Thursday, February 14, 2019

Going Old School

C. Jay Engel is introducing a new magazine, focused on Austrian Economics and libertarian ideas: Austro Libertarian, A Magazine for Liberty.

The Austro Libertarian Magazine is a physical print, quarterly published, premium magazine that seeks to promote, explain, and defend the tenants of Austrian Economics, Libertarianism, and cultural restraint in a world fascinated by the State and other Progressivist themes.

Like I said, going old school, both in format and also in cultural tradition.  The magazine is also available in digital format, of course.  Engel sees in his sights the work being done by the socialist publication Jacobin Magazine and considers that there is nothing similar in the tradition of Austrian Economics and Libertarianism.

Engel has made available online an essay from the inaugural issue.  This is done in conjunction with an interview at The Tom Woods Show by the author of the essay, Ben Lewis.  The title of the essay is Just Don't Call it Fusionism: Frank Meyer’s Defense of Freedom and Virtue. (PDF)  Again, going old school – to write of virtue in this age…. I will now focus on the essay, as I found it most worthwhile.

To the casual observer, Frank Meyer is well known as a fusionist – attempting to combine traditional conservatism and libertarianism.  It was a label he rejected:

…he disavowed the fusionist label, saying that he was not attempting to fuse two disparate elements together, but was simply attempting to show that “although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, [they] can in reality be united within a single broad conservative political theory, since they have their roots in a common tradition and are arrayed against a common enemy.”

Meyer found an emphasis of freedom and virtue in the ancient Greeks and in the Old Testament, with both societies also separating earthly power from heavenly power.  The recognition of the dignity of each individual was found through the Incarnation of Christ.

One cannot separate these: the tradition that found the individual was also a tradition that emphasized the development of virtue.  Both are an anathema to the modern left, hence conservatism and libertarianism can – even must – walk together.

Meyer does perhaps his most meaningful work in examining the relationship of the individual to various societal institutions.  For instance, the family:

“The family as an institution,” he wrote, “cannot guarantee the raising of the young in the paths of virtue...only individual persons, acting through the form of the family, can do so.”

Yes, only individuals act; however they act through institutions.  It is the institutions that offer the forums for action.  Hence, placing family above the individuals that make it up is an inversion; yet the individual loses his ability to act without institutions.

Meyer was clear that virtue could not be brought on by the state – to teach and uphold virtue was not a political function.  Conservatives are right when they focus on virtue and virtuous behavior; they are wrong, however, in calling for the state to be the means toward this end.

Meyer also disagreed with libertarians who discounted the importance of virtue. 

These “libertines,” he thought, threatened civilization by removing all social restraints on individual behavior.  …“The first victim of the mobs let loose by the weakening of civilizational restraint will be, as it has always been, freedom – for anyone, anywhere.”

Virtue and freedom are inseparable.  The loss of one will result in the loss of the other; one is not possible without the other.  What Meyer wrote of decades ago is only more significant today.  As Lewis offers:

The decline of freedom and virtue that alarmed Meyer 60 years ago is now at such an advanced stage that one wonders whether either can be salvaged. What Meyer attempted to show was that to save one, we must rescue the other.

Needless to say, the Meyer as described here is one with which I can wholeheartedly agree.  His thoughts on the purpose and necessity of both institutions and virtue toward finding and maintaining freedom are exactly spot on.

The conclusion offered by Lewis – that we are now 60 years further away from a virtuous society than when Meyer wrote – is, of course, correct; the rate of decline seems, at times, to be accelerating.  As I have said before, it is time for Christian leaders to start acting Christian.  The work must start here.

There is much more in the essay: a thorough description of the dialogue between Meyer and Russell Kirk, a dialogue that seemed characterized by violent agreement; the dialogue between Meyer and Robert Nisbet, also characterized similarly – although perhaps not as conclusively; the dialogue between Meyer and Murray Rothbard, perhaps not in disagreement at all but just trying to work out the ideas.

I highly recommend the essay (PDF).  Also, check out the interview of Lewis by Tom Woods.  Finally, consider subscribing to the magazine.


  1. You are good at finding where to take "the next step". I think many Conservatives are just undeveloped Libertarians in most ways. For Christians specifically it should be possible to convince them to back off on their support of the National Security Narrative. What did it for me is highlighting that individual morality isn't different than group or state morality. If it is sin for an individual to do it is sin for a State to do. There is an idea floating around out there somewhere that it isn't.

  2. I just read Ben Lewis's essay, and I have to say it was very good. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, as well as the Austro Libertarian mag!

    "Given his past collectivism, and his awareness of its
    horrors, it’s not surprising that Meyer was at pains to
    delineate the rights of the individual. " - Ben Lewis (linked essay)

    Or was it a remnant of his former communism that pointed him to the primacy of the individual? As you've shown, communism created and relied upon its own form of individualism (the socially unhealthy sort). I have to think this was at least partly responsible for Meyer's dissonance with Nisbet.

