Conservatism: What is it Good For?

Paul Mirengoff of PowerLine has been kind enough to reply to my recent essay on the state of modern conservatism. To get the brown-nosing out of the way, I have been an avid reader of PowerLine for years. I thank Mirengoff for taking the time to comment on some of the problems I brought to the fore in my piece and I thank PowerLine for featuring my article in the “Picks” section most of the day Tuesday.

Mirengoff sets up a dichotomy between my argument and one made by Michael Anton (Decius) in a wonderful essay in the inaugural issue of American Affairs. He thinks that examining this dialectic reveals a problem in my argument.

Mirengoff correctly notes that Anton argues upholding the “liberal international order” is “largely instrumental—a means to” the end of serving “American foreign policy interests—peace, prestige, and prosperity.” Similarly, he says I argue “that conservatism too is a means to ends, and must be evaluated based on its ability to deliver.”

So far, so good. The LIO, Mirengoff claims, “has largely succeeded in meeting its ends, but needs restructuring in light of changed circumstances.” (He glosses over the problems caused by neoconservatives purportedly acting in the name of maintaining the LIO but, for current purposes, I will leave that to the side.) In contrast, Mirengoff notes that I made the opposite argument: modern conservatism has ultimately failed to achieve its goal of securing the common good of Americans.

Oddly, he doesn’t say here if I’m right about this. (Later, he suggests I’m incorrect but fails to say why.) He quickly turns to a discussion of what conservatism is. But this is a strange omission, because my entire argument hinges on the following syllogism: if conservatism did not do its job, then it should be jettisoned for something else.

For at least the last 16 years, conservatives have largely been content with administering purity tests and ideological one-upmanship instead of gaining a constituency outside of true believers. The presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the beau ideal of a modern conservative statesman, showed this in spades. For example, Cruz lost to Trump in primaries across the South—primaries that, demographically speaking, should have been very favorable to his campaign. Instead, Cruz got crushed on his own turf. This is all the more damning because it shows that conservatism failed even within its own constituency. In other words, conservatives themselves noticed the failure of conservatism to conserve anything of value and, reasonably, decided to make a different choice.

Mirengoff argues that conservatism is about believing in “ordered liberty and economic freedom.” (As an aside, “ordered liberty” is a redundancy; rightly understood, order is contained within the very definition of liberty.) I agree that conservatives “believe” these things—but what have they done to secure these ideas in practice? And they are only partial goods in any event. The common good of all Americans—the “safety and happiness” of all Americans about which the Declaration speaks—is the central good to which these are subsumed. They should not be seen as separate competing goods, each vying for our attention.

Mirengoff then contends that conservatives believe in “free markets and free men,” which he contrasts to statist policies such as “public works programs, and the erection of major barriers to trade.” He asks rhetorically: “Has that view been rendered obsolete by events?”

The problem is, what have passed for “free markets” are nothing of the sort. Actual free markets, as scholar Thomas G. West has pointed out, feature three main principles: the ability of anyone to sell anything at any price; equal enforcement of contracts by the government; and equal access to public roads and bridges for economic activity. By any measure, the United States today falls far short of at least the first two requirements by a wide margin. For example, in the 2017 “Index of Economic Freedom,” published by the Heritage Foundation, the United States ranks 17th in the world, behind bastions of economic liberty such as Lithuania and Georgia.

And what many conservatives call “free trade” is nothing of the sort, either. “Free trade” agreements such as the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership that are thousands of pages long and filled with countless loopholes and carve-outs are not free trade. Labeling cronyism “free trade” and elevating it to a doctrine of natural right hasn’t been too helpful for many Americans.

As a policy, actual unrestricted free trade was certainly beneficial for the United States at one time, but that was right after World War II, when we were the world’s sole superpower and the only major exporter of goods.

As Michael Anton posits in his essay in American Affairs:

[T]he world economy has changed significantly since 1945, to state the obvious. In certain cases, at least, the conditions underlying that period’s commercial policy orientation (and the theoretical impulses behind it) no longer apply. The Trump administration is right to be skeptical of free trade ideology and to revisit trade policy based on core interests and commercial realities.

