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Is Conservative and Libertarian Fusionism Possible?

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. How many of us describe ourselves as conservative/libertarian-ish? Apparently a lot of us. I said in an earlier post, “social conservatives accuse me of being too libertarian, libertarians accuse me of being too socially conservative.” You guys chimed in saying:
For forty years I’ve considered myself a libertarian, but find myself cringing at some of the current libertarian strategies and wishing libertarians were a little more conservative. — Brian Eenigenburg
My take on this is that labels such as “libertarian” and “conservative” and even “Christian” tend to be fuzzy around the edges. They represent a set of beliefs, centered around a core concept, but there is a lot of room for variation between individuals under the same umbrella. Thus, the debate is faulty from the beginning—there’s no true answer. — Wesley Gant, V&C blogger While I believe in liberty as much as anyone, I do not consider myself a libertarian. I do not call myself a conservative either (I refer myself as a traditionalist) because I do not agree with much of what goes by the name “conservatism” these days. — James Berry
It would be so much easier if there was a generally accepted term for those of us in the philosophical grey areas between conservatism and libertarianism. Ideally, this term would be absent of the stigmas associated with the conservative and libertarian labels. “Fusionism” is a term suggested for this purpose. Of course, anything can be “fused,” but in this case we mean conservatism and libertarianism. I first heard it used in this context at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this spring. At a panel called “God & Man at CPAC: What Can We Learn From the Enduring Legacy of William F. Buckley,” historian Alvin Felzenberg listed several lessons the conservative movement should learn from Buckley’s legacy. While all of the lessons are worth reviewing, the final, and I’m assuming pinnacle, lesson was to practice fusionism. Building a movement, Felzenberg says, “means practicing addition, not subtraction.” After attending a recent debate hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and America’s Future Foundation, between Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason Magazine, I concluded that:
Cutting ties with the conservative movement and the Republican Party could be crippling for the libertarian movement. Many young people find libertarianism through the economic giants which conservatism shares with libertarianism or through Republican elected officials such as Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. Conversely, can the conservative movement afford to lose the libertarians? While it is understandable for conservatives to get frustrated with the rabble-rousing, free market-loving libertarians, pushing them away could mean the loss of a significant voting bloc. As Goldberg said, “you can’t pull out the libertarians and leave the conservative movement standing in America.”
(On a side note, I should introduce a feature called “What Would Jonah Goldberg Say?” for all the times I quote him. Or maybe start the Twitter hashtag #WWJGS) Initially, I was all about the term fusionism. I even drafted a blog titled “Why I Am a Fusionist.” But when I took a second look at the arguments, I see that they are entirely ends-based. Essentially, conservatives and libertarians won’t accomplish anything alone so let’s play nice and eventually, when we have the luxury, we can argue over our differences. In terms of a political strategy, this idea has many merits. When it comes to federal policy, our quibbles are inconsequential if liberals control two of the three branches of government. But I’m not sure this is a functional philosophy for a personal worldview. Last year I took on Matt Zwolinski, associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder of BleedingHeartLibertarians.com for taking an ends-over-means approach to libertarianism.
Dr. Zwolinski and his fellow bleeding heart libertarians should be warned that their position is a precarious one. To believe that libertarianism, free markets and limited government are morally superior only because of their ends, completely ignores the very valid moral superiority of their means. To ignore this argument means that one must be willing to abandon his free market convictions if ever enough data is found to prove that a controlled market is more just in its results. Zwolinski admits this saying, “if it turned out that we were absolutely wrong about all of this, we would give up libertarianism.” But he dismisses the seriously of this condition, saying with a laugh, “we don’t think that is likely to happen.” But data can be a dangerous thing. One’s convictions should run deeper than the numbers, because statistics can be interpreted to say almost anything. Not to mention that economic conditions tend to be cyclical. If one is willing to change their convictions along with changing statistics, is it accurate then to say that person has convictions?
Applied to the discussion about conservative/libertarian fusionism, again, one’s convictions should run deeper than political expediency. If one is willing to change their convictions along with changing conditions in Washington, is it accurate then to say that person has convictions? What do you think? Is fusionism possible as a political strategy? Is there a way to define fusionism as a philosophical middle ground between conservatism and libertarianism? If you have a comment about this article or a question for this column, leave a comment below. Also send your comments and questions to Values & Capitalism or me, Jacqueline Otto, on Twitter.