    I think, from Lewis' essay, however, that Meyer had more or less the correct understanding of the concept of individualism in relation to the undeniable importance of communities and collectives. His criticism of the idea of society as an organism is valid. I'm not sure that Nisbet or Kirk viewed society in this manner though.

    He does state that reason should have a "preeminent" position in relation to tradition and any other considerations that are required to formulate a social and legal order, and I think this is somewhat of a mistake. I would say that tradition should have the preeminent role. We should keep tradition until it is proven 'guilty' beyond a reasonable doubt. In today's world, tradition, like your average defendant who is incarcerated before conviction, is guilty until proven innocent. This is a result of the 'preeminence of reason' (even if it is poor reasoning).

    I think the problem with conservatives and libertarians and even the fusionists like Meyer who try to meld the two, is that we are all forward thinkers. We're not first and foremost looking for immediate rewards like the left does. We're not so interested in the immediate effects of policy or ideals, we care about the long run consequences.

    Because of this, we often fall into the trap of nitpicking those closest to us, because we like to think that we 'see where that sort of thinking leads'. I think this is where the decentralist mindset coupled with a bit of Christian humility can solve a lot of problems. We don't have to all have it exactly right. We can split up into many different social and political orders with independent authority structures.

    It's a shame that Meyer, Weaver, Kirk, Nisbet, and Rothbard were not fast friends and didn't perceive each other as allies in the pursuit of a lasting order of liberty.

    1. Weaver was really a swing figure among this group, since they all (excluding Rothbard, who I don't know ever addressed Weaver or his positions) held him in high regard. Meyer borrowed heavily from Weaver for his analysis of mass society and of the importance of property rights. Nisbet called Ideas Have Consequences one of the few "legitimate" classics of American political philosophy, and Kirk (who perhaps didn't know Weaver as well as he let on) included Weaver on his list of "ten exemplary conservatives.

      Weaver, on the other hand, obviously valued the work of Kirk, had both praise and constructive criticism for Meyer and lauded the work of Hayek, Mises and Ropke. He's a hard guy to classify, but that's one of the things that makes him so interesting.

    2. Thanks for the insight Ben! I'm only just getting to know these conservative characters within the past few years. I'm reading through Nisbet's "Quest" and I've purchased Weaver's "Ideas" and Kirk's "Mind" I have Meyer's "In Defense of Freedom" saved on a list, but have not pulled the trigger on that one.

      Weaver was also Southerner like me (though not a Texan) who defended (and constructively critiqued) the Southern tradition, so it's nice to hear that he was a pivotal figure in this group and that he inspired Meyer to a large degree. I don't know that Rothbard ever mentioned Weaver either. He didn't in his essay on Frank "Libertarian Manque" or in his book "Betrayal of the American Right".

      Why do you think there wasn't more cohesion and fellowship among these scholars? Especially between libertarians like Rothbard and the conservatives? Maybe Rothbard just wasn't that well known back then? I have read Kirk's critique of libertarianism and he singles out Rothbard, so I know Kirk knew of him. Was it just alpha scholars bumping egos? Genuine misunderstandings?

    3. I wish I could definitively answer that last question. I think a large part of it had to do with the period, when there was this huge internal battle about what conservatism was, and there was a related battle for funding and for control of the publications that were sprouting up to advance conservative ideas. In that environment, even small disagreements got blown out of proportion, and a lot of people couldn't see that what they agreed on was at least as broad an area as what they disagreed about.

      There were some fundamental differences of both philosophy and emphasis. Even among the traditionalists, there were varying emphases that each person stressed, so that Kirk, Nisbet and Weaver can be broadly grouped together, but they all disagreed with each other regarding specific points. Between Kirk and Rothbard, I think the biggest issue was rationalism versus tradition, with Rothbard being fairly critical of even Meyer's belief that tradition should modify reason (although he may have changed his mind on that in his later years, but it's hard to say that definitively). This was a big deal to Kirk, because he thought it was dangerous to completely remake society based on rationalistic theories and without regard to traditional beliefs and institutions. That, I think, was and remains the largest point of philosophical difference between libertarians and traditionalists. I personally don't think that's a big enough problem to cause folks to not recognize the large and important areas that the two sides can agree on today, but that has divided them for a long time.

      At least that's my decidedly non-expert opinion. I'm sure people like Daniel McCarthy or Paul Gottfried have clearer analyses of the question. For what it's worth, I think that Kirk's criticisms of libertarians were at least partly on target, in relation to some types of libertarians if not libertarians as a rule.

    4. Reason vs Tradition. That is certainly the division between conservatives and liberals isn't it? It is a somewhat difficult distinction to me, since each requires the other to some degree.

