The Case Against “the Conservative Case. . .”

Whenever you find an article that begins with the title, “The Conservative Case” for or against something, lock your door, check your wallet, and grab your gun. You know what’s coming is an unadulterated sell-out of everything “conservatism” purports to hold dear.

The words directly following the ellipses usually denote some obviously non-conservative thing, like “a $5 trillion budget” or “transgender bathrooms” or “4-foot-11, 80-pound female Navy SEALS.” Do any liberals ever write “a liberal case” for something obviously conservative, such as the traditional two-parent family or constitutional originalism?

No, this self-sabotaging practice is unique to the American Right, which perhaps helps explain why it’s in such disarray.

American Enterprise Institute economist James Pethokoukis’s “conservative case against Trump’s apocalyptic view of America” harks back to Reaganesque optimism. But the entire premise of his essay, published last week at the left-leaning “explainer” site, Vox.com, completely misses the point of Reagan’s optimism. Reagan’s message in 1980 was, in a nutshell, “Things are really bad right now, but I know how to make them better and together we can do it.” (Can you think of any candidate who has spoken like that a bit more recently?)

Reagan began by acknowledging the “present crisis.” His optimism, like all sensible optimism, arose from a frank assessment of the situation. He thought the problems he diagnosed were fixable and that he knew how to fix them. A personality may be optimistic or pessimistic by temperament, and Reagan’s was surely optimistic. But he was wise enough not to let his preternatural optimism cloud his judgment and blind him to real problems. Even after Reagan had accomplished much (but by no means all) of what he set out to do and the country was (for the time being) in much better shape than he had found it, he still saw reasons to worry and sounded alarms about the future.

Not James Pethokoukis. Everything’s fine! Any concern about the nation’s present or future is “fully detached from reality” and “totally at odds with the facts.” Move along, nothing to see here. That’s the bulk of his argument, a variation on the theme “It’s not that bad,” a case for the status quo.

Pethokoukis is a gifted economist and could run circles around me with statistics and macro-models if he wanted to, but he hardly tries. Instead he offers this:

Sure, the recovery has been slow, at least the slowest since World War II, maybe in American history. But get in line. Great Britain’s recovery is perhaps the slowest in nearly two centuries … Recessions accompanied by systemic shocks to the banking and housing systems tend to be followed by miserably slow recoveries … [S]uch anemic rebounds are characterized by “very sluggish U-shaped recovery” in incomes … and persistently high unemployment.

Here is a ringing endorsement of the status quo. Things suck, but they suck everywhere and as expected, so it’s OK!

Is this meant seriously?

Pethokoukis then proceeds to offer a few stats, but not before prepping the ground by ruling out of bounds all doubts about possible government manipulation. But hold on. The U.S. Department of Labor gooses the unemployment rate in all sorts of ways, chiefly by not counting as “unemployed” anyone who has given up looking for a job, and by counting as “employed” anyone working part-time who used to work full-time and would prefer to do so again. So pardon my not being too impressed by a 20-basis-point drop in the official unemployment rate “over the last year.” Nor am I all that impressed that, according to Pethokoukis, “the labor force has grown by 2.4 million” over the same period—when it has shrunk by 14 million over the last eight years, to a 40-year low.

Especially risible is Pethokoukis’ claim that “household net worth” is $90 trillion. Where is that wealth concentrated? What’s the median and in what direction has it been going? Pethokoukis doesn’t say, perhaps because he knows the answers undermine impression he wants to leave.

Pethokoukis, like a good AEI-nik, would presumably dismiss such concerns as “the politics of envy” or some-such. True Conservatives™ don’t care about income inequality! The aggregate is what matters!

Matters to what? “The Economy?” Oh. Gains accruing to techies and hedge fundies are more than enough to offset losses everywhere else and that’s apparently good enough for Pethokoukis, who—like nearly all economists—bases his case on a narrow economic analysis that ignores the broader political sphere. Here we find another typical misinterpretation of Reagan. The Gipper’s successful policies proved that it’s all about incentives. All hail Homo economicus!

True, incentives matter. What do open borders and trade-giveaways incentivize blue collar workers in the heartland to do? Give up and shoot heroin?

