Liberty Fund, Inc. has brought back into print some of the works (written in the period 1955-1969) of one of the most interesting and significant intellectuals of American conservatism: Frank S. Meyer. A trifecta of the type, Meyer was a renegade from Communism who is best known for his attempt to create a formula to satisfy and reconcile the claims of the libertarian and traditionalist factions within the American New Right. This was a task akin to squaring the circle, as critics from both sides would claim. Even so, mainstream conservatism was, and still is, pragmatically "fusionist" despite the persistence of deviationists to either side.
These essays are mainly of historical interest, since they were conceived as a rhetorical offensive against the liberal collectivism and "New Conservatism" that were fashionable at mid-century, but were already passing into oblivion by 1968. However, the latest of them is still very much relevant: "Libertarianism or Libertinism?"
When examining Meyer's ideas, we must ask three questions. Are they sound in and of themselves? Do they prove the unity of libertarianism and traditionalism, rightly understood? If not, on which side does Meyer ultimately fall?
Meyer returns again and again to one essential theme: the reconcilability -- indeed, the mutual dependence -- of "freedom" and "virtue": both in theory, and specifically in American conservatism. These are the principles he identifies at the core of the two competing factions. For him, doctrinaire traditionalism and libertarianism are only differences of emphasis that "have their roots in a common tradition and are arrayed against a common enemy" (pp. 15-16).
Twentieth-century American conservatism was a synthesis of nineteenth-century liberalism and conservatism, in "tension and balance" (a favorite trope of his) with each other, the virtues of each tradition correcting the vices of the other. Specifically, liberalism corrects conservative authoritarianism, while conservatism corrects the moral vacuum at the heart of liberalism. For him, the most perfect expression of this synthesis is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which, of course, predate both liberalism and conservatism), which in turn are the ultimate source and cynosure of American conservatism.
The central text of this book was "intended to vindicate the freedom of the person as the central and primary end of political society" (p. 33). Freedom and virtue belong to different though interconnected realms of existence: freedom in the political realm, virtue in the intellectual, moral, and spiritual realm. We should pursue freedom in the one sphere, virtue in the other, with equal vigor.
His crucial moral argument is that, while virtue is the true end of man's existence, it can only be attained in freedom. Man has a duty to pursue right and good ends; but this duty cannot be enforced by the state. To be truly virtuous, man must have the option of choosing vice as well as virtue. Virtue only counts if it is freely chosen, and only because it is freely chosen.
Such a claim depends on a specific conception of virtue. This in turn depends on one's basic conception of the good and how it is to be pursued. If one defines virtue in terms of the exercise of reason (as Ayn Rand did), or if "the good" consists of doing whatever one happens to feel like doing (as many libertarians think), then one has a case. But if one defines the good in terms of social justice, or racial purity, or submission to Allah, then freedom is neither necessary nor desirable.
Meyer's own conception of virtue is remarkably vague; my impression is that he backs himself into it through his counterarguments against those who say that freedom only counts if one chooses virtue. His argument is really only meta-ethical, so to speak. The crucial assumption is that "moral and spiritual perfection can only be pursued by finite men through a series of choices, in which every moment is a new beginning; and the freedom which makes these choices possible is itself a condition without which the moral and spiritual ends would be meaningless" (p. 71, emphasis added).
I am dumfounded that anyone could make such an assumption. Surely it is obvious that a drunkard is harder put to resist his vice than is an habitually sober man, or that a brave man is better able to do brave deeds than is a coward. To be sure, a man's character is formed by the kinds of choices he makes, over the long run. But virtue is, essentially, a kind of habit.
From this point of view, Meyer's stark alternatives of volition and coercion are largely irrelevant. A good act that is not habitual, but requires a special effort of will, or is undertaken under external compulsion, is not truly virtuous. The question to ask, then, is whether the special effort of will or the external compulsion is, in practice, more conducive to developing good habits; this cannot be answered out of context. Contrary to Meyer, a good case could be made for public education and universal military service, as schools (literal and metaphorical) of republican virtue.
Meyer asserts, over and over again, that freedom is the essence of man's nature. He conceives this freedom as, ultimately, the choice to accept or reject objective truth and value: he has no use for the idea that man is a blank slate on which he may write anything he pleases. But even so, his conception of radical freedom verges dangerously towards antipathy, not just to coercive community and enforced tradition, but to community and tradition as such.
For Meyer, as for all libertarians, the "individual person" and various collectivities stand at opposite poles, and his whole moral and political concern is with the former. His basic position is "that social and political organization, however important as a condition of existence, is, like oxygen or water, a condition, not the end, of the life of the individual person" (p. 50). He objects primarily to the reification of "society" as an entity above and beyond the social relations of individual persons, to which individual persons are subordinated.
Now, "society is not an entity" is (to me) the most tiresome bromide in libertarian propaganda. Of course, it is not true that society is an organism. But the opposite point of view, which libertarians would have us believe -- that society is nothing but a "compact" among a random aggregate of individuals -- is just as false.
Though Meyer ascribes the society-as-organism view to Aristotle, the very evidence he cites refutes him, and points to the correct position. As he quotes Aristotle (p. 90): the polis (city-state) is a kind of koinonia (community). The very term "community" presupposes both the existence of separate persons, and their common membership in the polis. When Aristotle coined the term zoon politikon (political animal), he was not talking about the polis but about man, i.e. the men who belong to the polis.
