The 1932 Democratic Party platform advocated “the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest.”
But since the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — a raw deal for Americans that raised taxes; forced most manufacturing industries into cartels with codes that regulated prices; paid farmers to destroy crops and livestock; empowered labor unions to organize strikes, seize plants, and commit violence; and instituted massive government intervention in the economy and society that is still with us — those on the Left have increasingly argued that markets free of government intervention lead to monopolies, economic crises, misallocation of resources, income inequality, negative externalities, market failures, and crony capitalism. But as Jeffrey Tucker, president of the Brownstone Institute, has written: “For the better part of half a century, the main opponents of the free market have come from the political Left, people who want to use the state to steer markets to achieve predetermined results. The excuses for intervention are endless, but the leftist orientation has been a mainstay, thereby creating the mistaken impression that economic liberalism is properly placed on the right side of the political spectrum, perhaps even representing some version of conservatism.”
That latest version of conservatism is termed “national conservatism.” It begins, says Tucker, “with skepticism toward markets and trending ever more to open hostility.” It ends with invectives against the free market and calls for a national industrial policy — “meaning protectionism, antitrust, and centralized economic planning in the tradition of the two Roosevelts.” Columnist Veronique de Rugy likewise laments how “many conservatives now also proudly embrace tariffs, hyperactive antitrust, and industrial policy (often justified, of course, as necessary to ‘fight’ China).” By embracing social conservatism while rejecting economic libertarianism, remarks Tucker, this new conservatism splits the two pillars that have held together the modern conservatism movement, thus “driving a deep wedge into a fragile political and intellectual coalition that has lasted many decades since World War II.”
The main voice for national conservatism is the Edmund Burke Foundation (EBF) — “a public affairs institute founded in January 2019 with the aim of strengthening the principles of national conservatism in Western and other democratic countries.” The EBF “was launched by a series of public conferences on national conservatism in London, Washington, D.C., and Rome between May 2019 and February 2020.” Further conferences were held in Orlando (2021), Brussels (2022), and Miami (2022). According to the EBF’s National Conservatism website: “National conservatism is a movement of public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”
The EBF envisions “a protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” Its aim “is to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics, and an extensive support network across the country.”
Ah, economics: not a strong suit of most conservatives. This was evident at the national conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., where speakers disparaged the free market, capitalism, and libertarianism. “The right has been too economistic in its thinking for a long time, and too libertarian,” said conference speaker Yuval Levin in an interview. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute and Richard Reinsch of Law & Liberty debated the resolution: “America should adopt an industrial policy.” Attendees polled on the resolution were decisively for it.
On behalf of the EBF, Will Chamberlain, Christopher DeMuth, Rod Dreher, Yoram Hazony, Daniel McCarthy, Joshua Mitchell, N. S. Lyons, John O’Sullivan, and R. R. Reno have penned “A Statement of Principles” for national conservatism. The 10 principles relate to: National Independence, Rejection of Imperialism and Globalism, National Government, God and Public Religion, The Rule of Law, Free Enterprise, Public Research, Family and Children, Immigration, and Race. The principles have been signed by such leading conservatives as Larry Arnn (Hillsdale College), Victor Davis Hanson (Hoover Institution), former senator Jim DeMint (Conservative Partnership Institute), Charlie Kirk (Turning Point USA), and Rod Dreher (The American Conservative).
Now, although much of what is embodied in these principles may not be objectionable to libertarians or contrary to libertarianism, there is an insidious mixture of truth and error. Consider the economic nationalism espoused in the sixth principle:
Free Enterprise. We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition. We reject the socialist principle, which supposes that the economic activity of the nation can be conducted in accordance with a rational plan dictated by the state. But the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation. Today, globalized markets allow hostile foreign powers to despoil America and other countries of their manufacturing capacity, weakening them economically and dividing them internally. At the same time, trans-national corporations showing little loyalty to any nation damage public life by censoring political speech, flooding the country with dangerous and addictive substances and pornography, and promoting obsessive, destructive personal habits. A prudent national economic policy should promote free enterprise, but it must also mitigate threats to the national interest, aggressively pursue economic independence from hostile powers, nurture industries crucial for national defense, and restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare. Crony capitalism, the selective promotion of corporate profit-making by organs of state power, should be energetically exposed and opposed.
The free market cannot be absolute? Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation? Global markets allow hostile foreign powers to despoil America? A national economic policy? Crony capitalism should be exposed and opposed, but the government should pursue economic independence, nurture industries, and restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities? Government economic planning should be rejected, but we need a national industrial policy? And yet, Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, has the audacity to say: “The idea that economic nationalism is not compatible with free-market economics is absurd.”
Who decides what economic policies are in the “national interest?” Who decides what is “economic patriotism?” Who decides what it takes for a product to be “American made?” Who decides what is the “general welfare of the nation?” Is it a Republican majority in Congress? Beltway conservative think tanks? Donald Trump? The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)? The Tea Party Movement? The American Conservative Union (ACU)? The Wall Street Journal editorial board? The leaders of the national conservative movement? National conservatism is nothing short of right-wing collectivism, Republican crony capitalism, conservative central planning, and red-state fascism.
The free market
It goes without saying that the free market can and should be absolute. To the extent that government exists, it can, in the words of Robert Lawson, “promote economic freedom by providing a legal structure and a law-enforcement system that protect the property rights of owners and enforce contracts in an evenhanded manner.” But this also means that economic freedom “requires governments to refrain from taking people’s property and from interfering with personal choice, voluntary exchange, and the freedom to enter and compete in labor and product markets.”
