I guess I really need to read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. I know the general thesis from a recent article he wrote and from reviews and comments of others, but now I’m noticing that much of what I read could be viewed as haunted by the ghost of Deneen.
For instance, Michael Davis, The Fatally-Flawed Fusionism of Frank Meyer recounts how Meyer’s influential effort to end the cohabitation of libertarianism and traditionalism by marrying them led inadvertently to the ascent of toxic libertarianism. Davis never mentions Deneen, but his thesis is relevant to and inconsistent with Deneen’s.
Frank Meyer was a man looking desperately for faults in the philosophy to which he was most attracted: traditionalism. Finding none, he simply made up another philosophy: fusionism. But instead of coopting the energy and scientific rigor of libertarianism for the traditionalist cause, he simply empowered the former at the latter’s expense…
Why, you ask, did this come to pass? My best guess: libertarianism’s strict “government = bad, liberty = good” dichotomy was easier to market in magazine and stump speeches. And that’s understandable. Both libertarians and traditionalists were horrified by the sheer size and power of the Soviet state; libertarians simply don’t have to bother with “the simulacrum of virtuous acts” or “divine patterns of order.”
Davis also recaps as part of the story an early Meyer error and its correction:
In a 1962 column for National Review, he claimed that traditionalism’s cardinal sin—the fundamental error that necessitated its co-mingling with libertarianism—was that “the simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power, is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil.” In layman’s terms: virtuous acts must be those undertaken freely, not under state coercion.
L. Brent Bozell Jr., in his rejoinder, observed (correctly) that, because Meyer was making a theological claim—that is, about the relationship between free will and virtue—it has to be answered in theological terms. And every school of orthodox theology would accept that an act is virtuous regardless of whether it was made freely or not. “We can agree that the freer the choice—i.e., the more difficult it is—the greater the merit,” he writes; but, “by definition, the virtuous act is one that conforms with man’s nature, with the divine patterns of order.”
It certainly appears that Davis would contest Deneen’s premise that liberalism is fatally flawed, for he cites “an organic tradition of political liberty in the thought of Burke and Adams” (traditionalists) that did not require correction by injecting libertarianism.
He concludes with seven steps to “work backwards toward [the] restoration” of American conservatism which Meyer’s fusionism undermined.
Agree or disagree with him as you will. Davis’s piece strikes me as one of the best yet at The Imaginative Conservative, which is prolific but of spotty interest.
Again, if you’re wondering what this debate within conservatism is about, read A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.
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“While saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.” (John Dewey) Be a saint anyway. (Tipsy)