Do conservatives actually stand for anything in particular? Or are they only reactionaries, unified by nothing except cantankerous objection to some vague idea of progress?
One way of answering is to look at “fusionism,” a theory expounded in the 1960s by figures like the political philosopher Frank Meyer. Fusionism was an effort to combine libertarian and traditionalist concerns under one conservative canopy, where the proponents of freedom and the defenders of moral order could unite against the forces that threatened both — chief among them the totalitarian ideology of “godless communism.” Practically, this meant a coalition in America between economic libertarians and religious conservatives.
The coalition seemed to be going swimmingly through the Reagan era, but since the 1990s it has become increasingly fraught, culminating in the political realignment of 2016. We might wonder if fusionism was an unnatural match sustained only by common enmity toward the Soviet Union, and thus bound to fray after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But before leaping to this conclusion, we must ask why communism inspired such vehement antipathy from both libertarians and traditionalists. Was this joint opposition merely a matter of historical circumstance, or might it hint at deeper symmetries that remain instructive today?
As World War Two wracked the globe, two important books were published within about a year of each other that may serve as early representatives of the two partners in the fusionist coalition. The Abolition of Man (1943) was penned by C. S. Lewis, a prominent Christian apologist and literary scholar from Great Britain. The Road to Serfdom (1944) was written by the Austrian-British economist F. A. Hayek, arch defender of classical liberalism. The two books addressed different issues, Lewis’s treating the philosophical underpinnings of Western education, and Hayek’s warning against the dangers of central economic planning. Yet these works were akin. They both expressed a fear that Nazi Germany represented not merely a bad case of revanchism, but a wholly new type of ideological menace. Despots aplenty had plagued mankind in every age, but the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century would be the forerunners of a new line of tyrant that would reappear in various guises. Others in the conservative tradition have used different terms, but Lewis’s “conditioners,” Hayek’s “planners,” and the managers, technocrats, and bureaucrats so often condemned by conservatives all resemble one another. What draws this cast of characters together is their warped understanding of how science ought to govern human affairs.
Reading Lewis’s and Hayek’s books charitably — that is, not as attacks on science itself — we can see their criticisms of the modern scientific project to be directed specifically at the ideology of scientism: the view of science as the ultimate authority for politics, a view aimed at the total subjugation of nature and of humanity.
It is from this ideology, argued Lewis and Hayek, that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century evolved. And it is from this ideology that successors may emerge. We may think of it as either prescience or paranoia when these two thinkers warn that the seeds of totalitarianism lay dormant even in the liberal West. “I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment,” wrote Lewis. “The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man, goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.” Hayek began his book by firmly linking fascism with socialist movements emergent in liberal democracies: “Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” And he warned against dismissing Nazism as a peculiarly German madness: “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism.” Some of the forces that drove the ascension of totalitarianism “are also at work here,” Hayek argued, in places like England and the United States.
The project of Lewis and Hayek was to delineate just how the planner-conditioners, guided by their faith in science as an ultimate guide to all reality, would steer the nations they administered, by degrees, into a totalitarian dystopia. In the end, they would oversee and determine every facet of life, and would do so without regard to law. Lewis and Hayek described how, if they did not speedily rouse themselves, America, England, and others would go too far down the “road to serfdom,” or to the “abolition of man,” to turn back.
The two books begin with perhaps the most familiar of conservative concerns. What Edmund Burke, the guiding light of conservatism, found most appalling about the philosophes who justified the French Revolution was their confidence in human reason. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke regarded with dismay the “men of theory,” as he called them, and their trust in “naked reason” to replace the imperfect but solid ground of time-tested wisdom. He thought that their attempts to arrive at an abstract model for the state by reason alone would lead them and their country astray. “They have no respect for the wisdom of others,” lamented Burke, “but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own.”
Lewis and Hayek would take up this longstanding concern about overconfidence. Their iteration, however, included a different dimension. The innovators against whom they warned derived their models for society not from abstract reason but from science. In the early twentieth century, an attempt to explain all of life in terms of scientific methods had burgeoned, giving birth to a new brand of social science. Lewis and Hayek sounded the alarm against these social scientists, and especially against their zeal for applying their discipline to the administration of the state.
Lewis’s first order of business in The Abolition of Man was to show how dangerous was the distinction between facts and values that had pervaded schools. By dismissing all value statements as purely subjective, this distinction sought to establish empirical fact as the only basis of reality, thereby enthroning social science as the supreme authority on cultural, economic, and political questions. Lewis identified “Man’s conquest of Nature” as the stated end of these scientific innovators. This subjugation of nature was reaching its final battle: “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.” Eugenics would be the ram to breach the last bulwark, as “the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique” and will “cut out all posterity in what shape they please.” These conditioners are so convinced of the infallibility of their discipline as to believe that their conscious designs are superior to the given design of nature.
