Regimes, however intellectually disreputable, rarely are unable to attract intellectuals eager to rationalize the regimes’ behavior. America’s current administration has “national conservatives.” They advocate unprecedented expansion of government in order to purge America of excessive respect for market forces, and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. They call themselves conservatives, perhaps because they loathe progressives, although they seem not to remember why.
The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning” — because “market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors.” So, government, he says, must create the proper “composition” of the economy by rescuing “vital sectors” from “underinvestment.” By allocating resources “well,” Cass does notmean efficiently — to their most economically productive uses. He especially means subsidizing manufacturing, which he says is the “primary” form of production because innovation and manufacturing production are not easily “disaggregated.”
Manufacturing jobs, Cass’s preoccupation, are, however, only 8% of U.S. employment. Furthermore, he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda.
The national conservatives’ pinup du jour is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who, like the president he reveres, is a talented entertainer. Carlson says that what Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., calls “economic patriotism” sounds like “Donald Trump at his best.” Carlson approves how Warren excoriates U.S. companies’ excessive “loyalty” to shareholders. She wants the government to “act aggressively” and “intervene in markets” in order to stop “abandoning loyal American workers and hollowing out American cities.” Carlson darkly warns that this “pure old-fashioned economics” offends zealots “controlled by the banks.”
He adds: “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose does not come from government anymore, but it comes from the private sector.” Well. If living “as you choose” means living free from the friction of circumstances, the “threat” is large indeed. It is reality — the fact that individuals are situated in times and places not altogether of their choosing or making. National conservatives promise government can rectify this wrong.
Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever.
What socialists are so fond of saying, national conservatives are now saying: This time will be different. It never is, because government’s economic planning always involves the fatal conceit that government can aggregate, and act on, information more intelligently and nimbly than markets can.
National conservatives preen as defenders of the dignity of the rural and small-town — mostly white and non-college educated — working class. However, these defenders nullify the members’ dignity by discounting their agency. National conservatives regard the objects of their compassion as inert victims, who are as passive as brown paper parcels, awaiting government rescue from circumstances. In contrast, there was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”), who, when the Depression and Dust Bowl battered Oklahoma, went west seeking work.
Right-wing anti-capitalism has a long pedigree as a largely aristocratic regret, symbolized by railroads — the noise, the soot, the lower orders not staying where they belong — that despoiled the Edenic tranquility of Europe’s landed aristocracy. The aristocrats were not wrong in seeing their supremacy going up in the smoke from industrialism’s smokestacks: Market forces powered by mass preferences do not defer to inherited status.
Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such. The paternalists say to today’s Joads: Stay put. We know what is best for you and will give it to you through government.
Will puts in words the discontent of many conservatives, that rather than correctly reducing the size and scope of government, Trump and other Republicans are perfectly fine with big government, as long as Republicans are in charge of that big government. Among the numerous problems with that school of thought is the idea that one election predicts the next election. If that were the case, then Democrats would have controlled everything after the 1994 and 2010 elections because of how the 1992 and 2008 elections turned out. Readers know that is not how 1994 and 2010 turned out. Six years after the 2002 election, which gave Republicans control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, Democrats won the presidential election, two years after Democrats took control of both houses of Congress.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Will, including Emile Doak:
There’s been much hand-wringing on the right over Donald Trump’s conservatism—or, more accurately, his perceived lack thereof. From the early days of the 2016 GOP primaries, venerable institutions of Official Conservatism denounced Trump’s departure from orthodoxy on issues ranging from tariffs to Iraq. There was the strange, brief, supposedly serious presidential run from Evan McMullin, a sort of last gasp effort to conserve the Conservatism brand: free markets, strong national defense, individual liberty, and the like. The subsequent launch of The Bulwark ensured that the McMullin gasp was more penultimate than conclusive.
The latest entry into the fray comes from George Will in the Washington Post. Will dismisses national conservatives as simply trying to rationalize the Trump administration’s behavior, and labels their economic thinking “Elizabeth Warren conservatism.” He excoriates Oren Cass as a socialist for suggesting that the United States adopt an industrial policy that allocates resources well rather than “to their most economically productive uses.” He scorns Tucker Carlson’s contention that the private sector now poses a greater threat to personal liberty than government, dismissing corporate power as “friction of circumstances.” To Will, national conservative arguments come at the expense of conservative principles. As he writes, national conservatives “advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. They call themselves conservatives, perhaps because they loathe progressives, although they seem to not remember why.”
