False Orthodoxies on the Right
Political theology isn’t helpful for coalition-building.
There is an ideological battle taking place on the right. Old-guard Republicans, formed in the era from Goldwater to Trump, seem to have taken certain political tenets as principles that cannot be compromised. As times and circumstances change, these characters do not change and don’t seem to understand how a conservative could question the old orthodoxies.
There are many examples of this old guard mentality in the current GOP, but one will suffice to make the point. Nikki Haley wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a couple years ago explaining how the answer to critiques of capitalism is simply to double down and be more capitalistic. In Haley’s world, there are really only pure capitalists and socialists; anyone in the middle is “pushing a watered-down or hyphenated capitalism, which is the slow path to socialism.” Any conservative who might think it prudent to “advocate for more tax credits here, more subsidies there, more mandates for this, more regulations for that...would merely give government more power over businesses, workers and families. It differs from socialism only in degree.” Any advocacy for tax credits, subsidies, or regulations of any kind, for any purpose, is just a step toward socialism.
In the face of such zealous commitment to the free market as a first principle, many younger New Right conservatives are tempted to dismiss the old guard with exasperation. This is unproductive. Conservatives should resist the temptation to simply dunk on those they see as neocons (or Zombie Reaganites, or whatever) and try to get to the bottom of what’s really going on here.
On the free market, to continue the example, Nikki Haley and company are not all wrong. Read Haley’s recent comments on the campaign trail and many of her economic complaints ring true. Yes, government spending is out of control. The federal government has entangled itself in every area of human life and is burning trillions of dollars we don’t have in the process. Yes, this is irresponsible. Yes, much of this spending is not the proper domain of a distant federal government, and would be better handled on the local level.
The problem is not necessarily the policy proposal or criticism itself, but the mistaken elevation of political positions to doctrinal orthodoxies. It is not the particular economic proposals that are concerning so much as the religious zeal with which certain Republicans defend them and essentially label dissenters as heretics. Perhaps this is a particular temptation of modernity because humans are religious creatures, yearning to find purpose and truth beyond themselves. As traditional religious belief and practice have waned even among conservatives, perhaps political orthodoxy has filled the void once properly filled by religion. Conservatives are taking the concept of unbending doctrines, of religious orthodoxies, into the political realm where the concept does not belong.
This is an unspoken, even unconscious, issue that is creating tension on the right. As noted above, many old guard Republicans speak of concepts like the free market or free trade as if they are first principles, uncompromisable orthodoxies that separate the sheep from the goats, the true conservatives from those merely on the “slow path to socialism.” But where is the scripture passage, the sacred tradition, the ancient text of conservative dogma that requires adherence to something like the free market?
It is quite possible to reject free market absolutism without abandoning conservatism and becoming a socialist. As Oren Cass points out in his excellent review of Sohrab Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc. in First Things:
We resort to government rationing only in times of duress because we recognize that, applied widely, such schemes would destroy economic vitality and concentrate dangerous levels of power. We reject calls to seize the means of production and bring about a communist utopia because we understand how much more coercive, unjust, and inefficient that utopia would be. Insofar as coercion is rooted in power imbalances, which emerge inevitably from other inequalities, any society that accepts unequal outcomes must accept some degree of coercion as well. But these are arguments for prudence, not for the market fundamentalism that ignores shortcomings and trade-offs entirely.
This discloses the hollowness of the argument that all those who are not pure capitalists are simply sliding toward socialism. In reality, there are many competing goods; any prudent government accepts trade-offs. In times of war or true emergency, the populace accepts government rationing of certain necessities. There is an understanding that there are exigencies for which “the market” has no adequate response. The “pure capitalist” utopia exists only in the mind of Ayn Rand, not in any actual society.
If a conservative thinker observes a social imbalance or a grave wrong, something that seriously harms the common good or damages a conservative institution such as the family, it is not “unconservative” to suggest that perhaps this is a problem of sufficient gravity for which the free market does not offer a solution.
Much of the time, the free market produces good results. Central government planning often fails to achieve its goals. As Cass points out in the passage above, too much allowance for government coercion over economic affairs leads to dangerous levels of power concentrated in big government. Usually, the appeal to local solutions is the best (or the least bad) solution to a problem.
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The point is not the desired outcome, but the principled stance behind it. It is problematic when a large swath of the conservative movement has (more or less consciously) adopted concepts like free trade or free market absolutism as doctrines that must be accepted to be a true conservative. Conservatism is about preserving the common good, particularly through the institutions and traditions handed down through the ages. Conservatives emphasize the need for strong families, as well as local institutions from churches to vibrant towns, as indispensable parts of a good society. Free markets may help achieve prosperity for families and churches and towns. But if this is often true, it is not absolutely or necessarily so. Conservatism has no catechism where one will find the necessity of holding to free market absolutism to be the true mark of a believer.
Conservatives must always ask what they are seeking to conserve. If the answer is “the free market” or “economic prosperity,” perhaps it is worth stopping and asking if one has unwittingly adopted as an end what is supposed to be a means. Human flourishing, the common good, strong families, and tight-knit communities: these should be the ends we seek.
The right cannot have productive conversations about its platform or policy priorities if there is such fundamental misunderstanding about what is necessary to be a conservative. If a conservative holds to a principle such as the free market, free trade, limited government, that is fine. But let him explain why these are good principles. And let him realize that these are not religious orthodoxies of conservatism that have existed from time immemorial, but rather ideas adopted for certain times and circumstances. It is reasonable to hold such views, but not with the “no exceptions” mentality with which a Christian holds to the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation. Let us question our political orthodoxies (and probably shed many of them in the process) so we can make possible the big-tent conservatism that can focus on the true ends of politics: virtue and the common good.