Hayek too noted with disapproval the rise of the social-scientific approach, or what he called “the uncritical transfer to the problems of society of habits of thought engendered by the preoccupation with technological problems, the habits of thought of the natural scientist and the engineer.” In their hubris, these technocrats sought to exercise “conscious control” over society, “to impose ideals of organization on a sphere to which they are not appropriate.” The planners’ intent was to arrange comprehensively all relevant economic factors in an orderly and rational manner. They would generate a “single plan,” a “blueprint” for society. This plan would aim toward a “unitary end” to which all of society’s efforts would be devoted. As Hayek observes, this notion assumes first that there exists a unitary end toward which all the energies of the polity ought to aim. It also assumes that the planners know what this end is, and how to get there. Given the complexity of the economy and of society, Hayek saw the confidence of the planners as foolish in the extreme.
If, then, the planners and conditioners possess a faultless blueprint for society, they must be put in a position to implement it. They need power. Lewis belabored the point that the ambition of the conditioners requires the accumulation of vast and concrete political power over their fellow citizens. “I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be…. It will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people.” He denied that there was any possibility of “a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives.” Instead, there would exist “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
The conditioners would exercise this awesome (or awful) power not simply over their contemporaries, but over their descendants. Eugenic measures would enable them to deny existence itself to untold numbers in the future. Thus, wrote Lewis, “if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power.” Shaped by eugenic models, future humanity would be puppets, “subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners.”
In addition to old-school eugenics, we now can imagine myriad ways in which technological innovations could be harnessed to increase the rulers’ power over the ruled. Gene editing could allow them to pursue, seemingly more tactfully, the eugenic goal of shaping future generations, while digital technology offers governments ever more opportunities for surveillance, behavioral conditioning, and economic control. The Chinese Communist Party’s dreadful success in technological control over its population, particularly minorities, offers a taste of how Lewis’s fears could materialize in our day, and in ways that are not necessarily tied to communist politics.
Like Lewis, Hayek saw coercion as indispensable if the planners were to achieve their goals. They must rally society and marshal its resources. A comprehensive plan must be applied wholesale, and cannot admit exceptions — and so, he wrote, the people “may all have to make a journey which most of them do not want at all.” Absolute efficiency does not brook opt-outs.
To gain the power they need for the implementation of their blueprint, the planners cannot be constrained by the rule of law. Lewis and Hayek took this thought in slightly different directions.
Hayek, the classical liberal, traced the process by which the planners dismantle democratic institutions to accomplish their aims. The Road to Serfdom’s chief contention is that the term “democratic socialism” is self-contradictory. The nature of democracies, Hayek argues, is incompatible with the implementation of a far-reaching economic or social plan: “In a society which for its functioning depends on central planning, this control cannot be made dependent on a majority being able to agree; it will often be necessary that the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people.” We may add that constitutional restraints would be in the planners’ eyes nothing less than intolerable hindrances. Checks, balances, and the division of power preclude the implementation of a unitary, comprehensive, or even consistent plan.
Democratic institutions cannot impose a unitary plan, so if the plan is to go forward, democracy must be left behind. This is, of course, what occurred in Germany and in Russia, the two flagship models for “planning” and “conditioning” to which postwar thinkers looked with horror. Democratic legislation, mired in constitutional procedure, must be taken out of the incompetent hands of elected legislators. Instead, Hayek explained, “if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts, permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.” In short, the planners must take the reins. Elected officials must abandon their haphazard and incoherent attempts at governance, and by means of “delegated legislation” cede authority to the “specialists.” The specialists would comprise a bureaucracy that can centrally administrate the nation’s business without regard to other institutions. They would be, as in the Lenin quotation with which Hayek begins one of his chapters, “a single office and a single factory” running the business of all. They would form “independent autonomous bodies” in the sense that they would be accountable to neither the people nor the law.
As grave as were the apprehensions of Hayek, Lewis feared a still deeper, more fundamental tyranny. He suspected that the conditioners sought not only to go beyond civil law or democratic institutions, but, as Nietzsche had declared, beyond good and evil. In their onslaught against nature, they would endeavor “to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.” They would dispense with natural law and objective morality altogether — with the universally shared moral principles that Lewis referred to as the Tao. The conditioners may then impose an “artificial Tao” on their underlings. But by transcending objective morality, they abolish any consistent guide for their own actions. What, then, will guide their behavior? “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains,” Lewis wrote. “The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.” Basest instinct will now drive them, and in turn will inform the decisions they make for the rest of us. With no political or moral restraints to bar or mitigate the enactment of the planners’ will, society is “kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters” — and the pains of servants.
