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Conservatism: Anarcho-Capitalist or Values-Environmentalist?

Alex Zakaras, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, sees nothing conservative about the GOP’s “market radicalism.” Instead, he contends,

there are only two genuine forms of conservatism alive in America today. The first is ‘values’ conservatism, with its desire to preserve a traditional way of life premised on hard work and self-restraint, sexual modesty and heterosexual monogamy. The second is the strain of environmentalism that urges us to protect the natural world, live closer to the land, reduce our consumption and economic growth, and resist the allure of ambitious technological experiments.

Does the big spending of Republican administrations undercut the idea that the GOP is pursuing a full-throttle libertarian—even anarcho-capitalist—agenda? Not in Zakaras’s eyes:

In fact, fiscal crisis has become the Republicans’ favorite tool for forcing government contraction. This is the party’s worst-kept secret: they slash public revenues when they come to power, which precipitates fiscal crisis—the massive Bush tax cuts contributed greatly to the current fiscal mess—and then they demand painful reductions in public spending. Does anyone seriously believe that, if only the budget were balanced and the deficit paid–as they were under Bill Clinton in the late 1990s—the Republican Party would stop demanding painful cuts to public services? Fiscal prudence is not their aim; their aim is to ‘starve the beast.’ In other words: the aim is to inaugurate a bold political experiment—an experiment in market radicalism—even at the cost of considerable human suffering.

That would certainly be a clever tactic: if public spending is too popular to touch directly, undermine the revenue base enough that the spending appears unsustainable, perhaps conjuring the specter of inflation, and then attack spending once it’s less popular and the new narrative of crisis is in place.

I don’t think any Republican, or even any libertarian, ever dreamt up a master plan in exactly those terms. The GOP is as eager as the Democrats are to serve its own constituencies, including aging Baby Boomers (hence Medicare Part D), the affluent (with upper-income tax cuts and cuts on capital taxes—while the GOP is notably amenable to payroll taxes that support Social Security), and military contractors (the GOP accepts defense cuts only with great reluctance, in contrast to social programs the party is eager to slash). What’s interesting about the GOP is how it evolved in the 20th century to accommodate both an anti-New Deal ideology (which Zakaras is right not to label “conservatism,” though it’s not necessarily pure market economics, either) and the constituency-serving policies of the New Deal, summed up by the line apocryphally attributed to Harry Hopkins: “Tax and Tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.” The GOP variation on that theme since Reagan has been “borrow and borrow, spend and spend, elect and elect.”

Since that formula works for either party—Democrats certainly haven’t been deficit-averse—Republicans wind up bemoaning spending whenever the other team has the White House, but the party’s performance in office really does belie the idea that it wants to get rid of the New Deal paradigm altogether. The GOP just wants to get rid of Democratic constituencies—and build up Republican ones in their place.

That said, just because the GOP and its affiliated intellectual didn’t set out to engineer a crisis for the sake of advancing a radical agenda doesn’t mean that fears of an unsustainable welfare state might not give rise to one. (Which might just as well be Bolshevik rather than arch-libertarian.) But I don’t think they will: right now Republicans are harming themselves more than anyone by their refusal to address the plight of the middle class and poor. When Republican flacks during the last election would talk about the record numbers of Americans on food stamps, I often wondered what message they expected the public to hear. I think they wanted voters to hear, “Barack Obama’s economy is so bad that more Americans have to turn to food stamps,” but if you knew what the right’s general line on food stamps was, you couldn’t help but hear Republicans as saying, “We’re going to solve the problem of too many Americans on food stamps by abolishing the food stamps.”

Republicans will generally keep doing what they’ve been doing, but the problem for conservative thinkers to address—whether they’re the sort that Zakaras would consider free-market radicals or whether they’re values voters, Burkeans, or something else—is how you can have both a limited government and necessary protections for the non-affluent. If you’re a conservative on the “necessary protections” side, can you reliably keep your politics from sliding into welfare-statist managerialism? If you’re on the classical liberal/market radical side, do you have anything to say to people who like smaller government but like having a healthy middle class even more? The institutions of the right are often afraid to admit that there’s a tension here, but addressing that tension is the prime task confronting conservatives of all schools today.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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