Freedom or Virtue? Meyer v. Bozell - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Freedom or Virtue? Meyer v. Bozell

Among the comforts of doing philosophy—in spite of the frustrating and sometimes, indeed, maddening elusiveness of the certain truth and the longed-for Q.E.D.—is the knowledge that the questions with which one wrestles have been debated time and again, and that the very thoughts that occur to one have occurred to many a mind in the distant and not-so-distant past. This may seem paradoxical in an age that esteems originality above most other criteria of intellectual accomplishment, but the consolation of feeling solidarity with one’s fellow seekers, removed in time though they may be, is profound. Is this not the eternal appeal of Raphael’s School of Athens, and the friendly rivals, Plato and Aristotle, at its heart?

It was with great pleasure, then, that I recently picked up a copy of a volume with that same painting displayed on its cover: Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, published by ISI Books edited by George W. Carey. A petite book, it nonetheless brings together a fascinating and wide-ranging collection of essays on the tension between the two reigning factions of the American right, from such luminaries as Frank Meyer, Leo Brent Bozell, Jr., Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard—to name a few. Unsurprisingly, this debate is one that engages me and my friends a good deal, and I was excited to find out how much could be learned from the disagreements of the past.

Let’s turn for a moment to the figure of Meyer. Though his name is little remembered nowadays, it was Meyer who, more than anyone, took up the paradoxical project of mid-century American conservatism, namely: How to reconcile the traditionalist school, for whom Aristotle, Burke, and Disraeli were the prophets, with the libertarian school that looked to Locke, Smith, Hayek, and even Ayn Rand for inspiration? In his classic essay “The Twisted Tree of Liberty” (published by National Review in January 1962), Meyer seized the bull by the proverbial horns.

In his view, each school was privy to a necessary insight. The traditionalist understood that “the constitution of being” was characterized by a necessary order, ordained by God and making moral demands on every human being. The libertarian, meanwhile, recognized that the moral life was essentially individual, and that only in the presence of full political liberty could the individual make the free choice to be virtuous. (What good is coerced virtue?) For Meyer, then, the answer was what he called “fusionism,” a marriage of true minds between the traditionalist and libertarian camps. “That fused position,” he wrote, “recognizes at one and the same time the transcendent goal of human existence and the primacy of the freedom of the person. … [I]t maintains that the duty of men is to seek virtue; but it insists that men cannot in actuality do so unless they are free from the physical coercion of an unlimited state.”

Statism, of course, is anathema to conservatives and libertarians alike. And in the context of the American right, whose primary duty must always be to oppose the burgeoning of the federal state, the traditionalist-libertarian alliance is of necessity. Meyer’s case, however, is something quite different. His philosophy of fusionism asserted, not only that both camps must band together to resist the encroachment of governmental force, but that traditionalism and libertarianism could be merged into a coherent principled whole, to which a single person could subscribe in full without compromising his intelligence.

In a trenchant response, entitled “Freedom or Virtue?” (also published in National Review, later the same year), Bozell assailed the fusionist case from the traditionalist side. His argument, though complex, can best be summarized by way of two of his premises. First, the fortress of the freedom of the will in each individual is impregnable by political coercion; that is, “the freedom that is necessary to virtue is presumably a freedom no man will ever be without.” Second, man’s propensity toward evil—what the devout Bozell identified as original sin—means that every man needs whatever help he can get in choosing the better angels of his nature over the worse. Custom, tradition, religion, social norms, and law are valuable precisely inasmuch as they incline the will toward the good. Whereas the libertarian sees in such will-shaping influences only so many trespasses on the sacred freedom of the individual, the traditionalist knows that man is never his own creation. Society will influence him for good or ill, and so we had better strive to make it for the good.

For my part, I’m with Bozell, but I’m sure there are others on this site with fusionist or libertarian sympathies, and I’d be happy to read an apologia in Meyer’s behalf. After all, the best arguments are neverending.

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