Refusionism

Conservatism is, once again, becoming a form of right-wing collectivism. Classical liberals and libertarians should stay away.

It’s not exactly a secret that classical liberals and libertarians are not very numerous. Indeed, in some quarters at least, it is our existence that has come as a surprise for some time now, and in the last few days it has been fashionable to claim that “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic“. In North America (and elsewhere) political parties that proclaim themselves libertarian tend to be minuscule and ineffective, even in comparison with the already small number of people who are at least broadly sympathetic with libertarian or classical liberal ideas. So it is unsurprising that, for decades now, the approach of many libertarians in the United States who have been interested in obtaining measurable political success has been to embrace “fusionism“: a convergence, if not quite literally a fusion, of ideology and political action with conservatives sympathetic to mostly free markets and to a considerable if insufficient measure of individual liberty and to the Rule of Law.

However, the nature of American ― and perhaps also Canadian ― conservatism has been changing in the last few years. If Donald Trump is the standard-bearer of an ideology, this ideology has little in common with that of William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan. Libertarians and classical liberals must ask themselves whether fusionism, assuming it was a defensible posture in the past, is still one now. Some conversations at the recent Runnymede Society Conference, in which I was fortunate to participate, and thereafter have prompted me to explain why I think that it is not.


Let me begin by describing what I take to be, in broad outline, the sort of conservatism with which I want to have no truck. This is no easy task, despite the proliferation of manifestos in the United States. For one thing, I have to admit that I do not keep track of them all. For another, they do not necessarily agree with one another ― that’s the point of having multiple manifestos. Besides, their authors and adherents are getting no less adept than social justice warriors at deploying what Scott Alexander once described as “motte-and-bailey” rhetorical tactics: switching between expansive-but-scary and banal-but-unobjectionable versions of their claims as suits the circumstances. More fundamentally, as Jonah Goldberg observed in a recent episode of The Remnant podcast, it seems to some substantial large extent to be reverse-engineered to justify the policies if not also the behaviour of Mr. Trump, and may yet be discarded once his political career ends.

That said, I am willing to believe that more than a few of the manifesto-writers are sincere, or will come to believe their own hype. Moreover, there is ― as I have come to realize ― a Canadian version of this ideology, presumably less beholden to Mr. Trump, but also less vocal and so, if anything, even more difficult to pin down. Still, I think one can identify three main themes in this incarnation of conservatism, and they are the ones I shall focus on.

First, there is a belief ― held especially by the Catholic, but perhaps more broadly by the religious, supporters of this doctrine ― in using the state to advance and enforce a conception of the greater good, or indeed “the highest good”. On this view, the relative neutrality of the state as between competing conceptions of the good life, or the state’s tolerance of people who drift along without such a conception are grievously wrong. The state must identify, and identify with, a particular understanding of how individuals, families, and communities ought to live, and incentivize, perhaps force, them to live in this way. The Catholic supporters of this view would, of course, wish to see the state embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church as to what the good life is like (a view known as Catholic integralism), but I suppose there are other possibilities in this regard.

Second, to a greater or lesser extent, this doctrine rejects free markets. Some of its supporters identify as anti-market; others may adopt an attitude that’s more reminiscent of Elizabeth Warren’s: ostensibly pro-market, but in reality deeply suspicious of any economic decisions people might make on their own, without the state’s intervention. (The motte-and-bailey tactic is likely to be deployed here, further confusing matters.) International trade is a particular object of suspicion, but not the only one. At least some large companies, deemed too disruptive or ideologically hostile, are also suspect and potential targets for severe or even destructive regulation. And beyond specific policies, there is a general sense that the state can and should intervene in the economy to ensure acceptable outcomes for favoured groups (such as manufacturing workers) or for a country’s citizens.

And third, there is nationalism and hostility to people and institutions deemed “globalist” in outlook. The interests of a nation ― considered as an aggregate, rather than as a collection of individuals with their own peculiar tastes, preferences, and needs ― must prevail over those of all others. There is also, to a greater or lesser extent, suspicion of or even hostility to immigration, in the name of, as Stephanie Slade (Mr. Goldberg’s interviewee in the podcast linked to above) writes in a recent Reason article, “preserv[ing] … cultural homogeneity (such as it exists) from the diluting influence of foreigners” and embracing “an anti-cosmopolitanism that seeks to throw up barriers to free markets and free trade”.

