No True Fusionist
A reflection on "Freedom Conservatism," six months later.
The author has a Ph.D. in American history, a juris doctorate, and is familiar with many signers of the “Freedom Conservatism” statement and associated institutions. While The American Postliberal does not typically publish anonymous essays, we believe that the position of the author and their viewpoints are worth sharing.
This past summer, a collection of conservatives and libertarians, led by Avik Roy, wrote the “Freedom Conservative” statement of principles as a response to the National Conservative Statement of Principles from 2022. Mr. Roy made it clear that his statement was not a one-off effort, but intended to be the beginning of an effort to oust from the movement the Trumpists, National Conservatives, Postliberals, Paleoconservatives, and all others who did not subscribed to their ersatz secular libertarian vision of the Reagan-Buckley coalition which had so successfully brought conservative ideas to the forefront decades earlier.
The response over the ensuing months has been both underwhelming in the particulars and parochial in spirit. It has shown that the leading “FreeCons,” contrary to the spirit of Buckley, are ideologues who want to not just be the “keepers of the tablets,” but to pursue a robust sectarianism which is certain about the only true Conservatives. The “No True Scotsman” fallacy has become the “No True Fusionist.”
Among the myriad problems with the FreeCon approach is that it belies a growing problem of the “Old Right” — the ways in which a formerly broadly coalition that was not strictly ideological has grown into the very ideological beast that Russell Kirk so detested. While many within the FreeCon ranks praise and cite Kirk, they do not seem to have imbibed the lessons of his writings and the sense that conservatism is first and foremost a philosophy about the nature of man and therefore the need to protect the “permanent things.” That view led Kirk to approach the need for order before liberty, to establish the conditions which make possible a morally good society.
What many mistake in their understanding Kirk’s vision of conservatism — as well as that of Peter Vierek, Willmoore Kendall, and Robert Nisbet — is that while being anti-ideological, this conservatism did view just authority and order within political society as necessary to maintain the very traditions, morals, and principles that have made the West thrive.
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It is this essential conservative precept which made the exclusion of religion from the FreeCon statement of principles so significant and galling — they had forgotten the timeless advice of Christopher Dawson that, “It is the Christian tradition that is the most fundamental element in Western culture. It lies at the base not only of Western religion, but also of Western morals and Western social idealism.”
Several recent examples are instructive of the shallowness and liberal enchantment within the FreeCon persuasion. Consider the question of free speech: For far too many FreeCons, the version of free speech they wish to conserve is not that of the founding generation and original meaning of the First Amendment, but of the 1970s ACLU. The perverse irony here is that the very opponents of that view at the time — Buckley, among others like Walter Berns and Kendall — are the very same conservatives that the FreeCons are claiming the mantle of as leaders of a new fusionism.
Older conservatives thinkers understand that free speech absolutism was the raison d’etere of Bethamian and Millsonian utilitarian liberalism. Mills believed in no absolute truths, who wrote in On Liberty: “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”
Conservatives like Kendall knew that any worthy constitutional society could not insist on no social orthodoxies, public truth, or standards or preferred doctrines, patrol the boundaries between free speech aimed at public debate over issues of the day in a republican political system and free expression with no tangible value meant only to degrade and destroy that order.
Any viable society, Kendall argued, had an orthodoxy — “a set of fundamental beliefs, implicit in its way of life, that it cannot and should not and, in any case, will not submit to the vicissitudes of the marketplace.” Kendall understood that Mills’ conception of freedom of speech was the “perfect weapon” to “turn upon the traditional society that he must overthrow” because he who would destroy such a society “must first destroy the public truth it conceives itself as embodying.”
Mill’s freedom, at its core, a refashioning of human nature which was meant to be an assault on truth and any society which followed Mills’s conception would be unable to practice tolerance with those who disagreed with the “all-questions-are-open-questions society.” In a 1962 National Review article, Kendall’s friend, the Catholic philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen reviewed the problem extensively:
In order to be, a society must defend itself against whatever and whoever might threaten its existence. The inability to defend oneself against the enemy has always been the sign of approaching death. … Orthodoxy is nothing other than a law of being. … [Men] can live and act together only if they are bound together by code and custom, myth and legend, sculpture and song–all bespeaking some common confrontation of the Absolute. Where such an underlying orthodoxy is lacking we find ourselves in the midst of an aggregate of ghettos, not a society. … The proposition that America is bound to a discussion potentially infinite in duration is the proposition that America is destined to fall.