      Even the French Revolution, the crowning jewel of Reason in the eyes of conservatives, has traditions that precipitated it. There were similar movements (though not as successful) with more or less similar demands all throughout the middle ages.

      Conversely, tradition is always built upon prior reasoning, however old. Even in the case of revealed religion, it was at least in part reason that helped lead people to accepting it as a way of life. Ideology is the bogeyman of conservatives but theirs is one too, even if is often more strongly defined by what it opposes.

      A few months back, I heard a talk by Donald Livingston of the Abbeville Institute entitled "What's Wrong with Ideology". It cleared a lot up for me on the issue, and I found myself agreeing to most of what he said, even though I come from the reason based libertarian tradition (Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe) more so than the conservative one.

      The key idea I took from it was this: conservatives are opposed to ideology because 'ideologues' give reason the preeminent position in society. All traditions are guilty until proven innocent, and if one part is not proven innocent then the whole is called into question.

      A conservative use of reason is one which supports and constructively critiques tradition. It exposes inconsistencies not to burn tradition down but to shore up its foundation. Tradition is innocent until proven guilty, and if a part is found guilty, it is only that part which is to be discarded or reformed.

      I think libertarians who see liberty more as self-determination, rather than as a system universal rights, can identify with this every bit as much as conservatives.

    5. I tend to agree with you. I think that most libertarians tend to misunderstand what conservatives mean by "ideology," which as you say is more about the ideologue than it is opposing a consistent set of principles. Kirk tried to criticize "ideology" while leaving room for principle but I think that distinction only makes sense if you understand what he meant by ideology, which most libertarians (or modern conservatives, for that matter) don't.

      Probably the best current(ish) writer on that topic is Thomas Sowell, who has done a really fantastic job of showing how blindly following ideology (what he calls "visions") can lead to dangerous and unintended consequences. I don't know that he knows much of Kirk, but he's read enough of Burke to arrive at a similar conclusion.

      Either way, I totally agree, reason and tradition best operate in tandem, and that sliding to either extreme rationalism or extreme traditionalism is likely to lead to bad outcomes. Which, bringing it all back to Meyer, is exactly what he was trying to show. Sadly, i think that this entire line of discussion is almost entirely neglected among libertarians and conservatives today.

    6. "sliding to either extreme rationalism or extreme traditionalism is likely to lead to bad outcomes"

      Tolkien would agree. He was an ardent opponent of the Progressive's idea of progress, but he saw that there was evil in its absolute opposite, which he termed 'embalming', as well.

      "Probably the best current(ish) writer on that topic is Thomas Sowell"

      I need to read Sowell. I know about him, mostly where he is good and bad on liberty and economics. The Chicago School of Economics leaves a somewhat bad taste in my mouth, and he is a bit of a war hawk if memory serves, but in the cultural realm, he is fantastic, and perhaps the most important scholar (in this area) of the 20th century.

      Where to start though? So many great titles to choose from!

    7. You know, Sowell gets labeled a hawk, but I think there's more nuance than that to his position. It's not so much that he's pro-war as he is anti anti-war, and the reason he's anti anti-war is that he associates that position with leftists, or more specifically the "unconstrained" vision. His perception is that anti-war folks have an unrealistic perspective on human nature, and think that if we're nice to everyone, everyone will be nice to us. In contrast, people with the "constrained" vision tend to see humanity and society as a system of incentives and trade-offs, in the case of war the incentives being sufficiently armed to deter would-be aggressors. Interestingly, his analysis, if carried far enough, essentially validates a non-interventionist foreign policy, because it doesn't buy into the nation-building, humanity-perfecting Progressivism that had guided American foreign policy for the last century-plus. Although he hints at that perspective in a few places, Sowell unfortunately doesn't ever carry his analysis that far. But I think that argument can be made.

      As for where to start, if you just want to understand his pattern of thought, I would suggest The Vision of the Anointed. You'll get a little bit of everything in that book. He did write a more detailed book on the constrained and unconstrained visions (A Conflict of Visions), but The Vision of the Anointed is snappier and harder-hitting. But, really, you can't go wrong with any of his books.

      I also think that Sowell is a little misclassified as a Chicago-school economist. What I mean is that he certainly is of the Chicago school, being a student of Milton Friedman, but I think he's every bit as much a social theorist as he is an economist, and most of his economic writings have more to do with analysis - putting (mostly leftist) suppositions to the test - than with theory. I don't think that any writer has dismantled both the general theories as well as the particular claims of the social justice crowd as much or as well as Sowell has.

      The great part about Sowell is that if you don't agree with him on a particular issue, you know exactly why you don't agree with him, because he explains his foundations and positions so clearly. He's definitely worth checking out, even if you don't agree with him on all the particulars.