Having described its main features, I am left with the question of what this doctrine should be called. I initially thought of referring to it as a “new conservatism”, but in reality it is very old ― albeit not in North America. It is, indeed, more or less the same ideology that F.A. Hayek decries in “Why I am Not a Conservative“. A conservative, Hayek writes,

does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. … [H]is main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people. (4)

Perhaps it is the fusionist conservatism that at least purported to care about limiting government power that was an aberration, and the phenomenon I have been describing is simply conservatism tout court. But another label, which for reasons that I shall presently explain strikes me as appropriate is right-wing collectivism.


Whatever we call it, however, this doctrine is not remotely compatible with a classical liberal or libertarian worldview. The disagreement is not just limited, as it might have been, on some views anyway, between classical liberals and fusionism-era conservatives, to divergent interpretations of rights to which both groups were committed or ideals to which they subscribed. It is fundamental. Indeed, while they might not yet be promising us five-year plans, and will certainly never be singing “The Internationale”, the right-wing collectivists are just the sort of people whom F.A. Hayek had in mind when he dedicated The Road to Serfdom “to socialists of all parties” ― not just of the admittedly socialist ones.

Ms. Slade ― who writes specifically about nationalism but whose argument easily extends to the other aspects of this ideology ― explains that

[t]oday’s nationalists think the … government has an obligation to actively pursue what they call the “national interest”. Any agenda that assumes the existence of such a thing must begin by making a variety of determinations, from who should be allowed to join the polity to whether to privilege the producer’s bottom line over the consumer’s. And in anything short of a monolithic society, that means overriding some individuals’ preferences—and often their right to make choices for themselves.

As with the “national interest”, so with the “highest good” and with the “anti-market” approach to the economy. These beliefs are inherently incompatible with the primacy and autonomy of the individual ― in the individual’s right and ability to arrange his or her priorities and to live in accordance with them rather than with the diktats of authority. They are particular instantiations of collectivism, as Hayek understood it. As I explained here in the first part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom, for Hayek,

[c]ollectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own.

This is what the moralizing, anti-market, nationalist conservatism proposes to do. Just like the old socialists, its proponents think that they not only know what is right, who should trade with whom and at what profit, and which group of people is most deserving, but that they have the authority to organize the world on the basis of this supposed knowledge, or at least that a bare electoral majority would give them such an authority.

The right-wing collectivists are determined to ignore Hayek’s warning that there can be no agreement on a general scale of values ― not even on the highest good, let alone on the second highest, the third highest, etc. ― in a free society, and that any attempt to impose and implement such a hierarchy can only be accomplished by manipulation and force. It must result, ultimately, in the destruction of personal morality itself, because collectivism “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (50th Anniversary ed., 161) the state’s fiat being paramount. This might be an ironic result for the more religiously-minded of the new right-wing collectivists, but I’m not sure they will in fact notice the irony.

In “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, Hayek argued that an adherent to conservative ideology “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions”. (4) This applies also to the right-wing collectivists. Like their forbears, they lack “an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends”. (4) And, like socialists, they will come ― at least if they come anywhere near real political power ― to disparage the liberal view that “neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion”. (4)


The philosophically and morally right position, now as ever (and yes, the present pandemic notwithstanding, as I shall argue in another post), is liberalism based on individualism, understood, as Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom, as the “recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions”. (66) This applies in the personal as well as the economic sphere ― the choices of one’s conception of a good life as well as to the choice of one’s trading partners.

The right-wing collectivism being firmly opposed to individualism, so understood, there can be no fusion of liberal or libertarian ideas with it ― no merger, certainly, not a long-term alliance, not even a presumption of co-operation. No doubt there will remain particular issues on which the right-wingers will oppose their fellow collectivists of the left, and classical liberals or libertarians can work with them in these cases. But we should be under no illusions. The right-wing collectivists will not tolerate us if they take power, all the more so since, as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, it is “the worst” ― the most ruthless, the most unprincipled ― who “get on top” in any collectivist regime. A tolerant nationalist, “highest-good” conservatism is as much a delusion as democratic socialism.

Hayek’s prescription for our politics remains compelling too. He wrote ― as I put it the second part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom

we need … to accept that ends do not justify all means; that collectivist and a fortiori dictatorial instruments cannot be put in the service of the right ideals, or entrusted to the right people, without either corrupting them or being seized by the more ruthless and corrupt; that “power itself” is “the archdevil”, (159) and that power concentrated in the hands of the state “is … infinitely heightened” (159) in comparison with that wielded by private actors.

If standing on these principles leaves us politically isolated, so be it. There are worse things than political failure. Supporting those who would cheerfully trample on everything one stands for is one of them.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

4 thoughts on “Refusionism”

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