The Corner

Politics & Policy

Frank Meyer and Our Present Discontents

In a recent essay for First Things, Ben Sixsmith takes a look back at the founder of fusionist conservatism. Meyer’s key argument for bringing libertarians and traditionalists together, and about how they should be brought together, was that virtue had to be freely chosen. Reviewing the criticisms by Meyer’s contemporaries, Sixsmith notes that this argument was too weak to bear the weight Meyer put on it. I summarized its defects in NR in 2002:

It is true that the law cannot compel the internal assent of the will. But that truth does not by itself yield the Millian libertarian conclusions that Meyer draws from it. It does not mean, that is, that virtue is impossible under compulsion. Whether to obey the law is always a moral choice, for one thing; and one can do the right thing for the right reason even if the law provides an additional reason for doing it.

It would be pointless, in just the way Meyer supposes, for the law to attempt to compel religious belief. But there is a point to using the law to protect a moral ecology that supports people in the exercise of virtue. Laws help form character. They teach. Many times, they do so in ways compatible with strict libertarianism — by punishing some classes of unjust action, or allowing industry to be rewarded. But Meyer provides no good reason for abjuring non-libertarian morals laws in all cases.

Especially when social conservatives are in an assertive mood, there is a widespread tendency, on left and right, to exaggerate how opposed such laws are to liberal democracy, the spirit of America, etc. Sixsmith is pithy on this point: “A state that encourages marriage, for example, and insists that husbands and wives must have good reasons to seek divorce, need not be an austere, totalitarian one. This is, in fact, how the United States governed such matters through the 1950s.” Whether or not one believes that this aspect of pre-1960s America should be revived, our polity was, and was universally recognized to be, a liberal one at the time. (It may be, as other contributors to First Things would probably aver, that the seeds for the changes in marriage law, and much else, were planted in the liberalism of American Founding; but that’s a different argument, not addressed in the essay.)

I think Sixsmith misfires, or at least raises questions that deserved further elaboration, only in his conclusion. Fusionism has led to an economic liberalization, he writes, that “must be assessed against a background of rising rates of suicide and death by opioid abuse, and declining rates of birth and family formation.” Would these maladies be any less severe if we still had 70 percent tax rates or trucking regulation? Conservatives have long believed that “ideas have consequences.” But the line from Frank Meyer to the opioid epidemic is surely a meandering one.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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