The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2014

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E. C. Pasour, Jr. - 04/19/12

Traditionalist and libertarian ideas largely dominated the American Right’s agenda in the era immediately after World War II. Fusionism is the term applied to the attempt during the 1950s and 1960s to reconcile the philosophical gap that existed between these strands of “conservative thought.” Traditionalists emphasized the importance of religious and moral beliefs in the quest for virtue. Libertarians stressed the importance of reason and freedom. There was unified opposition on the Right against the expanding welfare state. However, traditionalists often were (and are) willing to use state power to attain their goals—which was (and is) anathema to libertarians. Frank Meyer, a leading figure of the American Right in the early post–World War II era, led the attempt to reconcile these divergent strands of conservative thought.

The early postwar Right reflected several important influences. First, critiques of statist policies by libertarian economists provided intellectual support for the decentralized market economy. The Right was highly critical of the collectivism of the Roosevelt New Deal, and especially benefited from contributions of the Austrian School of Economics. Ludwig von Mises in Socialism (1936) proved that central direction dooms an economy to failure. F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (1944) showed that central planning was inconsistent with individual liberty. Henry Hazlitt, Wilhelm Röpke, and Chicago Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman also made notable contributions.

Anticommunism, including opposition to Soviet imperialism, was a second critical factor shaping the Right. Communism appeared to pose a unique threat to most on the Right, as the Iron Curtain of collectivism descended on Eastern Europe and the specter of domination by the Soviet Union haunted the West. The publication of Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness (1952) was a defining moment in the anticommunist movement in the United States, revealing that communist views and practices were implacably hostile to the very foundations of a free society. Witness provided a graphic account of Chambers’s transformation from a communist agent into a dedicated enemy of collectivism. In 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review, a periodical that became especially influential among traditionalist conservatives, Buckley considered the Soviet threat so important that he was willing to accept the idea that Big Government would be necessary in the struggle against collectivism.

The historical foundations of society, the “permanent things” that traditionalist conservatives emphasize, were a third important influence on the postwar conservative movement. Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) were especially influential. Weaver was a critic of moral relativism and mass culture, and Kirk echoed Weaver in holding that change does not imply progress. Kirk contributed a set of first principles that reflected the conservatism of Edmund Burke. This set of integrated beliefs, traceable to biblical antiquity, addressed the religious and moral concerns of traditionalists. For Kirk, the classical and Christian virtues were not incompatible with a decentralized market economy; indeed, he affirmed that private property was a moral and social good.

Libertarians and traditionalists found a significant amount of common ground in the postwar Right. However, traditionalists were clearly more concerned with ethical than economic issues and emphasized the moral implications of collectivism for traditional institutions and practices. Libertarians, on the other hand, stressed the importance of economic freedom and individual liberty and emphasized statism’s inevitable infringement upon the individual’s right to choose, whatever the area of choice.

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