Rule without law is what the word “tyranny” means, by the Greek definition. But in ancient Greece, tyranny was not universally considered a term of reproach. The reign of the tyrant Pisistratus over Athens was held to be one of the city’s more stable and prosperous periods. But when bad rulers were tyrants, they could wreak a great deal of harm, and enough of them arose over time that the perception of tyranny became permanently soured, and our usage of the term calcified.
Lewis and Hayek believed that the relationship between rule without law and evil tyranny was a rather clear one, arguing that there is something fundamentally wrong about unaccountable power concentrated in the hands of a few. Lewis, in particular, stressed the injustice of a few enlightened people dictating the minute circumstances of millions of people’s lives. Both writers anticipated that unlawful power in the modern age would inevitably have horrifying consequences. They looked to the Third Reich and the USSR as likely patterns, and expected that other regimes with comparable power would behave much the same.
Hayek predicted that, in a coercively planned state, thugs rise to the top and replace the democratic socialists who unwittingly initiated the journey toward totalitarianism. Lewis, too, suggested that the conditioners would not be likely to wield their authority for the good of the people: “I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.”
But even if the danger of tyranny has been ever-present in history, Lewis and Hayek deemed the tyrannies of their own age to be a new brand and a source of unprecedented peril. It was the capabilities of modern science and technology that differentiated the modern threat. Quasi-religious faith in the normative authority of science informed the planners’ plan, and pointed to the conditioners’ goals, and science’s astounding achievements promised to furnish the new tyrants with power on a scale of which the most ambitious premodern despot could not begin to dream.
Lewis predicted that with the invention of modern scientific techniques, the power of the conditioners “will be enormously increased.” Hayek agreed: “While there is nothing in modern technological developments which forces us towards comprehensive economic planning, there is a great deal in them which makes infinitely more dangerous the power a planning-authority would possess.” Modern innovation, whether scientific or technological, greatly augments the scope of political power.
Although Lewis and Hayek saw fascism and communism as grave threats, they differed somewhat in what they most feared would be destroyed by these movements. Lewis sought above all to defend an objective moral law that would be a bulwark against tyranny, and consequently saw relativism as the most malignant feature of scientistic totalitarianism. Hayek, meanwhile, championed individualism, and chiefly objected to centralized planning because it encroached on personal liberty.
The two writers also diverged in their predictions about the new tyranny. Hayek thought that the planners, in failing to grasp the complexity of the economy and of society, were tackling a task far too big for them. Their plans would prove to be insufficient, and disaster would ensue. Lewis, on the other hand, held that the horror of the conditioners’ regime lay in the fact that their project would probably succeed. In time, they would master the complexity of nature so utterly as to remake humanity itself. Therein, for Lewis, lay the nightmarish peril.
Despite these differences, the shared fears of Lewis and Hayek indicate several important principles and dispositions they had in common. The fears they shared were not only a result of their common experience of the twentieth century’s horrors, but were also an inheritance from earlier generations of conservative thinkers. We can see in Lewis’s and Hayek’s portraits of the planner-conditioners some of the same ideas we see in the writings of the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke. Both Lewis and Hayek return to the central Burkean apprehension about the overweening confidence of the “men of theory,” even as each of the two emphasized a different facet.
Burke decried the French revolutionaries’ glib willingness to scrap tradition and embrace progress for progress’s sake. “With them,” he grumbled, “it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one.” The French rationalists “place all their hopes in discovery,” forgoing the accumulated wisdom of ages past. Lewis would echo this tone in his distress at the conditioners’ desire “to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.” He applies a decidedly Burkean pejorative, “the Innovator,” to the propagators of relativism in British schools. He also distinguishes between two types of criticism of received wisdom. Wholesale rebellion against traditional precepts he denounces as dangerous, ultimately nihilistic. Gradual amendment and improvement from within he affirms as salutary and necessary. The difference between the two, says Lewis, is the difference “between the organic and the surgical.”
Lewis’s anxiety about the effect the conditioners would have on the future also closely accords with Burke’s concern that the innovators would prove “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity.” Lewis mirrored Burke’s sense that for a given generation to walk in wisdom it must heed the heritage of the past but also the welfare of the future. In Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, one can even glean a hint of that fear, grown tenfold by Lewis’s time, of rulers governed by no fixed standard but by whim: “No certain laws, establishing invariable grounds of hope and fear, would keep the actions of men in a certain course, or direct them to a certain end.” Lewis would delineate this concern in its fullness.
