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Oren Cass’s Conservative Economics

New group American Compass envisions an economic consensus that puts family, community, and industry first.
Oren Cass’s Conservative Economics

What would a conservative economics look like? For most of Official Washington, this is a settled question. Right-of-center institutions across town are littered with commitments to ‘economic freedom,’ ‘free enterprise,’ ‘free markets,’ ‘private enterprise,’ or some other similar formulation that emphasizes the inviolability of market principles. In our contemporary political lexicon, market absolutism is often synonymous with ‘conservative’ economics.

Yet such a reflexive association is a recent anomaly within the broader conservative intellectual tradition, and one that Oren Cass is eager to reveal. Cass, author of The Once and Future Worker and member of TAC’s advisory board, announced today the formation of a new group, American Compass, which seeks to “restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” Note the order: family, community, and industry are that which our economic system should seek to restore, which will in turn lead to liberty and prosperity. The latter are the product, not the object, of this economic paradigm.

It’s an ambitious departure from the dominance of the market-knows-best crowd, but Cass has already assembled quite the cast to join him in the new venture: fellow TAC advisory board member David Azerrad and American Affairs editor (and TAC contributor) Julius Krein are on the board of directors, and Wells King, former adviser to Sen. Mike Lee and member of TAC’s inaugural class of the Constitutional Fellows Program this spring, will join as research director. It’s a decidedly conservative group, which speaks to the premise behind American Compass: Recent GOP orthodoxy on economic policy has failed to conserve much of anything. Cass commented further on the impetus behind the project in the Washington Post today:

When you zoom out, you can have a rising GDP, but if it’s in the context of collapsing families and people no longer getting married and declining fertility rates and so on and so forth, you haven’t necessarily enhanced well-being,” said Cass. “Likewise, if you are generating growth by trading off the non-market work that people historically performed within their households for a model where everyone goes to work and then they pay each other for the things they used to do in their own household, that’s not great either…It’s important to recognize that, alongside the value that the hyper-efficient conglomerate brings, there is also an awful lot of value that the locally-owned small business brings.

For all of the rising metrics of economic success in recent decades, metrics of social well-being have too often trended in the opposite direction. The common rebuke to these dueling statistics is that they’re unrelated, but the conservative economics of American Compass isn’t satisfied with the narrative that economics and social well-being exist in separate vacuums. “Unlike the prevailing orthodoxy, conservative economics will take seriously the effects of social and market forces on each other,” Cass wrote in National Review, “It will concern itself with the pernicious effects that high levels of economic inequality can have on the social fabric, the market’s functioning, and people’s well-being, regardless of absolute material living standards.”

American Compass won’t be without its critics; indeed, it’s already attracted a few quick responses from the libertarian right, with more certain to come. (One hopes that future critiques will be more interesting than what ultimately amounts to “Read more Hayek!”) And that simply shows the necessity of the project. The Trump election was a symptom, not cause, of legitimate economic anxiety in the country. If conservatives want to avoid a regime of woke-libertarian oligarchs (Bloomberg) or Soviet-praising socialists (Sanders), it’s time to reevaluate our own economic orthodoxies—and, more importantly, to build institutions capable of providing these fresh perspectives. In this regard, American Compass promises to be an invaluable endeavor.

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