The rest of Pethokoukis’s account is drearily predictable tech-innovation-Schumpeter messianism. Pethokoukis cites Joel Kotkin favorably, without mentioning that Kotkin’s opinions have evolved. Pethokoukis has to channel 1988 Kotkin because the current vintage is more realistic about—and thus more skeptical of—the trends Pethokoukis celebrates.

Pethokoukis makes the highly unoriginal point that “Google, Facebook and Uber” show the continued dynamism of the U.S. economy. This is like John Kerry praising Apollo 11 in his acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Can’t think of anything to say? Moon shot! Oh, you’re talking about the economy? Google! Is any cliché more tired at this point? Google—actually Alphabet—has made a few people rich but otherwise has depressed high tech wages in Silicon Valley by its relentless importation, and advocacy for same, of foreign programmers who will work for less and transform neighborhoods through over-occupancy. All this to make porn searches more efficient. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is even more aggressive about screwing American workers—fwd.usa, anyone?—and his company even more useless. Uber promises to turn unemployed American workers, and untold foreigners, into cab drivers. But you hail them through a smartphone, so it’s high tech! These, and dozens more that Pethokoukis could have mentioned but mercifully did not, are far cries from the robber barons of old, who electrified the nation, linked us by rail, road, sea, and air, and built our greatest monuments. In the process, they employed millions, created wealth for tens of millions more, and improved standards of living for people on every rung of the ladder.

But for Pethokoukis, the true measure of national success is “translat[ing] entrepreneurial daring into wealth.” America is still better at this than other countries, so what’s the worry? At least Mitt Romney—not known for being overly concerned with the working man—worried about our ability to create more entrepreneurs. Pethokoukis just takes for granted that we will keep doing so forever. And what about the people who aren’t entrepreneurs and can’t be? Are they just losers? Does the wealth ever get to trickle down to them? That is, in the form of something other than lower iPhone prices? Pethokoukis’ admonition against questioning the government aside, the government itself admits that it manipulates the Consumer Price Index via the “substitution effect.” Milk prices doubled? We’ll just assume that people are switching to water. (Let them drink water?) Wealth accrues at the top, factories close, jobs disappear, the bottom is strip-mined, and the prices it must pay for daily necessities go up. All Pethokoukis sees is: wealth accrues. Life is good!

Pethokoukis lazily cites highly contested “studies” written to bolster the narrative: immigrants benefit “the economy” (for whom?); illegal immigration is “stable” (stably high?); we now get more immigrants from Asia than from Mexico (that’s a relief! my neighborhood has lots of tacquerias but not enough Thai!). He attributes all objections to “false belief,” an echo of Marx’s “false consciousness.”

Like all conservative Hegelians, Pethokoukis is endorsing, if implicitly, rule by the administrative state. “Truth” derives from scientific principle, which is published in academic “studies.” For their own good, the voters should not be allowed to contravene said “truth.” If the people don’t like current, academically endorsed immigration and trade policies, then the people are wrong. Which is manageable, as long as the political class successfully conspires to thwart their will. But when a “demagogue” comes along who threatens to implement the people’s will, that must be stopped!

Abraham Lincoln famously said there is no right to do wrong. But there is a right to be wrong, when right and wrong are matters of prudential judgment rather than moral imperative. Pethokoukis and like-minded “conservatives” think that open borders and free trade are moral imperatives because they consider their desirability to be scientifically proven, which to them amounts to the same thing. Science is truth, truth science. This is an opinion that predates G.W.F. Hegel, but one that the German philosopher fully articulated for the political realm. In the leftist-Hegelian hive mind of which Pethokoukis is but one drone, the benefits of mass immigration and open trade are true simply; therefore popular objections are illegitimate.

The actual, political truth is that men are free “of all but moral law.” And there is no moral imperative for or against immigration or trade. If the people want them, they may lawfully enact them. If they don’t, they may restrict either, to the extent that their preferences in the moment dictate. Even if a consequence is that their economy contracts.

An economist will gasp at this heresy against his faith. But politics is greater and higher than economics. A failing economy might be a merely economic problem but a failing society is fundamentally a political problem. To the extent that an economy serves itself—and those who run it—and not the population it is supposed to serve is also, fundamentally, a political problem. It may be asking too much of checklist conservatives to see the bigger picture. We don’t after all expect our mechanics to tell us where to drive our cars. That’s what economists are: mechanics of the economy. Useful, even necessary, but limited. They should stick to what they know. Or, at the very least, we should be cautious about heeding them in matters outside their expertise.