Kirk also refused to accept Mill’s progressive faith in absolute free speech, noting that it is “consummate folly to tolerate every variety of opinion, on every topic, out of devotion to an abstract ‘liberty;’ for opinion soon finds its expression in action, and the fanatics whom we tolerated will not tolerate us when they have power … liberty cannot be maintained or extended by an abstract appeal to free discussion, sweet reasonableness, and solitary simple principle.”
This points to an omnibus problem for the FreeCons: a lack of desire for re-examination of what it is that American conservatives should be conserving. Timon Cline, for instance, has pointed out that the Constitution would much be understood not as creating a nation or fundamental law, but the way its most fervent advocates understood it in the Federalist Papers — as creating a mechanism for federal administration, subordinate to the greater end of collective safety and welfare, and made a people whom already had shared customs, religion, language, heritage, and “principles of government.” As Cline has pointed out elsewhere and other scholars have attested to in analyzing the First And Second Amendments, our natural rights were always altered and limited upon entrance into political society and this was recognized by the founding generation writ large.
This lack of curiosity is not just a stubborn avoidance of engagement with members of the “New Right” on substance, but is indicative of a historical ignorance. Long before Cline and others pointed out the ways in which other members of the Right misunderstood the founding era understanding of free speech, Kendall, Walter Berns, and Kirk made similar efforts. In his 1957 work, Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment, Berns argued that because freedom was not simply the absence of restraint disconnected from individual virtue, the sort of ACLU-libertarianism First Amendment jurisprudence embodied by Justice Holmes’ “Clear and Present Danger” test was inadequate and incoherent.
In an 1801 pamphlet by “An Impartial Citizen,” following the controversy of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Election of 1800, explored the meaning of the freedom of press. The pamphleteer noted a common sentiment of the framing era:
By the freedom of the press they (the framers) undoubtedly intended an unrestrained use, and free improvement of the privilege of writing, and printing, in the communication of sentiments and opinions, on matters of public concernment, government measures, and political procedure. Not a licentious and destructive abuse of the privilege, in such a manner, as that wicked and malicious men should gratify their resentment, malevolence, and revenge, to the overthrow of family reputation, and the ruin of their neighbor’s character.
The right of conscience was a natural right which could not be ceded to government, but reputation and character were “an invaluable right” as well, as one must conceive “of the distress and misery of a community, composed of men, who have no moral principle, and who are totally regardless of character, integrity, and truth.” Thus, a civilized, free, and equal government will guarantee and defend as a matter of justice the character of all its members and subjects.
This was not an uncommon sentiment in the founding period. The Congregationalist minister and revolutionary Phillips Payson, in a sermon during the war given in Boston in 1778, argued that “many other things might be mentioned as circumstances much in favor of a free government and public liberty,” including the “preservation and permanence of the state” being of high importance, so “its internal strength be supported upon the great pillars of capacity, defence, and union,” and the “full liberty of press — that eminent instrument of promoting knowledge, and great palladium of the public liberty — being enjoyed, the learned professions direct to the public good, the great principles of legislation and government, the great examples of truths of history, the maxims of generous and upright policy, and the severer truths of philosophy investigated and apprehended by a general application to books, and by observation and experiment — are means by which the capacity of a state will be strong and respectable, and the number of superior minds will be daily increasing.”
The object was not the “marketplace of ideas” held by Mills and Holmes’ utilitarian relativism, but instead the “great defense of a state, as these are cultivated and improved the public defence will increase; and if there is added to these a general union, a spirit of harmony, the internal strength and beauty of the state will be great indeed.” In fact, Payson was clear that freedom of opinion may be part of a strong and secure state, but if “parties and factions, arising from false ambition, avarice, or revenge, run high, they endanger the state. Therefore, parties “aimed at the public liberty and welfare” were salutary, but ones in which “selfish interest and views” was their basis were “dangerous and destructive.”
