After nearly 18 months of COVID shutdowns, it is refreshing to see people returning to some semblance of normal life, even if their “normal lives” take place in the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, one aspect of life in D.C. still considered normal is the tradition of political conferences that have nothing to do with actual normal life for the average American. Such events are rife with policy wonks who wax poetic about obscure fiscal policies or abstract political theories that mean absolutely nothing to American workers.
Yet the Intercollegiate Studies Institute last week concluded a conference, “The Future of American Political Economy,” that was refreshingly nothing like the typical D.C. dog and pony show. It was all the more refreshing because it challenged long-standing norms about what really constitutes the American economy.
The overarching theme of the conference was the debate over whether or not “free-market solutions” are still the answer to our problems, or if it is now time for the Right to accept that perhaps the levers of government are the only tool now available to continue pushing our ideas. From trade and instituting more pro-family policies to Big Tech censorship and crony capitalism, this new divide on the Right—something completely unheard of just five years ago—dominated every conversation.
There were three big names in attendance: Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance.
Vance gave the keynote address on Friday night, in what was easily the best speech of the weekend. Vance focused primarily on the matter of declining American birth rates and reduced economic prosperity for middle- and working-class families, reminding the audience that if America’s single greatest duty is to secure the future for the next generation of Americans we cannot begin to do that until we secure the existence of that generation.
Among other things, Vance said that we can begin to turn the tide of this devastating trend by protecting American businesses and American industries from being offshored or sold out altogether by foreign markets, a clear reaffirmation of the smart protectionism implemented by President Donald Trump.
When it comes to the broader issue of whether the levers of government can be used in ways that assist us, Vance pointed out that we have already lost every single institution in the country—Hollywood, academia, social media, Wall Street, and corporate America, among others. The only thing we still may have at our disposal is government itself, in the event that the Right manages to regain political power ever again. Vance also referenced the many widely successful pro-family policies implemented in places such as Hungary, which have incentivized starting and maintaining families. Although Vance did not suggest that the answer is to simply replicate the Hungarian approach here in America, they can provide us with at least a model about how to move forward in a different direction.
On Saturday, Rubio addressed the conference via Zoom revisiting his recent calls for the Republican Party to abandon what he calls “free-market fundamentalism,” in favor of a “common-good capitalism.” Rubio correctly pointed out that, while capitalism is the greatest eradicator of poverty known to man, it is nothing more than a tool for us to use, not a belief system around which to organize our entire political and cultural structure. Just because the “free market” says it’s cheaper to buy goods from China than from the United States doesn’t mean we should do so.
It is in our national interest, Rubio points out, to have an industrial capacity for crucial materials and products, such as steel to build ships and airplanes, as well as crucial technology such as semiconductors, and other resources such as medicine. Not only are we too dependent on foreign countries for such supply chains, but we also must deal with corporations that fundamentally do not view themselves as American enterprises. These “global” entities naturally do not have our best national interests at heart, and that is a conflict with which we must eventually come to terms.
Sessions picked up on this theme in his speech when he took aim at the elites who have been the overseers of the gutting of American society—those he refers to as “masters of the universe.” These elites, the former attorney general pointed out, could not be stirred to care if a manufacturing plant in Alabama closed down and took with it hundreds, or even thousands, of jobs. Echoing Rubio’s point about modern corporations no longer considering themselves primarily American even when they originate in America, Sessions said that although such companies once curried favor with the American market, they now pursue the Chinese market because there is greater profit in doing so and they can produce at cheaper prices when they move their facilities over there.
Such anti-Americanism in America’s CEOs “needs to be taken down a notch,” Sessions said. And, as Vance pointed out, with all these institutions losing their loyalty to America, the one and only thing we still have on our side is the will of the American people, which may one day elect another leader like Trump (if not Trump himself, again) who will stand up in defense of the American nation. To this end, the modern Right must appeal to the long-forgotten labor class that has traditionally been politically indebted to the Democrats. This means working to slow or halt immigration and standing up for the interests of the American worker first.