The larger questions—what is this for and what are we doing to do?—must be debated by intellectuals, philosophers and statesmen, and decided by the people. Pethokoukis—like all economists—is entitled as a citizen to his opinion and to his vote. But his, and any economist’s, attempt to speak authoritatively about what the people must and may not do, to define which of their opinions are legitimate and which are not, is itself illegitimate.

Anyway, I do not concede that tighter immigration and trade policies will contract the American economy. But even if I knew they would, I would still favor them because I think, at this point, a smaller pie more evenly distributed among fellow citizens is a more urgent priority than a larger pie with every new slice going to the top. That’s to say nothing about all the attendant costs and collateral damage of mass immigration, even if one accepts that it’s always “good for the economy,” which I don’t. And even if I did, I would still support the right of the sovereign people to curtail or stop it at any time, for any reason.

Pethokoukis can’t because he has absorbed the core premises of the Left. “That’s racist!” This points to one of the deepest problems with “conservative intellectualism.” It accepts, out of conviction or fear or both, every restriction the Left places on it. The left rules out-of-bounds any discussion of the cultural or political effects of immigration as “racist,” and the conservatives go along. Hence they can only talk about immigration in economic terms, as if human beings were widgets.

In fact, this particular intellectual rot defines almost all of “conservatism.” It’s allowed the Left to bully the Right out of talking or thinking about so many subjects that all conservatives can rouse themselves to address any more is the economy. They rationalize such a narrow focus by insisting economics trumps all. But the root is fear. Or was. Fear may have caused the initial retreat, but younger “conservatives” raised in the faith actually believe every line of the Leftist creed. Except the parts about redistribution, because Hayek. Also, the donors don’t like it.

This is part of the reason why Pethokoukis scoffs at Trump’s appeal to black voters:

Donald Trump tells black people—typically in front of white people—that because their lives are so horrible and hopeless, they should take a flier and for once vote for the Republican presidential nominee. “What the hell do you have to lose?” Trump said before a suburban Detroit audience last month.

This argument Pethokoukis finds so outrageous that nothing need be said in response or refutation. Here you have “conservative” intellectual and rhetorical surrender in distilled form. For what have liberals, and blacks—and black liberals above all—been telling us for at least 50 years? That black lives are horrible and hopeless. They say this of course to justify massive government spending and social engineering. So that’s OK! But when Trump says the same thing—adopts the liberal premise only to draw a different conclusion—Pethokoukis is outraged, along with all the liberals. The Left has mastered this rhetorical trick and the Right has not only not caught on, it continues to help the Left use it against itself. There are certain things the Left is allowed to say that if the right simply repeats, it proves our “racism” or whatever.

Leftist: “Black lives are horrible.” Ambient culture: “You’re so right, let’s upend all our social, political, cultural and educational arrangements in an effort to improve black lives.”

Anyone else: “Black lives are horrible, but let’s try something else to make them better.” Ambient culture (including most “conservatives”): “How dare you!?! That’s racist! You’re Hitler! Begin your groveling apology now and we might leave you with the prospect of employment in a year or five. Otherwise you’ll never work in this town again.”

This trick is used on any number of topics, race being the most prominent only because it is the Left’s, and the establishment’s, go-to weapon. Like all self-castrated “conservatives,” Pethokoukis goes right along. Whether out of fear or conviction doesn’t even matter anymore.

Either way, he—and all the others like him—are obstacles to the near- and long-term project of saving what’s left of American and Western civilization. To climb out of the hole we’re in, we don’t need liberals, we don’t need cowards, and we don’t need traitors. The former dug the hole in the first place, with ample “conservative” assistance. Need any more be said about the latter two?

But it’s actually worse than that. Pethokoukis at one point makes a casual reference to Trump’s “bigotry” without making any attempt to substantiate the charge. This is a common claim, and tactic, of Trump’s critics on the “right”: call him a racist and just take for granted that all wise and good—that is, all properly indoctrinated readers—will agree and not expect or require any evidence or explanation. This is of course triply-true of readers of the Left-conventional-wisdom factory and anti-conservative-defamation-machine Vox, where the Pethokoukis chose to publish his piece, presumably to reassure the Left that, come what may, he’s not someone they should be going after. (Please!)