There are five areas where the free market can and should be absolute. First, the free market can and should be absolute when it comes to international trade. Since the advent of Donald Trump — an economic nationalist with a mercantilist mindset whose ignorance and incoherence on economics knows no bounds — free trade has taken a beating by conservatives who used to champion it. Free trade is simply the freedom of individuals and businesses to buy and sell products and services from and to any other individual and business in any other country without government regulations, sanctions, restrictions, subsidies, rules, barriers, tariffs, quotas, or antidumping laws. Free trade does not need trade agreements, trade organizations, trade representatives, or trade treaties. It just needs a willing buyer and a willing seller, each of whom benefits from engaging in commerce across international borders. International trade is not a national game in which some countries are winners and others are losers. It is not a zero-sum game in which one country gains at the expense of another. International trade is always a win-win proposition where each party to a transaction anticipates a gain from the exchange or it wouldn’t engage in commerce with the other party. International trade encourages efficiency in production and in the utilization of resources, gives consumers a wider variety of choices, leads to innovation, and fosters peace and goodwill.
The free market can and should also be absolute when it comes to employment. Minimum-wage laws keep low-skilled individuals from working and infringe upon freedom of contract. A government-mandated minimum wage is nothing but Soviet-style central planning that has no place in a free society. If some government entity or bureaucrat can determine the “correct” price for labor, then there is nothing stopping it or him from determining the proper price of every other service as well. Occupational licensing creates barriers to entry to entrepreneurs and results in higher prices for services. It is simply government permission to exercise one’s natural right to make a living. Antidiscrimination laws are an assault on freedom of association, property rights, and freedom of thought. No one is entitled to a job, a particular rate of pay, or certain accommodations no matter what his qualifications, nationality, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. Government should not interfere in any way with the employer-employee relationship.
Third, the free market can and should be absolute when it comes to education. All educational services should be privately provided and privately funded. The market for education should be competitive and operate the same as any other market. Education is, after all, a service just like landscaping, car repair, window washing, food delivery, hair cutting, pest control, or bookkeeping, not a right to be guaranteed by government. There is nothing unique about education that necessitates that the government provide it, fund it, or oversee it. No American should be forced to pay for the education of any other American. Education needs to be completely separated from the state. On the federal level, there should be no loans, grants, initiatives, accreditation, mandates, or programs for education. This is a no-brainer because the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with education. Just because the states have provisions in their constitutions for K-12 education and operate colleges and universities doesn’t mean that providing or funding education is the proper role of government. This means that on the state level, there should be no departments of education, public schools, state colleges or universities, teacher-education requirements, teacher licensing, teacher-certification standards, or regulation or accreditation of private, religious, or home schools.
The free market can and should also be absolute when it comes to health care. The federal government distorted the market for health care decades before the enactment of Obamacare, Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. And the disastrous response of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “the pandemic” and the dubious research grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are but two more reasons to look to the free market when it comes to health care instead of the government. Health care is a service just like education, not a right to be guaranteed by government. No American should be forced to pay for the health care or health insurance of any other American. Health care needs to be completely separated from the state: No government entity should pay for or provide health care, subsidize health insurance policies, accredit medical schools, license physicians, regulate medical devices, fund medical research, mandate what health insurance should cover, or ensure that health insurance is affordable.
Finally, the free market can and should be absolute when it comes to alcohol. For as long as America has been a nation, government at every level throughout the country has sought to regulate, control, tax, and prohibit the manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the federal government still prohibits a segment of the adult population from purchasing alcohol via the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 that mandated that the states either raise their drinking ages to 21 or their federal highway funding would be cut by 10 percent. Even though any adult in the United States who is 18 or older is legally eligible to vote, run for office, enter into contracts, get married, engage in consensual sex with other adults, adopt children, join the military, be drafted, and purchase pornography, he cannot legally purchase a beer until he reaches the age of 21. About 10 percent of the land mass of the United States is made up of dry counties and municipalities where alcoholic beverages cannot be legally purchased. In many states and counties, no alcoholic beverages of any kind can be sold before a certain time on Sunday. And in some, no alcohol can be sold for off-premise consumption. In most every state, bars have to close at a certain time. Seventeen states are “alcoholic beverage control” states where the state government controls the wholesaling, and often the retailing, of distilled spirits, and in some cases, beer and wine.
But why is alcohol treated differently than other commodities? Alcohol needs to be completely separated from the state. No government entity should regulate, control, or prohibit the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages, and certainly not have a monopoly on liquor sales. No one should need a license to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages. No legal adult should be prohibited from purchasing alcohol, and no business should be told what days or what times it can or can’t sell alcohol.
The answer is libertarianism
Conservatives don’t need a new movement or a new agenda to fit for the twenty-first century, and neither do they need a return to a bygone era. They need libertarianism.
In a libertarian society, people are free to engage in any economic enterprise or activity of their choosing without license, permission, restriction, interference, or regulation from government as long as they don’t commit violence against others, violate their property rights, or defraud them. In a libertarian society, buyers and sellers are free to exchange with each other for mutual gain any product of their choosing for any price, without any interference from the government.
And it is not just when it comes to economics that conservatives need libertarianism. In a libertarian society, people are free to pursue happiness and live their lives in their own way as long as their conduct is peaceful and they don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others. In a libertarian society, the private, voluntary, peaceful activity of consenting adults is none of anyone’s business, and certainly not any of the government’s business. Tragically, the bulk of conservatives today — national or otherwise — believe that it is the job of government to keep people from harming themselves — whether physically, financially, mentally, spiritually, or morally — even if it means fining or imprisoning people for engaging in private, peaceful, consensual behavior or peaceful activity that doesn’t violate anyone’s personal or property rights.
This article was originally published in the December 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.