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.