Also, I wonder what Mirengoff means by likening “the erection of major barriers to trade” to statist policy? What does he consider “major barriers”? Does he think tariff-supporting statesmen such as Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and Coolidge were statists? Mirengoff seems to implicitly assume that free trade is conservative. But why? Tariffs were used for a majority of American history. Even Ronald Reagan deployed tariffs from time to time, which garnered heated denunciations from ideological free-traders at places like the libertarian Cato Institute. How is it conservative to reject our traditions?

In any event, this isn’t to argue that Pat Buchanan-style protectionism—which is just as rigidly ideological as current “free trade” orthodoxy—is the answer to today’s ills. It is instead to argue that, whether it be free trade, tariffs, or some other policy, U.S. economic policy should benefit the citizens of our country above all else. Conservatism was unable to adapt to these changing economic circumstances. It should be retired from the field and something else should lead the charge onward.

Mirengoff points out that Anton and I have different views regarding different things. Anton views the LIO as a means to achieving “peace, prestige, and prosperity” for the United States. Mirengoff then says conservatism in his understanding, as opposed to my own evidently, seeks to conserve “liberty and economic freedom” which “are ends, not just means to other ends.” But I agree that conservatism seeks to secure ends—ends far broader than the two he mentions and the end of “putting bread on the table” of middle class families which he attributes to me (in fact, Sen. Mike Lee argued that was his kind of conservatism, and I don’t disagree with him).

And, to point out the obvious, which too often gets lost in conservative rhetoric, these ends are for the benefit of flesh and blood human beings. This is not just some theoretical exercise being acted out by test subjects in a controlled environment.

Ultimately, I don’t understand how Mirengoff and I differ here other than the scope of the ends conservatism attempted, and failed, to secure.

He goes on: “Trumpians would err grievously if, as Hagen seems to do, they dismissed conservative ends as cliches and slogans and assumed that conservatism now offers ‘nothing’ when it comes to accomplishing material ends.” I never said that the ends which conservatism professed to conserve are “clichés and slogans.” Instead, I noted that conservative rhetoric has largely become nothing more than “clichés and slogans” that are abstracted from reality. Conservatism had nothing to say to anyone who isn’t already a True Conservative™. Evan McMullin’s vapid pronouncements on “equality and liberty” during his preposterous presidential campaign makes this state of decay crystal clear.

To Mirengoff’s second point, what has conservatism accomplished since Reagan left office in 1989 that makes him think it is blasphemous to argue conservatism didn’t work? I agree that many of conservatism’s pet projects—“tax reform, regulatory reform, and other conservative policies that expand freedom”—are all well and good. I would like to see many of them enacted by this Congress. But why haven’t any substantial gains been made on these policies in decades? Why was there no national constituency for these plans for decades prior to Trump—a man who ran explicitly rejecting the mantle of “movement conservative?”

In replying to Mirengoff, I speak of conservatism in the past tense, because its usefulness has long since ended. No matter what comes next—and whatever name it takes—that political movement must focus on countering the threats to the people’s sovereignty and clearing the way so that their common good can be achieved.

Movement conservatism, as Mirengoff admits, was just means to this end. It failed. Let’s try something else and refocus.

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27 responses to “Conservatism: What is it Good For?”

  1. Mostly agree, but a little devil’s advocate: there is perhaps a disconnect between what we’ve seen on a national level from various states. We have seen some good conservative policies emerge from Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, etc., and a lot of well-established policies have been transferable to states where conservatism is gaining a foothold, e.g. Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire (right to work, pro-life, school choice, gun rights, etc.).

    … so I think there is at least an important distinction to make for state level government vs. federal government, esp. in terms of “Conservatism: What is it Good For”.

    • So, modern conservatism is basically anti-union, anti-poor, and little more than a euphemism for Ayn Randian greed?

      • Neo-liberalism is anti-poor, not modern conservatism. Note some unions coming on board with Trump with his canceling of TPP and pro- America jobs policy, with controlled immigration. If right to work was so unpopular the Dems wouldn’t be in such a mess in places such as Wisconsin.

        You obviously are pretty clueless.

      • Go check on what Richard Trumka has said recently (AFL-CIO). Not full backing, but he’s prepared to work with Trump, after pulling out of TPP, and he supports controlled immigration also, cracking down on H1B abuse.

        Also, do you not remember this:
        “Teamsters Praise TPP Withdrawal, Labor Chiefs Describe “Incredible” Meeting With Trump”

        If you have been paying attention to recent trends some unions actually endorsed Portman over Strickland for Senator (Ohio).