    8. "Interestingly, his analysis, if carried far enough, essentially validates a non-interventionist foreign policy, because it doesn't buy into the nation-building, humanity-perfecting Progressivism..."

      That's an interesting point. I couldn't tell you which wars Sowell supported, and I'm not really interested in finding out, since I like the guy. As Tom Woods pointed out once, Sowell broke Rothbard's rule of non-anarchist libertarians which holds that these folks always focus the majority of their work on the one area where they're bad on liberty. He advocates a limited state, but to my knowledge, he didn't focus on proving the necessity of that peculiar component of society. Instead he focuses on the cultural ills and economic misconceptions that have grown and will continue to grow the state in proportion to society, especially those regarding the contentious and hopelessly muddled issue of race.

      "His perception is that anti-war folks have an unrealistic perspective on human nature"

      I get that to a certain extent. I think Sowell may have neglected the fact that war has always worked to consolidate and centralize power in the state. The state as we know it was born out of the wake of the 30 Years War in Europe (a culmination of a trend itself born of prior wars and the threats and fear thereof), and nearly every piece of modern major state-advancing legislation or executive and judicial policy in these Unionized States of America came courtesy of war or its financial aftermath.

      Maybe he didn't consider that to be 'anti-war' one does not have to be a pacifist (which I also think is a mistake and a truly 'unconstrained' or Utopian vision). Being a Christian myself, it is hard to speak too negatively about pacifism though. I'm looking forward to Bob Murphy and Tom Woods' debate on this topic (two Christian Austro-libertarians duking it out on the issue of non-violence should be fun).

      "a little misclassified as a Chicago-school economist"

      Yeah, he is so much more than that. He gives them a good name. Thanks for the book recommendation!

    9. " I'm looking forward to Bob Murphy and Tom Woods' debate on this topic."

      Apparently it will be available only to those on the cruise, but maybe I am mis-remembering something I heard.

      So, please send pictures!

    10. BM,

      I hope you have mis-remembered. Surely Tom will make it an episode of his podcast after the fact. I wish I were going on the cruise, but I am not. It sounds like a blast.

  3. "And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake of virtue - or vice." - Meyer

    I agree with the first part, but I'm sorry, you can still partake of vice even if you're forced into it. If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to shoot an innocent person, and I comply, I've still committed murder.

  4. Full disclosure; I hadn't read the whole thing when I responded above. Now that I have, this quote from Frank Meyer struck me like a thunderbolt. It is now one of my top 10 in regards to liberty.

    "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."

    This has been my contention for years, but I've never heard it crafted so masterfully. I'm sure this is one that jumped out at you as well.

    Ever since I read Rothbard's "Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manque" I knew I'd like Frank, but I had no idea how much! I underestimated him. His communist roots sort of put him in the back of the line of conservative thinkers I thought were important to reconcile with in the quest for lasting liberty.

    Given that Hoppe was a socialist as a young man before he encountered Mises' work (I'm fairly certain), I guess I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss someone for their earlier held views.

  5. Does vice has to always be in the extreme, as you mentioned? To save your wife's life, what if it is just to spit on the Bible or on a sibling? Or burn a little piece of paper before an idol? Kill your dog to save a friends life?

  6. The ancient Greeks were in fact vicious tyrants -- I have in mind particularly how the Athenians used the Delian League. And, the Old Testament was full of supposedly divinely-commanded mass murders -- check out the Golden Calf incident, not to mention the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).

    Yes, some good things came from ancient Greece and ancient Judea, but some good things also came from Soviet Russia (Prokofiev, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, etc.).

    In either case, that is not enough for libertarians to hold up ancient Greeks and Judeans, or Soviets, as models.

    1. If we are looking for purity in humans or in human societies (curious - somehow our impure eyes would recognize purity, but I digress), we will always be disappointed; we will throw away everything ever done by any human and any society.

      If, instead, we look to what might be learned - even from our enemies or from those with whom we might generally disagree - the world opens up to us.

  7. BM: "The conclusion offered by Lewis – that we are now 60 years further away from a virtuous society than when Meyer wrote – is, of course, correct; the rate of decline seems, at times, to be accelerating. "

    I have a book in front of me "At our wit's end" that I am currently reading (about 3/4 finished) that is most alarming and it seems very unlikely that the decline will be arrested, on the contrary...

    Short take: We have proof that average IQ in the western nations is now declining at 0.5 - 1 point per decade. It has been in decline since about 1850. For a total decline of about 10 to 15 points since then.
    The mechanism by which this occurs is clear. The flynn effect has masked the general decline by inflating a very narrow part of our IQ (the abstract part). But this inflation is now maxed out and can no longer hide the general decline.
    The near future will see further declines.

    My take on the near future: Liberal democracy will no longer be viable because the average IQ will drop too low. Libertarianism will become utterly impossible.

    In that sense, the old-school approach from Engel seems a bit ironic...