Meyer insists on defining the "state" as the government, instead of and radically distinct from the political community (p.89). This is easy to refute: when the 9/11 terrorists crashed the planes into the World Trade Center, they were attacking the United States, no less than when they attacked the US government by crashing the plane into the Pentagon. He regards this radical distinction as necessary for limited government; but it is just as easy to distinguish between the political community and its government, as between the people and the "state."
Individualism has some validity insofar as it is only the individual person who thinks, feels, wills, and acts -- who is, in short, a moral agent. But part of the fulfillment of his individual personality is the fulfillment of his natural sociability. To ask whether society or the individual is prior, is like asking whether the chicken or the egg is prior. The collectivist argues that the chicken must lay eggs; the individualist, that the chicken must hatch from an egg. Both of them are wrong, because the question is meaningless. The individual and society are coeval; neither can exist without the other. The individual grows up in society and it molds (but does not determine) his character; simultaneously, society is itself constituted by individuals through their manifold interactions and combinations. Both individualism and collectivism exaggerate one side of human nature at the expense of the other, and both ideologies are equally unnatural.
Man is a social animal; and this is precisely what is wrong with socialism. Devotion to "Society" is a poor substitute for sociability. Society (I freely concede to individualists) is nothing but an abstraction -- but so is "the individual person." Actual persons live in particular societies.
But Meyer objects to lumping individuals into collectives of any kind: he rejects the Leftist conception of "elitist" oppressor-groups and "underprivileged" victim-groups, on the one hand, but also the traditionalist conception of intermediary bodies, on the other. Indeed, he sometimes sounds like the most anarchistic and antisocial of libertarians when he says, as a backhanded compliment to the traditionalists:
Better a multitude of enforced collectivities, so that the individual human being may wrest for himself an area of autonomy out of simultaneous partial loyalty to several of them, or out of precarious existence in the interstices between them, than a single all-embracing Leviathan community [i.e., the socialists' totalitarian state] which will totally subordinate him. (p. 123)
The possibility that one might want to belong to a collectivity, that human nature might be fulfilled (at least in part) by social participation, is ignored.
Against this caricature of "enforced collectivities" he argues that true community is a spontaneous efflorescence, possible only in freedom. And here he has an important and powerful point. Community does not need to be enforced -- precisely because man is not by nature a mere "individual person" -- and the effort is counterproductive. This is the most important lesson taught by the failure of fascism to create a new social order coercively. The ultimate result of this attempt was the Nazi Gleichschaltung ("co-ordination"): creating a travesty of a united Volksgemeinschaft ("folk-community") by annexing every distinct social unit and activity to the state, complete with political commissars and informers to enforce conformity and to inculcate fear and distrust.
Meyer completely misconstrues the anti-individualist argument in defense of community, which is that deracinated and isolated individuals are too weak to resist the Leviathan-state. In his excessive concern for the "individual person," he attacks the very conditions of human social life:
The [traditionalists] present us with a false antithesis: either the all-powerful totalitarian state, grinding impersonally and brutally upon the freedom of everyone, or the subtler, quieter tyranny of 'customarily' imposed community, in which no one can escape from the deadly environment of hereditarily or geographically imposed association. (p. 130)
Clearly, Meyer is gripped by a profound and serious confusion. Heredity and geography do not "impose" on anyone: they preexist the individual and, in large part, make him what he is. No one can choose when or where he was born; therefore, such conditions are entirely outside the realm of freedom and morality.
Meyer's argument about virtue posits choice in a vacuum. Just as he ignores the fact that each choice is more or less constrained by one's character, he ignores the fact that the person who chooses has been more or less formed by an inherited tradition. If this is "tyranny," then men can only be free if they pop into existence out of thin air, fully-formed; and they can only form societies by resorting to that mythical old device, the "social contract." In particular, since heredity and geography constitute the nation-state, this view implicitly delegitimates it -- unless one can reconstruct it as an abstract ideology-state.
To this completely voluntary character of associations proper to the free nature of men, there are only two exceptions--the state and the family. Neither can be voluntary because of the human condition itself. (p. 134)
Meyer recognizes the importance of the family, both as the fundamental unit of society and as the primary medium for the inculcation of virtue, by the molding of young souls. But he insists, again, that the family as an institution is no more, and no better or worse, than the individuals who marry and raise children. Also, he still tends to neglect the wider social circles beyond the family: the local community, the nation, and that specific cultural horizon which constitutes, for all practical purposes, the world. If the typical libertarian's ideal is Robinson Crusoe, Meyer's is the Swiss Family Robinson.
This departure from individualism does have far-reaching implications, however. The whole body of family law will have radically different forms, with radically different consequences, if we consider the family the basic unit of society, or if we consider it a mere contract between autonomous agents, whose autonomy is our sole standard of value. Is marriage for life and for children, or is it for the convenience of the "partners"? Should homosexuals be allowed to "marry" each other, and have custody of children?
Though he rebukes traditionalists for invoking prudence rather than principle against the the egalitarian-collectivist Left, Meyer himself does exactly the same with respect to libertarianism. He justifies the existence of the state as the guarantor of freedom -- recognizing that there is a paradox here, in that the state's role is to restrict the person's freedom to encroach on other persons' freedom -- since "prudential considerations require what the pure philosophical concept of rights cannot brook" (p.84). He rebukes libertine-libertarians as ideologues who reject tradition and do not understand that "political freedom is only effectively achieved when the bulwarks of civilizational order are preserved" (p. 185) -- but he offers no objection to their political principle, which he shares. Meyer may have stuck to the conservative mainstream, but only by compromising the very principle he championed against the traditionalists and collectivist liberals.
© 2004 by Karl Jahn