        Being extreme green and extreme regulation (only helping elites and multinationals) is not pro-worker, esp. from a small/mid sized business standpoint (where most new jobs are created).

        Note the word *trends* – i.e. what we are seeing now is a bit like the early years, under Reagan. It doesn’t mean majority support (unions, union households), but it does mean one of a number of fractures among the fragile Dem base.

      • There are always disaffected people, for whatever reason, who will vote against their own interests. When you actually find a union endorsing Trump, please let me know.

      • “Disaffected people” means your base has been split. Do you really just want to dismiss them as “disaffected” without showing any interest in how to get them back? Fine with me. Keep losing ;-)

      • Just as the Republican base is splitting. Business Republicans have nothing in common with the Social Conservative branch, and neither has anything much in common with the Libertarian branch.

  2. After a federal district judge and the Ninth Circuit grossly overstepped their bounds on Trump’s travel ban, Powerline’s legal analysis was spot on. Its analysis: the federal judges were wrong as far as statute and the constitution go. Its solution: the Trump Administration should abandon the matter due to bad publicity.

    Nothing better distils the state of Conservatism, Inc.

    • Nope. That was Trump’s cowardly response, not the Conservatives’.

      • Refresh me about True Conservatism’s response.
        Thanks in advance.

  3. Conservatism Inc moved into Washington in January 1989. They kicked out all the Reaganites they could find, while pretending to continue the legacy of Reagan. And they have done little good for conservatism or the country in the 28 years since.

    Reagan was not perfect, but he was foremost an American nationalist. He cared about the general welfare of America and its citizens.

    Libertarianism is not conservatism, yet libertarian economics have largely captured conservatism, combined with an adoption of liberal internationalism.

    Conservatives understand that markets are not inherently good and that so-called free markets require intense government interaction to keep them “free”.

    Likewise, conservatives know that allowing one group to exploit and abuse another is not good for society. They understand that it is conservative to value the past and resist destructive change that only helps few.

    The exporting of thousands of factories and millions of jobs, leaving communities devastated, was not conservative. Likewise, mass immigration is not conservative.

    Conservatism Inc hasn’t been conservative for quite some time. And while President Trump seems a poor vessel for the restoration of true conservatism, he is guided by his innate nationalism to act in conservative ways.

    The Necons are largely opposed to nationalism because it threatens their cosmopolitan ideology. Nationalism cares about perserving local culture and ideals and understands that foreign influence can destroy countries.

    All nationalism is not conservative. We once had left liberal nationalists in America, after all. But it is hard to envision a conservativism that is not nationalistic. Attempts to do so leave conservatism an empty collection of policy positions that only benefit a few…..

    • You’re bit confused on some points, but general correct – what passes for Conservatism today isn’t!

  4. We’re being asked to accept as “conservative” the libertarian dogma on trade. And that is simply not conservative in any sense. The Founders were avid mercantilists, and opposition to “free trade” remained a cornerstone of American and Republican thinking for the next two hundred years. You understate Reagan’s position – the libertarians in his own day denounced him as “the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover”.

    Polling has consistently shown that pluralities or majorities of rank-and-file Republicans are opposed to free trade. The argument that “we Republicans have always been free traders” is almost Orwellian in its airbrushing of historical and present reality.

    • And, the LIBertarain view on the acceptance of decadence and rejection of virtue. LIBertarians are nothing but selfish Libs.

  5. Hmmm, Tom Hagen. Interesting choice of a pseudonym. The Godfather’s consigliere didn’t always deliver good news. Let’s hope conservatism doesn’t end up with a horses head in it’s bed.

  6. Doctrinal arguments over labels seem pointless to me. I am conservative, but not a conservatist (if there is such a word). I’m also a patriot who thinks that the Pax Americana is a positive good for the world. It’s the Left that wants to abandon it, in favor of some super-national utopia. They don’t realize it will be a dystopia, if not founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

    /Mr Lynn

  7. For at least the last 16 years, conservatives have largely been content with administering purity tests and ideological one-upmanship instead of gaining a constituency outside of true believers.

    This, in my view, is the key truth, especially as applied to the Intellectual Dept. of Conservatism, Inc. The principal agencies of this department–National Review, Weekly Standard, e.g.–have no stake in actual political outcomes. They remain in business and do what they do regardless.

