Neal Freeman wrote last week in The American Spectator that the “National Conservatives,” as they style themselves, and Christopher DeMuth, the chairman of the two conferences the NatCons have held, have chosen to “move on” (as Freeman puts it) from fusionism. (Full disclosure: I was a sponsor of the two NatCon conferences, and I’ve known Neal since we both worked in the Buckley for Mayor campaign in 1965 — eat your heart out!) Before looking at Freeman’s objections to the NatCons, we should take a quick look at what fusionism actually is. The term was coined back in the ’60s at National Review to describe the coalescence of libertarians, traditional conservatives, and anti-communists. At the 1981 Conservative Political Action Conference, President Reagan said this about it:
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace.
Gosh, that guy Reagan was really good.
It’s not quite clear precisely what Freeman is objecting to, his prose is such … fun to read. He took Daily Themes at Yale (first taught in 1907), the same course Buckley took: 300 words a day. Only the best survive, like Buckley and Freeman. Now Freeman can write sentences like, “The NatCon political model appears to be neither Napoleonic France nor Churchillian Britain but Orbanian Hungary. When national conservatism first came on stage, some of us were expecting a bit more fanfare from the brass section.” Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. But what does it mean? What, precisely, is it that Freeman is objecting to?
We learn, in the very last sentence of his piece: it’s the planned economy, as advocated, he claims, by various people in the NatCon world.
Freeman relates that he once ran a business that could not compete with foreign imports, but he chastises those who say, as he says Rod Dreher does, “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.” To do what?
We tend to forget that this country was founded not just to be free, but to be good as well.
Freeman is not fair to many of the NatCon folks: there’s lots to object to in our current economic arrangements before becoming an advocate for a socialist planned economy. Does anyone think what we have now is a free market? We should remember President Obama’s proposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), from which we can develop this axiom: no trade governed by a 2,000-page treaty can be called “free.”
If the current laws and regulations that govern business activities in this country could be printed (even in one-point type) on only 2,000 pages, every day would be the Fourth of July in this land for a generation. What this country needs is to repeal a thousand laws. For a start.
In taking a swipe at the NatCons, Freeman gives DeMuth a pass, but says, “His fellow NatCons are less measured. Spend an hour at the bar with a NatCon and you get the full, splenetic file” on how bad the libertarians are; that their solution to every problem is to cut the income tax. I was at the last NatCon conference in Orlando in November and missed seeing Freeman at the bar; nor did I get the impression that the NatCons had a bad enough impression of libertarians.
To wit: at the evening session on November 1 in Orlando the panel showcased two homosexuals, one of whom said, “The Catholic Church lost its moral authority in country after country. That was not because of liberals; it was because of the Catholic Church, specifically, the behavior of priests.” That’s rich, coming from a homosexual who said also, “There’s nothing so ridiculous as one male adult telling another male adult what to do with their genitalia.” My end of the bar required another round before quieting down.
Freeman also picks on J. D. Vance, currently running for the nomination for the U. S. Senate from Ohio. Vance has said (but was he joking?) that we (the government presumably) should seize the Ford Foundation’s $20 billion and distribute the funds … in a better manner than the foundation does. It’s not likely that Vance meant that exactly as it sounds: he is objecting, one assumes, to the lopsided power that lefties and wokies have gained in this country, including, as we saw just a year ago, the power to affect the outcome of elections.
About which something should be done!
Just what is a puzzle not yet solved, so far as we are aware, by the strict devotees of fusionism. One problem, surely, is that many corporations have simply become too big. Just because antitrust laws were abused in the early decades of the 20th century doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be applied appropriately now. It is most relevant to note that in the very first issue of National Review, Buckley wrote about monopolies: “The competitive price system is indispensable to liberty and material progress. It is threatened not only by the growth of Big Brother government, but by the pressure of monopolies — including union monopolies.” That sounds like an endorsement of government’s muscling in, not just a nostalgic longing for Southern agrarianism.
Big corporations, with armies of lobbyists and lawyers that outnumber the troops of Mordor — all armed with limitless budgets for wining and dining — influence the making of public policy with the goal, and the result, of making it increasingly difficult for small businesses to compete with them. China isn’t our only problem.
The size of government, mega-corporations, and most especially high-tech monopolies is a problem, though not the only problem. Those monopolies, with the gravitational force of Saturn, shape business, and they shape, and trash, the culture. It is not likely that little Burkean platoons of citizens gathered together here and there across the plains can escape that force; they will need to band together in something like, well, like government. During the Cold War we — we conservatives, we fusionists even — put up with a government larger that we wanted because a government of that size was necessary to keep us free (the Lions Club couldn’t develop Star Wars). Now we need to curtail the power, not just of big government, but of big business as well — mega-corps, big banks, high-tech monopolies — and the Lions Club can’t do that either.
We say, and not ritually, that a government big enough to give us all we want is big enough to take it all away — which is why we don’t want a government that big: not big enough to give us all we want, but only those things government should give us, primarily protection from our enemies foreign and domestic, and the other items enumerated in our Constitution, properly understood.
Our government today is a lot bigger than it was when Reagan made his remarks about fusionism in 1981. Our big government itself, including the Supreme Court, has been the instrument for abandoning our traditions and trashing our culture (rampant pornography), our mores (rampant, and subsidized, illegitimacy, homosexual marriage), our faith (driving God from the public square and from public schools), and our belief in the sanctity of human life, and the very definition of men and women. None of that trashing, now far worse than it was in 1981, is part of “the deeper current of Western learning and culture” that Reagan spoke about. Which of those issues would not have been a concern of the founding editors of National Review, or the solons of fusionism?
The people and the states should manage their own affairs, consistent with the goodness the Founding Fathers sought to embody in our system, but they cannot unless we dismantle more than a century of big government — the legacy of Wilson and Roosevelt and Johnson and Nixon and Bush and Obama — and the plagues big government, as well as the Supreme Court, has over the years visited on us, freed from any notion of good that the Founders had. We tend to forget that this country was founded not just to be free, but to be good as well.
So there is much work to do. We are adults, however, experienced in the ways of Washington, and we know, we know, that enacting a specific legislative provision to solve this problem or that problem will always be easier than repealing a major law or overturning a Supreme Court decision, which probably requires a full-scale attack on the zeitgeist. And so we propose discrete fixes … and then the number of laws and their complexity grows.
And with it, the need for National Conservatives to gather together to plan for — to plot and scheme for — a revival of the spirit of liberty and goodness that vouchsafed this nation to us, a revival that would make our ancestors proud, and our children free and good.
Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of the Education and Research Institute and a Director of Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Email Daniel Oliver at Daniel.Oliver@TheCandidAmerican.com.