02 Sep R.I.P. Conservatism
“The foundations of Conservatism continue to crumble.” – The Lonely Realist
Being a Conservative in 2023 does not have the same meaning as being a Conservative in the 1980s … or even as recently as in 2015 (when the Freedom Caucus was founded). Classical American Conservativism was grounded in the principles championed by William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. It had three essential elements: fiscal restraint; a belief in traditional American values; and a strong internationalist focus on trade and national defense. Today’s politician “conservatives” adhere to a quite different philosophy.
Traditional fiscal conservatism meant low taxes, modest government spending, balanced government budgets, and minimal government debt. It relied on a Darwinian approach to free markets whereby government takes a back seat to capitalism, providing a limited, incentivized safety net for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Because free markets are disruptive, they bring rapid change that maximizes growth at the expense of leaving late-adapters behind – including those whose jobs become obsoleted by progress. The Reagan Revolution had those consequences … and America, along with most Americans (though far from all), prospered. However, that is not the philosophy driving today’s self-styled “conservatives.” “Fiscal conservativism” these days is more word than deed. It opposes free market corporatism that encourages asset-owners to dominate salaried workers and disproportionately rewards success (as alleged by Sohrab Ahmari is his book Tyranny, Inc:…) …, precisely the historical domain of liberals. Although fiscal conservatives today continue to adhere to a low-tax philosophy, they do so while increasing government debt, substituting it for business and individual obligations, enlarging deficits and propelling Statism – centralized government coordination of economic activity – that focuses on populism rather than fiscal probity.
Traditional American Conservatism emphasizes minimal interference by governments in the lives of Americans, strict Constitutional constructionism, and adherence to historical American family values. As President Reagan said, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” Modern “conservatism” nevertheless employs Federal and State activism to empower workers and other “stakeholders” to have a voice in corporate decision-making, provide government subsidies to encourage larger, more home-focused families, limit abortion (including the freedom to travel) and sexual rights, control what may be taught at schools and offered by libraries, subsidize onshore manufacturing and business-development, and restrict immigration to prevent the wage-erosion of native-born Americans …, policies that exalt government in ways similar to the “left-leaning” Biden Administration. What was once a smaller-government Conservative mantra is now a bigger-government set of rallying cries that, surprisingly, are shared at various levels by both “conservative” Republicans and “liberal” Democrats.
The traditional Conservative approach to global issues relied on internationalism with a laser focus on national defense. Today, those are the policies of the “left-leaning” Biden Administration. Leading 21st Century “conservatives” instead have adopted America First isolationist, trade and tariff policies that were last popular in the 1930s when America believed itself safely insulated by Atlantic and Pacific Ocean distances. Vivek Ramaswamy recently provided an example of 21st Century foreign policy “conservatism” by advocating a solution to the Ukraine War inspired by former President Trump. He would “require” Putin to end his alliance with China in exchange for America’s commitment that NATO would never admit Ukraine. In doing so, he would endorse Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine as well as Russia’s intent to thereafter absorb the remainder. This approach (and a similar one he proposed for Taiwan) ignores appeasement history (for example, the 1938 Munich Agreement that consented to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia). Traditional Conservatism recognizes that appeasing aggressors doesn’t work and accordingly endorses a strong defense founded on a globalist/internationalist foreign policy in reliance on democratically-centered alliances and a powerful military. Today, those are the policy priorities being pursued by the “left-leaning” Biden Administration … and being renounced by many of today’s “conservatives.”
The practice of 21st Century “conservative” politicians is to articulate positions that emphasize ’80’s Conservative buzzwords without adopting traditionally Conservative policies. A majority of today’s “conservative” politicians offer a brand of populism designed to attract campaign dollars and maximize their odds of election. Few support – let alone sponsor – traditionally Conservative legislation. Unfortunately, perpetual electioneering with perpetual invective doesn’t enhance democracy or result in fiscal restraint, further traditional American values, or create a strong national defense. To the contrary, oppositional politicking leads to tribalism, extremism and internal strife. Labels of Conservative, Liberal, Republican and Democrat have mutated into electioneering slogans, shorn of their historical meanings, useful primarily in name-calling. Pragmatic policy initiatives no longer matter.
Instead of pursuing Conservative policies, America’s current “conservatives” are intent on being the party of opposition. However, “oppositional government” is not the same as “effective government” …, and climate change provides a useful example of what a truly Conservative agenda might accomplish. Traditional Conservatism acknowledges realities …, and, despite climate change deniers, the planet indeed is warming. A core belief of traditional Conservatism is that, whatever the reasons for climate change, big government programs coupled with big government subsidies are not in America’s best interest. Instead, a Conservative response to global warming would include reducing burdensome government regulations that delay and often prevent the private development of energy alternatives. Similarly, rather than stigmatizing nuclear energy by treating it as an unpopulist vote-killer, a Conservative energy agenda would promote an expedited national process to permit the construction of next-generation nuclear reactors, emulating an energy policy pursued by China. Doing so would encourage nuclear energy over coal- and gas-fired energy production (a challenge for politicians from energy-producing States). America similarly would benefit from changes to current laws that cause delays and increase the costs of mining and processing rare earths and other energy-efficient minerals. These are examples of how smaller government could further fiscal restraint and foster a stronger capitalist economy, cornerstones of Conservative philosophy. Further examples abound. After all, there are numerous inefficient laws that provide unnecessary financial support for well-lobbied, historically-anchored industries, including biodiesel production, agriculture and insurance, most of which fall within precisely the type of government programs that historically-motivated Conservatism.
Traditional Conservatives’ perspective was on bettering government. The goal of 21st Century “conservatives” has become centered on election outcomes. That is terribly sad for America. R.I.P. Conservatism.
An index of TLR titles can be found here.
Finally (from a good friend)