It may seem paradoxical that Hayek, that champion of individual liberty, could be seen as part of the same tradition as Burke, the defender of collective, traditional wisdom. Yet one important attitude they shared is a distaste for wholesale deracination. Like Burke, Hayek criticized those who, in their impatience for progress, discarded the wisdom that preceded them:
What had been an inspiring promise seemed no longer enough, the rate of progress far too slow; and the principles which had made this progress possible in the past came to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away, than as the conditions for the preservation and development of what had already been achieved.
What Hayek looked to preserve was nineteenth-century liberalism, not the ancien régime; but, like Burke, he favored “adding to or improving” over “scrapping and replacing.” In this respect, at least, Hayek’s liberalism was not the same as the one Burke decried.
The issue of complexity also riveted Hayek’s focus, much like Burke’s. As we saw, Hayek foretold that the planners’ program would be disastrous because they were not up to their task. In their heady confidence, they fail to grasp the complexity of the society they seek to control. They even point to this very complexity in their advocacy for elaborate plans. Their thinking, rejoined Hayek, is a grave fallacy: “Far from being appropriate only to comparatively simple conditions, it is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such co-ordination can be adequately brought about.”
Hayek saw his defense of the free market as a form of intellectual humility before the impenetrable complexity of human affairs. Notwithstanding the vast differences between Burke’s conservatism and Hayek’s classical liberalism, they share this impulse, being scandalized by the presumption of those who would apply a crudely rational plan to the organic, endlessly intricate mosaic of the body politic.
To call Lewis a “conservative” makes plain sense. But it sounds paradoxical, even in light of similarities to Burke and Lewis, to affix the label to Hayek. This, after all, is a man who once wrote an essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”!
But we can see in The Road to Serfdom certain recognizably conservative concerns that Hayek shared with Lewis, and that can claim roots in the thought of Burke. The application of these traditionally conservative concerns to the politics of the twentieth century produced something distinct. Burke had feared lawless disorder; Lewis and Hayek feared the prospect of lawless order. In the French Revolution, Burke saw a mad carousel of blood, riot, and deposition, as the masses gave themselves over to lawlessness. In fascism and communism, Lewis and Hayek saw how a few lawless individuals would govern all with an iron hand.
Like the American Founders, Lewis and Hayek thought seriously about how to prevent the commonwealth from sliding into the power of demagogic tyrants, as had occurred so often in antiquity. Hayek in particular sounded the alarm against democratic socialism as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But of course, Lewis and Hayek did not chiefly fear the turbulence of Athenian democracy and its petty tyrannies. Rather, they balked at the prospect of tyrants who would quell such convulsions and instate ordered efficiency. Something had changed. Once again, fear of scientistic ideology lies at the root of Lewis’s and Hayek’s prophecies. In some disordered individuals, the capabilities of modern science and technology ignite ambitions that surpass those of any ancient tyrant, and provide weapons more potent than those of the legendary host that Xerxes led against Hellas.
In a sense, then, Lewis’s and Hayek’s forebodings wedded central concerns of the conservative and liberal traditions. More specifically, conservative concerns led them both to take a liberal stance toward arbitrary, unaccountable power — especially the kinds of power exercised in the name of scientism. Scientistic power had prompted totalitarian governments to violate liberty and pursue the most anti-traditional ends imaginable. In the twentieth century, the kind of order imposed by the Nazis and Soviets posed an existential threat not only to freedom but to any sense of tradition whatever. When faced with twentieth-century absolutism, the liberal interest in individual freedom became aligned with the conservative defense of virtue and inherited wisdom.
Because shared enmity toward totalitarianism motivated the fusion of traditionalist and liberal politics, it stands to reason that the alliance would fray in the post–Cold War era. But when we look at the shared characteristics of the Soviet and Nazi projects, we can see more clearly why they threatened both classical liberals and conservatives. Totalitarianism did not only separately assault individual liberty and moral tradition, but provoked a common concern from the groups that cherished each. Lewis did not worry only about the erosion of traditional morality, nor Hayek only about the abrogation of individual rights. Both resisted a worldview that presumed to know, by the dubious methods of social science, exactly how to order the body politic and to pursue this reorganization unilaterally by technological means. Recognizing this confluence of concern, we may see areas in which it endures today, as for example during the pandemic, when libertarians and conservatives stood arm-in-arm decrying the overreach of unaccountable technocrats claiming to act in the name of science when making overtly political decisions.
None of this is to assert that Cold War–era fusionism will or should survive. But perhaps the example of Lewis and Hayek can offer a vision for how people with conflicting politics can join forces against an ideology they both resist, and whose tyrannical future, if unchecked, they both fear — an ideology that would claim to make science the sole authority for politics and morality, and that recognizes no limits to the technological conquest of nature and humanity. Perhaps the interests of liberty and of virtue will find themselves aligned once more.
The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.
Was Fusionism a Fluke?