The fusionism of the past has been outmoded not due to some notion of progressive change but because the libertarian perspective it promotes is fundamentally flawed. Acknowledging the failure of fusionism is the first step to ensuring that conservatism may long endure.

I recently had a rather extended debate with a libertarian-minded friend who expressed vehement disdain for David Azerrad’s essay on contemporary conservatism published in The American Conservative’s “What is American Conservatism” series.[1] Dr. Azerrad’s main point is that the big tent framework that Buckley assembled at National Review worked during the Cold War, but this fusionism of libertarians and traditionalists is simply untenable today. Dr. Azerrad is correct on this point, but he underplays the perverse view of human beings that undergirds a libertarian philosophy. Simply put, their ideological framework of “rational” self-interest does not work because governing men cannot and should not be based on economics. Movement conservatism has been a fusionist failure, and now is a time for reflection and improvement to ensure the movement better serves the people it allegedly represents.

In the same “What is American Conservatism” series, Neal B. Freeman writes that fusionism is not only still possible but also necessary.[2] He presumes that if the notion of individual liberty is eschewed then conservatism will die. The problem is that this choice need not be so binary. Libertarians are pure in their ideology, so any sort of government intervention is viewed as inherently tyrannical. Part of the solution for Mr. Freeman is to “reestablish” conservatism’s relationship with the libertarians. He believes they have no real sway anymore: “In contemporary public life, the libertarian flame has been all but extinguished.” And yet, they remain generally overrepresented in conservative economic policy, which has spurred on the rise of populism on the right in recent years. Rekindling the old base will suffice for Mr. Freeman. This nostalgic pining for the past is not a successful political strategy, and he fails to acknowledge any deleterious effects that libertarians have had on conservatism. This is not to totally dismiss the important role fusionism had in its day. However, circumstances have changed dramatically, in part, due to the economic environment promoted by the libertarians and the disastrous foreign policy pushed by the neoconservatives in recent decades.

The fusionism of the past has been outmoded not due to some notion of progressive change but because the libertarian perspective it promotes is fundamentally flawed. In viewing human beings through an economic lens, libertarians reduce man in a manner akin to the Marxists: Man is first and foremost an economic unit. But every American is a human being and citizen, so he cannot be viewed as simply the value of his labor. Government’s legitimacy rests on the consent of the governed, but the current order has permitted those in power to help large corporations while abandoning the working class.

One example of a losing message for the conservative movement both practically and philosophically is Kevin Williamson’s libertarian stance on how to deal with smaller industrial towns in decline. He wants government to do nothing because the free market is simply doing its job. There are winners and losers, so be it. This sounds bad to a normal American of decent character, but Mr. Williamson’s own words from a few years ago are even more jarring:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.[3]

The solution he offers for those in this totally irredeemable town: “They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” Fusionism was ostensibly designed for libertarians and traditionalists to have their place in the movement, but the libertarians view the world in a way antithetical to the traditionalist. Russell Kirk, for example, stressed the importance of connection to place and maintaining healthy communities. But Mr. Williamson believes there is no good to be had in a community in decline, and it is perfectly fine for it to die. Libertarians would rather preach about free markets and tax cuts instead of helping out these towns in which the factories were outsourced to China because they deny this is a real problem at all. In this formulation, abstract principles matter more than real effects on real people.

Free-market economic policy has been a godsend for China and the governing Chinese Communist Party, yet it has not been so positive for many Americans. Contrary to Mr. Williamson’s attempt to cast such a criticism as racist, we know that the Chinese are not playing by the same rules. The CCP does not care about the environment, workplace safety, and the livelihoods of the average worker. China has experienced an unprecedented economic boom in recent decades propelled by American businesses finding cheaper means of production and selling those cheaper goods to the American consumer, thus creating a vicious cycle. It is clear that it is immoral for our country to outsource both due to the effects it has on the American worker and the horrible conditions it promotes for workers abroad.