To make sure we don’t miss the point, Pethokoukis also refers to my “nativism” and alleged preference for a “paler America.” Get it? Pethokoukis is saying that, like Trump, I too am a “racist.” He’s too timid to use the actual word but he makes sure to get the message across.

For the record, I cop to being a “nativist.” I prefer policies that explicitly favor the existing American citizenry, the people born here, i.e., the natives. I’m somewhat impressed that Pethokoukis and his ilk have managed to redefine this age-old, bedrock political principle as radical and “racist.” It’s like forcing people to say the sky is green—a real propaganda feat, at which hats must be tipped in awe. But acknowledging leftist success as blunt force propagandists doesn’t require accepting the underlying lie.

Following Pethokoukis’ example, we may leave evidence aside because evidence is not the point. The charge of “racism” is—and is intended to be—the worst thing one can say about another human being in 21st century America. From a cultural standpoint, racism is often treated worse than murder. The culture goes absolutely bananas over crimes well short of murder—over acts that are not even crimes at all—if the Left can force a racial interpretation onto the event. It otherwise doesn’t seem to care much about actual murder or anything else. Actual murder has, according to the FBI, spiked by about 1,500 victims since Ferguson and the response is … oh, well. Just don’t you dare say it has anything to do with Black Lives Matter because that would be racist. We also have the amusing spectacle of Hillary Clinton holding out a suspected murder accomplice and baby mama of a drug trafficker as a moral exemplar because Trump once called her fat. See, that’s racist because she’s Hispanic. But her involvement in crime, serious and petty? What? You noticed? That’s racist, too.

As I noted in the “Flight 93” election essay that caused such consternation on the Right, the Left has been calling conservatives racist Nazis since the end of World War II. Increasingly, even the “Right” calls that part of the Right it doesn’t like racist Nazis. To repeat, this is—and is meant to be—the most damning charge one can make about another person’s character in 2016. It’s the ultimate denunciation and insult. It means, “You are vile and a non-person, wholly immoral and without redeeming traits. There is no reasoning with you and no possibility of respectful disagreement. You are simply bad and must at a minimum be shunned, Justice may even require active punishment, not for what you do, but for what I perceive you think.”

And our own side casually throws it in our faces. In this instance, on Vox, where Pethokoukis can be sure the charge will delight his left-leaning audience. “See! Even the ‘conservative’ James Pethokoukis agrees with us that Trump and all his supporters are bigots!”

That’s called giving aid and comfort to the enemy, James. It’s treason. Unless you think Trump and his supporters are your enemies.

If so, I think we’ve finally found some common ground. If you’re going to treat me like an enemy, I may as well start acting like one. As I’ve also written, those of us who still call ourselves “conservatives” are going to have to have big argument. People like Pethokoukis and myself—who appear to have nothing culturally, intellectually, or politically in common any more—are going to end up on opposite sides, to the extent that we aren’t already.

I don’t know James Pethokoukis. But I know lots of “conservatives” just like him: eager, even giddy, to throw anyone ostensibly on their side to the Leftist wolves.

I’m tired of being shot in the back my “friends.” It’s high time to turn around and let them shoot me in the face, in frank acknowledgement that I am their enemy.

Truth is, there’s nothing “conservative” about any of these people. But who cares about the word anymore? If they want to fight like dogs over who gets that bone, let them have it. Read me out of “conservatism.” Actually, you can’t fire me—I quit! If “conservatism” requires going to the wall for open borders, foolish trade deals, endless war, and head-in-the-sand “optimism,” to say nothing of routine denunciation of “racism” that’s far more imagined than real, then I am not conservative. I’ll take “patriotic” and “sane” instead.

As those of us inclined toward this way of thinking desert, or are ejected from, what’s left of “conservatism,” the movement will accelerate its decades-long drift toward ever-closer collaboration with its ostensible opponent. Within the first four years of the second Clinton Administration, don’t be surprised to see “A Conservative Case for Reeducation Camps.” Perhaps James Pethokoukis will write it.

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About Publius Decius Mus

Publius Decius Mus, or “Decius,” is the pen name of Michael Anton. He was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017. He currently serves as deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council.