The Powerhouse Panels
Although many of the attendees undoubtedly were drawn by the marquee speakers, the panels in between the major speeches provided more than their share of insight—and entertainment.
The first panel, on “Cronyism and the Administrative State,” included five participants discussing whether or not the government should be used to actively combat monopolies and other bad actors in the current crony capitalist regime, or if the free market can simply be unleashed to work everything out. Panelist Julius Krein clashed with Donald Devine and Julia Norgaard on this matter, with Krein arguing in favor of government action and Devine and Norgaard arguing against it.
Krein pointed out that technically we will always have an administrative state, regardless of the desire of so many conservatives to abolish it. For example, some degree of administration is required for such legitimate purposes of government as infrastructure and law enforcement, so we should focus more on trying to make administration more responsive, and using it to actively pressure, if not incentivize, companies to invest in America rather than in foreign countries. Norgaard suggested to the contrary that private enterprise could be used for almost everything that government runs, such as roads and airports, with Devine vigorously agreeing as he cited the work of the Brookings Institution to support it.
In the question-and-answer session, perhaps the most important question of the entire conference was asked by a young man named Bryce Connolly, one of several fellows with American Moment in attendance. Wearing a distinctive American flag tie, Connolly spoke on behalf of his generation when he said that young conservatives are more comfortable with the idea of government coercion in favor of traditional values because, from their vantage point, every other institution has been lost. Academia, entertainment, and other staples of American life actively promote far-Left ideas such as transgenderism, abortion-on-demand, hatred of Christianity, and the like. His point was that deference to the “free market” has led to our current situation. Bryce then asked why we should not at least give the government option a try?
Another important and substantive panel covered “Thriving Families and Middle-Class Prosperity,” sponsored by American Greatness and featuring publisher Chris Buskirk as one of the panelists. The starting question posed by the moderator addressed a statement by Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, who said that the purpose of the U.S. economy should be to create a system where we can afford to raise a family on a single income.
While the panel largely agreed with this assertion, Buskirk did the most to remind the audience of just how large-scale the threat of the declining family structure really is. All across both the developed and undeveloped world, fertility rates declined by 2/10ths from 2019 to 2021 in every single country with only two exceptions: Israel and Uzbekistan. While humorously admitting that the reason for Uzbekistan’s prosperity is anyone’s guess, he focused specifically on Israel as he redefined the idea of prosperity: It is not only economic, but also spiritual.
Although one could point to the fact that religious people are far more likely to have children than secular people, Israel saw an increase in its fertility rate despite having plenty of both types of people. What it really comes down to, Buskirk argues, is the fact that Israel still maintains a strong sense of national purpose, and thus has largely maintained societal unity in order to achieve that purpose.
Ultimately, Buskirk posited, it comes down to a “pathological risk aversion” we now face as a population. We are far too afraid to make leaps of faith or take the next big step in life without absolute security. Only when we abandon this mindset and our need for security over liberty will we be able to return to the “frontier spirit” that led to the discovery, founding, and expansion of our great nation. We will only strive to achieve great things and build again when we remember that some things are more important than mere living. And what greater thing can a citizen build than his or her own family?
What It’s Really All About
At one point during the aforementioned panel on family prosperity, a baby was quietly wheeled into the ballroom in a stroller, and the baby’s caretaker kept it at the back of the room. (The panel’s moderator, Helen Andrews, later informed us that it was her child).
The timing of the child’s arrival with the subject of that particular panel was too perfect. Every time the baby made a noise—from a soft coo to the makings of a cry—I couldn’t help but glance over in that direction, and smile. If the conference taught me one thing it was that future Americans are the most valuable thing our country has to offer; everything we strive to do—whether it’s improving our society, our culture, our way of life, or our nation’s economic stability—is for them.
And it was then that it occurred to me: In a room that had hosted a former senator, a current senator, and a hopeful future senator . . . that baby was the single most important person in the room.