lots of actual taxation probably does, or at least is immoral all things considered – but taxation as such is not theft. (Again, see the article on property rights linked to above.) Similarly, while there is much truth in the claim that genuine virtue must be freely chosen, the claim is also subject to serious qualifications and does not by itself establish a strict, Nozick-style libertarianism. Things are just more complicated than that. Awful luck for people who think a serious political philosophy ought to be the sort of thing you can sum up in a bumper sticker slogan, but there it is.
There are other problems with Meyer’s position. Meyer’s arguments in In Defense of Freedom seem to presuppose an Ockhamist conception of freedom as a “freedom of indifference,” as opposed to the Thomistic view of freedom as “freedom for excellence.” (We had reason to discuss this distinction in a recent post.) Meyer also writes as if the only alternative to libertarian individualism is collectivism, ignoring the Aristotelian-Thomistic middle ground position according to which the level of the family, rather than that of either the individual or the state as a whole, is the crucial level of social analysis. From an A-T point of view, our positive obligations to one another are not entirely contractual, but in part natural. But the non-contractual ones are clearest and strongest at the level of the family, and are less strong the farther away we get from the family. (As I note in the article on property rights linked to above, this puts the Aristotelian-Thomistic position closer to libertarianism than it is to socialism or egalitarian liberalism. But it is still significantly short of doctrinaire libertarianism of the Nozick, Rand, or Rothbard sort.)
This is not to say that Meyer’s position does not have strengths as well. It serves as a useful reminder that it is foolish, counterproductive, and dangerous to think that virtue can be engineered from the top down by centralized government. While it is a mistake to think that government can play no role in shoring up virtue, it is also a mistake to think that its role is primary, or that it can reasonably consist in more than certain negative prohibitions (where even these are best handled at the local level wherever possible). Meyer is also right to criticize conservatives like Russell Kirk for their opposition to abstract principle and theory. Human life certainly cannot be reduced to the abstractions of political philosophy, but it doesn’t follow that such abstractions have no place. (Here as always the Aristotelian natural law tradition provides the correct middle ground position, in this case between the excessive abstractionism of Platonic political philosophy and Kirk’s obscurantist opposition to general principle.)
And, again, there is much of value in the general idea of a fusion of tradition and freedom. From the side of the defenders of tradition, we can find it in classical natural law theory and its doctrine of subsidiarity. From the side of the defenders of freedom, we can find it in Hayek’s insistence that liberty has its natural home in the context of long-standing moral traditions, which cannot reasonably be overthrown wholesale but can at most be tinkered with in a way consistent with the principles implicit in traditional practice. Neither of these views gives you Meyer’s doctrinaire libertarianism, but they do show that to insist on the claims of virtue is by no means to embrace authoritarianism.