Fountainheads of Fusionism


The relationship between Edmund Burke and Adam Smith underscores a fundamental connection between virtue and liberty.

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The election of President Trump was for many a watershed moment, signifying the breakdown of the modern conservative movement. These circumstances are good reason to reflect on both the recent as well as more distant history of conservatism. We can begin by examining the twentieth-century phenomenon known as “fusionism” and looking back at the two fountainheads of the increasingly frayed connection between social conservatism and economic liberalism, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Well before the rise of Trump, fusionism was seen by many to be failing as a political and intellectual project. In fact, reports of its demise began upon its arrival and have continued steadily ever since. Yet perhaps it is true that we have finally reached an inflection point—a time at which the fusionist paradigm is simply no longer able to unite the various factions and ideological sympathies of those who have been so often lumped together as “conservative.” Writing in 2002, E. C. Pasour, Jr., concluded that “the problems in uniting groups of the Right under a common tent are even more pronounced at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Pointing to a more nuanced and diverse categorization of views beyond a conservative/libertarian dichotomy, including neo-cons, paleo-cons, pro-lifers, and others, Pasour writes, “It is unlikely that any future philosophical alliance will be as successful as the earlier fusionist movement in reconciling the differences between these groups.”

Communism is no longer such an existential threat as to make allies, however temporary, of libertarians and conservatives. After the fall of the Soviet Union, nothing else has arisen around which conservatives and libertarians might unite in opposition to. Terrorism has not done it; social democracy has not done it; authoritarian populism seems likely only to increase the chasms separating these camps.

So we are left with a question: was fusionism simply a contingently historical phenomenon unique to post-War circumstances in the US? On the contrary: I believe that fusionism is a phenomenon that illustrates a deeper and more fundamental connection between social conservatism and economic liberty. To better understand this connection, let us consider the relationship between Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Reconsidering Burke and Smith

There is extensive literature on both Burke and Smith and upon the relationship between the two. Without reviewing it all, I should simply note that the view that Burke and Smith’s conceptions of political economy are complementary has a long pedigree. It goes all the way back, in fact, to Adam Smith himself, who said (according to Burke) that after first conversing “on subjects of political economy” that Burke was “the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did.” Burke’s biographer, Robert Bissett, who passes along this oft-repeated quotation, also observes that Burke talked in very high terms of Dr. Adam Smith; praised the clearness and depth of his understanding, his profound and extensive learning, and the vast accession that had accrued to British literature and philosophy from these exertions; and described his heart as being equally good with his head, and his manners as peculiarly pleasing.

As William Clyde Dunn puts it, “The views which Smith and Burke each held with regard to the other’s field of major interest show a close ideological relationship between the two. There is much of Burkian politics in Adam Smith.” Burke, in fact, briefly reviewed Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments quite favorably in print. He calls Smith’s treatise “one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared.” Burke also corresponded privately to Smith in 1759, again praising the work: “I am not only pleased with the ingenuity of your Theory; I am convinced of its solidity and Truth.” In Burke’s view, a special virtue of Smith’s theory was its grounding in timeless truth about the human person. “A theory like yours founded on the Nature of man, which is always the same, will last, when those that are founded on his opinions, which are always changing, will and must be forgotten,” says Burke.

Though he praised the work highly, Burke reserved judgment on some of the particulars of Smith’s project in The Wealth of Nations, preferring to see how particular policy proposals and application of prudential judgments might play out in relation to timeless and objective truths about reality and human society. In Burke, we see this connection to the past, to tradition, to culture, and to religion as a source and foundation for moral virtue.

Burke and Smith did not hold identical religious views, nor did they agree upon all details of political economy. Still, there is a broad coherence and complementarity between their perspectives about the relationship between virtue and social order. Keeping Burke and Smith in conversation can help us to hold on to tradition while still being open to dynamism. It can help us to respect religion, make right use of reason, and hold together both freedom and virtue.

In succeeding generations, there was a close connection between religion—Christianity in particular—and classical political economy. As Paul Heyne put it, “Protestant clergymen played a prominent part in the early teaching of economics in the United States, especially prior to the Civil War, and their doctrines generally lauded the productive as well as the moral virtues of the American economy.” This connection between clergy and classical political economy was evident not only in the United States, but also overseas.