Let us examine a hypothetical. A man in his mid-50s who has lived in the same town his whole life, has worked in the same factory for decades, and is nearing retirement experiences a tragedy: The plant is closing. The free-market fundamentalists would say leave the help to the churches and charities, but, if Kevin D. Williamson is right, the community is already struggling. They simply do not have sufficient resources without some government assistance. The libertarian would retort that this man should move to a place where jobs are more plentiful. Let’s grant the libertarian that such a place exists and ignore the debased state of the culture in the modern American city. This blue-collar man has a wife and several kids, so picking up and leaving is not an easy thing to do. There are costs involved regarding the property he owns in the failing town being worth less than the amount he is paying for in his mortgage and then there will be more to spend once arriving in a new place. So, he could learn a more modern profession, they say. That probably will not work. The man is proud of having devoted his career to developing a certain set of skills and doing his job well. His skills are still useful; it appears that they are not because his line of work is being outsourced. Furthermore, the jobs that remain in his town almost certainly pay less than the rate he has been able to accrue over the years.

The supposedly free market is unfair to Americans, and it is the working person who suffers most, not the elite libertarian keyboard warrior who shops at Whole Foods. People may enjoy cheap consumer goods from Amazon, but this is not the substance of what people actually need. The fundamentals necessary for a good life have not become cheaper. As Oren Cass has shown, the costs of housing, education, and healthcare have not fallen in the same way as frivolous items ordered on the internet.[4] Concurrently, real wages have stagnated making necessary expenses a burden for many. Moving somewhere else may not be the answer for this overarching problem, contra Mr. Williamson.

The libertarians will respond with an argument akin to the socialists: A real free market has not been implemented. We need more tax cuts and deregulation to further our supply-side agenda. But again, this ideology in untenable when governing real human beings and dealing with an international community which does not abide by such free-market values. Tax cuts aren’t going to cut it. Material prosperity is but one good among many we pursue within society. In making economics the focus, the libertarians tend to forget the other goods from national security to strong communities which society must promote in the pursuit of the highest good: justice.

The more practical libertarians base their free-market view on the idea that it “works,” but this market clearly has been a failure for many average people pursuing their American Dream. The Industrial Revolution spearheaded a new dynamic in which the people can no longer sustain themselves, so they generally must work for some larger corporation to take care of their needs. Small businesses are then dependent on the workers from the large employers patronizing their shops, so they are also are beholden to large corporations. As time goes by, this is becoming the case even more firmly. Americans are now so dependent on industry that the man in the decaying town is looking at losing more than merely a job. For this man, his sense of purpose within his career, family, and community is at stake.

The average American does not care about the supposed efficiency of some economic system. They want results, and the economic structure they are subject to has not benefited them. The rise of populism in recent years makes this abundantly clear. They desire a solid family life in a country that protects them. The working class tends to be patriotic and more religious that the people who possess power. The cancel culture perpetuated by the elites is foreign to them. These smaller towns are key to preserving elements of the American culture that tend to be amenable to conservatives. Yet, libertarianism presumes government intervention in economics should be minimal to a fault. Their focus on economic expediency treats the average person as a cog in the economic machine. Likewise, the culture of license that libertarians promote in their base view of liberty is antithetical to the morals of the average person.

Conservatism better represents the principles of so-called flyover country, and yet it has permitted itself to focus on the wrong things: regime change wars and free-market fundamentalism. The best thing the rise of Donald Trump has done is to give conservatives an opportunity for introspection. Factions within the old fusionist order were represented in the 2016 primary, but Mr. Trump won, to the surprise of many. To dismiss the working class’s dissatisfaction with the same old economic libertarianism is to provide certain doom for conservatism in the future. The working class is a constituency that liberals could easily win back if conservatives choose to let them go. The people who voted Republican in the previous election were not simply selecting a singular figure but also rebuffing those who had been entrusted with governing on their behalf. Acknowledging the failure of fusionism is the first step to ensuring that conservatism may long endure.

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Notes:

[1] David Azerrad, “American Conservatism Is Fiddling While Rome Burns,” The American Conservative (July 2020).

[2] Neil B. Freeman, “American Conservatism Is (Still) Fusionism,” The American Conservative (August 2020).

[3] Kevin D. Williamson, “The Father-Führer,” National Review (March 2016).

[4] Oren Cass, “The Cost of Thriving,” American Affairs (Spring 2020).

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