It is of little wonder that someone like Anthony Kennedy, the artist behind the worst atrocity of moral relativism committed by the Supreme Court, could be nominated by a Republican president. Far too many conservatives had by the 1990s not only forgotten the values of the founding and the generations which succeeded them, but had dispensed with the contemporaneous views of Buckley and National Review.
FreeCons claim the mantle of Buckley and Reagan without realizing that Buckley and his magazine could, after the infamous ACLU defense of the Skokie Nazis, write that “symbolic speech” needed to be dispensed with because “not all speech is protected under the Constitution,” including false advertising, libel, threats, crank phone calls, and incitement, and that no solution to the problem could “ever come from a rigidly abstract and doctrinaire approach to ‘free speech.’”
Likewise, a young Hardley Arkes could write in National Review in 1978 that “the Constitution was never meant to be neutral [in the choice] between despotism and free government,” as the founding documents proved that the founders believed in an absolute truth — that of the natural equality of human beings and their capacity for self-government.
As David Lowenthal put it decades ago in his seminal work, No Liberty for License, conservatives should have no interest in defending “an extreme liberty under the impress of a judicial revolution that post-dated, but grew out of, Holmes’s and Brandeis’s libertarianism” and which extended the First Amendment to “obviously hostile and alien revolutionary movements” and sheltered “works inspired by the supposedly friendly forces of Art and Science and dedicated to sexual emancipation.”
The Supreme Court, before the Warren Revolution, understood this, as shown by Justice Murphy’s 1942 opinion in Chaplinsky, stating that the Constitution never protected an absolute right of free speech, as the “lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting words’” were always unprotected because “such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
Freedom Conservatives also not only disdain National Conservatives and other non-FreeCon conservatives with an unearned arrogance, but they inadvertently display their own shallow sense of history. Are they aware of the lengthy lineage of labor leaders and pro-labor thinkers who used the term “conservative?” Take, for instance, Frank Tannenbaum, who in his 1952 “Philosophy of Labor,” rejected the laissez-faire of the likes of Sumner and Spencer and instead believed that trade-unions would be the “great conservative counter-revolution” against the secular materialism of liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism. While these figures are not postliberal or necessarily of value to the modern conservative movement, and regardless of the political practicality of unions today, it is worth noting their importance.
Tannenbaum believed that the tinkering with “little things'“ like hours, wages, job security, and conditions allowed for the rebuilding of our “industrial society upon a different basis from that envisioned by the philosophers, economists, and social revolutionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries'' and that trade-unionsm involved the clustering of men about their work and thus countered the “driving forces operating for the atomization of society and the isolation of man.” He felt such a conservatism easily fit alongside the likes of Coleridge and Carlyle, in addition to the idea that trade-unionism was the true alternative to the authoritarian state because it embodied both the freedom and the security essential to human dignity.
Yet, the typical stance of Freedom Conservative scholars is to paint their opponents on the rights as authoritarians reaching for the wrong history. Certainly as the great conservative scholar Peter Viereck reasoned, American conservatism has always been set between the poles of the defense of authority — not authoritarianism, but the necessary reverence for tradition, law, legitimacy, and order — with a more libertarian sensibility of a negative defense of rights.
Then again, it is exactly the younger conservatives who did not do not have memories of the height of fusionism who seem to understand exactly what it is Freedom Conservatives are lacking in their outlook. They have forgotten what Benjamin Disraeli called the difference between comfort and civilization and have taken on the cloak of the Manchesterian Liberals whom Kirk rejected and Irving Babbitt denigrated as representing the “confusion between moral and material progress that the utilitarian has promoted.”
What Freedom Conservatism both lacks, therefore, is either a deep sense of the history of American conservatisms and what Kirk called the “Roots of American Order” as well as the necessary humility to create a coalition which captures this deep and diverse intellectual well. They forget, as not only Kirk but the Wall Street Journal argued in 1955, that conservatism was not a policy nor a program to solve economic or political problems, but rather was an “instinctive belief that today’s society is built on several thousand years and that in those years men have found things [to which] they should fasten.
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