The Future of Fusionism

While not advocating a simplistic return to a bygone age of “clerical laissez-faire,” as Heyne calls it, I do advocate a return to the moral foundations of the free economy represented by Burke and Smith. In particular, reconnecting virtue and liberty can help us sort out the contemporary challenges of nationalism and internationalism.

We need a proper balance between nationalism and internationalism, or what has been called cosmopolitanism. Burke can help us realize that we are all rooted in particular places and among a particular people, whether defined by creed, ethnicity, or culture. We cannot cease to be a member of a political society any more than we can cease to be a member of a family or a member of the human race, and it is the challenge presented by much contemporary populism that we must properly order and orient these different aspects of our individual identities.

Much contemporary economics proceeds as if the economic argument, whether it is on an issue like the minimum wage or free trade or welfare transfers, ought to be the end of the discussion. If the cost-benefit analysis comes out in favor of a particular policy, then that policy should be enacted. Yet, even if there is an economic consensus on a particular question, that should not be the end but rather the beginning of the policy discussion. Advocates of the liberal order and of the connection between freedom and virtue must work to put the political back into political economy. Lord Acton said it well: “Political economy cannot be supreme arbiter in politics. Else you might defend slavery where it is economically sound and reject it where the economic argument applies against it.”

A corollary of this correction to the dynamic dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism is the proper valuation of the “middle things,” those institutions and realities that lie between the individual and the collective, and especially the state, as an expression of identity. We can think here of Burke’s “little platoons,” or Tocqueville’s observations about civil society and voluntary associations. It isn’t of course only strictly voluntary associations that mediate between the individual and the state, though. There are families, which we are naturally born into or at least become part of independent of an act of rational willing on our parts. There are churches, which, depending on the ecclesiology, we are born into or at least nurtured in before the age of consent. Even our earthly citizenship defies a “voluntary association” identification, as we are all born a citizen of some nation or some political order. All of these things are real and have consequences and meaning for people and cannot simply be elided into a dichotomy of individual and state. For the most part, these “middle things” are where life is lived and given its meaning, where we are formed and express our virtues and our vices.

Smith and Burke both would have defended a better picture of the human person than is often on offer today. Just as we should not view the person as an atomistic individual arising out of nothing, so too we shouldn’t treat the human person as part of a collective while viewing the person in materialistic terms. This results in a government that is simply a crass distributor or redistributor of material goods, according to some standard of fairness or justice. Much of Burke’s opposition to government assistance in times of crisis can be seen as an attempt to keep government from becoming such a debased and corrupt institution. The government has other things to be concerned about and runs the risk of turning into quasi-legitimate coercive syndicate if it loses its grounding in a higher calling.

There needs to be a recovery of the great tradition of the natural law, both in Christian perspective and as relates to the discipline of political economy. The rule of law, as an expression of and grounded in the natural order, is critical to parsing the proper responsibilities of various institutions, including the state, the market, the church, and the family, and keeping them oriented to their proper ends and providing guidelines and guidance for reform where corruptions will inevitably occur.

If there is a natural order to things, then we can expect to see somewhat regular patterns develop over time. In some ways this is an empirical matter for social science as well as something to be investigated historically. Recognition of this entails a healthy respect for the past. Spontaneous order can be seen as arising without centrally planned human supervision, but it does not arise metaphysically ex nihilo or entirely de novo. Cultural institutions, custom, tradition, technique, technology, and knowledge have all been passed down and form the basis for further development.

Finally, we need to recover a distinction between liberty and license, and a very similar distinction between legality and morality. For too many, these are not distinguishable, but the whole thrust of the necessary connection between virtue and liberty requires us to distinguish that which we are able to do from that which we ought to do, that which we could do from that which we may do. There are freedom-destroying exercises of freedom that need to be recognized and avoided, and in some cases legislated against.

The relationship between Burke and Smith, and between ethics and political economy, can help us to see that if we desire a less coercive external authority, then we must cultivate the individual and institutional virtues that are required for self-government. As Burke memorably put it, “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

The future of the fusion between moral virtue and social liberty, the great achievement of the west, is a challenge of the utmost importance today. As David Brooks warns, “These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.” The postliberal order may very well resemble some of the worst elements of the preliberal order, unless we find a way to defend, not only in words but also in our lives, the greatest achievement of western civilization, the fusion of virtue and liberty.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty as well as a postdoctoral researcher with the “Moral Markets” project. This essay is adapted from a paper presented at the 2017 Henry Institute Symposium on religion and public life at Calvin College.

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