    I also agree with Hagen’s point, which I took to be Decius’ as well, that “free trade” is not a principle but a policy, and as a policy it is dispensable or not according to the actual present condition of the polity. “Free trade,” not as in, I should always be free to produce my goods or services and charge what price I will for them” (i.e., individual liberty) but as in “the state should take every action to lower my own production and consumption costs; nothing is more important than lowering my costs.” It is the latter than Mirengoff et al. mean when they speak of “free trade” and it is that elastic policy that has been wrongly elevated into a rigid principle by Conservatism, Inc.

  8. conservatives have largely been content with administering purity tests

    I’m not sure that’s actually the case. According to a strict interpretation of “litmus test conservatism” Bush, McCain and Romney were absolutely terrible conservatives – yet they never attracted a fraction of the hostility from the Professional Conservative Movement which Trump has.

    For all the blather about their principles, what we’re seeing from Conservatism Inc is that a great many of their stated principles are just window dressing to get enough support to enact other ideas which have little support among rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives.

    There are only a tiny handful of positions which these people take seriously, and probably the most important one is that fidelity towards globalism must not be challenged. As long as you’re a globalist, as Bush was, you can thrash most of the rest of the nominal conservative agenda, as Bush, McCain, and Romney did, and be celebrated for it.

    Based on his stated positions and the people he’s selected to fill his cabinet, Trump looks like being the most conservative president since Coolidge. It’s precisely his conservatism which Conservatism Inc hates about him, specifically his staunch defense of American sovereignty.


    • The Conservative “litmus test” is WILL YOU UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION and CULTURAL AMERICANISM (striving for virtue)?

      What’s wrong with THAT???

  9. Conservatism, what’s it good for? Didn’t the glorious, phenomenal Decius (Anton) make the answer clear in his numerous essays? Conservatism, at least as practiced by movement conservatives, I.e.,. Conservatism, Inc., has been good for nothing. It in fact has been a gigantic scam put on by individuals who, in truth, are full in members of the open borders, globalist Uniparty,. They spent years peddling outrage over various social issues to distract us, the rubes, from the increasing take over by the totalitarian Administrative State, the loss of all our jobs in so-called free trade deals and the replacement of our people with third world peasants either indifferent to, or outright hostile to, our historic values of a secular, limited gov’t constitutional republic..

    I think Cruz was defeated because enough people recognized him as a member of Conservatism, Inc. Yeah, he railed away for small gov’t. But how sincere was that when with Ryan authored the TPP legislation, which was not only the worst of deals, but gave Obama fast track authority to negotiate in secrecy? And what any of his “strict conservative principles” matter when he was also an open borders, amnesty guy -although he argues not.

    Beyond that, what is this article about? Anton made his first foray in describing past foreign policy and the “liberal world order” it put as our imperative to protect and sustain. I know what Anton said and the questions he raised. Unfortunately it’s not clear to me what this author is saying.

  10. The huge majority of people living in America are NOT Conservatives – even most of those who claim to be. They don’t even know what it means. They just want government to take care of THEM instead of the Libs. No genuine Conservative would ever support Trump – he’s a big government Liberal liar.

  11. Conservatism, Inc. thinks words are more important than actions, evidenced by their not having an Obamacare strategy after all this time and rhetoric.

  12. “Actual free markets, as scholar Thomas G. West has pointed out, feature three main principles: the ability of anyone to sell anything at any price; equal enforcement of contracts by the government; and equal access to public roads and bridges for economic activity.”

    Well, that rejects Adam Smith’s willing seller and willing buyer.

    The above allows charging some people, say black people, higher prices.

    And who decides where roads and bridges are built and who pays? The difference in economic activity is tied pretty closely to “government”, We the People acting collectively to pay to build roads and bridges, by hiking taxes. Before the car and truck era, it was government providing access to rail transport by government providing incentives for building, and government regulating access with the ICC rate setting.

    The farmers in particular had suffered from railroads setting prices high for farmers but low for farm produce buyers, thus leading to Congress creating the ICC. Yet, by the definition cited, charging farmers $20 a ton and charging General Mills $1 in a deal to force farmers to sell grain cheaply to General Mills qualifies as “free market”.

    Conservatives are advocating free market everything which includes Trump picking who gets to rent the nice apartment, and who is steered into the Trump slum housing.