The implication, of course, is that the legitimate reason to “loathe” progressives is not necessarily over a difference in political ends (are drag queen story hours good for our children? Do we want a nation in which our manufacturing base is owned by China?) but rather over political means: progressives’ willingness to consider governmental solutions to the social and economic problems that plague our nation. And further, that any openness to such remedial policies among conservatives requires forfeiture of the moniker. Herein lies the essential, un-conservative nature of Official Conservatism. What Will—and Max Boot and Gabe Schoenfeld and countless others—bemoan as unprincipled are not principles at all, but rather policies. These policies, from tariffs to immigration restrictions to troop reductions in Afghanistan, do deviate in important ways from those long associated with the political label “conservative.” They instead seek to conserve a uniquely American way of life—one that, if 2016 is any indication, voters think worthy of conservation. Indeed, the extent to which the language of conservation (“preserve,” “save,” “tradition,” “community”) has been absent from the conservative movementspeaks volumes about the truly un-conservative nature of the modern political right.
More importantly, these Trumpian deviations from established GOP policies often seek to correct the very social ills that those policies produced. Blind commitment to “strong national defense” gave us a generation mired in endless wars that have done little to actually defend the homeland and left their disproportionately working class communities to cope with the social destabilization that accompanies missing their would-be civic leaders. Fealty to “free markets” has hollowed out America’s industrial base and produced unprecedented concentrations of corporate power, which is in turn leveraged against conservative cultural ends—to say nothing of the economic toll on the middle of the country. Overemphasis on “individual liberty” has yielded a thoroughly libertine culture in which religious conservatives can conceive of no defense from the excesses of sexual and identity politics but to wave the First Amendment in vain, expecting equal protection for their “bigoted” views.
Enter Donald Trump. A disclaimer is in order, of course, as the irony of a thrice-married vulgarian acting as bulwark against social unraveling is not lost. Trump the man is but a brute instrument, a bull in a china shop bringing attention to the inability of Republican talking points to actually conserve anything worthwhile. His personal behavior, from philandering to boorish tweeting, merits condemnation when necessary. But wholesale dismissals of the broader Trump phenomenon along these lines are tiresome. At their best, the underlying themes that Trumpian policy reflects represent a far more classical, Burkean conservatism than anything the GOP has put forward in recent years precisely because they deviate from “principled” conservatives. The North Star of conservatism is no longer allegiance to a collapsing three-legged stool, but rather preservation of that which gives life meaning: productive work, strong families, cohesive culture.
One need only look at how the right’s leading lights define conservatism to illustrate the divergence. In the midst of his “principled” stand against the Trump candidacy at CPAC in 2016, Senator Ben Sasse made explicit the policy-principle confusion that has plagued the conservative movement: “Conservatism is a set of policy principles,” he said. Contrast that to candidate Trump, who, in his characteristically clumsy way a mere month earlier, defined conservative very differently: “I view the word conservative as a derivative of the word conserve…. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country.”
Conservatism is not an ideology. It’s a disposition (and as such, is more appropriately discussed in its adjectival rather than noun form). As the founding editors of this magazine wrote, a conservative disposition is “the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God.” It’s no wonder that Russell Kirk, a principal architect of American conservative politics, spoke so often of the permanent things. Those permanent things—faith, family, culture, country; the “elements in the human condition that give us our nature”—are the principles that must guide a conservative politics. Policy should seek to promote them, not vice versa. To the extent that Donald Trump can reorient our policy to serve those ends, he is the truly principled conservative.
To that came this comment:
Let’s be clear: Illiberalism is not conservatism. What the writer espouses is little more than a rear-facing form of Maoism. Conservatives focus on the means of policymaking because we believe that the true and the good have a way of rising to the surface. We also recognize that humans are prone to err, and that concentrated power has a tendency to suppress the truth in favor of entrenched interests.
I agree that Will isn’t interested in preserving some nostalgic vision of American life. He recognizes that time moves forward and that yesterday’s answers won’t always be tomorrow’s. The illiberalism that the writer promotes is indeed akin to “Elizabeth Warren conservatism.” Such illiberalism is marked less by a desire to preserve the good than by a paralyzing fear of the future.
When Goldwater lost the Presidency in 1968, many thought that the movement he started was finished. It wasn’t. It succeeded in large measure because men like George Will put in the hard work of promoting a message of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and respect for human life. All the while, Will raised a son with Down’s Syndrome, and remained a passionate advocate for those with special needs. Meanwhile, the writer is a 20-something-year-old kid whose accomplishments are but a drop in the bucket in comparison to Will’s. And that likely says it all. Will recognizes that wisdom lies at the heart of what it means to be a conservative. The writer, by contrast, promotes a conservatism that has no place for wisdom or the natural limits of human affairs. He desires an authoritarian system that picks winners and losers. Its only difference from progressivism is that it would pick different winners and losers. I’m thankful that George Will has the moral integrity to call out this illiberal faux conservatism as con that it is.
Which prompted this response …