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Fusion of Right Not Impossible


The story of conservative icon Frank Strauss Meyer holds lessons for fractured non-socialist groups today.

Originally published in the Calgary Herald, November 20th, 1999.


Michael Taube

 Author Notes

Columnist for the Moncton Times and Transcript, also published in various other journals

 Essay - 11/20/1999

As the Canadian right tries to unite under one banner, the ultimate goal is not to solely align opposing political parties. It is to break down the animosity between certain factions, especially the conservative wing and the libertarian wing of the movement.

Conservatives and libertarians are not as different as they were a few decades ago. Both share an interest in concepts such as the free market, individual liberty, and the need for smaller government. However, they are still on opposite sides of particular elements of thought, including the areas of religion, freedom of speech, and even the legalization of drugs.

If the political right were ever able to create a conservative-libertarian coalition, victory in future elections would be assured. Reformers and Tories would be able to see eye to eye on many issues. Red Tories and Blue Tories would be able to co-exist with one another. Social conservatives and economic conservatives would finally be able to sign a lasting truce.

Many observers would say that this sort of coalition is a pipe dream even Preston Manning would disown. Yet, there have been some valiant attempts to unite the philosophies of conservatism and libertarianism.

One of the grandest schemes was concocted by the late Frank Straus Meyer, a key figure in the post-Second World War American conservative movement and later the inspirational leader of bringing conservatives and libertarians together.

Meyer's journey to conservatism was not unique for his times. While attending Oxford University, he became infatuated with the theory of communism. In fact, he joined the Communist Party of Britain in 1931, and remained a dedicated Communist for more than a decade. By the end of the Second World War, he recanted his communist past.

He was deeply influenced by seminal works such as Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. From 1945-1952, he transformed from a non-Communist to a doctrinaire socialist to a Democrat and finally to a Republican.

During Meyer's political transformation, there had been a severe break in the American conservative movement between traditionalists and classic libertarians. The traditionalists were staunch conservatives, intensely religious and skeptical of the concept of laissez-faire economics. The libertarians were free thinkers, searching for more economic freedom and trumpeting the rights of the individual over the community.

Due to his past flirtation with the political left, Meyer was always in search of new ideas and ways to bring his conservative brethren together. As a senior editor at National Review - the popular intellectual conservative magazine started by William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955 - he had a powerful forum for his ideas, which were still evolving and flourishing well into the next decade.

At the same time, he began to realize something about conservatives and libertarians. First, Meyer believed that American conservatives were wrong to say virtue, the goal of conservatives, should be utilized by the State to get its message across properly. Rather, as George H. Nash noted in his classic work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976), Meyer felt that the nature of freedom "was the absolutely dispensable condition of the pursuit of virtue." Further, freedom "was the ultimate political end; virtue was the ultimate end of man as man."

Second, conservatives and libertarians were not as far apart in their ideology as had been previously thought. In his 1962 essay "The Twisted Tree of Liberty," Meyer stated that the "common source in the ethos of Western civilization," which included conservative and libertarian thought, caused the political discourse which created "the fusion that is contemporary American conservatism."

With these revelations in mind, Meyer worked furiously to fuse conservatives and libertarians together in a proper working coalition. He put out a stunning anthology in 1964 entitled What Is Conservatism?, which included submissions from proper conservative and libertarian scholars, including Hayek, Buckley, Russell Kirk, Garry Wills and M. Stanton Evans. Meyer believed that these conservative intellectuals had their differences, but agreed on several important fronts.

These included a moral order for human conduct, an opposition of using the State's will to control the values and patterns of human beings, and hatred towards communism and social planning.

Unfortunately, Meyer failed in his attempt to bring the American conservative movement together. He was attacked by his peers in numerous works. For example, Kirk criticized Meyer for writing "vigorously against conservatism" and for being "filled with detestation of all champions of authority." Bozell wrote in National Review in 1962 that the libertarian principle of maximizing freedom, which must appear in all activities of society, actually means that "virtue must be made as difficult as possible."

At the same time, Meyer succeeded in getting conservatives to at least think about uniting the various strands together. Buckley noted that there was a "symbiosis" in the movement by the mid-1960s. Libertarians such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and ex-Objectivists such as Alan Greenspan, were revered in various conservative circles.

The original neo-conservatives, including Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, eventually joined the movement and revitalized it. While political divisions obviously still exist, there are many thriving political bridges that have been built.

Meyer's true political destiny was served in the role of political innovator, a brilliant thinker truly ahead of his time. He contributed in much the same way that Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 U.S. presidential campaign eventually led to the successful campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980 - or George Drew's unsuccessful Declaration of Policy in 1949 to position the federal Tories under a business liberal agenda eventually led to Brian Mulroney's successful revitalization of Canadian conservatism in 1984.

As Reformers and Blue Tories valiantly struggle to keep the United Alternative alive, and as Red Tories fight for the survival of their age-old party, there are lessons to be learned from the legacy of Meyer.

While differences among conservative factions may exist, our similarities can make us great. The movement does have room for all factions, from paleoconservatives (the old traditionalists) to neoconservatives (the modern conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals). By uniting our political, economic and social ideas together, we can create a true political force in Canada, possibly strong enough to defeat the Liberals. Meyer's great single political thought might finally come to pass:

"Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."

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