The on-again, off-again debate on the right about the market is going through the next wave of debate that has been going on ever since 2016. This time, it surrounds the creation of American Compass, a new organization “dedicated to helping American conservatism recover from its chronic case of market fundamentalism,” as its founder Oren Cass describes it. The purpose of this new organization is to “restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.”
Oren Cass’s main economic concern is not an increase in GDP; instead, his concern is on the surrounding American society that he claims has been lost because of libertarian economics. As he told the Washington Post, “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.”
This lack of well-being (or perceived lack of well-being depending on your side of the debate) was central to the populist wave that brought Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. Calling Trump and Trumpian populism an earthquake, Cass notes, “An earthquake clears a lot of space for rebuilding, but an earthquake does not rebuild…But something an earthquake shows you is which of the things that you’d already built were really not built very thoughtfully. It’s important to learn lessons from this disruption that has occurred.”
These arguments surrounding the importance of family and the loss of manufacturing have a history in the conservative movement. Starting with the rise of the Reform Conservatives (“reformicons” for short), an emphasis was placed on the importance of institutions such as families, churches, and communities to strengthen a free society and mitigate the “creative destruction” that capitalism brings about. As the leader of the Reformicons Yuval Levin puts it, “Institutions…are the durable forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures that we do together.”
The rise of the populist movement that brought Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 created both opportunities and challenges for the reformicons. Populism has forced the right to place more of an emphasis on the working class just like the reformicons wanted, but it has produced a dystopian vision of the true history of how conservatives previously approached economic policy. It became, in short, reform conservatism’s “evil twin” as Ross Douthat described it.
This dystopian view is the one Oren Cass described when he said, “Having for decades outsourced their economic thinking to libertarians, conservatives now watch from the sidelines as classical liberals (i.e., libertarians) and modern liberals (i.e., progressives) debate how best to pursue their shared and unquestioned priorities of personal consumption and aggregate economic growth.” Similar arguments have been made by the likes of Florida Senator Marco Rubio when, in his speech in November of 2019 explaining his idea of “common-good capitalism,” he said, “We have become defenders of the right of businesses to make a profit, the right of shareholders to receive a return on their investment, and the obligation people have to work. But we have neglected the rights of workers to share in the benefits they create for their employer…”
But is this really the case? Has the American right really become full of “market fundamentalists” like Cass says it has?
As Scott Lincicome explained over at The Dispatch, the United States has never been a pure free market nation, instead it has pursued (in this case) more trade liberalization while also having “continued to use tariffs and quotas to protect politically powerful sectors.”
It is difficult to truly dive deep into these debates without getting to wonky with economic statistics and the like. Nevertheless, these debates over the future of the right’s relationship with the market is critical to understanding the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party writ-large. As American politics goes through a realignment, how conservatives and Republicans adapt to the forthcoming changes and come to terms with its prevailing orthodoxy will be key to seeing (or not) their success politically and philosophically in the future.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.