Acton Institute Powerblog

The Future of Fusionism

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As promised in the context of yesterday’s discussion here and at First Thoughts, my piece on the future of fusionism is up over at the Comment site, “Small is Beautiful (Except When it Isn’t.)” I take my point of departure in the “crunchy” or “communitarian” conservatism of Rod Dreher, recently profiled by the NYT’s David Brooks.

My basic point is that the social or communitarian conservatives generally have a great deal to learn about economics and the way that economic development underpins the very lifestyles they manifest. But on the other hand, economic or “market” conservatives have a great deal to learn about the cultivation of virtue and the value of communities and civil society from social conservatives. So in contrast to those who perennially herald the divorce between economic and social conservatives, I find that they are “deeply interdependent in many often overlooked ways.” I conclude that in this time of crisis (financial, moral, and spiritual), “Perhaps now more than ever communitarian and market conservatives need each other’s insights to mutually test their respective assumptions and the practical implications of their views.”

One of the distinctive features of the fusionist project over the last couple decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the absence of anti-communism as a unifying force. Instead, the dynamic of globalization, and the generally differing evaluations of globalization between social and economic conservatives, has served as a centrifugal rather than centripetal force for the fusionist project.

In this regard I think it is worth taking note of a paper given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 (PDF) about the relationship between ethics and the market economy. He lays out in brief but brilliant fashion a framework for fusionism in his concluding paragraph:

A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.

I think “a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws” sometimes too painfully represents the position of social conservatives, including Rod Dreher, as I note in the Comment piece. But all too often economic conservatives take a “scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos.” The union of these two wings of the conservative movement is the fruitful, and indeed necessary, basis for fusionism, which still, I believe, represents the most hopeful way forward for conservatism in America.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    “Russell Kirk famously excoriated libertarians
    as “chirping sectaries” and “the sour little remnant,” who hold to “the
    notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order,
    and indeed human existence.”

    Could you provide an example of libertarians who think like that? I posted earlier that except for Ayn Rand whom I don’t consider libertarian, I have never read, met or heard of a libertarian who meets that description. Of course, I don’t want to judge something by just my personal experience. I understand there are leftist libertarians who think like that, but I don’t know much about them.

    As for libertarians who are part of the conservative fusion, I would bet there is no one who meets Kirk’s description and never has been. I have never read a libertarian who did not appreciate the value of community, whether family or church for the religious libertarians, or family and social clubs for the atheists.

    In fact, libertarians have no problem whatsoever with communitarians like Dreher as long as they don’t try to impose their philosophy on others through the power of the state.

    Libertarianism as expressed by Hayek, Mises, and many others places immense importance on morality. The right to life, liberty and property are libertarian foundations. What can be more moral than thou shalt not murder, steal or enslave? Those moral points are so important that most libertarians are willing to put up with a state that enforces them. Others want to enforce them through private courts and law enforcement agencies. To claim that libertarianism excludes morality is dishonest. Someone must provide one example.

    Communitariansim on the other hand has no objective morality at all. Showing its socialists origins, its morality is nothing more than sloppy sentimentalism.

  • Roger McKinney

    BTW, I have lived for decades in very small towns (population 6,000) and large cities. I see good and bad in each. Dreher has not lived in a small town long enough to notice the bad side. Most small towns are run by a mafia of two or three families who on occasion get away with murder because the DA, judges and richest families protect each other.

    The FBI busted a drug ring in one of Oklahoma’s small towns a few years ago. The leaders included the sheriff, mayor, and judge. The ring operated for decades. The FBI only found out about it because the sheriff cheated on his wife. She got revenge by going to the FBI.

    My neighbor in one small town was a deputy sheriff. He told me that his office had filed hundreds of charges against drug dealers in the area but the DA refused to prosecute any of them because the DA got a cut of the money. Several prominent witnesses in cases were murdered and no one ever accused of the crime.

    My grandfather was a rancher outside of a small town for six decades. He had a problem with cattle theft. I asked him why he didn’t go to the sheriff about it. In case you don’t know, the sheriff’s office has jurisdiction over rural areas; police only work inside the small towns. He told me the sheriff was usually part of any crime problem in the area. (Several sheriffs and deputies have been arrested for using their offices as cover for crimes over the decades.) On the off chance that the sheriff was honest he would be afraid of leaving town limits. My grandfathered then said that on the very rare chance that the sheriff was honest and brave enough to arrest thieves, the judge would turn the thief lose in 24 hours and then the thief would be angry at my granddad.

    So my granddad said he shot at thieves when he caught them stealing cattle, but he would never kill someone over a cow. He shot close enough that the thieves thought he was a bad shot. It kept the theft down to a reasonable level.

    If you had a week I could give you dozens of stories about the bad side of small towns. I haven’t even touched the subject of gossip, grudges and clicks that destroy churches and communities and ruin people’s lives.