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Originally published: 1962
229 pages
Chapter 10


Frank S. Meyer

Like all political constructions, conservatism has many facets. As was noted in the introduction to First Principles conservatism is not so much a philosophy as it is a movement, and a way of thinking. Over time-several centuries-the various methods and foundations of conservative thought have been tested in the political marketplace. Ultimately, two approaches to governance evolved, both of which embraced truly conservative thinking and each of which supported the other. The first was called conservatism, the other libertarianism. But there were differences; some were significant variations regarding what government should and should not be able to accomplish. These variations required cross-pollination, or at least mutual recognition, in order to make both processes serviceable and to allow them to be applied to everyday realities. They also needed the restraints each faction forced the other to consider. The two were far better off together than separate.
     In the 1950s Frank Meyer blended these two approaches in one of his signal philosophical achievements. This melding was called "fusion." Classical liberal traditionalists, the philosophical descendants of Edmund Burke (known today as conservatives) and Libertarians had been partially at odds for many years, and Meyer knew that their methodological and substantive differences needed to be resolved before the theories both represented could or would be a force in philosophical, economic, or political conversations. Meyer's fusion helped make the American conservative movement intellectually and politically viable.


     Meyer starts, as Lord Acton does (Essays in the History of Liberty [Chapter 9]), with the Libertarian premise that an individual's freedom, not the needs of society, is the "decisive criterion" of good government. The conservative heirs of Edmund Burke had taken a slightly different tack; they posited that society was an organic or living reality to which the individual's subordination, within limits, was necessary in order for the whole to function. For the followers of Burke defining exactly the dividing line between individual and societal rights was where a philosophy of governance served a purpose.
     Meyer's fusion reflects his understanding, in line with Burke's, that the lessons of the past, which had coalesced into rules of human behavior and interaction (traditional or "classical" liberalism), could not be minimized for they were hard fought and logically established. As well, however, the imperative of change and the needs of each individual (Libertarianism) could not be eschewed at the behest of government no matter how much tradition was involved and no matter how important society's claimed preeminence. Through the generations since Burke's time the West experienced a continually evolving world where government expanded for no other reason than it could. The individual's need and right to protect himself from that ever-encroaching Leviathan had become, for Meyer and the Libertarians, a given. As Meyer observes, the necessity of controlling government both intellectually and actually, is simply a continuing obligation of the governed. They cannot rely on the governors to do this for them.
     The philosophical conjunction of traditional or classical liberalism and Libertarianism was achieved through Meyer's process. This was not because the followers of either viewpoint necessarily felt they needed each other but because their philosophies were mutually sustaining. The classical liberals understood the need to value history's lessons (its "prescriptions"); the Libertarians expressed the need never to lose sight of man's first goal-his freedom. It was, and still is, a good fit. The Libertarians continually remind us to control government to protect the individual's freedom; conversely, government, from the classical liberal viewpoint, is to continually strive to order society to protect everyone's individual rights. Liberty under law on one hand, freedom from unnecessary or arbitrary control of any ilk on the other. That, in Meyer's hands, became the paradigm. How well it actually works is up to us.


