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Liberalism’s Intellectual Bankruptcy

The following is excerpted from Frank Meyers essay Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” which can be found in the classic collection of essays he edited, What Is Conservatism? (1964).

The intellectual bankruptcy of the collectivist Liberalism which has dominated American thought for the past half century becomes every day more obvious. The imagination, the verve, the spiritual passion that once characterized it in its days of movement towards power have long since been replaced by a tired repetition of slogans empty of content and sustained only by the weight and inertia of bureaucratic power.

Power, Liberalism still has beyond doubt; but power has only the next to the last word in the affairs of men—not the last word. Power is wielded by men, controlled by men, divided by men, limited by men, as they are guided and inspired by their intellectual and spiritual understanding. There may be a gap of years, of decades, between the onset of the impotence of a false world-view, and the decay and defeat of the power structure which has arisen upon the foundations of that world-view. But its defeat is, given time, the necessary result of the re-emergence of truth in the consciousness of those who are concerned with matters of the intellect, with matters of the spirit, of those who—though they may have little control over material power at the moment—determine the foundations of the future.

The last half dozen years have seen an intellectual revolt, unparalleled in a century, against the concepts upon which Liberal collectivism is based. It is ironic, although not historically unprecedented, that such a burst of creative energy on the intellectual level should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of Liberalism in the practical political sphere, to the point where it has now captured the decisive positions of power in the Republican as well as in the Democratic party. But ironic or not, it is the case. Most important, perhaps, an intense and far-reaching discussion has been taking place among the enemies of Liberalism on the meaning and matter of their position in the circumstances of mid-twentieth-century America.

It is to this discussion that I want to address myself, with the hope of helping to clarify some of the issues which divide counsels and hinder the growth of intellectual understanding among the opponents of collectivism. Semantic difficulties are added to substantive difficulties in any such discussion, and I ask the indulgence of my readers in accepting the word “conservative” as an overall term to include the two streams of thought that in practice unite to oppose the reigning ideology of collectivist Liberalism. I believe that those two streams of thought, although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, 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. Their opposition, which takes many forms, is essentially a division between those who abstract from the corpus of Western belief its stress upon freedom and upon the innate importance of the individual person (what we may call the “libertarian” position) and those who, drawing upon the same source, stress value and virtue and order (what we may call the “traditionalist” position).

But the source from which both draw, the continuing consciousness of Western civilization, has been specifically distinguished by its ability to hold these apparently opposed ends in balance and tension, and in fact the two positions which confront each other today in American conservative discourse both implicitly accept, to a large degree, the ends of the other. Without the implicit acceptance of an absolute ground of value, the pre-eminence of the person as criterion of political and social thought and action has no philosophical foundation, and freedom would be only a meaningless excitation and could never become the serious goal of a serious politics. On the other hand, the belief in virtue as the end of men’s being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end; otherwise, virtue could be no more than a conditioned tropism. And the raising of order to the rank of an end overshadowing and subordinating the individual person would make of order not what the traditionalist conservative means by it, but the rule of totalitarian authority, inhuman and subhuman.

On neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims. Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.

Nevertheless, although these contrary emphases in conservative thought can and do pull away from each other when the proponents of either forsake one side of their common heritage of belief in virtue as man’s proper end and his freedom under God as the condition of the achievement of that end, their opposition is not irreconcilable, precisely because they do in fact jointly possess that very heritage. Extremists on one side may be undisturbed by the danger of the recrudescence of authoritarian status society if only it would enforce the doctrines in which they believe. Extremists on the other side may care little what becomes of ultimate values if only political and economic individualism prevails. But both extremes are self-defeating: 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.

Such extremes, however, are not the necessary outcome of a dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth. Indeed, a dialectic between different emphases based upon the same fundamental understanding is the mode by which finite men have achieved much of the wisdom contained in tradition. Such a dialectic is in the highest degree necessary today between the libertarians and the traditionalists among conservatives. It cannot fail to achieve results of the greatest significance, if only the protagonists, in pressing that aspect of the truth which each regards as decisive, keep constantly in their consciousness other and complementary aspects of the same truth.


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