     As he defines the two branches of conservatism Meyer dissects government and contends in opposition to the thinking of Enlightenment-era liberals that there is no "deified will" embodied in the state. The liberals insisted otherwise; that the state, not the individual, was the supreme "good." For Meyer the state has no purpose that can be exalted above mankind; the state is an empty vessel that only the people can fill, idiosyncratically, based on the vagaries of life. He maintains, with obvious validity, that truth can never be achieved with finality. Instead, each generation must test the truths of the past and, in so doing, find its own verities and discover its own errors. Man's relation to man and to society never ceases to evolve and it is thus a given that the test of truth is not logic or authority but experience.
     The bulk of Meyer's commentary on the freedom he observes embodied in the fluid relationship between tradition and individualism appears in the main essay of this abbreviated collection of his publications. Because of his personal history it was almost imperative that Meyer go through the intellectual exercise that was to result in his contribution to conservative practice. That journey greatly benefited all conservative thinking.
     Meyer came to conservatism and his concept of freedom through the same fanatical mid-twentieth-century communist route as did many of his intellectual contemporaries, and his ultimate anti-communism, anti-utopianism, and anti-totalitarianism were equally fervent. Meyer's earlier philosophy, before he enunciated the imperative of liberty, is relatively easy to comprehend. The rationalist goal of all the collectivist intellectuals (that they could judiciously design and forcefully implement a perfect society built with imperfect humanity) led them to authoritarianism and, for some, communism. But their intellectualism and the results that many of them eventually saw in the totalitarian marketplace brought those grounded in the real world to understand their basic mistake; that is, their failure to accurately account for the human condition-both its positive and not-so-positive facets.
     They ultimately came to grasp that neither equality nor human perfection could be attained by fiat. They also arrived at the understanding that human inequalities, as measured by virtually all criteria, were not only not bad but were the foundation of all advancement. These inequalities license progress and its consequent betterment of life for everyone. The real crime according to Meyer and his formerly


collectivist colleagues is the stifling or extinction of man's freedom-not the fact that society is rife with inequity. For Meyer,

               freedom is no more nor less than the possibility-and responsibility-to
               choose. Freedom is the essence of the being of man, and since all social             
               institutions are subordinate to men, the virtue of political and social
               institutions should be judged by the degree to which they expand or
               contract the area of freedom.

     Meyer's point that "all social institutions are subordinate to men" is one found repeatedly throughout First Principles. It is one not to lose sight of as the various political creations, programs, and philosophies are encountered down through the centuries. The ease with which men can manipulate life for their own ends results in less confidence in the design of any governing entity and more concern regarding the open and enforceable rules put in place to constrain mankind's or its ruler's impulses and power.
     Meyer's second step in his analysis of freedom is to determine the climate under which liberty can flourish. Like all classical liberals he understood that civil society must have as its first premise an ethical base. If there are no "understood" rules by which civil discourse can proceed with comity, then it is folly to try to write or legislate those necessary to govern human interaction. Conversely, if we live in a moral society, then the number of rules, the number of points where government needs to step in to officiate are minimized (but not eliminated, for human foibles always exist).
     For Meyer, the creation of the "state," the ultimate referee, furthers the (very limited) governmental aim of ensuring an atmosphere of freedom in which people can choose and achieve literally anything they might imagine. The people have to act in a virtuous manner so that the necessity of any state intervention will be minimal; insofar as they do proceed in a moral fashion they need neither guidance nor control. Virtue, to Meyer, is a condition, a "state of grace" toward which humanity must always strive. Though ephemeral it is nevertheless the only rational goal of society. Virtue has religious, altruistic overtones, but it does not necessarily rest upon formal religious practices or any one faith. It really rests on man's relationship to man.
     Finally, Meyer returns to the concept of equality, which to conservatives means both the protection of everyone from coercion (from


being forced to do or be something other than what one's nature demands) and ensuring to everyone an equality of opportunity. For society, these two pre-conditions inevitably end in unequal results. Inequalities in individual attributes, performances, and outcomes flow from each person's genes, circumstances, and character. It is not within a government's capabilities to ensure an equal result for each individual and that surely must not become its goal.  In the real world inequality of outcome is far less fearsome than inequality of rights.
     Apropos of this principle, Meyer focuses on what he calls the Myth of Society: that man engages in political union to serve the whole. As noted above, Meyer contends that the relationship is the opposite: that political society's purpose is the maximizing of freedom for the individual through mutually accepted minimal limitations on personal actions. This stance, often called libertarianism, reflects a fundamental belief in both the individual's natural rights, and reason, coupled with experience, as the interpreter of those rights as they are translated into action.
     Perhaps most important for Meyer, there is no morality attached to freedom. Freedom is not a vehicle toward good; it is a condition or status. Freedom used badly or for bad ends is no less freedom. If man cannot choose to use freedom for his worst ends there is no opposition of values enabling him to know what his best may be. Thus, society affords no prospect for progress without the freedom to choose, the freedom to act upon the choices made, and finally, to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
     For Meyer, the state exists to preserve the individual's freedom to act and to be free from coercion by others, either collectively or individually. Therefore, the only legitimate uses of the state's power are to defend tranquillity from without or within and to pursue the administration of justice; i.e., the determination of where one individual's rights end and another's begin. To exercise these minimal powers, however, requires a dangerous concentration of authority; as a result the state must be limited in its range of power. Individuals or collections of individuals can and must commit themselves to performing virtually all societal functions not granted to the state thus keeping the state from growing simply through opportunity or convenience. The American educational system would be a prime example of what happens when the state initially becomes involved and then, by means of its gathered power, morphs into a Leviathan that can be stopped only through pitched battle.
     The goal of society, once limits are set, is to maintain a free order while pursuing virtue; and virtue, in a social construct, is defined as


little more than the Golden Rule. The two branches of conservative thinking-the traditionalist (which emphasizes evolved virtue [truths learned through experience and time]) and the Libertarian (which dwells on freedom), can thus meld into one because their foundations are complementary. Being free is not antithetical to virtue, and being virtuous is not destructive of freedom. For Meyer, the ability to choose good or bad is the only method by which we might freely achieve virtue. Conversely, of course, Meyer argues that virtue cannot be decreed-not by agreement, not by democratic mechanisms, and not by means of a dictatorial leadership. He writes of truth and virtue as metaphysical and moral ends, and freedom as the political prerequisite to achieve them. Truth and virtue can only be obtained by individuals-the "state" can only be virtuous if its members are, and it cannot be virtuous if the citizenry is not.
     Following this reasoning, Meyer sees government as properly having a minimal role; that is, to deal only with essential aspects of a free society. The problem with this approach is that as admirable as it appears on paper it often does not adequately take into consideration man's innate ability to act at cross-purposes with himself. Our inventive genius for stupidity and/or inattention creates demands to expand government's minimalist role, especially in our current no-fault politically correct society. However, for Meyer, it is imperative that government not manage our individual lives just as we should not individually control others or allow them to dictate to us. Sometimes, though, the effects of human perversity become so intolerable that government, of necessity, must intrude. The unfortunate sequence of events that seems to inevitably follow, and the point at which minimalist intervention exceeds its proper bounds, occurs when government's role in any aspect of social intercourse becomes domineering and-worst of all-permanent. (Again, public education comes to mind, as does today's welfare model, and soon our healthcare system.)
     The important point nowadays is that government's supposedly "essential" activities grow in tandem with the intellectually fashionable aversion to relying upon personal responsibility to ensure individual well-being and societal tranquillity. Meyer's reasoning relates to the fact that we have appended a Bill of Rights to our Constitution, but no Bill of Responsibilities. Meyer repeatedly notes that although a perfect society is obviously not within man's capability, getting as close as we can is one of our responsibilities. Even though perfection is unattainable, striving is not futile as there are many good by-products


derived from our efforts. Giving up on individuals and instead placing controls on everyone by means of government proclamation leads to an agglomeration of government that becomes counterproductive, oppressive, and ultimately, totalitarian.
     Meyer sets the stage for understanding why the individual is the foundation block of society and why individualism is the antithesis of the welfare state. In In Defense of Freedom, he describes the necessary political mechanisms that have been formed out of the American experience which have allowed us to partially weather the collectivist storm thus far. However, as one can tell from Meyer's premises, the war is far from over.

About the Author
Frank Straus Meyer was born in 1909. He attended Princeton University and later Oxford College in England where he became a leader of student radicals and a member of the Communist Party. He worked within the party for fourteen years until he experienced his anti-totalitarian epiphany, the result of reading Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom while serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. After the war Meyer broke completely with the Communists and spent time exposing their methods and machinations. He served as an editor and columnist at National Review for many years and was a leading force in the effort to bring to fruition what became known as "fusion"-the joining of the major elements of American conservatism. Frank Meyer died in 1972, an icon among American conservatives.

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